Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek, Nepalese Himalaya

The Annapurna Base Camp sits at the heart of the Annapurna Himalayan Range, at the foot of Annapurna I, the tenth highest mountain in the world and the first peak over 8000 metres to be climbed. And it was the Base Camp, at an altitude of over 4100 metres, which was our goal on our first trek in Nepal.

For the first two days of the walk we climbed in glorious sunshine through terraced fields of potatoes, mustard, corn and vegetables, past small villages of stone-built houses with blue tin roofs and then, higher, through forests of bamboo and of flowering rhododendrons.

At night we slept in small stone lodges which are found every couple of hours or so along the trails. The lodges are basic affairs, with (usually unheated) communal dining rooms, spartan twin bedrooms and outside squat toilets. In the evenings we huddled in the dining room, with blankets draped over us for warmth, and for supper ate Dal Bhat, the Nepalese national dish which consists of unlimited quantities of rice, lentils, curried vegetables and pickle. Amazingly though, while national power shortages mean electricity is switched off for 14 hours a day in Kathmandu and the other major cities, in the mountains micro-hydroelectric power stations and solar power meant almost every lodge we stayed at had 24 hour electricity.

Since the Maoists ended their insurrection and joined the Government, prices between the lodges have been standardised, ensuring consistent prices within an area, although costs still understandably rise significantly the further you get from a road, with all ingredients (as well as the beds, tables and everything else in the lodges) brought in by porters who carry seemingly impossible loads from straps across their foreheads.

Then, for two days – very unusually for this time of year – the weather was overcast and foggy with frequent and heavy storms that delivered rain at lower altitudes and snow higher up. Even in the mist however, and deprived of spectacular views of the mountains, the landscape remained beautiful, with glimpses of snow covered peaks through the cloud, and trees silhouetted against the fog.

On the second stormy day we heard from several lodge owners and trekkers that the bad weather was set to last at least a week, and, more worryingly, that the route to the Base Camp was impassable because of deep snow and a high avalanche risk, but we decided to press on anyway and see where we got to. And the following day we were rewarded with cloudless skies and our first clear views of the mountains, with the un-climbed and iconic Machhapuchare (nicknamed Fishtail because of its distinctive shaped summit) standing clear of the other peaks ahead of us.

As we progressed up the deep valley towards the Base Camp the views became increasingly dramatic, with cliffs covered in snow and ice soaring above us, while the snow got deeper and the temperature plummeted to well below freezing in the shade and even colder at night. On the sixth day of the trek we set off early from our lodge near the head of the valley hoping to make it to the Base Camp that day, although we’d passed no one in the previous two days coming the other way though who had succeeded. By now the entire landscape was white, with the snow on the trail up to our calves and drifting much deeper, and the temperature so low that there was no running water and we had to break the ice on buckets of water to fill our water bottles or flush the toilet.

Unlike seven years ago when Kieran trekked in Nepal before, most of the other trekkers we passed this time were Asian, with more South Koreans trekking in Nepal than any other nationality. The Koreans we saw tended to walk in large groups with a huge number of support staff. For three days we kept pace with a group of 19 Koreans, who were accompanied by 29 porters and chefs (they brought all their food with them) and 5 guides. This increasing number of Asian trekkers has led many of the guides we met to study Mandarin or Korean, rather than English (though they all spoke at least some English too). That day we were particularly grateful to the Koreans’ porters who helped forge a path through the snow as far as Machhapuchare Base Camp, just a couple of hours walk from Annapurna Base Camp, without whom we wouldn’t have made it.

Here though the Koreans stopped and so for the last two hours and 450 metres of ascent we followed a single set of footprints through soft powdery snow that was never less than knee-deep and in places had drifted to a depth of a metre or more. We made slow progress but didn’t mind for the views were just magical: snow-capped peaks on all sides soared above us and sparkled in the bright sunlight; bright blue glaciers ran down to the snow fields and above us huge cloudless deep blue skies.

We arrived at the Base Camp shortly after one o’clock, only the second and third people to make it in 4 days, and sat outside marvelling at the beauty of the setting until the clouds blew up and the cold drove us inside. The lodge we stayed at was almost hidden by snow that had drifted within a foot of the roof, and the snow that had blown inside our room didn’t melt in the 24 hours we were there, while the kitchen and toilet floors were both covered in a thick layer of ice. Yet even in these conditions the friendly host managed to cook some of the best food we’d eaten on the trail.

The next morning we were up early to see the early morning sun light up Annapurna I and the even more beautiful neighbouring Annapurna South. Then, once the sun had appeared over the peak of Machhupucare and the temperature had started to rise we set off for four day walk back to Pokhara, the nearest town to the mountains: first slipping and sliding through the snow and ice as we dropped over a vertical mile; then climbing and descending seemingly endless stone staircases; as well as making time to spend a leisurely and very enjoyable afternoon at some natural hot springs - the first time we’d washed or felt warm enough to take off clothes in over a week.

