The first days of trekking

Coming from Ben via sat phone from somewhere in the Himalayas.

It is the end of day two of our approach trek to Mera peak (our first of three objectives Mera, Island and Ama Dablam). The flight into Lukla is as crazy, scary and insane as I remember. This time I was sitting right up the front near the open cockpit. My seat afforded me an unobstructed view of the landing, which I filmed and cannot wait to see footage of!

So far the expedition has been a lot of low land trekking. Low land trekking involves a lot of Nepali flat sections – up, then down to the same height – leeches, rain and very slippy mud. Currently we are at 3000 meters above sea level, right in the clouds and rain. As much as altitude hurts, I really cannot wait to be above the weather and into some blue skies. The scenery when the clouds open, however, is astounding. Today at lunch I sat on the edge of a terrace on a ridiculously steep valley and just stared down an expansive valley to watch rural Nepali life playing out. Yaks the size of mice slowly moved up dirt tracks as farmers prepared their paddocks for crops. Soon the clouds rolled over nearby snow covered mountains erasing the view.

In our wanderings we often wander past small villages with a family or two, chickens wandering free and snotty nosed children holding barking dogs and yelling “Namaste” gleefully. The people here always smile, even porters as they struggle up hills with huge loads on their backs. Being passed by female porters carrying three times our load always serves to deflate any chest puffing by the group.

Tomorrow we will be going down 1km and then up again to an altitude that is slightly above where we started the day. The team is bonding really well, making lots of bad jokes and working well as a group. The cook Deb (male) is the same guy who fed Mal and I on Manaslu so the food is top notch, with lots of carbohydrates and energy rich food. For example, today at dinner we had: salty vegetable soup with popcorn followed by curry potatoes, pasta, veg sauce and cauliflower.

It is great to be back in Nepal, I truly love this country, her people and natural history. We have ten more days of trekking and slowly increasing our altitude before we tackle our first proper snowy mountain, Mera Peak. This has been described by Mal as a long, cold, high walk. I have seen pictures of Mera and it does not look at all technical, just long and high! I will update from time to time on the trek, mainly when cool things happen but in the interim just be sure to watch our progress on my map which I will be updating three times a day here: www.redrucksack.com/ama-dablam

Blue skies and happy feet grey The first days of trekking

Pashupatani

grey PashupataniSitting here in the lobby of the Hotel Marshyangdi, surrounded by fellow westerners all plugged into various high tech gizmos it is astounding how damn disconnected we have become. To get to the hotel lobby I walked less than one kilometer from Fire and Ice, the Pizzeria where the team met to eat dinner and get to know each other.

grey PashupataniOn they way I was Namaste-d by numerous people, sure most wanted to sell me hash or singing bowls, but some genuinely wanted to say, ‘hi’. The young chap who sold me a shirt yesterday said, ‘G’day’ (he knows my nationality) so I sat next to him on the gutter and we had a brief but pleasant chat about the unusual weather. All the time he was connected with a friend by holding hands. In Nepal this is a sign of friendship, not homosexuality. The guard at the hotel gate saluted me with a wide grin before asking how I was and telling me that Thamel will be really busy tomorrow with a festival. Walking inside the hotel to my favourite couch (with the good wifi signal) I automatically said a friendly, ‘Hello‘ to some Swedish men sitting nearby. They looked at me as though I had thrown glitter over them.

grey PashupataniUs westerners have truly become disconnected. Lost in our own personal ecosystems, sheltered from awkward conversations by music players, iPhone fiddling or dark sunglasses. The same goes for death, we desperately hide from it, we hide from it’s ominous march behind age defying skin creams and shiny new sports cars … when the inevitable happens we efficiently deal with death by dressing it in fine clothes, lathering it with makeup, then quickly burying it. We are desperate to hide from the fact that death is something we all have to deal with someday.

Not so the Nepalese.

