Thursday 31 October 2013

Annapurna Circuit Part 2, Nepal

Day four and five, Dharapani to Upper Pisang

Day 4 - To Chame

We woke up at 6am, had breakfast and went our way, only to stop almost right away for the check point. We finally started our trek at 7:30. We stopped for tea in Danaqyu. We asked the lady if she had any bamboo sticks and she did! One of them was a little bit short, but it still made a big difference when it was time to climb up mountains. Especially right before Timang, where we took a 'shortcut' in the forest. It was a very steep climb and we were really happy to have found the sticks. We had to stop for another checkpoint in Koto, about 45 minutes before Chame where we decided to stay for the night. Chame is a bigger village and there are many shops just like in Thamel, in Kathmandu. There are also a lot of tourists. We arrived at 3 pm and the first hotel we had chosen was already full, so we walked to the next hotel, the Himalayan, where we got a triple room for the price of a double room. We were a little bit cold and very tired after the 15.6 km day. The menus are very similar everyday, and today we decided to try one of the Nepali specialities said to be gentle on the stomach and believed to cure everything; Garlic soup. With the amount of garlic in the soup, we can understand why no stomach bug could survive! We had a good time sharing stories with the other travellers. We went back to the room around 7 pm and went to bed at 8:15.

Going up to Odar in the morning

Tea break in Danaqyu

Lunch in Timang

Typical Nepali house
View from the room in Chame
Day 5 - To Upper Pisang

On that fifth morning, we decided to shop for more bamboo sticks so we could have 2 each, but unfortunately we waited too long on the trail to start looking for that and as the vegetation and scenery changes, there is less and less bamboo. We couldn't find bamboo stick so we bought two pairs of regular aluminium walking sticks. We found them really useful throughout the day, especially when needing the extra pull going up. We followed the road for most of the day, crossing the river once more, stopping quickly for apples and walking through a forest to arrive in Dhikur Pokani just in time for lunch.

We had Dhal Bat and were enjoying ourselves and the view until a group arrived. It wasn't so quiet anymore but not so bad. And that is when a second group arrived. They were loud and not concerned about the Nepalis' custom and traditions and they quickly took their t-shirt off, and 2 girls ( a younger and an older one) were just wearing sports bra. Not very respectful to the local culture. We left quickly as soon as we were done eating and followed the Upper Pisang trail.

Upper Pisang deserves its name as it is much higher than Lower Pisang! We were rewarded by amazing views of Annapurna when we finally made it to the village. The village is also very different, no colourful buildings built for tourists, but mostly houses made of rocks and wood. We decided to stop in a brand new hotel up the hill. We asked the owner if he has hot water and outlets in the room, but no. We rushed to the bathroom, undressed and tried the water. It was ice cold. The water was coming straight from the mountain, probably from a glacier and it didn't get warmer on the way down. We were just barely able to wash our hair and it felt like our brains were going to freeze right up.

We chatted with a group of German guys who then invited us to join them on their walk to the monastery to see the sunset. We went up a few more steps, and the view was even more stunning! The local community is rebuilding a new monastery to replace the old one, they say it is a work in progress but is was simply stunning. They set up plastic chairs so we could enjoy the view while drinking the very good lemon tea offered by the monk. We were even lucky enough to witness an avalanche and catch in on video. We came back down to the hotel when we were cold enough and went to the restaurant for supper. After talking to the German guys, we changed our plans slightly, we will go up the hill towards Pisang Peak as the views are said to be impressive.

Monastery in Upper Pisang
Inside the Monastery

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Annapurna Circuit Part 1, Nepal

The first three days, from Besisahar to Dharapani

We were really exited to start walking on our first morning. It was something we had been looking forward to for over a month now. It is a great adventure, walking hundreds of kilometres surrounded by some of the highest mountains of the world. What is awesome is also going through all the different climates. We started in a jungle, at 760 meters in altitude in Besisahar, and hiked all the way to the white top mountains in a matter of a few days.

Day 1 - To Upper Ngadi

On our first day, the trail already offered us great views of the valley and an insight into the life of people living in small Nepali villages. We took the opportunity to stop and have tea in a small family home and discuss with them about their lives. We stopped for the day around lunchtime in Upper Ngadi, a really small village with only one lodge. We didn't know what to expect from all the restaurants and small lodges regarding the food. We were thinking that we would eat the same thing for three weeks, but the menu is quite extensive considering the remote location of the villages. We already walked 12.6 kilometres today, carrying our own backpacks. We were quite satisfied we could make it that far for our first day. We realized right away that our bed time would be really early on the trail when we went to bed... at around 8:15 pm.

First bridge 

The restaurant and our room

The bathroom with shower
Upper Ngadi
Day 2 - To Jagat
The mornings were quite similar every day, as we picked the same things for breakfast and were getting up at around the same time. On this second day, we were feeling great and were still excited about this adventure. We walked with a good pace along the river that we were going to follow for most of the trail. We were going up in altitude, but the river seemed to stay with us, flowing down the other way. We made it to Jagat on this second day, 13.8 kilometres further up in the valley, and at an altitude of 1281 meters. We stayed at the "North Face" lodge, the sign outside even had the official logo, just as all the clothes in Kathmandu. We were really happy with the basic room and its three windows providing great views. We also enjoyed our hot shower in the shared bathroom. The menus were quite similar so far, but the food is always a little different even when ordering the same meal. It was, again an early bed time as we were quite tired.

