Thursday, 1 June 2017

And finally...

As things transpired (exploding water boiler in our attic back home never helps!) we had to bring our trip to a sligthly shortened end and spent a very lovely last day lying on warm grass listening to an outdoor performance of Chopin in Warsaw. It was a beautiful way to arrive back in Europe after our very slow journey home from the East to Kat's ancestral homeland!

It's inevitably impossible to give a one liner but we've grown to love writing about our trip, even if it has caused a few arguments along the way! Never have we had the time to be such voracious readers and one of our favourite quotes from all the books we've read sums up adventure perfectly in its own weird little way so here it is....

'And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man: you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, "what is the use?" For we are a nation of shopkeepers and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg.'

The Worst Journey in the World (Vintage Classics) - Cherry-Garrard, Apsley

Friday, 26 May 2017

From Russia with Love!

It's hard to describe how strange it is to leave the snow capped Himalaya one evening, sit in a plane for a few hours and then find yourself swimming in azure blue water on a white sandy beach surrounded by dense jungle with Hong Kong's skyline as a backdrop. It seemed a really long time since we said goodbye to the Indian Ocean as it lapped the shores of Kanyakumari with our bikes laden on the first day of our cycle, it was good to see the sea again!

We arrived in Hong Kong bleary eyed, sleep deprived and very dazed and confused! Amazingly, we managed to not only find our little ferry to take us to Lamma Island, where we would be staying, but also managed to drop our passports off on route at the Mongolian Consulate for yet another visa. Lamma is one of Hong Kong's outlying Islands, a sparsely populated (for Hong Kong!) tropical island with a few villages and beaches.

Of Hong King we expected the towering sky scrapers, polished windows, neon lights and global brands but were really surprised to find bustly street stalls and jam packed food markets nestling in the steep alleyways between their ranks. Little wooden junks bobbed in shabby docks next to multi-million pound yachts. Bare chested fishing wholesalers in wellies pulled huge tubs of wriggling fish from their trawler's holds as yummy mummies passed by in their yoga gear with silly designer dogs tucked under their arms. When you've not slept for 36 hours it all seemed pretty ridiculous!

Exhaustion overwhelming us and having missed one ferry, we both dozed on Aberdeen's dockside waiting for our lift to eventually arrive. Things continued on their slightly surreal path when we arrived on Lamma Island and the skies opened and tropical rain fell as we scrurried to our AirBnB. There we met our host who, unbeknown to us, was the local island nudist (fortunately he had all his kit on for our first meeting!). We shared his tiny little cottage and quickly managed to inadvertently break every house rule... he was a very particular fellow! Living by the beach, you would expect the odd grain of sand to infiltrate his sanctuary but we wouldn't have been surprised to see him picking up each stray grain with tweezers after we left! He was a nice chap though and thankfully the only bare bottom shot we got was on his computer desktop (nude selfie walking in to the sea... not a hair on that man's bottom!) He also kindly told us about the island's beautiful places of which there were many!

We spent a wonderful afternoon getting horribly sunburnt on one of the secret beaches he recommended. We still have excellent tan lines to prove we kept our kit on if evidence is ever required! In between the beautiful white sandy beaches were collections of tatty tumble down cottages where little old ladies clung on to their traditional way of life. The Island has a few bigger settlements too, where we found some delicious and unbelievably fresh sea food (splashing about in tanks next to the table!).

On a couple of days we ventured to the city proper and spent our time hunting the tastiest Dim Sum Hong Kong has to offer, visiting the city parks and Aviary (thanks Becky!) and gazing at the night-time city skyline from the famous Star Ferry like proper tourists! 

After a few days and with Mongolian visa safely stuck in our passports, we boarded our first long distance overnight train to Beijing.

We jumped on the train like two little excited children with bags full of food and tickets in hand. Each carriage has a hot water dispenser ready to make up as many teas, noodles and porridges as you can stomach, so we were well prepared! We were a little apprehensive about our potential compartment companions but needn't have worried as we had a six berth all to ourselves! Train travel is most definitely the way to go as far as we're concerned. We could not have been happier to say goodbye to Nepalese buses and hope it's a long time before our next flight. 

It took 24 hours for half of China to roll by and then, at last, Beijing's 7th ring road (they're already planning three more to make it a round ten!) and 22 million people welcomed us to China's capital. A few hours after arriving we were sitting cross legged on the 11th floor of an apartment block with mum, Tina, and 12 year old Tommy (they didn't even bother trying to get us to pronounce their Chinese names!) enjoying a traditional tea ceremony. Tommy did a great job of translating for us and after dumplings for dinner we went to bed feeling very safe at our first and only Chinese couchsurf.

