Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Nepal”

Tips for Travelers in Nepal – Clothing

In general, women in the rural areas of Nepal dress very conservatively, with long sleeves and long skirts being the norm outside of Kathmandu and Pokhara.  Nepalese who run guest houses and other tourist services on the Annapurna circuit have become enured to seeing women in trousers, but bare shoulders and short shorts will draw unwanted attention.

To bring:

  1. Two pair of many-pocketed hiking pants – the kind with zip-off legs is good, although I never used that feature.  I had only one pair which I wore for 11 straight days of hiking – by the end of the trek they could stand on their own.
  2. A brimmed hat.  A baseball cap will not be enough to protect your nose and neck at high altitudes. Make sure the hat has ties for under the chin – a brisk wind can carry off your hat in the moment it takes to shift a trekking pole to your other hand and try to grab the hat.
  3. Lots of layers of clothes – short sleeve T’s, long sleeved T’s, preferably wick-away material that keeps moisture away from your skin. A water-resistant lightweight wind-breaker with a hood and lots of pockets. A fleece jacket.
  4. A change of clothes for evening.  I gained a new understanding of the rational behind the old tradition of “dressing for dinner.”  If you have been walking all day, if the shower has only cold water and the sink is for public use in the courtyard, , it is still amazingly refreshing to put on something different, even if the skin underneath is un-scrubbed.  My evening outfit consisted of clean undies, my long johns (top and bottom) and a long skirt, with a T-shirt on top. After dinner I could just take off the skirt and shirt and hop into my sleeping bag.
  5. A change of shoes.  Your feet will thank you if you let them escape the hiking boots for more flexible footwear at the end of the day. Thong sandals are useful for getting in and out of a wet-floored shower/toilet combination room, but they get chilly. DM used Tivo sandals;  I liked the watershoes I brought – waterproof, easy to get on and off, wearable with socks for warmth if needed.
  6. A Biffie – one of those lightweight knit loops of cloth that can be used as a headband, hat, neck scarf, or face-covering.  When a sudden dust storm envelops you on the dusty trail across a dry riverbed, or a giant lorry passes you by, being able to cover your mouth and nose on short notice is a blessing.
  7. A conservative bathing suit and wrap if your route takes you to Tadopani – after several days of iffy hot water supplies the unlimited hot spring should not be missed – even though the fence is lined with ogling Nepali men. A bikini would probably cause a riot. [ See post from Day 4  ]
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Trekking in Nepal – Day 5 – Tadupani to Kalipani

If Pun Hill was the overture to the Himalayas, the road to Kalopani is the main movement – we walked all day in a lush landscape decked with marigolds and bougainvillea and ringed by snow peaks.

This was an easy but long walk – 8 KM. Most tours break this segment at Ghasa; our guides had combined what was normally a two day stint into one in order to provide some wiggle room in our schedule for returning to Kathmandu (a very good decision, as it turned out!).

We lunched at a stunning spot overlooking the Kali Gandaki river gorge, with the beautiful Rupse Chharara falls cascading 5000+ feet down the neighboring mountain. We then crossed the first of several spectacular suspension bridges over “the deepest gorge in the world.”  (This is somewhat of an exaggeration, since they count from the top of the surrounding mountains, not from the adjoining roadbed.)

At Ghasa DB decided on a different adventure –at 3PM she could not face another three hours of walking and decided to take the public bus to  (brave lass!).  DB and I kept on to thrill at alpenglow on the peaks, then the full moon rising over the mountains, and arriving at our guest house by moonlight. Bena, our guide, had gone ahead with Dianne, and the three assistants led us on the shortcuts- including a clamber up and across a rocky, pebbly, thin trail across the face of a cliff where we were literally sidling along the trail in the half-dark clinging with our fingertips… we decided we would rather have walked around, thanks, but once started there was no returning – and by that time we were too tired to be actually scared.  The two friendly dogs romping up and down the path around us were not helpful.  And then the full moon rose over the mountains, bathing everything in a silver light almost as bright as day.

Kalopani, like most Nepalese towns, closes at dusk.  We plodded through the town by moonlight, passed by  an occasional motorbike or bus, my feet complaining about every picturesque cobblestone they encountered.  Happily, our trek ended at the Kalopani Guest House, which to our eyes seemed as luxurious as a  Ritz Carlton.  We had a large room with wood paneling, and our own gleaming white ceramic tile bathroom!

