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Into the Night

29 Jun

Pokhara at night.. it’s a strange time of year – most of the trekkers are gone , but there are one or two hard cases still around, or the ones who screwed their booking up.. and then there are the dieheard pot heads with their tablas and congas.

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At night, the scene becomes mellow in town, little knots of folk enjoying the live music or relaxing in a cafe somewhere. Little restaurants abound, selling Dhal Baat and Nepali/Indian food (and it’s very good).

Soft rain falls now, the earlier monsoon having spent itself. From the hotel balcony, the Pagoda hangs, illuminated and eerily hovering over the town in a sky the colour of calligrapher’s ink, while shocks of light electrify the velvety blackness as the last echoes of an electric storm dissipate into the distance and sheets of light light up the silhouettes of the hills..

Power failure is common here – most places have generators and many have their critical services on battery power – like WiFi, for example.

I got stopped by a Tibetan refugee on the street today – selling her souvenirs from a rug on the street. It looked as if she had been beaten up, and my heart went out to her – even if I usually avoid street hawkers. We’d talked a bit earlier in the week – but I left having cut a deal on some nice stuff, which she carefully wrapped in a towel for me. A towel! And she left on her 2 hour walk back to the refugee camp that she’s been in since 1959 when she fled Tibet as a little girl.

There’s a story in the local paper about an Indian family that got robbed in Pokhara – they have been here three weeks with no way to get home – they can’t pay their hotel bill, and no-one is contacting them from home. That made me feel very glad to have some friends who have bailed me out over cash flow over the last few months- my wonderful friends Sue and Yve, and my sons too. Thank you for saving me!

It would be easy to stay here, you know – just meld with the locals and the hippies, the Tibetan refugees and

It’s a thoughtful moment tonight – and there will be many more over the next few weeks – as this marks the unexpected end to my journey. One of my outlaws (that’s what you call an ‘in-law’ who isn’t an in-law any more) is seriously ill, so I am hopping over India and coming back to the UK early to see her.Despite being divorce for way over 10 years, Sheila is still incredibly important to me, and my prayers go with her every day.

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So, what’s in store? A mad dash back to Kathmandu, a flight to Mumbai and an ongoing flight back to the UK, ready for… well, a whole new life. I warned you – the old Timmy ain’t coming back.  But I think you’ll like the new one, too.

Visionary Mountains

28 Jun

Last real free day – so time to take the trek I have been putting off for a couple of days now (it rained!).

Sarangkot is a hill a ways out of Pokhara with beautiful views of the Annapurna ranges, of Mt Machhapuchhare (damn. I said I wasn’t going to type that again).

There’s a couple of miles walk out of town – a route by the lakeside that’s feeling kinda familiar by now – I have done it about six times) and then turn right by the paragliders and start walking. Climbing. There are stone steps from aeons ago straight up the side of the mountain, but it’s tough progress. I’ve seen Harrier jump jets rise more slowly. The heat doesn’t help – it’s early afternoon and I am going through water like it’s going out of fashion.  Really, I only have myself to blame for this – but I engage mountain lion mode and move on up the hill. Mountain. Sheer cliff. SAS torture device.

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A cow appears from the vegetation half way up the mountain, looks at me with faint surprise and carries on chewing. Grasshoppers leap from where I disturb them, and sleepy grandmothers look up from their work to point me in the right direction. Kids appear to ask for chocolate (no), suntan lotion (eh?) and Tigger and Snuff (over my dead body). I pay a few rupees to a farmer who shows me a better route.

After a while, I start to be aware of voices, and cries of ‘Hello…’. It’s the paraglider crew  above me – but soon I climb above their lofty eyrie and look down even on the colourful chutes and their chatty passengers, and the inevitable hawk circling above them.

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I’m in full trekker mode now, focussed only on the objective. One foot in front of the other. I take the most direct route, never wasting a step – on the way up a hill, any step downwards is a step in the wrong direction, and every step is carefully calculated to bring me even a few more centimetres closer to the top.

But wait – the summit. A friendly sign saying ‘Welcome’ painted on the rocks. But no – cresting the rise reveals the true summit, probably still an hours walk above me. It’s even tougher now, and I am starting to feel the exhaustion. There is a part of me that wants to turn back… and yet the stubborn, bloodyminded core inside isn’t going to let something like a hill defeat me. Not even this hill.

