This was the second time for us in Nepal, and by now it's a tradition for us to be in the Himalayas once a year! This time, we chose to go to Pokhara and do the Jomsom trek in the Annapurna region.
We arrived in Kathmandu with a few hours delay, and after checking in the same hotel as last time (Tibet Guesthouse), we quickly went out to arrange our gear. In the gear rental shop, they told us that the Jomsom trek (part of the Annapurna Circuit) that we wanted to take was not recommended - they had built a road all the way to Jomsom and the trek could be quite dusty. So we changed plan and opted for the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) Trek instead. This was still an unspoiled trek through a nature park, and the high-altitude trek would take around 9 days.
When we walked back to the hotel, we saw a black dog in the street - he was in real agony and it was heartbreaking to see him suffer. Not only did he have the mange all over his body, and was walking backwards, throwing himself on the floor, howling and screaming constantly. He had probably eaten some poison, and there was no help available in the street (many people avoided him for fear of rabies). Initially we thought we couldn't help him, but when we saw him the second time we wanted to do anything we could. At our hotel there was sign from a dog welfare society (KAT), but it was too late in the evening already and they didn't pick up the phone anymore. Luckily the man behind the reception was very helpful, and he called over ten different people until he managed to get hold of the founder of KAT. We felt like it was a miracle when they agreed to come out and help the dog, but unfortunately it would take a hour for them to reach us. We went back out again to find the dog and slowly directed him to a quiet side street, so that at least he was out of harm's way.
There were quite a few people around us who wanted to help (locals and an Italian couple), and everybody felt a huge relief when we told them that help was on the way. When the animal ambulance arrived, the guys quickly picked up the dog, put him in the back of the card and gave him a tranquilizer. We agreed with the staff that it was best to end his ordeal right now, and they gave him another injection to put him asleep. He slowly fell asleep and the suffering was finally over...
Some local shop-keepers knew of another sick dog, and they insisted we save him too. He was very friendly and still in reasonably good shape, but the mange had started and he lost half of his fur - a few months and he also would in terrible shape. The KAT team took him and they'll return him when he's healthy and sterilized. It was great to see that there's an organization who cares about these dogs - it makes a huge difference.
After all this, we had a quick dinner, packed our bags for the next day and collapsed in bed...
20/12: Kathmandu - Pokhara - Phedi
We had heard something about a strike in Nepal, but this morning we realized the full consequences - no regular buses or taxis anywhere and all shops closed. We had a mid-morning flight, and luckily the government had arranged tourist buses to the airport. But when we arrived in Pokhara (after a 30-minute scenic flight), we realized that there was no transport whatsoever, and that we would had to wait three days or walk 25km to the beginning of the Annapurna trek... We choose to walk, and left right after lunch. The only concession we made, was to take a porter (which was hard as well, because all trekking shops were closed and porters are not really supposed to work, so there was a risk of conflict with the Maoists who called the strike). We escaped Pokhara with Binod, the porter, without trouble but it was a tough 5-hour walk to Phedi (in pitch-black for the last hour). We were very happy with the porter - a friendly and strong young man, who was a Tibetan Buddhist.
21/12: Phedi - Tolka
We left Phedi at around 8am and started with a steep climb to Dhampus. Afterwards it was a relatively gentle walk up to Pothana where we stopped for lunch. After lunch we walked for another 2.5 hours until we reached Tolka. The track took us through villages and forests, and the temparature was a pleasant 20 degrees in the sun (until it dropped rapidly by late afternoon).
So far, this track is still much lower than the startpoint of the Everest Base Camp Trek (which starts in Lukla at 2,500m). Tolka is at 1,700m and our destination tomorrow will be at 2,170m. But that doesn't make it less though - it's still lots of climbing and descending... The difference, however, is that we now have a porter to carry our packs!
When walking through the villages, it's clear that it's a cultural melting pot between the Indian people from the subcontinent and the Mongolian people of the Himalayas (with relatively more Hindus). It's also clear that the people here are quite different from the Sherpas in the Khumbu area around Mt Everest.
In Tolka we decided to call it a day, mainly because we found a nice and clean guesthouse (Namaste Guesthouse) with fantastic views... It would leave some more walking for tomorrow, but we'll worry about that later!