After visiting Boudhanath, Bish and I went to visit Pashupatinath, a temple by the river in Kathmandu where locals cremate their loved ones. This was incredibly confronting. Not only were we faced with the sight of bodies being cremated, but we were hit with the smell and the sound, along with the uncomfortable thought that we should have skipped this sight. It is after all a very personal time for mourners. The Nepalese do not grey Pashupataniseem to mind the intrusion though. They seem totally at ease living out their most private moments in public, sharing such a small space with 4 million other people will do that. Not only do they seem okay with visitors, but they actively encourage us. Tickets are sold at the entrance, guides are placed around to shunt tourists to the right viewing places and, not surprisingly, touts line the walls.

A cornerstone of the Buddhist faith is the belief in Karma and re-incarnation. When someone dies their soul leaves the body to be reincarnated as another human (or a cockroach depending on how much good karma they have accrued). This is a massively watered down version, but for now it will do. The body becomes an empty vessel which can be invaded by evil spirits, so it is important to destroy the body as soon as practical after death. Fire is the best way achieve this.

grey PashupataniAfter a death the cremation ceremony begins within minutes or hours. The body is shrouded, adorned with money or flowers then taken to the edge of the river. It is dipped three times in the holy river to purify it then placed gently on a pyr of wood. More wood is added, along with straw, before the first born male lights the fire. It is important that the fire start around the mouth as this is where it is believed evil spirits enter. The rest is a matter of time. After a few hours the body is considered cremated enough. The charred body (called an Astu) is taken by the first born son and released into the holy river. A caretaker sweeps the remains into the river so the soul is free from the physical world. It is customary for the son to then wash himself in the river to purify after the ceremony.

We watched a ceremony from the very start, this is a multi-sensory experience to say the least. Bish and I were uncharacteristically solemn while watching. On the drive back to the hotel I was thinking to myself that maybe I need some time alone, with my iPhone plugged in, to rationalise what I have just seen…

Boudhanath – Kathmandu’s most sacred site

grey Boudhanath   Kathmandus most sacred siteWith a second day to fill in before the rest of the expedition crew arrive, Bish and I met Arnil at 10am with plans to visit Boudhanath, the largest Stupa in Asia. Following another frenetic drive we pull up in a cloud of dust near Boudhanath.

Boudhanath is the largest Stupa in Aisa. When you view Stupas from above the layout is the same as the Mandala paintings (like Bish bought yesterday) that act as a roadmap of reincarnation. Boudhanath is teeming with Monks in orange robes turning prayer wheels as tourists poke telephoto lenses in their faces and touts try to sell hash, paintings or handicrafts. It is Mecca for Buddhists and a town unto itself, monasteries radiate out from the Stupa in all directions.

grey Boudhanath   Kathmandus most sacred siteWe took a short stroll to the biggest monastery which unfortunately was closed for tourists. However, as a consellation prize we were able to climb a stairwell to gain an amazing view over the whole area. Feeling like a sniper through my camera lens I witnessed a tourist shoving his camera right into the monks’ faces whilst the Monk was praying and turning the prayer wheel, later on I saw him walk right in the front of a group of about 40 monks who were chanting to take a photo…clearly he has not read my Travel Guide Book!

After some more poking around and soaking up the atmosphere Bish and I climbed onto the Stupa itself (yes we checked, it is quite okay to do so) fortunately the monks were still praying and we spent a blissful time on the top, listening to the hypnotic chantings and humming of people preparing for an upcoming festival, which sadly we will miss due to climbing commitments.

grey Boudhanath   Kathmandus most sacred site grey Boudhanath   Kathmandus most sacred site  
grey Boudhanath   Kathmandus most sacred site grey Boudhanath   Kathmandus most sacred site

 

 

 

Bhaktapur temple in Nepal

grey Bhaktapur temple in NepalWith all our shopping done Bish and I were driving to visit a major tourist attraction near Kathmandu called Bhaktupur in the Kathmandu Valley. I should properly introduce Bish, because we are spending the next 40 days in close proximity he will pop up again. Bish, (Andrew Bishop) and I went to University together, in that we spent a year at the same residential college along with 200 other horny, drunk university students. He has a warped sense of humour, one ‘must-have’ item on extended high altitude sufferings. Bish is a geologist who describes himself as a bipolar.