The next day we moved to our Beijing base, a room in a flat in the middle of a Hutong district. The Hutong are Beijing's ancient living quarters which are either being gentrified with minimalist coffee shops playing stark ambient music, uber cool 'lifestyle' boutiques filled with bespectacled 'Hutong Hipsters' and restaurant come art gallerys or being quietly demolished (literally in the dead of night) to make way for the next tower block or shopping mall. We heard crazy stories of secret brick laying assassins who would walk the streets at night bricking up old crumbly restaurant doorways or family businesses which didn't fit the Beijing bill! Even with all this, we couldn't help but love sitting on street corners drinking coffee next to painfully stylish young Beijingites (our tatty wardrobe seemed fairly inadequate!).

We can't really talk anymore about Beijing without mentioning the food. My mouth waters as we write this! Beijing is home to Peking Duck and damn it tastes good, 7 months of being a vegetarian forgotten in an instant! Our main aim each day was to find the smallest little restaurants serving the best noodles, dumplings, dim dum or hot pot Bejing had to offer. The 'numb and hot' Sechewan pepper is something your digestive tract will never forgive you for! Part chilli, part pepper, part local anaesthetic, we had to keep touching our lips to make sure we weren't having some sort of anaphylactic reaction (Sergio, this is surely a match even for your bowels!)!
We decided to hone our Chinese cooking skills and spent a happy afternoon in a Hutong Courtyard Cooking School, chopping ingredients with a razor sharp meat cleaver and making tasty if not aesthetically pleasing dim sum! We could wax lyrical about the food but instead we'll try and cook some when we get home...the Mongolian stews to come certainly lacked the same flavour combinations.

We wished we had our trusty bikes in Beijing. There seemed to be more bike lanes than car lanes and the entire city is completely flat. Everyone cycling on Beijing's, probably better version, of the Boris Bike or if not that, on little electric scooters. In fact, everything seemed to be electrified from the bicycles and mopeds to cars and buses. Instead of bikes, we plodded between the major sites on foot, making sure we knew exactly where the next Tripadvisor recommended eatery was!
In the end, the places we liked the most were the amazing green spaces where the people watching kept us entertained for hours. Beijjngers certainly get up to some pretty peculiar things, well, they seemed pretty peculiar to our untrained eyes. We seemed to be the only ones staring as people walked purposefully backwardsnaround the parks clapping a meditative rhythm while others rehearsed opera singing or strummed traditional Chinese musical instruments. Dancing is a big deal and huge crowds would gather around a boom box as the sun set and practice a Chinese version of a cowboy line dance while couples waltzed nearby. Then there were the elderly designated work out zones where the strictly over 80s would be doing standing pressups against static machines in gardening gloves. 

These all seemed relatively normal but then you'd stumbled across four overweight middle aged men in tights slapping each other on the chest and doing hand stands on a breeze block next to a tree screaming encouragement at each other while a nearby Zen master swordsman performed the most beautiful Tai chi with a lethally sharp sword. Just around the corner would be a  small elderly fellow holding a paintbrush the size of a broom practicing elaborate Chinese calligraphy in water on the pavement like Penny Paintbrush next to equally elderly and elegant ladies practicing synchronised dancing with fans (Fan Chi!?). The parks were just made for these weird activities with magical secret spots all over the place where dappled sunlight shone on lush green foliage overhanging artfully placed rocks and decorative bridges. Nothing seemed unusual by the time we left.

One day we pottered off to the '798 Art District' of Beijing which some trendy artists transformed from a forgotten industrial zone into a painfully fashionable theme parkesq area for modern art and sculpture. It was hard not to fall for it completely with its amazing coffee shops and weird art installations in renovated factories. Once again, our shabby wardrobe really let us down!

Another 'must see' we couldn't miss was a trip to the Great Wall of China. We headed off on a DIY tour for a three hour local bus trip to Gubeiku to visit a section of the 'Wild Wall' which sadly lacked the cable cars and taboggan rides other sections offer! It was nice to escape the city and have a tiny glimpse of slightly more rural China as we watched the world go by from the bumpy bus. Before long, completely flat, densely populated Beijjng disappareared and we were lost in scrubby rugged hills with the wall snaking off into the horizon, crumbling towers breaking up its never ending length. We scrambled up dusty slopes onto the 'coiled dragons back' and sat in a tumbled down tower drinking cheap instant nescaffe from our Thermos, which has an uncanny nack of tasting like an old ash tray, watching huge dark clouds roll across the sky. It was a pretty atmospheric spot and easy to imagine Chinese warriors on patrol up and down its length.