After a while, I’m joined by people who have taken the easy (taxi) route up the hill, a jeep full of UN personnel and we’re on the last few metres climb to the top. The lake is at 900m, while Sarangkot tops out at over 1500m – so that’s 600m elevation in what feels like straight up.

Even with the mist, the views are stunning. Occasionally a mountain peeks out from its fluffy covering, but mostly they stay coquettishly hiding behind their veils. But still, I can see across the town, across the lake – I can see the full extent of my previous walking tour of Phewa Tal, and across to the Peace Pagoda. I collapse, exhausted and ready to take on energy with an ice cold Coke.

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After a while, it becomes clear that the mountains are going to stay hidden, and I begin my descent. I’m joined by a Nepali family, who aren’t sure of the route down, and spend most of the descent (much easier downhill) chatting to their little girl, who is most interested in everything there is to know about me (and, of course, why I am travelling with two (slightly grubby) cuddly toys.

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And finally, we spill out back onto the main track…my new friends wait for the bus (good call with two small children – I would do the same) – but I opt for walking, on the basis that I can walk back faster than the bus will arrive. I am proved right.

Last night in Pokhara, so I spend a couple of hours in the bar, listening to a reasonable covers band (they just need some work on their trashcan endings… exactly how they can manage to make a trashcan ending sound unco-ordinated is actually beyond me). Wandering back through town I feel sorry for some of the spelling errors: while handwritten signs have to have spelling errors and apostrophe abuse to make them authentic, I feel sorry about some of the higher cost signwriting investments – the full size bill board advertising ‘instant noodels’ for example – but I reserve my greatest sympathy for the person responsible for a huge order of water flasks proudly inscribed ‘Nepal Toursim 2011’. Although maybe they sell better with the misprint

Sunday morning finds me up early, greeted by our gorkha owner with a cup of coffee (I suspect he doesn’t actually sleep) and onto the motorbike for the trip to the bus station. He’s quite concerned – mostly because last time I got my pants leg snagged on the bike and toppled off into the flowerbed, rucksack attached. This time the journey passes without incident, and I am onto the bus to Kathmandu. The previous scenario runs in reverse – once the Annapurna massif disappears into the distance, the hills remain wistfully beautiful, while the river crashes madly through the valley in early monsoon mode. We rise toward Kathmandu and the skyline gets more beautiful, more dramatic… I do like this country, and it’s one of the few that I would plan to come back to..one day.

It’s raining in Kathmandu and just time to catch up on stuff in my Buddhist monastery room before the trip to the embassy…. here goes….

Encountering “The Lake”…

25 Jun

I thought I might start with a few interesting facts about Nepal. For instance, it has the only national flag that is not rectangular in shape. I love it!

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It’s a democracy but with a communist majority government, so who knows where that will take them.

And of course it still supplies the British Army with the gorkha soldiers (you can tell a gorkha – he’s got a really neat haircut and looks like he could disembowel you by looking at you)

And I’m starting to lose touch with my own language – having been surrounded by dodgy spelling for so long, I am not entirely sure how to spell words like ‘accommodation’ or ‘restaurant’.

So, since I am staying at Lakeside, and since Pokhara is built entirely on Lake Fewa (Phewa Tal), I thought I should probably take a walk round it.

Only one problem. I didn’t entirely think it through.

OK, perhaps some facts would be a good thing here

a) Phewa Tal is currently 4.43 square km. Which is pretty big.

b) But it used to be twice that size (which is even bigger) – and that half is still tricky to cross marshland and paddy fields.

c) Lakes (with the exception of places like the Dead Sea) are supplied by rivers at both ends. This means that if you intend to circumnavigate the lake… you are going to have to cross both rivers.

d) Lakes are flat. This means that perspective is a problem, and distances may be greater than you expect.

e) If you look closely, Phewa Tal’s west side has no road. Or path. Just paddy fields. And hills.

f) Just because Lonely Planet says you can walk round the lake doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Or that it is easy.

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Anyway, hiking boots on, with sturdy socks in case of another leech attack, and I set off up the north side of the hotel. The locals are out in force building some sort of harbour or protection for the lake side – everyone is involved – men, women and children. It all seems a bit hit and miss, but they have succeeded in building a dam wall, draining the water out and then building behind it.