The dining room boasted a carved and mirrored bar, a long table occuppied by high-spirited Germans,  and a high-speed internet connection. The charcoal brazier placed under our dinner table to warm our feet was the crowning touch. DB threatened to marry the smiling, English-speaking proprietor, but he demurred on grounds that his existing wife would object.  He explained that he and his family had recently invested their pooled savings to upgrade the guest house in hopes of attracting more tourists, and urged us to spread the word to recruit more trekkers among our friends.  He looked all of eighteen.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 4 – Shikha to Tadupani

Day 4 – Shikha to Tadupani

The morning is bright and clear and there is a view of Khilghari Peak out my window.  This is a great day of hiking – we are on ups, downs, and flats, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.  We cross swaying suspension bridges over chasms where the river runs white over huge rocks far below. (This had been one of my fears – that I would have an attack of vertigo in the middle of one of these bridges and freeze in panic.  Happily, these crossings turned out to be thrilling, not terrifying – though both DM and DB confessed to being afraid to look down.)

 The fields are golden with the buckwheat harvest.  Every home is trimmed with drying corn cobs hung from the eaves by the hundreds.  Sun means hot – we are stripped down to single layers of clothing as we descend  to rain forest levels again,  some but the brilliance of the flowers and the mountains makes it ok.

Due to our slow descent, we arrive at Tadupani quite late for lunch (3PM).  Hunger does not bring out the best in me!  Once fed, we are free to enjoy “the Palm Springs of Nepal.”  Tadupani literally means “hot water” and at the riverside just below our little cabin are the hot pools – one VERY hot, one deliciously warm, plus a shower with free-flowing warm water where one can wash one’s hair.  The pools are full of trekkers, and surrounded outside the fence by Nepali gawkers – young men staring at the Western women in their revealing swim suits.

The guesthouse at Tadupani comprises a number of little cabins surrounded by a tropical garden.  Our  cabin is a duplex with a shared shower in a separate room behind and a big bunch of green bananas nodding from a banana tree at the front door.  DB locks the entry and is enjoying the shower as DM and I explore the hot spring, but discovers to her embarrassment that the cabin door cannot be unlocked from outside, she must sprint buck-naked from the shower to re-admit DM and I, and meanwhile the other half of the duplex which she had thought was empty is now occupied by two young Frenchmen. They are sitting on the steps smoking as we go up to the lodge for  dinner, and greet us with bland smiles.

The dining room and patio are full of Germans and Americans and Dutch and Israelis and Koreans all swigging beer and swapping stories – in some ways tea-house trekking in Nepal is  a giant mobile summer camp for grown-ups.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 3 – Pun Hill to Shika

If the Himalayas are a symphony, Pun Hill would be the overture.

DM and I wake at 4:45 to hike to the top of Pun Hill for our first glimpse of the Himalaya since our arriving flight.  The stars are blazing in a black sky.  We don our headlamps and set out. 500 meters along, the fog sets in. 100 meters later, about 20 of our number, including DM, turn back, convinced there will be nothing to see.  Bettina (from Illinois) Jennie (from NM) and I press on with two guides.  45 minutes later Bettina, who has gone ahead, lets out a war whoop.  We turn the corner and there is Annapurna Thang rising grandly above the ocean of fog like an island in the sky.  Far off is the twisted double peak of Macchapucchre – the Fishtail Mountain, the sacred peak that no-one is allowed to climb.

As we go on, other peaks rise out of the fog – it is not quite sunrise, and they are peachy pink. By the time we are at the summit (10,532 feet), the peaks are glowing golden, and we are jumping with excitement, taking pictures of the mountains, taking pictures of and with each other, and with the guides, who are also excited (and relieved). We drink hot tea along with the views.  Finally about 7:15 the guides suggest descent.  WOW!  It is hard to leave so much beauty.  I am drunk with exhiliration! (Maybe the altitude had a little to do with it?)

The rest of the day is downhilll – literally.  DM and DB had caught views of some of the mountains when the fog lifted at the guest house, so they are not too crushed at missing what I saw.  So we start down, down, down. DM has Swiss ancestors and confident feet and leads the way, but Dianne and I have both experienced slipping on the wet marble or stone steps, so we clamber down like infants one step at a time sideways.

It take us 10 hours to get to our next stop – Shika, at 6348 feet.   (It was supposed to be five – we took a lot of breaks!)  This is a small guest house with rooms too small for 3 beds, so they put me in the “lucky room” – with the family shrine. Vishu, Ganesh, and Shiva watch over me as I sleep.

Tips for the Traveller in Nepal – Money and Security

How much does it cost to trek in Nepal ? Well, that depends on the trekker, the trail chosen, and unforeseen circumstances.  (There will always be unforeseen circumstances).