We had only really planned to stay in Beijing long enough to sort out our Belarusian visa, the last piece of the puzzle, but as we made a mad dash to pick it up on the morning of our departure, we felt a real fondness for the place. From its incredible food, to the entertainment in the parks and of course the Hutong Hipsters! We luckily found ourselves staying with some young, friendly expat's who seemed to be making the most of what the city has to offer and it was great to be part of it for a few days. Having said that, we were very excited to be getting on the next train which would take us to the wilds of Mongolia. 
Arriving at Beijing Station, laden with heavy backpacks and shopping bags full of the customary noodles and instant coffee, we immediately came across our first obstacle... How to actually get into the building! We eventually navigated security and found our waiting room and sat, expectantly waiting for the train to arrive and our Trans-Mongolian adventure to begin! 

A little more prepared this time, we soon made our home in our compartment and settled down to watch China fly by. Slowly the sun went down over the increasingly desolate landscape of Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China) but if we thought we were going to get a good nights sleep, we were very mistaken.

Who knew that Chinese and Mongolian railways had different gauge track? So at 2am we found our carriage floating 10ft in the air on huge hydrologic jacks as the rolling stock for every carriage was changed, a worrying position when you're desperate for a pee. Add to this several hours at each boarder waiting for the scary immigration officers to bring back your passport and you have an interesting but very bad nights sleep.
This what the Chinese Authorities think of tourists!
All was forgotten the next morning as we lay in our bunks, huddled under blankets with hot coffee, watching a red sun rise over the Gobi desert falling in love again with train travel. 

After hours of trundling through the endless plains of the Mongolian Steppe, flat grasslands punctuated by electricity pylons, bleached animal bones and the occasional herd of goats, we eventually made it to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia's capital. 

Craving space and an escape to somewhere remote we had found out about a small provincial town called Tsetserleg, 8 hours south west of UB, which was apparently the unlikely location of Fairfield, Mongolia's best guesthouse, cafe and bakery! Murray Benn, the guesthouse's Australian owner, had already gone out of his way to help us before we had even set foot in Mongolia and as we were too late for the bus, a car was waiting at the station to take us the 8hours to Fairfield. 

Mongolia is one of those evocative sounding places that for some reason everyone wants to visit based on nothing more than a few photos of fur clad horse herders galloping over green rolling landscapes. It has a population of 3 million, 1.7 of these live in UB, leaving the remaining 1.3 million scattered sparsly over a country the size of most of western Europe. Beyond this and Rosie's description of her adventures on horseback there a few years ago, we had no idea what to expect. 
The UB traffic (not a patch on Kathmandu!) quickly faded away and we were left on empty roads, perfectly straight, stretching to the distant horizon. The empty blue sky was so big it made you feel claustrophobic and you could practically see the curvature of the earth. Not a single tree complicated the view although occasional rocky outcrops, huge scavenging eagles and lonely white gers (traditional nomadic yurts) passed by. 

It was utterly desolate but completely beautiful. Wind whipped across the open expanse, stirring up dust devils that crossed our path. Jeeps raced cross country, leaving dust trails highlighted by the evening sun in their wake and shepherds herded unruely flocks on their rickety motorbikes. It felt like you were turning the pages of a Mongolian coffee table picture book as the sun slowly set painting the clouds blood red. Sure enough, the sillhoute of a traditionally dressed horseman crested a nearby ridge to complete the scene. 
We arrived at Fairfield Guest House completely broken after 36 hours of continuous travel and happily flopped into the comfy, clean beds after a hot shower and fell fast asleep  ready to meet the famous Murray Benn the next morning to plan our mini Mongolian adventure.

After a glorious sleep, we sat eating freshly baked bagels and drinking coffee with Murray while chatting about travels and finding out about how an Australian family of six settled down in a small Mongolian town in such a far flung place. His soft Sydney accent, great knowledge of the local area, obvious love of Mongolia and desire for us to go off and explore was infectious.

To the north of the town was a large National Park where the herders were limited to just grazing their animals. This meant that wild flowers and trees covered the valleys and hillsides, it couldn't have been more different to the vast open treeless plains. Numerous valleys, each fed by fresh water springs, wove down from rocky ridges. With a dodgy GPS track and a compass we set off for five days wild camping in the park, buoyed by Murray's confidence that if we were ever lost, all we had to do was walk south west to find civilisation!

We raided the local supermarket for dried goods, (no noodle soup will ever be the same without dried mushrooms and seaweed) and with bags packed with pasta, porridge and tiny bottles of Mongolian Vodka, we headed off into the hills. We had no map and no paths to follow. It felt a bit strange having nothing to plod on and no real destination. Apparently that's what life is like in the 'back country!' We tried to imagine what Ray Mears would do when he heads off into the wild to rehone his skills and commune with nature... It sort of helped! 