22/12: Tolka - Chhomrong (2170m)
Sjoerd woke up early to take some sunrise photos of South Annapurna, which was beautifully lit. We had an early breakfast and left at around 7.30am. It took us a good 4.5 hours to reach Jinudanda, passing through the villages of Langdruk and Newbridge. After Jinudanda (famous for its hotspring), it was a very steep climb up to Chhomrong where we stopped for the day. It gets dark at around 6pm, but you want to stop walking by 5pm because you're exhausted and it gets cold rapidly (a wet, bone-chilling kind of cold).
After a good breakfast, we started the hike at 8am with a long descent, only to climb up again for over an hour - not a great start of the day. We got to Sinuwa by 10am, stopped for tea and continued towards Bamboo. Along the way, we saw a large group of white langoor monkeys bouncing around in the trees. They seemed very much in their natural element there...
We left around 1pm and arrived at Dhovan within an hour - much faster than expected, and an encouragement for the last stretch to Himalaya Hotel. This was more tough, as it was uphill most of the time. But we got there by 4pm, so not too bad after all. We could feel that we are higher up now, as it's getting quite cold late afternoon already. We quickly put on warm clothes (incl. thermal underwear, ski trousers and a very warm jacket). Now we're good!
In the evening, we noticed a beatiful but very thin female dog, sleeping outside under a table. We asked the lodge owner if she belonged to him, but he said no and didn't really seem to care. We fed her quite some of our dinner, and she was fine for the moment.
24/12: Himalaya Hotel - Annapurna Base Camp
In the morning, we had an early breakfast (and ordered some extra pancake for the dog), and left around 8am. It took us 1.5 hours to reach Deurali, and by noon we got to Machchapuchchure Base Camp (MBC). While we were waiting for lunch, we were shocked to see that the same dog was following some trekkers up the mountain to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) - the temperature was still nice but it would be much colder higher up, and even colder in the night.
It took another 2 hours to reach ABC, and on the way it got very cloudy and started to snow - we thought that it was excellent gift for Christmas Eve! But in a short time, the snow turned into a real blizzard, temperatures dropped rapidly, and we quickly dashed into the lodge for some protection. We enjoyed the view and after an hour bravely decided to go for a walk. We were fighting against the snow and wind up there, and when we turned a corner we were shocked to see the same dog laying outside, shivering of cold and looking miserable. None of the lodge owners let her in, and even advised tourists not to let her into their rooms. We ignored that of course, picked her up and carried her to our room, where she quickly disappeared under the bed. Even in the room she was shivering, but at least she was out of the wind. We bought her food in the evening, and throughout the night she kept on shivering. We felt very sorry for her, and had no idea how she ended up here.
25/12: ABC - Sinuwa
At 2am, she started to cry a bit, and we let her out as we thought she needed to pee. She dashed out, but she didn't return... So Sjoerd dressed up and went to look for her. After 10 minutes, he saw her and carried her back into the room. At 4am, she started to cry again, and we let her out again. Of course, she disappeared again, but this time we couldn't find her anymore. We were sad, as we were sure that she'd freeze to death in the night (it was -17 degrees). After a few miserable hours during which we couldn't sleep (due to the cold and thin air), we woke up at 6am... And to our biggest surprise, the dog appeared from under the bed, stretching, yawning and shivering! We still don't know how she got there...
We took some photos of the sunrise and spectacular views, had a quick breakfast, and prepared to leave. We decided to bring the dog sown to a lower altitude, where she could manage on her own again. But she was so cold, that she just couldn't walk through the knee-deep snow. We had a leash, but it seemed useless - she didn't move. In the end, Sjoerd had to pick her up, put her on his neck, and carry her down the mountain!
Only after half an hour, she finally warmed up and decided that she could move herself again... And the three of us quickly descended that beautiful but ice-cold mountain. Christa, as we had called her, turned out to be a fantastic dog, who walked on the leash without any problem, and we made very good speed.
We got to Sinuwa later afternoon, exhausted from a sleepless night and almost 9 hours of walking. During dinner we heard that there would be another strike on 27 December, and that we had to walk all the way down and take a taxi to Pokhara in one day or we'd risk getting stuck on the mountain for a few days....
