The 1st January 1995 saw me on a plane departing Gatwick Airport for Kathmandu (not the clothing company but the Capital of Nepal!). I had made the trip “home” to the UK for Christmas with stopovers in Canada and Rome and was intending to work as a volunteer for the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) in Ghandruk, linking up with my Nepalese friend who was Officer-in-Charge of the project, and an Australian friend who was volunteering there.
Even though I thought I had mentally prepared myself for arriving at Kathmandu airport there is nothing like the experience of what seemed like thousands of taxi, drug and money touts swarming around the exit to send you into a culture shock spin. I had been given very detailed instructions by my Australian friend about what to expect and what to do and when, so I seemed to be at a slight advantage over some other fellow arrivees. In particular I ended up ‘looking after’ a pommie called Robert, who after trying the polite British approach decided that my acquired, uncouth Australian outburst to ‘leave the #@%&$ bags alone’, was actually the most successful! We made it to our desired guesthouse without the obligatory stop at a ‘very cheap, my brother owns it’ alternative.
That night we ventured out into the streets of Thamel to sample some local cuisine and ended up with pizza! I’ve since learnt that it is almost impossible to get Nepalese food in the tourist capital of Nepal. I have however now sampled Nepalese versions of ‘lasanne’, ‘mouseaka’ and iodine soaked salad – all with their distinct Nepali spellings. In fact the Nepalese are very proud of their versions and any attempt to point out errors is met with the very pleasant and easygoing response accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders that it is ‘Nepali version’.
After pizza, Star beer and unexpected free dancing show we made our way back out into the streets. What an experience! During the meal there had been a power failure in some parts and we found ourselves strolling around what appeared to be a set from one of Shakespeare’s plays ( the Scottish one that no one speaks about!). The streets were filled with hawkers, dogs and children lit by the half light of open street fires and candles. Others huddled in small openings in walls cooking their meals and the air was thick with the incense from the multitude of Buddhist and Hindu temples. And everywhere were the offers to exchange money, sell drugs or the begging (mainly children) for ‘One Rupee?’ or ‘Hello, pen?’. Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that the best way to survive in Kathmandu was to avoid all eye contact – a bit like the London Underground I guess!
The next day it was time to move on as I had decided to get to Ghanduk as soon as possible and spend more time in Kathmandu on the way back. I bade farewell to Robert in Durbar Square and caught a rickshaw back to the Kathmandu Guest House to collect my gear. I then endured the taxi and airport procedure once more. As it happened the domestic airport was under reconstruction so I was left in the middle of a building site with no signs or clues as to where to go or what to do. As distinct from the international airport there were no tourists in sight so I decided to follow the crowd of Nepalese carrying huge boxes tied up with string. It turned out to be their luggage and I ended up in the right place.
The flight to Pokhara provided me with my first view of Mt Everest or Sagarmatha from the windows of a Royal Nepal Airlines 10 seater. Fifty minutes later I was on the ground being greeted by my Australian friend with a garland of marigolds. If Kathmandu was a flashback to “Medieval England” then Pokhara was the Miami or Surfers Paradise of Nepal. My main memories were of Bob Marley blasting out from Hotels, with highly unoriginal names like ‘Snowland’, which served beer and popcorn during the ubiquitous ‘Happy Hour’. The pace of life was drastically different from Kathmandu but was about to change once more as we made our way to Ghandruk. In ‘the good old days’ it was necessary to start the trek to Ghandruk from Pokhara and take two days. Recently a road was built which cut out a couple of mountains and valleys and cuts the journey in half. The road goes as far as a place called Nayapul, which means “new bridge”, and resembles something out of ‘Mad Max’. It seemed to me that every place in Nepal was reminiscent of a set from a movie! Nayapul in fact was nothing more than a shanty settlement on the roadside set up with the express purpose of selling food and drink to trekkers who arrived by bus or taxi to start the Annapurna circuit at all hours of the day and night. It had that very distinct frontier sort of feel about it. On the other hand Birenthanti, across the river from Nayapul and the official start of the circuit was the Swiss, Alpine village of Nepal. Located on a babbling mountain river and with its pretty window boxes, I half expected to see Julie Andrews yodelling her way along the mountain trail. Instead I saw what was to become commonplace – an endless stream of backpackers of all nationalities, yaks, and porters carrying goods to the villages.
Anyone who thinks that Nepal is a wilderness area where you’d would be lucky to bump into anyone else is greatly mistaken. It has a population approximately equivalent to Australia (19 million – UPDATE Now nearly 30 million!)) but this increases with an annual injection of about 50,000 trekkers a year, so it’s hard to be on your own for more than five minutes. Sure there are near deserted areas but the tourist treks start to look more like a conveyor belt after a while, and regardless of the number of times you read it in the ‘Lonely Planet’ it’s still a shock when you realise that trekking in the Annapurna circuit involves climbing thousands of stone steps and not mountaineering. The trick is not to look up when you get to the base of one of the endless stone staircases. Silently chanting the Buddhist mantra of Om Mani Padme Hum also worked for me!
Five hours later we reached the Gurung village of Ghandruk where I was to stay for 4 weeks. I had already learnt some basic Nepali courtesy of the villagers working in the padi fields on either side of the trail who insist on passing the time of day with you even if you can’t speak a word. Everyone wants to know where you come from and where you are going – Kahaan jaane? and, if you appear to have more than a basic command of Nepali (as in my friend’s case), what’s been going on down the trail. The main form of communication in the mountains is by word of mouth.
Ghandruk is the pilot village for ACAP and consequently gives the impression of being quite wealthy. The people were super friendly and I spent 4 weeks eating dal baht at the staff canteen and playing ‘carom board’ (an adopted game). In the end I decided I was lucky to be able to stay in one place rather than trekking as it gave me the opportunity to become part of the ACAP family …at least for a little while!