For our 12-day trek,  the total quote from 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking was $1222 per person – about $100/day. This  included flights from Kathmandu to and from Pokhara, and from Jomsom to Pokhara, most guest-house charges (including all meals, tea, beds, but excluding sodas, mineral water, and alcoholic drinks), transportation to the start of the trek, guide, and porter service.

In addition, from 3 sisters  I rented a down sleeping bag, trekking poles, a large back pack for the assistant guide to tote my stuff in and a down jacket, at a total charge of  1320 NPR ( about $1.43/day for 11 days).

You should plan to tip the guide and the porters/assistant guides.  Plan on 20% of the cost of the trip for the head guide and maybe 15% for the assistant who carries your backpack. (Oops!  Cost just went up, didn’t it?) This should be in cash, so allow for time to visit the ATM in Pokhara or make sure you have retained enough cash from before the trek.

In addition to the tips for the guides, budget at least 800 Nepalese rupees (about $10 USD)/day of trekking for odd expenses and shopping.  Have the cash with you in small denominations – there are few ATMs on the trekking circuit, and lots of irresistible expenses: Tibetan crafts, pashmina scarves, yak-fur blankents, Internet cafés….  If you flash a large-denomination bill, you only invite inflated prices.

Haggling over prices is traditional throughout Nepal.  It is very easy to get swept into a competitive spirit of trying to get the cheapest price no matter what – try to keep perspective.  If you pay 500NPR ($5.90 USD) for a yak-wool blanket and your friend is gloating that she paid only 450NPR for hers – that’s a savings of 60 cents.   Relax!

If you are worried about security for your cash and equipment, bring your own lock for your guest-house door.  Most are secured with a padlock of some sort, but monitoring of the access keys is haphazard.

We actually ended up with a small refund on our prepayment as we had to use jeep and bus transport instead of in-country flights – but that’s getting ahead of my story.

Remember that you must  change your Nepali currency back to Thai or US or whatever you will need next at the Kathmandu Airport – some other countries, including the US,  will not accept Nepali rupees for  exchange.  If your next stop is Thailand,  you will be glad of the Bhat if you find ATMs closed (as we did) on your arrival in Bangkok.

(I learned this the hard way – if anyone is going to Nepal and wants a bargain rate on abour $70USD in Nepali Rupees let me know – no foreign exchange or bank on the West Coast will take them.)

Nepal – trekking in the Annapurnas – Day 2 Hille to Ghorepani


Up and packing at 6:45AM; our troupe of 9 women engaged in a yoga session after breakfast led by our tour guide – we all share the same thoughts on how to fend off age – just keep moving and don’t look back!

On the trail an hour later. It is still foggy. Yesterday was a warm-up for today’s journey, which is twice as long, twice as high. Happily DB shows no symptom of altitude sickness or exhaustion today, even though we are constantly gaining altitude. We left the rain forest behind and below, and walked instead past orchards of cherry trees in full blossom.  Occasional drizzle brought out the rain covers and water-proof parkas.

Today’s segment was billed as 5 hours of walking; we stretched it to 10 hours, with breaks, including close encounters with bullock carts, pony caravans, and a herd of goats. At intervals along the trail there are stopping spots, walls of stone with two steps constructed at a height convenient for the porters to lean against the lower step while resting their carefully-balanced baskets on the ledge. The design works equally well for backpacks.
Tip to trekkers: be careful to sit ON the stone bench if possible. Nepal boasts a species of stinging nettle which can penetrate a pair of lightweight trekking pants with no trouble. It’s not a memory you will cherish!
We finally arrived at Lower Ghorepani at 5PM. Ghorepani is a nest of bright-blue-painted guest houses, all claiming the best view of the Annapurnas. Due to the persistent overcast, we had no way to judge. We shambled past guest house after guest house and finally a good half hour later reached ours – the Sunny Guest House. We are told that in clear weather from here the view is terrific. Tomorrow, if the skies are clear in the early morning, we will get up at 4:30 AM and hike another mile uphill to get the panoramic view of the Annapurnas from Pun Hill. Tonight again it pours rain.

Nepal – Trekking in the Annapurnas – Day One – Pokhara to Hille

Talk about herding cats!  20 women (9 trekkers, two guides, 9 assistants/porters) trying to get organized at once on the front porch of the Chhetri Sisters guesthouse.  The people all fit inside three large SUV’s;  half the gear went on top held on by bungee cords and tarps.   Trekkers carry their own day packs with a few layers of clothes, at least two quarts of water, rain gear, and whatever else you deem essential for the day.  Beyond that, 3 Sisters porter’s packs are limited to 25 lbs – 20 lbs for the guest and 5 lbs for the porter.   3 Sisters porters are provided with hiking shoes and decently balanced back-packs, and wear logo shirts and jackets while on the job.