We happily spent our days trying to find fresh water and searching out the next ridge or summit to gaze at the utterley amazing views of the never ending Mongolain steppe and snowy mountains which framed the horizon. We'd no idea that we were so high and were really surprised, at our highest point, to look at our altimeter and see that we were over 2400m. That might explain why it regularly drops to below minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter and is sub zero from November to March each year! 
We were lucky to be there in a warm spell, although blizzards in June are common place, and signs of spring were showing everywhere. The forests were a mixture of larch, cedar and birch. The air was so clean that the birch bark was pure sparkling silver and fresh green buds were growing in front of your eyes. The rolling hillsides were also changing day by day and the lush green pastures Mongolia is famed for were starting to appear like a perfect watercolour. As you walked, it was impossible not to squash beautiful yellow, pink and white flowers which carpeted the floor as well as perfect purple and yellow orchids (We didn't squash them Ali!).

As each day wore on, would try and find the next ideal campsite with unobstructed views of the sunset, a little piece of flat ground for our tent and shelter from the wind which seemed to change direction very five minutes.

We spent one afternoon getting completely lost, stumbling through thick, mostly frozen undergrowth in a beautiful circle before actually taking an interest in our compass bearings! Hours before, we had set off from our sunny lunch spot to find a ridge separated from us by a densely forrested valley in which we proceeded to get completely lost. As the evening wore on, we decided to try and head back to where we thought we'd had lunch only to stumble across the very place we'd set out for! We both tried not to think what Roger Moore would've said about the whole debacle! It was a great camp spot though.

We were more successful the next day and managed to summit the highest peak for miles around after constantly checking our compass bearings (and occasionally naughtily triangulated the data with our GPS!). After some great scrambling we had an incredible 360 degree view of this completely stunning place where we'd not seen another soul for five days. 

On our last night, after the final rays of sun had disappeared from a cloudless sunset and just a hint of orange glowed behind the silhouette of snow capped mountains in the distance, we heard the unmistakable howls from a pack of wolves. 

Snuggling closer to the little fire we'd made in a big bowl hewn out of a huge rock which looked more like a dinosaurs nest, we tried to convince ourselves that it was just a few stray dogs out for an evening stroll! 

Thankfully, we woke the next morning without being nibbled in the night and wandered back to Tserterleg (Kat full of snot and cold... very brave little soldier!). We kept asking ourselves why we hadn't decided to stay longer. Mongolia seemed to have so much more to offer, from weeks trekking on horse back to fly fishing for gigantic fresh water salmon. It's definitely a place to come back to, maybe in a 2CV! Our return to Fairfield Guest House was very welcome and Murray was once again a superb host. As we read on one blog, if you ever happen to be in the area, Fairfield is the place to go!
We made it back to UB after an 8 hour journey in a brightly decorated, well cared for bus. Who knew a diamonte steering wheel and gear stick could look so good! When you take away the precipitous drops, terrible roads and crazy drivers, bus journeys aren't all so bad... having said that, we were very happy to board our train the following day to Irkutsk. 

We now felt like seasoned train travellers and settled into another 24 hour journey. Train travel is a little different here, as well as the usual activities of staring out of the window, listening to music, reading and stretching your legs at infrequent stops, you can also see the carriage attendant stoking the coal fired samovar and chopping huge chucks of mutton with a meat cleaver in their little living quarters (double take definitely required!). With only 5 hours left of a day long train journey, you become strangely aggitated that there isn't enough time to do all those little things you had planned, whereas a five hour journey from Truro to London seems unimaginably long. Even so, we were a little nervous of cabin fever, so decided to have one stop in Irkutsk, Siberia, to break up the 5000km journey to Moscow. 

After crossing the Russian boarder in the early hours and surrounded by silver grey skies and the occassional flutter of snow, we skirted Lake Baikal. It is the world's biggest freshwater lake, over 1000m deep, holds a 5th of the world's unfrozen freshwater and it is on the verge of becoming the world's next sea (if you're able to visit again in a few million years!). It looked very pretty as we glided past on its banks.
Irkutsk was apparently once described as the 'Paris of Siberia' and after a day of wondering its grand but faded streets of beautiful but slowly collapsing wooden buildings, we were happy to have stopped for a little visit. The covered food market was worth the visit alone! Each little stall offered cheese, sausages or pickled goods, all sold by warm wrinkly Russian old ladies who looked like they'd survived a Siberian winter or two, enough to satisfy even the most voracious Polish tastebuds and we happily stocked up on supplies for the journey ahead. We were staying in a 'proper hostel' and felt sadly a little out of place with the 18 year olds on their gap years playing drinking games!