26/12: Sinuwa - Pokhara
We woke up late from a deep sleep, and decided over breakfast to try and reach Pokhara in one day... It would probably require 9-10 hours of walking and we would have to walk at least an hour in pitch-black, but it was better than spending a few days more here or walking all the way back to Pokhara.
All day Christa behaved like a model dog, and walked nicely with us on a leash. But along the way, we had several adventures with the local dogs and some wildlife hidden in the bushes (which resulted in wild barking and growling - maybe a leopard?).
In Chhomrong, we found the only internet cafe on the whole trek, checked for an animal welfare organization in Pokhara, and talked to the manager. He encouraged us to take her all the way down, and agreed to see her - no guarantee for a happy ending yet, but things started to look good for her.
Totally exhausted, we arrived to Birethanti by 7pm, where luckily some entrepreneurial taxi drivers were waiting for tourists. They charged us a LOT, of course, but we happily jumped into the 30-year old beat-up Toyota to drive us back to Pokhara. Only 10 minutes after we left, we realized that Christa was shaking on our lap, and that she has never been in a car before - who knows, maybe she has never even seen a car while walking through the mountains all her life. But she behaved, and we arrived in Pokhara by 8pm.
We found a nice hotel, and we just took the dog into our room - no point asking, as we would have done it anyway! As soon as we got into the room, she curled up in a corner and fell asleep - for the next 12 hours... And so did we!
As expected there was another strike across Nepal, and we couldn't get a taxi to the Himalayan Animal Rescue Team, so we put on our walking shoes again and prepared for the 3-hour walk there. It was even harder this time, as the streets were full of dogs who attacked our poor girl as we walked by. But we finally found HART, and even brought along another female dog who had just volunteered to get sterilized...
Kageshwaar from HART is a great guy who used to work with KAT in Kathmandu and works in Pokhara since March '09. He helps to get rid of rabies in the Pokhara valley by vaccinating all dogs, and to control the dog population by sterilizing the female dogs - all without any government support. We told him the story of Christa, and he told us that one of the staff will probably adopt her as he was looking for a new dog. We offered to adopt her if that didn't work out, as we had already fallen in love with this smart and beautiful dog. One way or another, we'll see her again!
We left her in the good hands of HART, and walked back to Pokhara for some sightseeing, dinner and shopping. Pokhara is one of the most charming cities in Nepal, with a large lake and magnificent mountains views, and we hadn't seen too much of it yet!
28/12: Pokhara - Royal Chitwan National Park
We took the 7.30am bus and spent over five hours cramped into small seats, slowly making our way south to one of Nepal's premier nature reserves - the Royal Chitwan National Park. This park was almost lost by the 1960s, due to years of enthusiastic hunting by the British and unrestricted population growth. When there were just a handful of tigers, rhinos and elephants left, the King intervened, declared it a national park and removed over 22,000 peasants from the 932 square kilometer park. The population of wildlife has been fluctuating since (as poachers were sometimes more successful than the park's security officers), but recently they counted 304 rhinos and 94 tigers. It's been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
After we arrived, we had lunch at our resort and then left for their Jungle Camp - a couple of simple rooms in a watch tower just inside the actual park, from which we could see / hear wildlife, if we were lucky.
Shortly after we got there, we were joined by two Tharu women, who took us into the forest to collect fern for dinner. Without them, we probably would have starved that night, as we had real trouble finding the edible fern shoots among all the undergrowth... But they had an expert eye and quickly gathered a large collection. They then took us back to their village nearby, where we cooked together and had plenty of photo opportunities. It was encouraging to see that some NGO had recently completed a biogas installation, which would allow them to cook on the gasses from cow's manure instead of using wood. The kitchen was basic, but very clean and organized. We had some delicious dal bhat (dal = lentil, bhat = rice) with potatoes and the fern.
After a cold night up in the watch tower, we woke up in the middle of dense fog - little chance of seeing any wildlife, although we heard a mother rhino walking about and calling her baby nearby... A very nice experience.
We returned to the resort for a big breakfast, and continued the day with an elephant ride into the park itself. There are three ways to explore the park: walking, elephant ride and jeep safari. We did all of this, of course!