To help you appreciate how ground-breaking this is for Nepali touring, here is a shot of a typical male porter on the trail.  The whole load is balanced with a tum line across the forehead;  if it should slip, he 1) tumbles or 2) strangles and either way is 3) dead.

The trail to Hille, our first night’s stop, goes  up through rain forest  past villages where rice was being harvested and left to dry in the sun, past blooming hibiscus, poinsettias, and twining squash vines.   Fog and overcast made walking easier, as we climbed up and up on dirt, granite, marble steps, as the Mohdi Kohla River receded further and further below.

At one point we were overtaken by several impossibly tall and fit Germans wearing helmets and carrying kayaks.   Suddenly they plunged off the trail and down a narrow footpath – they were evidently kayaking through the rapids back down the valley to Pokhara.  This takes adventure trekking to an entirely new level!

Hille is a small town whose livelihood depends on trekking traffic and rice.  In this part of Nepal the lucky color is blue (probably still influenced by Hindu tradition, where blue is the color of Vishnu.)  So every guest house is painted the same electric blue – very appealing visually but hard to distinguish one from the other. 

Warning:  If your guest house advertises solar showers, this means that if the day has been foggy, or if you arrive behind other groups of trekkers, there will be no hot water for you.  Set modest expectations!

It was here that we first experienced the unpredictability and scariness of altitude sickness.  All three of us live at or near sea level but had trained for the trek by hiking at 9000 feet in the Rockies;  DB had spent quite a bit of additional  time with additional hiking at 9000-9500 feet in the Sierras.  At Hille the elevation is a modest 4800 feet.  DM and I were tired but basically exhilirated by our first day’strekking experience;  DB was stupefied.  The combination of altitude and exertion left her so exhausted that she was between incoherent and comatose.  DB and I managed to get some aspirin into her, manoevered her into her sleeping bag, and crossed our fingers.

(Coming next: Day 2 – Hille to Ghorepani )

Tips for the Traveller in Nepal – Sanitation

There are lots of websites which include excellent checklists for trekkers in Nepal.  Here is oneHere is another. In these Tips for Travellers I will focus on items which I had not seen on checklists or will emphasize why some things are particularly useful, with a skew toward women’s concerns.

The first questions I am asked about my travels in Asia often  involve either the toilets or the water, so let’s get those basics out of the way.

Toilets:  (this is the right word to use when asking about “the facilities”.  The word “rest room” sounds too much like “restaurant” to a Nepali ear and will lead to frustration and confusion.)

Here’s the straight dope: Be prepared to squat. Throne-style toilets are not always available.  One of our fellow travelers anticipated this and did exercises in advance specifically to stretch her Achilles tendons. Balancing on the balls of your feet while hovering over the hole with nothing you would care to hold onto for support can be tricky.

The typical Nepali toilet room will look a lot like the picture.  There is often a deep window sill on which you can rest your pack or personal items;  there is a tap with running water used to fill the bucket and to sluice off the floor, hence the floor is often wet.  The bucket of water is for washing, and there is no toilet paper.  I never figured out once you have washed yourself off (using your left hand only) how you then gt yourself dry enough to pull your pants back up.  So I stuck with Western habits and accepted BYOTP as the norm.

To bring:

  1. Pop-up sanitary wipes – these come in packages and are much easier to handle in an Asian-style toilet than a roll of toilet paper. Packs of tissues are also good. Paper used as toilet paper does not go down the hole, but into a waste paper basket inside or just outside the W.C.
  2. Small plastic bags for trash – in case you need to go in the wild, or the basket is outside the W.C., and also to pack out Kleenex, trail mix wrappers, and other trail detritus.  You want to leave a clean footprint.
  3. A sink stopper. You will find a sink at each guest house, but for washing clothes, cleaning contact lenses, etc. you will need your own stopper.
  4. Panty liners.
  5. A portable clothes line,  clothespins, and biodegradable detergent.  You will have opportunities to hang up clothes at the guest houses, but you can’t expect clothespins, and evenings are breezy – you don’t want your backup panties blown 500 vertical feet down the valley.

Water: No, you cannot drink the water from the tap in Nepal. Anywhere. Most hotels will offer bottled water in your room;  the more ecologically sensitive will provide a water station for filtered water to refill your bottles.  Recycling is very expensive in Nepal because everything has to be carried off the mountains to the nearest facility, which is probably in Kathmandu.  The carriers are either heavily laden pack mules, or equally heavily laden human porters.