We escaped and found what has to be the best bar in the whole of Siberia. Old dusty books filled each window sill next to yellowing lamp shades squeezed alongside a cosy wooden bar, black and white Russian films playing in the background. Each oil cloth covered table was surrounded by old men drinking from bottles of vodka, constantly pottering back and forth for cigarettes outside, while groups of friends drank beer and nibbled on yet more meat and pickle based goodies. It felt like you'd just popped in to an old friends front room! After Beijing's futuristic style and Hutong Hipsters, we felt a little more at home with Irkutsk's 90ies based fashion trends...where shell suits, dodgy hair cuts, double denim and roller blading are the norm.

We boarded the next train, this time aware that we were in it for the long haul, 80 hours across Siberia to Moscow. We had slightly wussed out and gone for the 4 berth hard sleeper instead of the 60 berth open carriage that is apparently often full of drunk Russian soldiers returning to civilization after months in the frozen wastelands of Siberia.

Our two travelling companions, who we were to share a space 8 by 6ft wide with, had certainly created a fruity aroma to welcome us! The younger of the two wasted no time in ascertaing our relationship status as he pointed at me and then in Kat's direction as she left the compartment and rhythmically gyrated his hips smiling a gummy smile! Our other companion refused to make any eye contact for the entirety of the journey despite offers of chocolate and the fact that he happily invaded our bottom bunk bed space to eat his pungent meals... an obvious complete disregard of compartment etiquette! 
Our window view offered endless silver birch and pine forests, occasionally broken by small villages made up of mismatched little wooden houses with high pitched roofs and lovingly tended gardens. At any stops longer than 10 minutes, we hopped onto the platform to buy goodies from the waiting ladies, shopping trollies laden with biscuits, noodles, random fruit and veg and more pickled items, and then dare each other to run as far away from the train as possible hoping we'd read the timetable correctly! 

There wasn't much idle chatter in our carriage and it aas always a bit of a trial negotiating the angry looking, wrinkled old ladies guarding the corridor to the loo, fierce doesn't do them justice! Bed time was the best though, when you succumb to the drowsiness and let the swaying of the train rock you into a dreamless slumber knowing that tomorrow the pattern will simply repeat. The train runs for the entire journey on Moscow time and crosses 7 times zones from Vladivostok to Moscow. All sense of time is completely lost (we still can't get our head round the time zone thing!) and with the long daylight hours, everything naturally resorts to revolving around your tummy clock which is superbly accurate!

We rolled towards Moscow under clear skies, food stocks suitably depleted ready for a good wash and keen to have a little explore before our train exploration continues on to see family in Poland and a date with Matt and Lou in the Julian Alps in Slovenia.

Loads of love

Ed and Kat xxxxx

P.s A shout out for Jen, Tom and Lizzy... Thank you so much for saving our house from the Great flood of 2017!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Plan B

With tummies full of millet flour pancakes (they look a bit like chocolate if your blurr your eyes!) doused in bittersweet Himalayan honey, we said our very fond farewells to Chandrika and left Gola behind. Officially no more 'work' until home beckons, just a lot of walking to get back to Kathmandu!

We'd met some friendly Nepalese Army sergeants a week before who also patrolled the Makalu National Park. They warned us that the three passes we had to cross to reach Makalu Base camp were buried under 12ft of snow and two climbing expeditions, who planned to attempt a summit push in May with climbing Sherpas a plenty, were held up waiting for the snows to melt. Although we were equipped with two snow adapters for our walking poles, we weren't very hopeful of our passage, as we retraced our steps back down the valley! We had two long days to reach Seduwa where we'd arranged to meet our guide. 

With very garbled Nepali instructions, the sort where you nod and continually say yes but leave, looking at one another asking 'did you get any of that?!', we struck out on the first of many infamous 'short cuts' to Seduwa. A little lost at times, we found ourselves on tiny paths weaving through dense jungle. After the recent rains, everything was bursting with life. The humidity, noises, smells and vibrant colours pressed in from all sides. Everything seemed to be on an unbelievable scale, boulders the size of houses were enveloped by trees with leaves the size of dinner plates, gigantic roots wrapping around them and seed pods as big as your arm scattering the ground. Waterfalls straight out of shampoo adverts cascaded down polished rock for hundreds of metres, as vibrantly coloured flowers and butterflies bigger than your hand framed perfect jungle scenes. It was all pretty intoxicating but the thought of getting lost in a place like this definately added another bead of sweat to an already dripping brow! Maybe a guide wouldn't be a bad idea!