The trail takes me across paddy fields (a bit of a short cut) and up dirt tracks. Buses and motorcycles honk their way around these trails.. the bikes here are often larger than in the cities (I do spot a newspaper feature on the latest 125cc variant – we would never see that kind of full page feature in a broadsheet in the UK). I scramble up a hill to see if the view improves – but I get a view of another hill, rather than the Annapurna massif that I had been hoping for.

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It’s all tiny little villages, with mostly local restaurants and occasional hotels. Hills rise around me and the lake remains a jewel alongside, tempting me with cooling waters.

In the distance paragliders loop lazily around the summits – some of them are parahawking – flying with the aid of birds of prey to find the thermals.

So, I reach the end of the lake, which seems to have taken a longer time than I thought (see (d) above). But of course, I need to continue, because of (b) and (c). Eventually, I strike up conversation with a couple of local students waiting for their exam results. They’re going swimming in the river. And, yes, they would love to help me across the river. So, surrounded by kids leaping off the boat and swimming alongside it, I get towed across the river on a ramshackle ferry.

I wander across the paddy fields built where the lake has silted up, greeting the locals with ‘Namaste’ – they seem surprised to see me, but carry on yelling at their water buffalo.

On the other side of the lake, I find myself wandering through little hamlets – with even more people surprised to see me. I follow the path round the shoreline, in the steps of a buffalo herder and his charges, as far as I can until I am faced with hills and trails (see (e) above). The locals have sculpted the hill into a series of paddy fields in terraces, fed by the waterfalls from above. It looks picture postcard perfect, and leaping from terrace to terrace is exhilarating. Little trails can be found if you know where to look – although it becomes clear that trails that look easy to follow from a distance can be hard to find and even harder to follow when you are close to them.

It’s hard work, coming on the back of four hours of walking that I have already done in the heat of the day, but I resist the offer of a couple of kids who will row me to Lakeside for 1500 rupees (over $20). They tell me that the stupa (and an official ride home) is over two hours of hard walking away.

I continue to bounce from terrace to terrace, greeting rice farmers as I go. The cries of ‘Namaste’ are increasingly followed by ‘where you go….’?’ as I press on. Eventually, one kid comes up with a killer proposition. First, he tells me that the stupa is more like four hours away. Then he offers to take me to Lakeside for 500 rupees. That’s a deal I can live with – huge amount of pain avoidance for a discount price – so we bound down the hill together, leaping from rock to rock, terrace to terrace. I’ve climbed quite a way!

And so onto a boat, a chance to rest my weary legs and get some good photos of the sun hidden behind the rainclouds (rain which doesn’t materialise, by the way).

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After about 45 minutes, we each the other side. Still a mile or so to go – but far easier than 4 hours of clambering through the undergrowth. And back, happy, and definitely ready for pizza…

But I manage the closest sunset picture that I am likely to get here – in the mountains, when the sun sets, all the rosy glows and orange tints get hidden behind the mountain ranges. Sorry, Gill. But if my legs recover, I might take a walk up for some stunning views tomorrow.

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Attack of the Giant Leeches

23 Jun

Well, OK, not giant, particularly. But big enough, thankyou. But that comes later.

Are we sitting comfortably? No? Well, I will begin anyway.

So…let’s get out of the city. Onto a tourist bus, crammed next to an Indian guy whose hat is starting to make me think of a woodpecker as he falls asleep on my shoulder. But all is forgotten as the landscape unwinds from majestic and awesome as we wind through the Kathmandu valley, and eventually the deep gorge unrolls to a wider valley.. and we are left with merely impressively beautiful.

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Next stop, Pokhara,,, in a land locked country, where do you go to unwind? To the lake, of course. And this is a truly scrumptious lake.  I am in a nice guest house by the lake, run by a Gurkha.

Pokhara is set in a beautiful, imposing cradle of mountains, the Annapurna massif.. the most imposing is the Machhapuchhare, the only mountain in Nepal left unclimbed as a sacred peak. Please don’t ask me to type it again.