To bring:

  1. Water filter/ UV SteriPen and iodine tablets or equivalent.  The water filter / Steripen will take care of 90% of the nasties you might find in the water but the other 10% are really nasty, so don’t forgo the iodine.  There are iodine equivalents which do not leave a taste in the water and do the same job.
  2. Two water bottles – one for drinking from and one for filtering into and  refilling from.  If you are using a water filter make sure your water bottles are compatible in size – you should be able to screw the filter  onto the water bottle securely.  You can find running water at most tea houses and it takes only a short time to filter a fresh quart.

Medical treatment: although we occasionally passed medical clinics, usually funded by some foreign organization, we learned later that these clinics are staffed poorly, intermittently, or not at all.  Avialable anti-biotics and other medicines are often past their expiration date.  Evacuation to India or Bangkok is your best bet if you become seriously ill or injured, but this is very expensive.  Best to get your vaccinations up to date and avoid getting sick!

To bring in your own medical kit:

  1. Sunburn protection
  2. Antibacterial ointment
  3. Blister treatments ( Dr. Scholl’s Blister Protection/Prevention pads are very effective in keeping “hot spots” from developing into full-fledged blisters.  Most list-makers mention moleskin;  I had moleskin but never used it.)
  4. Aspirin – very effective in preventing altitude sickness
  5. Ibuprofen for muscle aches
  6. Bandaids
  7. Spare eyeglasses if you need them. Extra contact lens solution if you need it.
  8. Eye drops – your eyes can get very dry at high altitudes.
  9. Any medications which you are accustomed to having available as needed.

But enough of the scary stuff!  In my next post we will finally get on the trail!

Nepal – day 8 – Pokhara – Jumping off point for Annapurna treks

The ever-helpful 3Sisters Adventure Trekkers called just as we collapsed into our suite after our airport ordeal (see Day 7) –  alternate arrangements are made.  Since the weather is not expected to change tomorrow, we abandon hope of flying to Pokhara, the central starting point for trekking the Annapurnas east of Kathmandu.  They have arranged to pick up us at 6AM in their  jeep and take us to Pokhara.  It is an 8 hour ride over a road which is probably the best in Nepal outside of Kathmandu, since it supports the all-important tourist trade. (That doesn’t mean there weren’t some white-knuckle moments!).

I’m not a big fan of SUV’s but in Nepal a large four-wheel-drive vehicle actually makes sense.  The road passes through  rural country and busy villages;  traffic alternately easy and harrowing.  The passing lorries are elaborately painted with pictures of gods, flowers, and strange beasts, set off with ornamental grille work also elaborately painted, and often sporting banners flying from the fenders.   These ornaments help take your mind off how very closely they pass on the narrow road clinging to the mountain side – art at work!

The  Chetri Sisters Guest House is friendly and comfy, though not as isolated as the pix on the website would have you think.   It was full of other trekkers, either families planning to trek together or other groups of women.

Although the 3 sisters started out as a service devoted to women trekkers on the well-established Annapurna circuit,  the slower pace, moderate burdens, and nightly accomodations have attracted families and other groups which include men – they have even added a couple of male tour guides to the staff (who also enjoy the benefit of the humane load limits imposed by 3 Sisters management).

Pokhara is a tourist town, with all the tourist ameniteis including souvenir shops, ATMs, and restaurants of every persuasion.  We ate lunch down by Fewa Lake along with several other women who will be traveling with us for the first two nights, shared a bit of a beer and chat.  Celebrated view of lake surrounded by snowy peaks invisible; instead we had a foggy Chinese-y landscape of gray lake and gray sky and darker gray foothills swimming out of the mist. (Can you spot the hills in this picture?)   We returned to a mandatory orientation meeting with our  guides-to-be, a presentation on Empowering Women of Nepal (3 sisters NGO), and a dinner of the Nepalese national dish, dal bhaat – rice, lentil soup,  curried  stew (sometimes this includes meat, sometimes not) and a pickled vegetable.  (Watch out for little pebbles in the lentil soup!)  We went to  bed to the sound of  rain pounding on the roof and gushing down the  gutters – hoping this augurs clear weather for tomorrow.

Nepal – government in transition, US helping hand

Another unexpected connection between my life and Nepal surfaces in this story on how the new Nepalese constitution is being drafted with the assistance of theU.S. Department of Defense with assistance from the  Naval Postgraduate School  in Monterey.

If you are planning a trip to Nepal, knowing something about the political situation will help you in a number of ways, not least in being able to have meaningful conversaton with the guides and hoteliers you may meet.  Study up!

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