After six months of independent travel, we were a little apprehensive about meeting our guide Karna. We hoped we'd get along well, he'd understand our slightly peculiar ways and find the little forgotten places we wanted to visit. 

We finally reached a river crossing and bade farewell to the jungle for now, spanning the glacial river was a lovely new metal bridge, always a welcome site next to an ancient wooden rotting crossing! We reached Seduwa and found Karna as the sun set on a perfectly clear day, unbeknown to us, the last for a while

By now, the valley rumour mill was in full swing. Every passing person gave a different description of the amount of snow on the pass to Makalu. It went from knee deep, to 12ft to the height of a Yeti! After a chat with Karna, we decided to go as far as we could along the base camp trail but have a plan B ready for deployment in case things got a bit hairy. That night a thunderstorm battered the corrugated iron roof in the early hours. Nonetheless, in the morning we three set off to Tashigoan, the last real village before the long walk in to Makalu, and then the next day to a tea house just below the snowy pass at Kongma Danda. 

The days were rainy and cold and snow was still falling high up. After much debate, sat around a smokey fire in a stone shack perched above 3000m in a cloud, we decided to implement Plan B and leave base camp for the professionals. 

The decision was sealed when Julien, a French photographer burst into the hut, soaked to the skin, declaring that he'd spend two 'f#☆king terrible sleepless nights on the mountain, imagining every possible way to die in an avalanche' as the snow piled high around the lodge... it wasn't very tempting. 

The next morning we woke to a perfect sunrise over the Kanchenjunga Range and thought we'd made a huge mistake. Ten minutes later the thick wet cloud had returned and we gratefully headed back down the path listening to two local shepherds communicating the whereabouts of their yaks using haunting whistles in the mist. 

Our 'Plan B' involved following a section of the Great Himalayan Trail along the Arun Valley and beyond to join the original Everest approach from Jiri. Not a high mountain route but well off the beaten track and a good challenge with 3 passes over 3000m and many hideously steep ups and downs. 

The first of these took us on a 'natural route' as Karna called it, not so much a path, as a yak trail through bamboo forests, which even they seemed to struggle to follow! Luckily we had Lakpha and his dog with us, a local Sherpa who had agreed to act as an additional guide, to get us to his wife's village so we could join the main trail. As he guided us like an elf in trainers, we felt like clumsy bumbling oafs, tumbling and sliding all over the place on the slippery wet stones and muddy clay. 
That night we stayed in Narbagaon, a village lost in time. Ox ploughed the terraces, while women drilled holes in the mud for planting with bamboo, thatched houses huddled in the hills as the rain fell and after dahl bhat, in front of a smokey fire, we spent the first of many nights sleeping on a wobbly wooden veranda under hundreds of drying maize and creepy crawlies. Karna had obviously judged us perfectly bringing us here!
Early the next day we took another 'short cut', a hideously steep, slippery path down to the Ishuwa Khola (khola means river/stream). We all took a tumble or two but remarkably remained unhurt as the path twisted down, impossibly clinging to the mountain side, traversing landslides and descending cliff faces. Our overladen bags acted like pendulums, but somehow we reached the river and looking back couldn't believe that the vertical gorge infront of us somehow had a path down it... we're still not sure it was actually a path!

Someone who had had absolutely no problem with the descent was Lakpha's dog. Despite being restrained as we said our goodbyes that morning, she had sniffed us out, not particularly challenging given the state of Ed's shirt, and followed us with noobvious sign of turning back. We decided to call her Roksie after the local millet spirit, it seemed to match her slightly cheeky nature and she was to become the fourth member of our group for the next 15 days and a little celebrity along the route in every village we stayed. Roksi, the spirit, is a local delicacy and drunk by all, everyone is a connisseur, and people found it hilarious we'd called our dog after it!

As we wondered through the tiny remote villages, one of our daily challenges was to find food and shelter. Karna never failed to locate a friendly Ama (mother) to cook us food, lend us her three stone fire or, at the end of the day, a dusty veranda to sleep on. 

It became a regular event for Karna to roll up his sleves and prepare the most delicious food after scrounging local organic veggies, rice, spices and pickles. Fortunately for us, he was an incredible cook and we had some of the tastiest food in Nepal under his watch. People, busy going about their daily life, thought nothing of giving us completely free reign in their kitchens, something very hard to imagine happening back in St. Agnes! 

