Four years ago Chris Humble spent six weeks travelling around India. What started largely as escapism from a difficult time in his life turned into an extraordinary – and sometimes hilarious – pilgrimage. The very personal blog Chris wrote at the time was only sent to a handful of close friends; with the passage of time and renewal in his life Chris now feels able to share his unabridged story with a wider audience.
We set off at 8am in the morning in a minibus guided with delicate precision through the teeming streets, from the centre of Kathmandu to its outskirts. Waiting for the van to start climbing, I was disconcerted when, after an hour, it suddenly turned off the main drag and headed downhill, pulling up after a mile or two at what was obviously ‘base camp’ for the walk. I had forgotten that Kathmandu is 1360 metres above sea level before you start climbing mountains!
Several hours later we were at 2400 metres, and boy did I know it! I have never enjoyed continuous ‘up’. Give me flat or undulating and I will walk all day with no problem. ‘Up’ is monotonous hard work for me that I find not remotely enjoyable. After a mile or two of this torture we met a stream of children in school uniform running pell mell (presumably to avoid being late for lessons) down the steep uneven stony mountain path with fleetness of foot and a clear knowledge of every rock, twist and turn in their way. We wondered how far up the hill they lived and pitied them their daily return journey.
We stopped for lunch at a pathside cafe where the Australians tucked into chicken noodles with relish. I ate very little, conscious that we still had a lot more ‘up’ which I did not fancy on a full stomach. I did however have three cups of a delicious hot ginger and lemon drink, and by the third such had perfected my ‘Tokam’, the Nepalese for ‘Cheers’.
Eventually we reached the top of our climb for the day, the ‘summit’ bedecked with garden fete type flags. To put this into context, we had climbed considerably higher than we would have in an ascent of England’s largest mountain. Scafel Pike in the Lake District is 978 metres above sea level.
At the risk of belittling our achievement I will now introduce our porter Gorhak, who strapped together and carried all three of our large, four day trip, rucksacks together with his own in what I found an extraordinary feat. At one rest stop I tried to lift his burden onto my back and stopped promptly just prior to herniating.
Now it was downhill a couple of miles to our lodgings for the evening, a ‘Teahouse’ (this moniker may have been the cause for the Aussies concern about booze availablility) perched somewhat precariously on a promontory with a wonderful view of considerably higher snow capped peaks that we could only dream of ascending. On arrival we found that our Teahouse stood a matter of yards from a building that had been severely damaged in the ’15 quake and now stood twisted and leaning at a precarious angle, giving the distinct impression that it was just waiting for the right moment to complete its disintegration and fall over the cliff edge taking our hostel with it. It is surprising how, after a couple of weeks on this continent, one’s concern about such matters dissipates as such situations become the norm rather than the exception.
My memories of that night are of the temperature dropping like a stone the moment the sun went down, drinking enough to keep warm (it was bloody freezing so go figure), going to sleep in my 8 feet by 8 feet ‘room’ – which resembled a small shipping container in design, cleanliness and draught proofing – and waking to find that the latter was in fact non-existent, as the wind whistled through the gaps in the construction to the extent that I thought I’d left the door open overnight. I peered out of the window to the clouds in the valley below (yes you read that right). Rudimentary ablutions and breakfast completed, me and the Aussies set off on our second day’s hike, which, guide Suna assured us, “has not so much up”. Good job, considering it was 18 miles…..
Day 2 of trekking in Nepal
A couple of clicks down the track we came across an enormous digger pulling down trees and ‘improving the trail’. My observation was that if I’d managed to get such a beast up this high the first thing I’d use it for would be to demolish the precariously leaning building next to our Teahouse. Priorities are a funny old thing…..
The day’s trek was uneventful and somewhat boring, largely following a logging trail the like of which are ten a penny in the Kielder Forest area. However, our hotel that evening was a massive improvement on the previous night, and we enjoyed a meal in front of a roaring log fire, with yet more amazing mountain views.
Day 3 of trekking in Nepal
Day 3 of our trek was the best. We wandered for miles downhill (which helped), through lively villages and settlements until we came to the outskirts of Bhaktapur where a choice had to be made. We could either walk uphill for a couple of miles to see a temple, and then down again and catch a bus to our hotel, or get a bus from our current location with the packhorse-like Gorhak, who seemed indifferent to whether he went up or down. As I was all templed out – and also knackered – I chose the soft option and rode with Gorhak to the hotel, although this in itself was a major challenge to the integrity of my spine as the bus rattled and rolled for miles over the most rutted road it has ever been my displeasure to experience.
On arrival at the hotel I realised immediately that I had made the right choice in avoiding the uphill temple option. We were bang in the middle of Bhaktapur, extraordinary architecture all around and a rooftop bar that overlooked the bustling centre and – of equal importance – served ice cold beer and a delicious snack of peanuts mixed with chilli, onion and tomato. Refreshed, I decided to experiment. My facial hair, untended since my departure from the UK, had reached a point where I couldn’t do much with it myself. I decided to have a professional shave, and asked Gorhak if he could direct me to a local barber. Clearly this was preferable entertainment to sitting around the hotel waiting for the rest of the party to arrive, and he readily guided me to a barber yards from the hotel. The barber looked 85 if he was a day, and the only thing older than him in evidence on the premises was the rusty looking blade he wielded in his trembling grip. Fortunately he had a queue of at least six octogenarians awaiting his attention and pointed us toward premises a few streets away, where a young chap who may have been his great-grandson had an empty shop, a clean blade, and a willingness to deal with a hairy Englishman.