While we don't like elephant rides (we prefer to just look at them), it is the best way to see wildlife in the park as the animals don't feel threatened by the elephants and you can get really, really close. Within two hours, we saw a rhino at 5 meters from us, dozens of spotted deer, sambar deer at 3 meters distance, a family of wild boar, gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles, and countless birds. We had never seen a wild rhino before, and it was a very special experience to see it grazing peacefully right next to us. And we have seen more deer than any other trip we have ever done, and it was clear that the animals in the park are well-protected.
In the afternoon, we did a canoe trip followed by a jungle walk. During the canoe trip, we saw countless crocodiles from very close by (the fish-eating gharial crocodile with its long thin snout, and the more scary marsh mugger who eats anything that comes his way).
Afterwards we made a jungle walk with an experienced local guide, who took us to rhino sleeping places and spotted many deer and monkeys. Once we got out of the forest, we visited the elephant breeding centre. This is a successful project that aims to increase the elephant population, as there are only 20 wild elephants left in the park. Luckily the wild elephants participate in the project, as the bulls make regular unscheduled visits to the ladies in the centre... They even recently had elephant twins, which is extremely rare.
In the evening, we had a nice dinner by a camp fire (wich was much appreciated, as there was no dining hall and it was less than 10 degrees that evening!).
Today we explored some more of the park, first with another jungle walk and then with a jeep safari. We saw some wild life (hog deer, spotted deer, monkeys, Siberian ducks, crododiles), and it was good to see how large the park is (1.5 times Singapore). We also saw some beautiful lakes where the animals gather in the dry season. There were many soldiers and checkpoints, against poachers and Maoist rebels who sometimes come through the park.
31/12: Chitwan - Kathmandu
Today we took a bus back from the park to Kathmandu, and we could again see the deep poverty throughout Nepal - it was clear that many people have a tough life there, especially in the cold harsh winter.
In Kathmandu, we went to a nice restaurant with great Nepali food and a good cultural show. Kathmandu was really celebrating New Year's Eve, and the noise in the streets went on until late...
After a long sleep-in and a big breakfast, we were ready for the new year...
Our activity today was to visit the Kathmandu Animal Treatment (KAT) Centre, ten kilometers north of the centre. We wanted to see their facilities, give them a donation and check on the dog with mange that they took from our hotel two weeks ago.
As there was another strike today (the third in two weeks!), we chose to rent bikes for the trip to Budhanilkantha. It was quiet on the streets, and we reached KAT after an hour. It was a small but nice facility, with kennels, an operating theatre, recovery rooms and many dogs that were too sick to be released yet.
On a typical day, KAT goes out in the morning to catch 5-6 female dogs (each day in a different part of town). They take them back to the centre, check their health, sterilize them, give them anti-rabies shots and other vaccinations, put a tattoo in one ear and clip the other, give them a red collar, and release them in the same place after 3-4 days. Over the years, KAT has treated over 11,500 dogs and we believe that their efforts are definitely making a difference in the valley.
We biked back to Kathmandu, and spent the afternoon shopping in Thamel - the tourist part of town, and of one of the best places to shop in Asia...
The next day we visited Patan, one of the old Newari cities in the Kathmandu Valley. The Newaris have built beautiful cities, with extensively decorated five-story houses around large courtyards, water holes, palaces, temples, squares, and alleys. Most buildings date back from the 1600s, and are still well-preserved and continue to be used as houses and shops.
We spent a couple of hours walking through the old center, before returning to Thamel for another round of shopping.
3/1: Kathmandu - Singapore
Nepal is an amazingly beautiful country with a huge variety of nature, people and languages - ranging from subtropical jungles to the highest peaks in the world, with Hindus, Tibetans and various tribal people. But the country is still very poor, with low literacy, an unstable government and a real problem with garbage - in towns and on roadsides, everybody just throws their garbage anywhere, and many rivers have become garbage dumps. The treks up in the mountains are still unspoilt, but it's a different story once you're back to larger settlements. We truly hope that this country will get a stable, strong government and a better economy, and that the people will take better care of what they have. And we'll be back again in Nepal - we love this country!
For more pictures, click here.