One afternoon we arrived ravenous, eagerly looking for food, and came across an idyllic farmstead on a sunny spot above the Arun River. Lush green maize surrounded the farm as people pottered about milking buffalos, weaving bamboo mats and spreading fresh cow dung on the living room floor (makes a lovely soft terracotta finish!). With all this going on, there was no one to cook us our lunch but they happily showed us to their outside kitchen nestled between the toilet and pig sty and we set to work. We were a bit of a novelty and everyone kept looking up from their chores to watch our progress. 
The food was award winning, the setting outstanding but unfortunately eyes were bigger than tummies and hours of intense nausea followed as we trudged on in almost 100% humidy through gruelling terrain. Heavy bags with constricting waist straps should not be worn after a feast like that!
We would often make our beds on people's verandas, laying out our thermarests and sleeping bags on top of the woven mats that seem to be all locals need. We would drift off to the sounds of the village going to sleep, people chatting, the rain on tin roofs, hens settling in their roosts and then wake to the dawn breaking and the village coming to life with the crowing of cockrels, clatter of plates and the smell of morning fires. One morning we happily watched the looks on people's faces as they walked down the main path in the village to see us sipping black pepper tea in our sleeping bags perched on one such veranda. Needless to say, we slept awfully most nights but the experience was worth it! We came to cherish the magical hour between 5 and 6, a peaceful time, when the light slowly returns and life in the village begins. 

As we dropped into the valley, the temperatures rose and we finally got the sunny days we'd been hoping for. The sun warmed the wet earth and you could feel the humidity rising as we walked by. Nepali people know a thing or two about water and irrigation and they do it beautifully. Walking through dense jungle you would find a stream diverted into a huge piece of split bamboo, cascading onto the path, a perfect shower to douse a pink sweaty face.

Some villages and collections of houses we passed seemed to be utterly lost in time. They appeared completely untouched by the modern world and the desolate, stone age landscape to added to the atmosphere.

As Karna put it, 'karma' dictated that we were able to visit one of his old college friends in a village called Chaukidanda that happened to be just off our chosen route. Karna had not seen his college pal, Birendra, headteacher of the village secondary school, for over 6 years and we all celebrated the reunion with cold Tuborg beers as the clouds exploded into the most monstrous electrical storm either of us have ever experienced. We were glad we had a slightly more substantial roof over our head that night although at times it felt like it was going to take off! The lightening flashes and thunder were something else. The sky was illuminated every few seconds as sheet and fork lightening sliced through the sky, torrential rain hammering the ground. All became eerily calm as the eye passed over us before moments later what felt like hurricane force winds pulled on every nail and joint holding the roof in place! Not ideal trekking weather!

Although few and far between, the people we met plodding along The Great Himalyan Trail that followed our route were certainly peculiar types! No doubt that's what Dave from Oregan and Dario from Switzerland thought of us too! Dave was obsessed with the destruction of ancient Himalayan trails with poorly planned and badly executed road construction. He was planning a one man crusade to raise awareness of the impact this is having on local communities and tourism throughout the country. Unfortunately, his group of four other friends, who started out with him had all slowly dropped away leaving him to fight his mission solo! We did see the impact of these new roads which are obviously vital to the remote communities they hope to reach. The big worry is that by destroying so many ancient trails, tourism, a huge life blood to Nepal, could also be destroyed. Who knows the answer?

As it was, we continued our trek along beautiful rivers, fields of buckwheat, barley, maize, rice, potatoes and saag. Children played in the crystal clear rivers and for the first time this whole trip we joined them for a swim. The crap infested rivers of India were just never that tempting!

We left the river and climbed up to the first of the three high passes we would be crossing. Along the way we were caught in another ridiculous storm, made more wild and violent by the setting. After winds whipped around our lodge, huge hailstones batter the corrugated tin roof and lightenening lit up the mountain skyline like something out of Lord of the Rings. Higher up, the houses took on a feel of something out of the wild west, huge eagles circling over head as the clouds rose up obscuring the lush, warm valley below.
Attempts to find our friend Roksi a new home continued to fail, and she happily bounded on at our heel, scrounging food as she went and charming all passers by. (As well as getting into a few fights with frisky mongrels along the way!) 

Karna, ever tolerant of our strange whims, agreed to get up at 4am the next morning so we could trudge up to the pass for sunrise. We chased the weather and were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise, cloud inversion and Silicho Peak presiding over our view. We cooked up a familiar breakfast of instant noodles next to Salpa Pokhari, a sacred lake to both Buddhists and Hindus, who regularly trek there on a pilgrimage to ask the spirit of the lake to grant them their wishes. 

