Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “Tips for travelers – Nepal”

You-tube Video: All-women trekking in Nepal with Three Sisters (and me!)

Check it out!  Here is the link on You-Tube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjdHc-Boigs

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Tips for Travelers – Do as I Say, Not as I Do

During this day’s transition from Kathmandu, Nepal to Chiang Mai, Thailand, DM and I broke every rule of the experienced traveler, including:

1.  Allow plenty of extra time to get to the airport in case of traffic.

“Our international flight is at 1:30PM;  let’s arrange for a taxi at 10:30” say I.

“Oh, that’s silly,” says DM. “It’s only a 20 minute ride to the airport – make it 11:AM.” I didn’t feel like arguing, and also refrained from saying “I told you so” when the taxi arrived 20 minutes late, and traffic was horrendous.

2.  Besure to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the hotel.

Three blocks into the noon-time traffic of Kathmandu, DM shrieks “Oh No! I left my purse on the couch in the hotel lobby – we have to go back.” Fortunately, the taxi driver knew a back street, and the purse was still there.  And even more fortunately, the plane was a bit late.

3.  Be sure to check the rules about currency exchange if you have any significant amount of local currency left.

I had about $70 US in Nepalese rupees, which I decided in our hurry not to pause to exchange at the airport in Nepal.  It was only when I got to the US and tried to exchange that I found out that it is “illegal” to take NPR out of Nepal, and no other country will exchange the currency.

4.  Be sure to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the plane.

I stepped aside to check  the connecting flight number as we waited to exit the plane;  only after we were halfway up the concourse (fortunately, still within the security area) did I realize my backpack was too light – I had left my fanny pack/purse on the airplane seat.   I swam upstream against the flood of exiting passengers to retrieve it, and we loped through the concourse to catch our flight rather than making our anticipated R&R stop in the Thai Airways Orchid Lounge.

5.  Be sure you have some local currency in hand on arriving in a new country.

We had planned to grab some Thai currency in the Bangkok airport, but had no time between flights due to flight delay and my brain-dead episode.  By the time we arrived in Chiang Mai, the ATMs and currency exchange booths were shut down for the night.  Fortunately, DM’s neighbor had given her a few leftover baht to use as mad money – just enough to pay the taxi to our hotel.

So yes, we knew better.  God watches over fools.  We got there anyway.

Tips for Travellers in Nepal – Food, Shelter, Communication

My basic tip is: don’t worry about it. If you are doing the Annapurna circuit you will not be far from a roof or a kitchen;  BUT

in the high season you WILL need reservations or risk sleeping on the dining room floor.

Other thoughts:

  1. Set expectations realistically for communicating with family and friends during the trek. Let me first dispel the myth that “there are cybercafes everywhere”.  There was rumored to be one in Tadupani, but as I walked down the narrow twisting street suddenly everything went dark – power outage.  By the time I returned to the guest house it was aglow with candles on every table – evidently power outages are common – but internet connections do not run on candle-power.  Somehow, though, our guides’ cellphones never seemed to be out of reception range.
  2. Don’t worry about the food. This is not Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayas.  The tea houses/hotels are governed by regional associations which set standards and offer an established menu of dishes with familiar names such as pizza, spaghetti, and eggroll.  The fare is largely vegetarian, and might include fried rice, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, apple pie, and cornbread.  Although the pizza may be like no pizza you ever ate before, and the cheese may be yak cheese, you will discover some reliable choices.  The vegetable soups (tomato, pumpkin, carrot) are consistently excellent, and the dal bhat platter is a nutritional powerhouse. Our guides ate this at least twice a day and their slogan was “Dal bhat power – good for 24 hours!”  And for your daily laugh, be sure to check the menu for typos.  (Would you like to try the Greed Salad? Or the Chocolate Crap?)
  3. Don’t worry about the beds.  The trekking trade is a key part of any upward mobility story in Nepal;  each teahouse must meet minimum standards for accomodations, and most will exceed.  Some of the teahouses are downright lovely, taking every advantage they can of the views and environment.
  4. Take time to check your room completely before starting out each day – including under the bed, under the blankets, in the corners.  It is amazing what slips to the floor when you are tired and not looking. I managed to leave my favorite Biffie on the bed in Kalipani (fortunately I had a backup); my backup glasses/sunglasses never made it out of Pokhara, and DM rescued my favorite jade necklace from under the bed in Marfa. If you are traveling with a team as I did, check for each other.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 8 – Kagbeni to Jharkot

This day we again put DB on a jeep – this time first thing in the morning – and DM and I set out on foot for a four hour trek partly along the bus road (DB and Bina waved at us as they passed) and partly along the old trekking road.  We had the three assistants as guides – nice young things with big smiles and minimal English – and we had a fine time walking through a series of small stone-built villages, over stone bridges, along an amazing series of conduits for flowing water (the actual river was way downhill from us).  We shared trail mix and granola bars and rested frequently, but still made our destination in the four hours allotted.