 

grey Bhaktapur temple in NepalHe takes tours at both the arctic and the antarctic where he explains the geology of the regions to camera toting guests, while stopping them from kicking Penguins. As I alluded to in my last post, Bish is a big guy. At 6 foot 4, he wears size 50 boots that have to be ordered specially and he looks ridiculous folded into the back of a Suzuki swift Thamel-taxi.

Our driver Arnil was happily chatting away while swopping in and around trucks, motorbikes buzzed around our little Suzuki swift like flies. Bish and I were hanging out the window giggling like little school girls and filming the chaos of Nepali traffic.

Pulling into the car park outside Bhaktapur Arnil introduced us to his ‘friend’ Robbie who fortuitously also happened to be a tour guide. I remember this trick from my 2010 visit here. Without much ado, grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepalwe thought ‘bugger it, when in Rome…’ Robbie gave us a wonderful 3 hour tour of Bhaktupur, explaining the significance of each temple and so forth. $5 aus saved us having to refer to Lonely Planet all day and provided us with a very thorough tour.

Bhaktapur is overrun with 300 year old temples covered in exquisitely detailed wood carvings all around the outside which hardly show their age. Clearly our favorite temple was the fertility temple which is covered in erotic carvings which would make Hugh Heffner blush.

grey Bhaktapur temple in NepalDespite the slightly pushy marketers, Bhaktapur is quite an amazing place. Robbie is a local to Bhaktapur as is his father and his father’s father. Taking us away from the  touristy part of town we saw locals drying their chick peas and beans on woven mats in the street. They have shady rest areas where people come to hang out, enjoy the quiet and share a game of cards. I was invited by a potter to try my hand on his wheel, literally a car wheel spun by hand, after attracting the attention of many fellow tourists I managed to make a little bowl which resembled a dropped pie.

Following this, Robbie took us to an art school. The paintings here are so detailed that most are done with one hair brushes. They mainly depict Buddha’s life and Samsara – the road map of reincarnation. Bish was quite taken by one particular painting and, following some half-assed bartering, he is now the proud owner of an authentic student-painted Samsara painting. These paintings are special, it takes between 3 and 30 months to complete one, from the detail in the paintings, you would believe it. The masters use actual melted gold in their painting and one mistake ruins the whole thing, start again!

Leaving Bhaktupur we struck out for the Monkey Temple, a tall Buddhist temple perched in the smog on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. The Monkey temple, in itself would be quite spectacular if you removed all the touts and the tourists sticking their big lenses in the Monk’s faces. Monkeys bounce from Stupa to Pagoda while orange-robed Buddhist monks bang gongs, or just sit and enjoy the view. We didn’t spend long here, just enough to enjoy the view, get sick of touts and become fearful of a rabid monkey attack. Tomorrow we are planning to spend our last free day visiting Boudhna and the cremation place. After this we will be out of civilization, away from showers, non-solar electricity and touts for forty days…and I cannot wait!

grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepal grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepal
grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepal grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepal
grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepal grey Bhaktapur temple in Nepal

Shona’s – your one stop outdoor shop in Thamel

Thamel is the tourist hub of Kathmandu. Calling Thamel ‘bustling’ would be a gross understatement … like calling global warming, “Slightly worrying”. In Thamel you will find rip-off North Face bags, Yak-wool socks, Indian embroiders, touts saying, “Hello, hash for you?”, fresh tourists pretending not to be intimidated, brightly coloured cotton everything, confused hippies that forgot to leave the famed 1970‘s hippy pilgrimage (Thamel-> Thailand) and food from all parts of the world. Due to Nepal’s proximity to India, the Indian food is easily the best.

From the outside, Shona’s Alpine seems to be just another Thamel shop. The dusty shelves are packed to overflowing with sleeping bags, socks, shirts, down jackets and everything you need to survive the Himalayas as a trekker, mountaineer or cliche’-nirvana-seeker. However, Shona’s has a huge point of difference, one which attracts people in the know in droves.