The descent from the pass followed a clear mountain stream surrounded by tall ancient pines. We walked through arches of sweet smelling blossom from paper plants, carpets of primulas and little strawberry flowers. The world felt like it was just waking up, like Narnia after the snow had gone. We arrived in a small Sherpa village called Sonam as the clouds dropped and shrouded the Stupas in mist. A kind soul cooked us lunch in a dark cosy wood lined kitchen with a roaring fire in a clay oven. Our luck held again and another vast thunderstorm broke as we rushed into Gudel at the end of the day to the safety of a warm lodge.
We were now getting into the rhythmn of life on the trail. Every up was followed by a steep descent as each river crossing and valley bottom was followed by a pass of over 3000m... oh for a flat path! We went to bed that night gazing across the valley at Kiraule, it seemed so close but we knew another 1000m decent and climb stood in the way... a nice little zip wire across would be much easier! It's hard to complain though when the days goal is simply to keep on plodding. 

Each passing village and valley differed so much. It doesn't seem to just be the altitude. The houses, communities, crops, flowers, people's dress, jewellery and religion has such a huge impact on the environment and the feel of the place. 

As we left the tropical valley bottom we climbed towards Kiraule. Before long we found ourselves in what could only be described as a Buddhist Yorkshire Moor with yak replacing sheep and Gompas replacing stone churches (and the Great Stone of Fourstones!) with a few more prayer flags scattered about than the last time I was in Benny Bentham! It was windswept, barren and remote but equally beautiful.

We settled in for the evening next to an ancient 500 year old crumbly colourful Gompa. It sat on the brow of the hill looking down across the barren 'moor'. Around its perimeter was a huge circular mane wall (a wall made up of hundreds of stones inscribed with Tibetan Mantra), each stone was hand carved and covered in moss and greying lichen as old as the monastery. Huge ancient trees encircled the tiny clearing, protecting the Gompa and creating a stillness around it in the vast expanse of the valley. 

We happened to be there on the day that Monastery's seven Lamas met for their monthly Puja. After being invited to share a salt yak butter tea, we then settled into a corner of the cosy candle lit prayer room to watch the puja. The rhythmical clashes of symbols, banging of drums and low guttural chanting of ageless Tibetan prayers was mesmerising.We felt incredibly lucky to have stumbled across this magical place on exactly the right day and to be the only other souls there. At the evening interval, the head Lama offered us more tea and we talked about our time in Nepal with our best Nepalese. He said we must have had good karma in our previous lives to end up in this place, together and at this time. Although we're not coming back as devout Buddhists, his sincerity, kind face and belief certainly made you want to belive what he was saying. It was a very special moment. 
The next day, after another stunning sunrise and far too many photos, we set off on our way again.
 The path felt as old as the hills and we walked alongside ancient Stupas being slowly reclaimed by nature and passed great long mane walls surrounded by the most amazing display of rhodedendrons we've seen in Nepal. We sat in a sunlit clearing on warm grass gazing at snowy mountains framed by flowers of every colour. It was hard to imagine anywhere more beautiful. 

Sherpa people are well known for their relationship with the mountains and mountaineering. In a country where caste is still so incredibly important, the success of the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who with Edmund Hillary, was in the first team to summit Everest, has left a lasting impact on this ethnic group. Uniquely, we've read that his success seems to have elevated their position in society. Their continued successes in the tourist industry and in summitting peaks (or getting tourists much less skilled than themselves to the top of peaks) has continued his legacy. We saw a pretty inspiring example of this when we stayed in a very well cared for lodge on our penultimate night of the trek. Photos of a very handsome man dressed in full climbing regalia hung all over the walls. His wife and small son proudly told us that he, Dawa Lama Sherpa, was currently at Everest Base camp about to summit for the 7th time!
The next day our bubble burst and we descended to the main Everest Base Camp trail from Jiri. In five minutes we saw more trekkers than we'd seen in the last 5 weeks! Hundreds of mules passed by carrying pasta and Kit-Kats to meet the needs of the thousands of tourists that arrive in Lukla everyday. Only now did our faithful friend Roksi decide to leave us, it was as if she new it was time for us to part ways and sadly for us that meant getting in another jeep and heading back to Dustmandu. As a little treat on the way home, we got possibly the best panorama of the Everest Range money can buy as the sun rose on another beautiful day.
Everest... big smokey one in the middle!
After more admin than you can dream of, arranging Chinese and Russian visas in Kathmandu for the next part of our trip, we are now relaxing in Pokhara, trying to imagine the Annapurna Range (currently behind thick cloud!) wondering where the last four months went! We did manage to squeeze in one last trek to see one last sunrise over Dhaulagiri and Annapurna from Poon Hill which didn't disappoint!
Now Hong Kong awaits before a long train ride home via Beijing, Mongolia, Siberia, Moscow, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia... well that's the plan anyway! 

We're not quite sure if leaving Nepal means the end of the blog but if we have some stories to share and feel inspired to write we'll let you know!

Loads of love

Ed and Kat xxxx