Back in Pokhara we were finally able to celebrate Kieran’s birthday (which had passed while we were in the mountains) with a slap up meal and our first alcoholic drinks in 10 days. And then, as the sort of once in a lifetime experience that seemed a fitting way of celebrating the big 3-0, Kieran went parahawking (paragliding with a bird of prey) over Pokhara. Parahawking only exists in Nepal and was set up by a conservation organisation working to raise awareness of the dwindling numbers of Himalayan Vultures (over 99% of the birds have died in the past 15 years) and to fund further conservation efforts. And the flight itself was just magical – from stepping off the mountainside at about 1400m the pilot (who was strapped to me!) and I climbed a further 400m in the thermals, with amazing views of the terraced hills stretched out below us and the snowy mountains glistening in the distance. The flight was amazingly calm and almost silent – hard to believe we were travelling at 20 to 35mph – and felt comfortable and secure throughout, and really just like we were flying. And throughout the flight we were joined by Bob, an Egyptian Vulture who’d swoop in and land on my hand mid-flight to take food before soaring off again on the thermals...

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Angkor Temples, Siem Reap and Battambang

The Angkor temples in north-west Cambodia are the county’s most famous landmark and tourist attraction. Built by the Khmer Kings between 9th and 13th Centuries who at that time ruled much of South-East Asia, the hundreds of temples range in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to magnificent structures including Angkor Wat, the largest religious building ever constructed, and are spread over tens of square miles.

In most cases, the temples were the religious centres of large walled cities which would at their height have housed the Royal Court and tens of thousands of people. In the intervening centuries the wooden residential and administrative buildings have vanished, swallowed up by the trees, leaving behind just the central temples and the vast outlying city walls as testament to their scale.

The temples are built of a mixture of brick, laterite and sandstone and were all designed to represent the Hindu cosmology, with a central tower representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; smaller towers representing the continents; and a surrounding moat, representing the oceans beyond. This common plan brings some similarity to the temples, yet they are also remarkably distinct. At some the towers are set out in a row; others are pyramidal in shape rising like a mountain out of the flat Cambodian landscape; while others are sprawling structures with multiple concentric chambers and passageways to explore and get lost in.

What is most impressive and beautiful about the temples is the way that they combine enormous scale and grand design with delicate and detailed carvings and bas-reliefs depicting religious figures and stories, the Khmer kings victorious in battle, scenes from everyday life and floral motifs.

We were joined on this leg of the trip by Henry, Kieran’s old housemate and university friend who now lives in Singapore, and his girlfriend Vila who joined us for a week. With them, we spent several days exploring the temples, cycling between them along quiet country roads. With most of that area of Cambodia wooded, the temples sometimes appear, almost without warning, round a bend in the road. Sometimes their scale and fantastic preservation was staggering; at other times the smaller, semi-collapsed structures looked just like a folly in an English stately garden. Although Angkor Wat itself and two of the other most famous temples were crowded with tourists, we were pleased to find that most of the outlying temples were quiet and relatively empty, so that we could wander often with almost no one else around.

The town nearest the temples is Siem Reap. A decade ago when Kieran first visited Cambodia, Siem Reap was little more than a dusty provincial town with a handful of backpacker hostels. Now it’s become the busiest, most Westernised and tourist place we’ve visited with countless hotels catering to all budgets, and wall to wall restaurants, bars and boutique shops. Yet despite its enormous and rapid growth Siem Reap remains an extremely pleasant place to spend time and relax after a dusty day at the temples and we enjoyed basing ourselves there, taking advantage of the delicious restaurants, hotel pools and another fabulous old colonial bar, this time set in the former Governor’s mansion.

Travelling by boat has been such an enjoyable way of getting about Cambodia that we happily opted for an eight hour boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang rather than a shorter bus journey. It didn’t look promising at the start as our overloaded boat rocked precariously about on the enormous Tonle Sap lake. However the lake soon gave way to a shallow river lined with tall grasses and trees and floating villages, with small children splashing about by the banks. Perching on the outer rim of the boat (providing much needed leg room) we passed the journey enjoyably meandering up the river.

Battambang is the fourth most visited tourist destination In Cambodia but as the average tourist’s length of stay in the country is only five and a half days (with most tourists viewing the country as an add-on to a trip to Thailand or Vietnam) it sees few tourists. This has retained its small town relaxed atmosphere, along with some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country. We spent an enjoyable few days kayaking and swimming along the river, wine tasting at Cambodia’s only winery (the wine was excellent, the brandy less so) and visiting Phnom Sampeau, a complex of Buddhist temples set on a hilly limestone outcrop. Harrowingly this was also the site of some notorious “killing caves” where the Khmer Rouge bludgeoned hundreds of people to death before throwing them down into the caves.

We also took a ride on the ingenious local bamboo train, the most unusual train journey we’ve taken. Locals use the old railway line which runs from Phnom Penh to the Thai border to make short journeys around Battambang. Each train consist of a three metre-long wooden frame covered with slats of light bamboo that rest on two barbell-like bogies connected to a six horsepower engine with a fan belt attached to a fly wheel on the axel. They manage to pick quite a speed, and feel even faster so close to the tracks, and it’s an exhilarating, if a little scary, experience to hurtle along the track on a sheet of bamboo with nothing to hold on to! The train line is due to be upgraded shortly which whilst good economically for the area will sadly probably mean the end of the bamboo train.