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Pokhara is a trekking centre, a home for hippies (and, apparently, home to large amounts of marijuana production). The hemp shops are widespread. It’s full of souvenir shops and restaurants, but nowhere near as manic as Kathmandu – and noone has offered to sell me Tiger Balm yet. They have very few worries about trade names… I have spotted WalMart, Holiday Inn and Safeway so far.. and of course places to buy those trekking permits…

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So, a walk by the lake, a day spent passing the time with a lovely Russian girl, Marina, with stories of Russia and Norway (where, for some inexplicable reason, she is living). And tales of massive marijuana plantations on the hills above Pokhara.

My desire to travel and charge around is totally purged.. but I do set out on a trip up to the Japanese Peace Pagoda above the lake. I follow the Lonely Planet instructions, setting out on the climb from the paddy fields above the dam. It’s a sight of true rural tranquillity, with water buffalo ploughing the paddy fields, and women picking rice in the field.

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I make my way through some incredibly wet and slippery terrain, the progress of which can be summed up as: climb – slip – curse profusely – check for leeches – start climbing again. I do get a couple of leeches attaching themselves briefly to my leg – and several more that merely get a mouthful of sock – although I am somewhat concerned when I discover a large wound on my thigh. This is concerning because a) it is much larger than previous leech bites; b) I cannot find the leech concerned; c) it is nearer to my groin than I want a leech to get. After some close investigation I decide that this is actually a graze from falling down. Panic over.

My camera has now started to malfunction – using the zoom takes a picture – and joins my PC, my USB memory (where I have my pictures backed up) and my Kindle in the ‘slightly broken technology’ section.

I’m lost in the jungle, of course… the path I am following slowly disappears, causing me to wonder what happened to the other people who made it in the first place. I’m not too concerned about tigers… but sloth bears might be something to think about.

Eventually I rejoin the path, and find myself at the Peace Pagoda. It’s one of 100 planned to be built around the world by the Japanese Nipponzan Miyohoji organisation to promote world peace. And it’s a lovely place. It lacks the crazy Buddhist veneration that I have seen elsewhere in Asia – and it simply…. is. Perhaps it’s the setting, perhaps it’s the lack of tourists (the lack of anyone, really (although I do remind two German backpackers to put their shirts on to respect the Buddha)) but it’s a truly spiritual, peaceful place – if we choose it to be. The mist shrouds the Annapurna range in the distance, but there are incredible views over the town and the lake – which, anywhere else in the world, would have made it worth the climb. Again, I take my thoughts with me from what I hear at the summit… something else to tuck safely into my ‘insights and experiences’ folder to be considered – and then acted on.

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Eventually I make my way down using the well worn track. Unfortunately, this takes me right across town. I do find a way through the backstreets as a shortcut – but this short cut finds me right against the Seti River – just upstream from the Devi Falls. It’s jump – or walk. I opt for jumping – which hurts, but not as much as walking round! I then realise that I have just jumped Devi Falls – so named for a Swiss man called David who drowned while navigating the falls.  Lucky escape then!

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So, tired, weary and totally at peace, I am back in Pokhara. Time, I think, for the best coffee yogurt shake on the planet (at the Lemon Tree) – and I think I may have earned a banana pancake too.

Nirvana

20 Jun

…or not…

From my cafe

So, into Kathmandu. This has got to be the craziest city I have been in on this trip. The closest I can say is that it’s like Bangkok’s Kao San Road  – the tourist heart of Bangkok – only….bigger. The streets are full of signs, mostly because each doorway has at least three businesses behind them. I’m actually in Thamel, the backpacker heart of the city – souvenir shops, DVD shops, shops selling khukuri (gurkha knives) (motto “better to die than be a coward”). I feel, curiously, a little bit lost and disoriented – so I’ve spent a lot of time drinking mint tea in a little cafe overlooking the heart of Thamel.

News from the street though…..

The Kindle has died in a way that no one at Amazon has seen before… it resets itself every 10-30 seconds. That’s made using the Lonely Planet guide to Nepal REALLY tricky (now reading everything on the PC) (you remember, the PC, the one with a clothes peg to make the screen work). New Kindle on the way (thanks, Amazon) but not much of a help right now. I’d just spent a day sending my stuff direct to the Kindle using the wonderful MobiPocket too. Stay tuned for more technology disasters (spoilers, spoilers) to come.

I visited the India embassy to get my visa – a quick rickshaw ride (first time I had done this, but the streets of Thamel are so narrow that taxis struggle). A summary of the conversation follows. If I HAD hair, I would have torn it out.

