Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Up and down Annapurna and Chitwan's elephant water massage

A funny thing about the overly courteous Nepalese. Every time I reply them the recurrent *which country from?* question with the answer 'Belgium', they all seem to know Belgium and where it is situated and so on. Remarkable! Or actually not so remarkable at all, because Belgium has the largest Nepalese immigrant population in the west ever since they started receiving a lot political refugees in the 1990's. Especially students currently make up a lot of these numbers and Belgian universities welcome Nepali students by the load. That's what the people here tell me. Good news, Belgium is finally known for something social and positive which is not related to food, drink or painting. I'm happy for the Nepalese, who otherwise have a real hard time getting into the west. I do hope their gained knowledge will be brought back to Nepal, to better conditions here.

Ah yes, the 5 day trek to Annapurna sanctuary, the large mountain region above Pokhara stretching out towards the Tibetan border (perhaps better say 'Chinese border' before they put me down). In the morning we got my permit done and off we were to Nayapul, the starting point. It was just me and Hem, my guide who is born in a village in the Annapurna's. We had customized the trek and made a mix of the 2 famous treks, the Ghandruk - Ghorapani loop and the Jomsom trail, to take a slight diversion so that we could also visit a special hot spring which not many trekkers get to see.
I only took the minimum for 5 days; a small backpack with just a few clothes and my duck down sleeping bag. No need for a porter that many other trekkers would have, to have them carry all their stuff. Stuff which they probably wouldn't even use and had better left behind in their hotel, like me and most younger trekkers had done. Easy goes best, light is even better.
From Nayapul on, there would be no road anymore on our track. Just footpaths that were shared withy mules, the only different transportation system to human porters on the trail to all the villages high up or low down in cut-off valleys. Their bells always tolled a beautiful hymn of broken melodies, rhytmically out of tune, yet so in place on those moments. Echoing from the hills and through the forests. Given my allergy to all horse-like animals (it's a weird one, I know) I wasn't too thrilled to walk behind them, but their cling-clanging pace made more than up for it. 'But was it music?' to quote Henry Miller. Why, gorge-ous!

We walked up along the river, where kids were fishing. With hammers. Seriously. They hit upon the big rocks in the shallow river because the small fish that they were after always seem to hide under rocks. Death through vibration and pressure, food for the table. The mountains slowly started rising, but as this was just the first day we wouldn't see the high peaks for now, smaller mountains still concealing them.
We arrived in Hille end of the afternoon, a little village full of lodges for the trekkers -as every village is filled with-. The mule express overpassed us again, for them their working day surely wasn't over yet. Hot shower, relaxation and waiting for dinner while watching some emotional Korean movie. I met fellow-trekkers there. 3 friendly young folks from the Jersey island in the UK and a Norwegian son and his 74year old mother. Except from the hardship-shaped elderly locals, the Norwegian lady must have been the oldest person I met doing this trek.

2nd day. After an early breakfast we left towards Ghorapani, which promised a be a steep 6 hour walk. It was, especially the first bit. The day before I had met Martin, a kind German man who was giving trekkers a course in film shooting with as less equipment as possible. A creative thing to combine on such a nice trek. He comes to Nepal every year for several months and knows the Annapurna circuit and its villages by heart. He pointed to a nearby slope above a string of houses and told me in an affected tone that last year, there had been a landslide that divulged several houses and killed 17 people. Landslides are a common phenomenon here and we would encounter much more of their traces in the next days. Up on the way near a little village called Tikedungha, we passed a Nepali church that held a service. Vocal music of praise was oozing out of the doorway, kids playing around, making scattering noises. I went inside, not to pray or anything but just to hear and see as I found the sound quite intriguing, very un-western, they sung in Nepali which gave it a special shine. Here a song:

Tikedungha church members - Song of praise
We arrived in Ghorapani quicker than we thought, as our pace was very swift and we constantly overtook trekkers. Sure I knew the pain was gonna come later, ah what did I care. I loved the climbing up, heavy as it was, but it got me into a nice trance of near walking meditation, walking slowly over all my thoughts while focusing on natural surroundings at the same time. In Ghorapani it was cold and foggy as we now were at 2500 meter altitude. Tibetan people hawked their wares on the street and they liked getting into ironic arguments with trekkers about buying their crafts. If you're trekking, the last thing you want to do is to by a solid metal singing bowl or anything else heavy or useless to you. Unless you have porters perhaps. In the lodge we met 2 funny German-Australian sisters from the woods of Tasmania, Elia and Johanna. I nicknamed them the pagan sisters, natureloving and spiritual as they were.
They had been trekking for nearly 10 days without guide, just on their own which was no problem at all as the trekking trails are quit easy to follow. We had a long evening at the fireplace, talking about all things spiritual, natural and creative.

