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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Everest Highway.

Trekking to Everest on a budget during the monsoon necessitates a map, a rucksack full of Mars Bars and a sense of humour. We started with all three and took a bus from Kathmandu as far as the road travelled, to the damp little village of Jiri - traditional entry point into Sagarmatha National Park for the Mallorys, Hillarys and Wilsons of this world. As the bus departed I observed the absence of both people and our compass (last seen attached to us), and felt a sense of abandonment. 

The next morning we ventured into a valley green with juniper, pine and birch, scented by newly wet earth. The hopeful aquamarine sky spurred us on, but it wasn’t long before we accepted that our map was cheap and inaccurate - more like a rough guess at the terrain, based on hearsay. A tinny and excitable female voice approached from round a bend, and we soon met our first Sherpa who turned down his portable radio, took a stick from somewhere about his cumbersome burden of whisky, and fashioned a seat of sorts.

The question “Everest?” accompanied by a stage shrug and some random pointing was answered with a knowing nod and a toothy beam, as he indicated we follow him up what he proudly named “Everest highway”. Our hiking boots followed his worn flip flops for twenty minutes up a narrow waterfall – our 20kg rucksacks feeling lighter in view of his 80kg. At the summit we shared some cashews and waved goodbye. As bottled water is expensive in these parts and is responsible for a lot of waste, we took the opportunity to fill our as yet uncrinkled water bottles with stream water, adding a delicate drop of tangy iodine, to taste.

The next seventeen days saw us face leeches, yaks and landslides, and although we had only one waterproof and one woolly hat between us, we had thoroughly prepared our calorific intake and so had porridge to spare. This was duly exchanged for some much craved “Dhal Bhatt power, twenty-four hour”, that hot and wholesome Nepalese dish that has been providing sustenance forever. Our woefully inadequate map made our adventure a little more authentic, and though both the Mars Bars and my sense of humour gradually depleted, we reach the last bastion of warmth, Gorek Shep, with wet socks, a mouldy passport and a real sense of achievement.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Aboard the sand train.

We boarded the train at the notorious pink Jaipur, where rust coloured dust lingers in the roads. We’d caught a Bollywood film at a Rococo cinema painted in a delicate shade of pistachio that had velvet seats mottled with deep red betel juice, and later I had been outrageously groped by a teenage boy. I wasn’t inspired by the city and we didn’t dawdle. Journeys made within a country often give a deeper insight into a culture than just visiting historic sights, and I was eager for our next one.

The train started to clunk its way through the grim city outskirts, where skinny women washed colourful clothes in grey water outside dwellings made of corrugated iron and plastic. Soon enough we reached the desert and the views through the barred but open windows showed children herding goats to find scrub, the occasional hobbled camel and a salmon pink police station, outside of which were two policemen holding hands. 

At this point about fifteen soldiers in full desert army camouflage, complete with helmets with grass stuck on top decided to relocate to our carriage. My boyfriend had to shake hands with each of them – I was given shy waves and smiles. They then made themselves comfortable on everyone else’s beds and we submitted to the annoying but effective advertising of “chaichaichaichaichai” that chugged with the train. For a few rupees we procured the hot sweet spiced tea at every opportunity.

A few hours in we were hit by a sandstorm; all at once the air was an opaque yellow, everything gained a grainy texture and my teeth were coated with a fine crunchy grit. Windows were belatedly struggled shut, and scarves went over mouths and eyes. I went for the sunglasses on, sarong across the face approach. It made drinking chai very awkward. For perhaps an hour there was nothing to do but try and blot out the sand and just exist in the sweltering dark. 

Later I leant down from my upper bunk to reach some water. I stopped mid-stretch in astonishment; one sleeping soldier was perched on the bed below, with the butt of his rifle bumping about on the train floor, whilst he rested forehead first on the killing end. This journey across Rajasthan may have been a twelve hour sand-filled affair, but it was a snapshot reminder of how eccentric, frustrating and comical India can be.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Snakes and sandals.

My boyfriend seems to attract snakes, which makes trekking in sandals through Chitwain National Park very unwise. The park is reached by crossing a wide shallow river, which at cold dewy dawn and pink pearly dusk is frequented by the Nepalese one-horned rhino and the occasional Bengal tiger, quenching their thirst. 

Five hours into the jungle we approached an eight foot wall of elephant grass; our young but intuitive guide, Dinesh whispered that he’d spotted a rhino and her baby bathing in a partially concealed lake. Keen to get a glimpse Dinesh agreed to lead us through the elephant grass along the path ploughed by rhinos. Taking our shoes and socks off we gingerly tested the thick murky water, easing our feet along the slimy lake bed and sinking every so often into a rhino footprint. We reached the opening into the lake with trepidation, breath held lest we disturb the peace. All of a sudden Dinesh’s small frame quivered with excitement “pass me your camera” he exhaled. 

Dinesh made frantic gestures towards the water near my boyfriend’s bare leg, “Indian Rock Python”! Sten splashed away hastily. I glanced at Mother Rhino. She stared back. Apparently we had not expressed enough excitement at the latest discovery; “that can swallow a deer whole!” Dinesh exclaimed. It transpired we were sharing our water space with Kaa from The Jungle Books. Back on dry land, with twigs and miscellaneous jungle paraphernalia between our toes, we continued our journey along a wide path fringed with Rosewood and Rhino Apple trees whose trunks were twisted out of shape by winding creepers. 

“Stop” We froze. I glanced around in anticipation: Tiger!? A Sloth bear? Once again Dinesh was pointing down at Sten’s feet where a lime green snake perhaps eight inches long just happened to be. “That snake can kill you in ten seconds” he explained calmly, as Sten leapt out of the way. We admired the smooth graceful body from a distance before continuing our tiger quest. Post jungle drinks with another jungle guide brought forth the exclamation of “Ten seconds? More like two seconds!” but later Google research showed that this poor hyped viper has been the victim of an urban legend, perhaps one based on the occasional allergic reaction. Still, sandals in the jungle? Lesson learned (one hopes)!