The shave was meticulous, no blood drawn, and was followed by a ‘Nepalese head massage’ which in England would quite easily have qualified as Common Assault. Basically the barber beat me up, pummelling my head in every way imaginable. Weirdly it didn’t hurt. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was pleasurable, but it woke me up. In the mirror I observed Gorhak, who by now had become a firm friend – yet had resisted my entreaties to go and do whatever it is a porter does after uncomplainingly carting foreign tourists’ unnecessary trappings for miles on end – chortling in the corner of the barber’s shop, clearly enjoying the free entertainment on offer. At his direct, but I suspect unnecessary, encouragement the young barber moved his attention to my shoulders, pummelling them with delight, and onto my arms – which he twisted round and round – and then my hands. When he attempted to displocate my left thumb I decided enough was enough, paid the paltry bill along with a healthy tip, and dragged the now near hysterical Gorhak into the street to give me a brief guided tour of downtown Bhaktapur.
Along with Gorhak the porter I had also developed a good relationship with Sanu our guide. She had revealed that following our trek she had no work for a few days and this set me thinking. I had two days in Kathmandu before returning to Delhi, but I felt that I had already ‘done’ the city and was eager instead to see something more of Nepal in the time available. I had heard much mention of Pokhara, a lakeside city some 150 miles from Kathmandu – a gruelling seven hours by poor roads and Dehli-matching traffic, but a 25 minute reasonably priced hop by air. Had Sanu guided people round Pokhara? She had. Would she be prepared to guide me if I paid her air fare and hotel room, along with her regular daily rate? She would. Please understand that whilst it may sound extravagant, the cost of all this is a fraction of what we would pay for similar services in the west. And of course I tipped Suna handsomely for her work.
The only snag in my plan for a 24 hour visit to Pokhara was that Nepalese internal flights resemble Southern Rail in terms of efficiency and timekeeping. Our 25 minute flight was delayed two hours. However, this did give me an unexpected opportunity to discuss world affairs with the just retired Nepalese ambassador to Russia , who was seated next to me in the departure ‘lounge’ awaiting his similarly delayed plane.
The landing at Pokhara was extraordinary. The 40 seat prop-driven plane slammed into the tarmac almost vertically, the brakes then applied with a ferocity that suggested an emergency stop. I was later told that this was on account of the runway being the third shortest in the world. No space to mess about, get it down, get it stopped. I remain rather pleased that I wasn’t privy to this information prior to booking the flight.
With our available tourism time in Pokhara now somewhat curtailed, Sanu swung into action, quickly getting us to our incredibly priced – £15 per room per night including rooftop breakfast – hotel to dump our overnight bags, then whistling up a taxi to take us round all the main sites of interest for the princely sum of ten quid. This young woman was quite an operator; the benefit of bringing your own guide was beginning to tell. In swift succession we visited a temple, an underground cave, and the Gurkha museum, where I toyed with the idea of buying an incredibly cheap khukuri – their famous knife with the inwardly curved blade – until I realised I would have to check it through various internal flights in India, and back through customs into England, and that anyway I already had a potato peeler…
That evening Suna took me to a a restaurant serving authentic Nepalese food – I always like to sample the local culinary delights – and we finished off the evening with Nepali rum on the main strip, which turned out to have quite a night life; it appears Pokhara is a bit of a party town for the Nepalese. I have never had rum served with a poppadom before but I highly recommend it. Then again, I would eat poppadoms (or papads as they are know in India and Nepal) with anything.
Back to Kathmandu and a plane to Dehli
The next day, concerned about missing my connection to Delhi from Kathmandu, we were able to switch to an earlier plane back to Kathmandu after a morning boat ride across the lake to an island containing yet another – though very interesting – temple. Given that the 12 noon flight we squeezed onto had been due to leave at 8.15am I felt we made the right decision. Internal flights in Nepal, quicker than driving, but only just…
I was now extremely early for my flight to Delhi so availed myself of the ‘executive lounge’ at a very reasonable price. As the plane rumbled down the runway and lifted from the ground the mobile phone of a passenger across the aisle from me rang – and he answered it!! ‘WHAT THE F***!!!’ I yelled at him. ‘Turn it off, NOW!!’. He hesitated. ‘Now’ I said in my most menacing low voice accompanied by a hard Paddington stare. He pressed the button and slipped it into his pocket looking justifiably terrified at being the subject of English air rage. It had been a long time since I had lost my temper, and I found the opportunity to air a bit of righteous anger quite refreshing.
They served us lunch, which I didn’t partake of, already replete from the lounge offerings, but it was a refreshing change to be in an aircraft cabin that had the delicious aroma of curry rather than rubber chicken. We passed the mountain range again (I’d had the foresight to book my seat on the opposite side of the plane from the outbound flight a week ago), and I said a prayer:
Lord God of the high mountains
Give me the wings to soar above
Give me your Spirit to lift me high
Bless and heal my heart of pain
Forgive me, restore me, love me