Day 3, early morning wake up call at 5.30am. To see the famous sunrise at Poon Hill, a 3200 meters high peak from where all of the Annapurna mountains could be seen. It was pretty cold and we packed ourselves into layers, wrapped in fleece, wool, gore-tex or whatnot. The sisters also joined us. Walking uphill for 40 minutes does make you warm quickly. But yeah, what is the Poon Hill vibe? In the nutty dialogue that me and Elia made up on the spot, this was Poon Hill:

"Welcome to the Gore-tex festival, the Poon Hill 2008 edition. Yes people, there will be live shows on the left, right, under and above by Korean, German, Canadian and Australian clickety-clackers, snapshot speakers and zany zoomers. They all use special hand instruments and throw poses on this natural stage set under the early morning sky. You are obliged to pose originally. And no, not with the aid of alcohol to loosen yourselves up, but only chia and water will be on offer, at a high cost. As are cakes, crackers or cookies of any sort. Pay up or remain thirsty and hungry at your own sake. The sunlight shall be shared with everyone, like the views and the fresh morning air. The watch tower is for those who care for the VIP treatment. It's not backstage but the abovestage for those higher beings. But alas, everyone is a VIP here! Devil may care, climb up that ladder at your own whim and see for yourself, look beyond the whitest of snow, into that golden trickle of light shining from it!"

Thus ended our Poon Hill stay and we descended down for a much needed breakfast.

The rest of the day was a nice up and down walk through foggy forests, beautifully filled with trees of all sort and we touched upon many packs of blooming Rhododendron trees. We arrived in Tadapani and it seemed as the crossroads for most treks and many people were crowding the lodges. In the evening we were visited by the Gurung mother group, the females of the local Gurung community who have Tibetan roots. They played their traditional songs in a sort of vocal choir, accompanied by a dholak drum. It all were short songs and the local people (and Nepali guides, porters and sherpa's) did traditional Nepali dancing, which looked a bit like Indonesian gamelan dances with a hint of India in it. Ofcourse, the tourists couldn't escape either so me and the sisters got pulled up dancing while others were reluctant to give it a try. Here a song:

Gurung mother group - Gurung folk song

The next day, with limbs starting to ache, we had to do a lot of inconsistent climbs up and down to Jhinu Danda, the special hot spring place. it actually was one of the nicest walks of all days, as we went through even more beautiful forests, covered with moss, ferns and flowers, the smell of fresh earth into our nostrills. Also we passed many little settlements and farms where people were working their fields by hand or by buffalo. The sun shined brightly upon us and we could see all the forested ridges clear and green while we still had the Annapurna mountains in our hindsight. Such air and view. It's too hard to describe it with the right words as that would take up another post, so I'll leave that for your imagination. Just let the photo's put the words in your head. We arrived in Jhinu in the late afternoon and lazied about as we were all tired, the sisters surely even more as they had been walking so long already and were quite fed up of mountains in their sincere honesty. Around 9pm, we went down to the hot spring, about a 20 minute walk. It was pitch dark and through a narrow stone path down into the forest, which was amazing. We heard the river getting louder and it was flowing at a rapid pace. The hot springs were just next to the river, in a cut-out and rock-layered pool of 4 by 6 meters, made by locals. Wow, they were so cosily warm, as if it was nature massaging your limbs and body. We had brought candles for light and it only added more to the special atmosphere. Many shadows flickered on the rocks while the sky above us was filled with stars, so many! We just felt lucky to experience this unspoilt place, especially at the time of the darkened day. The walk up, well, that was a bit harder again after this softening experience. Exhausting we went to bed.zzzzz.

On the 5th day, my camera went *crack* and refused to open and focus again. Like an early eternal sleep, the little cheapskate. The walk down to Nayapul, to get the bus back to Pokhara, was again beautiful just like the day before. This day we passed more little villages and farmer dwellings, more and more beautifully cultivated fields. It was a long but easy walk, as the trail mostly went down. Though I have found out that I rather like walking up than downhill since my muscle pains all came from the irregular downhill walks. Those really kill you more if anything. Back on the road, civilisation and shops. It felt so weird for a little moment to be back out of the wild, as in the days that you are walking, you feel much more in touch with your natural surroundings, the sounds and the crisp clean air. Except for the stunning views that they offered, the villages all were quite bare, except for Jhinu Danda that was more placed in a natural spot. These little villages solely serve as trekking stops instead of beautiful spots, filled with lodges as they are, but it offers the locals a way of income, an income that they otherwise never could earn if it were not for the trekking trails. On the 1,5 hour ride back, all for of us, me, Hem and the sisters, sat on the roof. Such beautiful views again, turning away from the Annapurna's. We did had to stay low and dodge the electricity cables, as they flashed near overhead.

Back in Pokhara, me and the sisters just relaxed. Had a 1,5 hour massage of acupressure and ayurvedic matters. Plush luxury indeed, but I felt revived. In the swell Peace Eye hotel we had some good nights with cheese and red wine (such combination, first time in months!). The sisters bumped into friends that they had met in India and they joined us in the evenings. Raul from Spain, a funny fella like a true storyteller, did a lot of his tricky magician tricks. Hello to Giorgios from Greece too! Travel well etc. I packed all my shit together and decided to move for Chitwan national park on my own, as the sisters were unable to move out of their relaxtion mode yet.