“We cannot give you a visa until the 27th, sir, because that is the first day on your passport that you can enter India”.

“But surely you can give me a visa that becomes valid on the 27th so that I can start to make my way across to the border?”

“No Sir, we cannot. You will have to come here on the 27th and then we will make you the visa.”

So the only option is for me to travel round Nepal and then come all the way BACK to Kathmandu to get my visa. Oh well…

Needless to say, I am a bit confused…. fortunately, the British Embassy in Shanghai have carefully worded my passport – if they had said I was travelling on the 27th, and the Indians hadn’t issued a visa until the 27th… then I would never have got home, as I wouldn’t get to the border until the 28th, and I would be stuck in the netherworld between Nepal and India.

To clear my head I had another pot of mint tea and went for a walk to Durbar Square. On the way, finding the real heart of Kathmandu – past the sari shops, the dosa sellers, wonderful little places selling everything the modern Nepali could possibly need. Rickshaws are in evidence everywhere – but no-one has invented the sack barrow. I have seen men carrying washing machines and refrigerators on their backs. The square is interesting, full of old buildings and stupas and people passing the time of day. And on the way back, I get lost, having to recruit a taxi to get me home.

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The world is brighter here than Tibet – the Indian influence has brought bright saris to the street, along with wonderfully decorated rickshaws and trucks. The mandala paintings (thangka) are lovely, and I was indeed tempted to snap up a couple. I am having to really resist shopping here! The calls have changed, though. I still get offered hash and other questionable drugs. Offers of massage or ‘boom boom’ have disappeared, to be replaced by people who make ‘trekking? coach ticket?’ sound like an illegal activity. And what is it with the Tiger Balm sellers?  I think I have a friend in the pakora seller at the end of the street – in the few days I have been here I have become a regular, and I am always greeted with ‘Namaste’ and a prayer greeting – even if I am just passing (there’s a limit to how many pakora can be eaten in one day). Trivia note… the Trekking Pass is called a TIMS which means there are lots of wonderful TIMS based photo opportunities around…

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I try a tongba, hot millet beer, at the local bookshop/restaurant… which reminds me of jar wine in Cambodia. Not sure how Tigger and Snuff feel about it. There are cows creating chaos in the streets, of course..

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Anyway, after a few days of complete mental fug I made a few decisions about my life, and booked a trip to Pokhara for a bit more countryside. I also procured a map of Kathmandu – which opened up all sorts of possibilities. It’s odd, because just having that map made things so much clearer. I knew where things were. I knew where I could go. I felt comfortable wandering off because I knew I could get back. Sometimes, we just need something to give us a little bit of perspective – and then anything becomes possible.

“Anything” in this case became a walk through the backstreets of Kathmandu in search of the Buddhist temple of Swayambunath. Just walking with real people helps shift my mood. I’m the only tourist around (the rest take taxis) but Swayambunath has a really nice feel to it once I have climbed the steps to the top of the hill. It’s monsoon season, and the hills are cloaked in rainclouds, but there are awesome views over the city, and out to the surrounding mountains. Hawks swoop overhead, while macaque monkeys raid anything and everything for food – these cercopithecoid guerrillas have been known to raid rucksacks in search of food.

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I do a circuit of the prayer wheels – and find out what a vajra actually IS. It’s a stylised thunderbolt, and it feels kinda significant for a number of metaphysical reasons. I might blog about it, but it’s answered a question that’s been haunting me since Hong Kong. More to think about. This is a vajra, by the way…..no, it doesn’t look like a thunderbolt to me, either.

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On the way back, I get lost. Again. In the same place. Doh!

Anyway… early morning bus to Pokhara. Still touristy, but the view is better.

Night Train To Kathmandu

17 Jun

OK, it wasn’t a train. And it wasn’t at night. But it did (eventually) go to Kathmandu.

So, where did I leave you. It seems a long time ago….

Ah yes, Everest, in the early morning light. Looking like this…

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Just an excuse for another Everest picture, really.

 

 

 

 

 

From here our trip took us on even dodgier overland trails, testing the capabilities of our LandCruisers to the extreme. At one point, we even lost a fog lamp. Meanwhile, Everest stays in the mind and in the heart.. but also in the vision, not dominating the skyline but peering out at us from behind the hills, as if checking that we’ve really gone.