Andrew and Shona from ‘Shonas Alpine” are like Willy Wonka and Pacha-mamma respectively to outdoor shoppers. Andrew is a skinny, pony-tailed chap from England who is extremely passionate and knowledgable about outdoor equipment. With every item sold, Andrew offers advice and, invariably, anecdotes about when he used the same gear, “One winter I was climbing in the Khumbu, no one was about, and I was solo-ing these lovely lines around Pangboche…anyway, what was I saying? Yeah, I only took one change of clothes!” Shona is a short, serious looking Nepalese lady who efficiently matches explorers with the gear they need with a big smile.

Shonas Alpine is a climbing institution. For a retailer to flourish in such a competitive, and flooded, market as Thamel they must have a noticeable point of difference. While watching Shona systematically deck out a nervous American lady for her first ever trek, it dawned on me what their big point of difference is: trust.

grey Shonas   your one stop outdoor shop in ThamelThey do not mess about with pricing, goods are worth what they’re worth. They will not bullshit you to sell an extra sock. I saw Shona question American-lady if she really needed more than one shirt, “They dry in ten minutes, wash it at night…” They intimately know the products they are selling. From her perch behind the counter, Shona had this first-timer totally kitted out, and had explained the benefits of Merino over poly-propylene, in less time than it takes for Abbott to lube up, and anally rape Australia’s Environmental policy… sorry, sorry, I don’t know where that came from. I’ll leave it alone, Promise! Anyway, Shona’s, trust. A valuable commodity in this tout-ridden suburb.

The reason that Andrew and Shona know their products so well is because they manufacture most of their inventory. It is easy to picture Andrew dancing around a factory upstairs with a bunch of smiling Sherpas labouring at sewing machines, all of them singing, “Ooompa, Loompa, Doooboodee Dooo, I’ve got a lovely Down suit for you”

I still distinctly remember in 2011 when I nervously went to buy a down suit. Andrew took one look at me, pulled a suit seemingly out of his sleeve and had me try it on. He explained why they designed the crap flap the way it was (the zip around your bum for number 2’s), why the hood was made to close how it did (being able to breathe) and why they only come in fluorescent orange (snow is white!) Sweating in the suit like a fat McDonalds employee I asked about sleeping bags, again seemingly out of his sleeve, came two bags, a three and a four season. Their brand is Alpine design, even though not a ‘big’ name quality is assured. Their assurance of quality comes from the fact that most commercial expeditions, and almost every sherpa, use them. If it is good enough for experts, it is certainly good enough for me.

grey Shonas   your one stop outdoor shop in ThamelMy fellow expeditioner, Bish is a tall chap. At 6 foot 4, he has trouble finding gear to fit his frame. When Bish asked Andrew about a sleeping bag, Andrew said, “Yeah, no worries, we have one,” turning to a staff member, “can you run upstairs and grab that XXL bag?” A few minutes later Bish was the proud owner of a massive and warm sleeping bag, which cost him $80aus. You can pay upwards of $400 for it’s equivalent in Australia. I was a bit disappointed that all I needed were a few more pairs of socks. When I asked Shona for some trekking socks her eyes flitted to my boots, “Size 43, Khumbu Valley right?” Not surprisingly my socks are perfect, not too hot, merino to avoid smelly feet, and the perfect size. They might be last year’s design but I’m pretty sure that Merino wool has not evolved too much since 2012. Trust.

So, if you ever come to Nepal to trek, climb or do anything outdoorsy, and assuming you are not aroused by brand name gear, I strongly suggest you arrive a day earlier with an empty rucksack and a few dollars in your pocket. Throw yourself at the mercy of Andrew and Shona. They will see you right.

*Disclaimer* Due to my evangelical gushing this may seem like a sponsored post. It was in no way sponsored, they are just that good.

*Note* To find Shonas go to the Mountain Hardware store, walking back towards the thick of Thamel take the first left, it is about 150 meters down on the right, next to the famous RUmdoodle restaurant. If you get lost, and you will, just ask a local.

grey Shonas   your one stop outdoor shop in Thamel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATE: I found their phone number and email. If you try them, let us all know if it’s still valid!):  +977 1 4265120

Shonanandy@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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grey Shonas   your one stop outdoor shop in Thamel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This business partnership has expired.” Ben has no idea what adventures are in store when he sets out to discover what lies over that next mountain.

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