In a packed bus, on a tourist package. That, because the easiest and cheapest way to get to the Chitwan wild reserve was on such a deal. On the too well paved tourist trail indeed. The oh so kind hotel manager of Peace Eye had arranged a too cheap deal to refuse, much cheaper than any of the commission hunting agencies offered.
After a 6,5 hour ride we suddenly were in the tropical bush, away from the mountains. We got picked up by jeep and delivered at our lodging like a packet. There I met an irish couple, Tony and Emma, and a Dutch couple, Ed and his wie (whose name I forgot, sorry!) and with them I would do most of the excursions. The excursions, as corny as they may have sounded to me, I did enjoy them a lot.
In the afternoon we walked around a Tharu village. The Tharu people are believed to have moved all the way from Rajasthan to the tropical Nepalian forests in medieval times, when the mughuls were slayering tribes at will. Their name springs from the Thar desert perhaps? We went to the elephant breeding centre and saw several elephants relaxing. With chains, which make them look sad. In the evening, I met some other tourists in the lodge from Japan and the UK, who invited me for an evening tour to the edge of the jungle. We walked in darkness as the power had been vut off and from far we could already hear the cacaphony of mostly birds and insects. We just sat there silent for half an hour, listening and peeking into the bushy darkness across the river. The next day we had a canoe ride. They didn't let us peddle so I felt a bit useless and once again the typical tourist. We saw crocodiles (gharials and muggers) and many birds, like kingfishers, ducks, maraboe's and storks. The walk into the jungle was promised to be something special. Though we walked a good hour or more in the dense vegetation, we saw only some birds and insects. Only footprints or droppings of the wilder animals like the sloth bear, tiger and rhinoceros. When we came back to the river, they were washing the elephants. That was really why I wanted to go to Chitwan, to swim with the elephants and wash them! I was the only one of my tourist pack who went into the water, and no sooner I found myself looking an elephant in the face upclose and being hosted up into the air by it, woah! I got a tarzan style elephant snout shower while I sat on it's back. The elephant sometimes rolled over and I fell softly into the water, laughing from the sensation. Like a kid, again and again. After my own bath and play, I helped the mahout driver to clean the elephant and he gave me a porous stone. The elephant skin is thick and crusty so only a stone can wash him good. The elephant lay on his side, enjoying the rub and stoned massage. You could hear her groan out of satisfaction, bizarre. In the afternoon we would have the elephant jungle ride, riding in a wooden seat atop the animal, which I didn't know what to expect of. The beginning was boring, but as soon we went into the jungle, it was great to be so high up, getting branches and bush slapped into your face. We soon saw rhinoceros, a mother and her baby. We also encountered 3 different types of wild deer and all these wild animals weren't afraid of us. Because they couldn't see or smell us, sitting high on the elephant and that was the whole trick with having elephant jungle rides and getting so close -right next!- to wild animals. In the evening there was a Tharu cultural programme planned for all the tourists of the different lodges. It was an ok performance, except for the chattering noise most tourists made, ones who perhaps didn't care for the Tharu music or culture but came anyway. The dances and music were very similar to the Indian tribal stick dances of Gujarat and Haryana, places were Rajasthani tribes also have settled in the last few hundred years, if that's not a clear link enough. Also hello to the fellow Belgian person from Antwerp (Essen) that I met, I'm so bad with names sometimes, so forgetful.

That was the end of 3 days and 2 nights in Chitwan. It was long enough for me and I was itching to get to the Kathmandu valley. We entered the city in its most vile and smoggiest form. wow, after all the natural quality of Annapurna and Chitwan, it did feel awkward.

I turned my camera into repair in Kathmandu, to see if first help can reanimate him. Breathe oh little one, breathe!
-and guess what, they fixed it; gone is then asthma and its bad cough, yay-

Today (friday) is Holi, the special Hindu day for coloring one another by throwing powder or colored water on each other. I've already been waterbagged a few times in the last days as a warm-up. But today, me and friends can throw back as we have bought powder and plastic bags. We're prepared, mwhahaha ;)
Ok, time to sign off and run through the water barricades that are happening right in front the internet shop. Many tourists covered in colours have stepped into here looking bewildered. Better be prepared, I'm on my way to get and throw some colours, yeah! :)

More on these savage wet celebrations and Kathmandu's surroundings in the next post.

just photo's of the 4 days trekking....

awareness poster

staring point Nayapul

kitchen at our first stop

where no roads can go....the mule express always delivers. Chickin' on the move!

fishing with the hammer

some views....


local folks

...with baby asleep on the back

gentle german Martin in shooting pose

Nepali church at Thikedungha

first sigh of the red Rhododendron, Nepal's national symbol

elderly woman, breaking for a smoke.

stupa at Ghorapani

the Machhapuchhare just at the first of dawn

view of the Annapurna I

'hereby I declare the Poon Hill gore tex festival 2008, opened!'

the crowd goes mental...

our pose

sisterly hug

a view for the fun of it...(this guy told me I already was the 5th person who asked to photograph him. such copycats we all are!)

been here, done nothing

must admit, the Koreans did the best posing poses!



the forests and its trees











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