Jharkot is just a smidge(3500M)  down the hill from Mulktinath, the high point of the trek (3802M according to my new hat).  Since we arrived before noon, we had a leisurely lunch on the veranda looking at Nilghiri Peak across the valley, then explored the town, including an ancient Buddhist monastery dating back to the 700s, with some fascinating paintings and artifacts.  We are amazed still at how cavalierly the Nepalese treat their history – no hesitation about touching a fragile old canvas, or allowing flash photos of an ancient wall mural.  The town was very Tibetan in feeling, according to Dianne, who has been to Tibet, all gray stone and low doorways leading into dark corridors or bright courtyards; lots of Buddhist elements mixed in with ancient animist totems – very alien to us.

We also had an impromptu tour of a women’s collective engaged inproducing seabuckthorn juice concentrate for the local market. (If seabuckthorn replaces the acai berries craze, you read it here first!) The women do everything from gathering, crushing, and simmering the berries for juice to scalding, labeling and filling recycled bottles for the market.  The space for the seasonal operation is provided by the local Buddhist monastery;  the proceeds are used to assist poor families in the village.  (The catch is that much of the money goes back to the monastery to pay for religious services)

In the evening we gathered around the table under which a charcoal brazier radiated warmth, and after dinner ended up playing a Nepalese version of gin rummy with our guide Bina; assistant Bandana; Katharine, a Dutch management consultant who was trekking solo with a guide, and a charming Italo-French skydiving instructor named David who had just come over the Thang Lo pass solo – no guide, no porter.  We had a lot of inter-generational, inter-cultural laughing and silliness, and at 8:30 the three of us decided it was past our bedtime and left the younger folk to it.

I was amazed at the ability of a battered deck of cards to erase boundaries – we need to play  more often!

Tips for Travelers in Nepal – Equipment

Here are some suggestions regarding equipment you will need for the Annapurna circuit trek, and my recommendations for the best way to manage it.

  1. If you are not a frequent and dedicated backpacker hiker with your own tried and true equipment, and you are doing a tea-house trek with someone else carrying most of your gear, consider a rental option for items that are necessary but not size – related.  Why schlepp a down sleeping bag, back pack, down jacket, and trekking poles half-way around the world if you can rent them from your trekking guide group at a total charge of less that $2/day? These necessary items can be rented in Thamel or Pokhara and save you a lot of baggage bulk on the way to and from those locations.  Some necessary rentables:
    1.  1. Down sleeping bag – you may hike all day in a T-shirt but the temperatures plummet when the sun goes down, and there is no central heat in the guest houses.
    2. 2. Trekking poles.  They will save a lot of wear and tear on knees and hips, as well as saving you from a fall here and there.  The extra security – priceless.
    3. 3. Down Jacket – I needed mine three times in 12 days of hiking – but oh, when I needed it, it was lovely to have!
    4. Large back pack – Remember – it’s not you that will be carrying this pack, it’s the assistant guide assigned to you, so it doesn’t matter how well it fits you. It will hold your sleeping bag, extra clothes, and everything else you don’t need during the day, as well as a small amount of the guide’s gear. Instead of traveling with a backpack as my main piece of luggage, I took an expandable suitcase as far as Pokhara, stashed it at the guest house, and had lots of room for gifts and mementoes.
  2. Bring a silk liner for the down sleeping bag – it will add extra warmth at very little weight and if you are renting it is nice not to worry about who last used the bag. I recommend sewing a bright strip of bias tape across the top opening edge of the liner so it is easy to find when you need to slither in after dark. (thanks to a customer comment on the REI site for this tip!)
  3. Take good care of your feet.  This includes
    1. Good hiking boots, well broken in
    2. Several pairs of wool hiking socks
    3. Silk liners for the hiking socks to wick away sweat and help prevent blisters
    4. Dr. Scholls’ Blister Prevention pads, because you will get “hot spots” despite the good boots and the silk liners. (mentioned already in “Sanitation“, but worth saying twice)
  4. Bring a headlamp.  If you are getting up early to see the sunrise, by definition you will be hiking in the dark.  You will need both hands free for your hiking poles, so an ordinary flashlight will not do.  You will be pleased at how useful it will also be if your roommate in the guest house wants to sleep while you want to read about next day’s route, or if you need to find your way to that outside toilet in the middle of the night.
  5. Bring a deck of cards.  In the evening, a game of cards around a charcoal brazier bridges all culture gaps –French, Swiss, and Dutch and American guests joined by our Nepali guides with the common language of gin rummy.
  6. Bring a long-sleeved cotton shirt with a front breast pocket into which your camera will fit.  Your camera should be on a lanyard around your neck so that if you drop it, no harm. The pocket will take the weight off your neck.

 

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  ]

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!

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