There’s a dusting of snow on the trail, but mostly it’s dust and rocks, traversing the plain between the mountains before scaling the ravine walls. This is one of the more scary moments in the trip, with our wheels never more than a foot or so from a sheer drop. The mountains remain rugged, harsh, forbidding and hostile – and yet unbelievably beautiful.

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Finally Everest and its companions recede behind us as we rejoin Friendship highway for our dash to the border. This is a recent road, but it’s fighting subsidence and flooding, with red painted rocks in the highway to show where the road has sunk. We pass bold Mt Xixibangma, seemingly isolated from the rest before we reach the final view of the Nepali Himalaya range, spread out in front of us.

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We’re at around 4500m and dive down towards the Nepali border at 2500m – it must be a shock for anyone coming the other way.

The scenery transforms, though, from dry, arid mountain to verdant green trees as we approach Nyalam township. A quick Nepali curry (absolutely brilliant, even if it did take an hour and the noodles never materialised) and we dive into a deep, deep canyon lined with green trees that cling to the rock. The road winds across the ravine, holding on impossibly to the steep edges. Every so often we see a small rockslide – an echo of what is to be revealed later. Even in the dry season, waterfalls cascade down the sides of the ravine.

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After a couple of hours of incredible beauty, we arrive in Zanghmu, a border town impossibly attached to the side of the gorge. It hangs there, seemingly defying gravity, with tiny paths climbing the edge of the cliff face in between the shops, hotels and houses.

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At which point we stop. The town has narrow streets, and we are driving into a fleet of Nepali trucks, brightly painted in contrast to the Chinese drab vehicles. The traffic has jammed in the town, and nobody is going anywhere. Certainly nobody is going to sort it out – including the police who are actually part of the traffic jam – or the local police, who merely peer out of their office on the main street, bemusedly. After an hour waiting, we get out and walk the last little bit of the way, down one of the steep little alleyways.

Unfortunately, the hotels facilities make the camp at Everest look good. No showers, filthy toilets and a hotel room that won’t lock. We beat a hasty retreat to the local youth hostel, which is actually really nice – and will be even better when they finish the plumbing.

After a nights sleep and a bit of rushing up and down the street to get some money out of the bank and some photos from up the hill (remember, this is a very steep street!)  – we’re off to the border. Quite a queue awaits us – although we’re there at 9am, we’re still last – and because Nepal is 2 1/4 hours behind Tibet, we have to wait until 10:30 before immigration opens. A brief altercation with a German tour group means that we’re definitely last – but we are treated to the entertaining sight of a little old lady trying to sneak into China – and the porters for the tour group carrying gas cylinders, bags, and more on their backs across the border bridge.

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A search of our packs, and we’re across – they are a bit confused by my passport, but what are they going to do?

There’s quite a wait over in the Nepali side of the border – apparently a landslip has delayed the bus that’s meeting us. Or, more accurately, meeting the Australians – Scott and I are hoping for a free ride – which materialises, saving us a huge amount of money or a very long and bumpy local bus ride.

The road is as bumpy (it seems) as the trails from the previous days – but without the isolation of LandCruiser suspension, we feel every jolt. Every kilometre or so there is a landslip or a pile of rock in the road, as we continuing to weave our way across the other side of the ravine – still startling in its beauty. Houses are piled onto the sheer cliffs, causing us to wonder what it’s like to pop out for groceries – and the cliffs themselves are heavily terraced to create a little bit of flat land for growing crops.

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We’re back on the left hand side of the road – which will remain true now until I get back to the UK. And the electric prayer wheels that adorn the Tibetan vehicles have been replaced by a statue of the elephant god, Ganesh. (I’m happy with an electric prayer wheel – I don’t want a driver who has one hand permanently spinning a prayer wheel)

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We climb and climb back up the ravine, past lush fields, dramatic villages, beautiful imposing hills and mountains, shrouded in mist.

More differences – Buddha has been replaced by statues of Shiva on the hilltops, while the buildings are mostly brick (as we approach Kathmandu, we find acres of bricks factories).

Finally, after we have weaved our way through the Nepal countryside, and after a brief stop in Bhaktapur (we stay outside to avoid paying the $15 entry fee for the historic town centre)

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– we find ourselves in Kathmandu, legendary nirvana. You’ll have to check the next episode to see if it lives up to its legend….

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