One of the many bridges
Basic room
The North Face Guest House
Day 3 - To Dharapani
Our third day was similar, walking 15.4 kilometres. We had to put our fleeces on that morning. We didn't keep them for long as the trail was going up right away, warming us up really quickly. Our tea and early lunch break in Tal was very welcome as it was located right on top of a crazy hill and we definitely needed to stop. We were still following the same river and it was weird to climb a mountain and end on a plateau with the quiet river beside us at the top. We stopped for the day in Dharapani, at an altitude of 1860 meters. We took a shower as soon as we arrived, but the water was very cold. Not easy to get under the water when it is that cold. We were hoping to see a hot shower on the trail again, but we were not sure if this would happen. We had supper while talking with a nice Australian couple that were just back from trekking in Tibet. We had a nice conversation but everybody was tired and wanted to go to bed at one point. That is when we realized it was only 7 pm. It felt like it was much later but it confirmed that we were not the only ones being exhausted at night!

Making new friends along the way

Arrival in Tal
Locals clearing the road block
Part 2 - Dharapani to Upper Pisang

Saturday 26 October 2013

Kathmandu to Besisahar, Nepal

We spent one and a half month in Nepal. Our goal was to trek the Annapurna Circuit. We heard about this from people we met on our trip. They all loved it and said they would love to go back. Most of them, if not all, said they did not spend enough time in this country. For this reason, we went there with only a one way ticket so we could be flexible with our plans.

We arrived from Istanbul in Turkey. The first feeling of Kathmandu was mostly chaos. It felt like Amman, Jordan, the main difference being people driving on the other side of the road which you don't notice that easily in the chaos of cars. The hotel we booked online had a "free" airport pickup service but, when we arrived at the hotel, the driver wanted 800 Rupees. In this case, the taxi could have been cheaper if negotiated. After a night in a plane, it was already hard to think so we just paid and moved on.

Our first five days in this new country were used to get ready for the trail. At this point, we arrived from a summer in Europe followed by fall in the Middle East so we didn't have any warm clothing left. We needed to find warm clothes and a sleeping bag suited to the temperature of the mountains. The Thamel district has everything a backpacker could think of, cheap and mostly fake brands. For us, the brand and quality wasn't all that important, we just wanted it to survive the trail. We also bought a good map and downloaded offline GPS maps for the phone. We decided to do this circuit without a guide, carrying our own bags, as we felt it would be more challenging, rewarding and would allow us to be more flexible.

After all the shopping and making sure we were ready for this new adventure, we bought our bus ticket from Kathmandu to Besisahar via a trekking shop. The bus station is located 2.6 km from Thamel so we started to walk early in the morning to catch the 7:30am bus. Besisahar is the small village where we started our hike. Some people are transferring from Besisahar in a Jeep to Bhulbhule or further but we wanted to walk from the beginning. The bus ride was a painful 8 hours, stopping 2 or 3 times for rest on the way. After our arrival, we decided that our original plan of starting the hike that afternoon wasn't an option and we decided to have a meal and sleep in the lodge attached to the restaurant where the bus dropped us. We had a night of rest and a good breakfast in the morning before hitting the trail. This was finally the beginning of our journey in some of the tallest mountains in the world!

Trying some of the clothes.
All of our stuff... Ready to pack!
Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Laundry time, Nepali style.
Our bus, loaded and ready to go.
The traffic jam on the "highway" because of an accident.
View from the bus on the way to Besisahar.
Besisahar, Nepal

Sunday 20 October 2013

Second stop in Istanbul, Turkey

After exploring Turkey, we came back to Istanbul for a couple days to catch a flight for our next destination. We arrived in Istanbul after our night bus from Izmir. We surprisingly were able to sleep for most of the bus ride. We arrived at the main bus station under pouring rain. There was a little bit of confusion to know if this was the right stop, but we managed to communicate with the bus attendant. He told us to get out and catch a minibus to get to Taksim Square. We hurried toward the minibus, and it was a good timing as it only had two seats left. 

As soon as the bus drove closer to Taksim, we recognized the area from our first stay in Istanbul. We stepped out and walked toward the hostel. It was located on a side street close to Istiklal street, the main pedestrian shopping street. Because it was 7:30 am and raining, the street was empty, with just a few delivery trucks. It made it a lot easier to walk through. We finally found the hostel and rang the bell. The owner showed us our room and we dropped our bags, as quietly as possible as one of the guys in the dorm was still sleeping. We went back out in the rain as we both really needed food. 

We returned to Taksim Square where we had seen a little coffee and pastry restaurant. We enjoyed our breakfast of Americano coffee and chocolate croissants. While eating we looked out the window at all the Turks and tourists running around and breaking their umbrellas. We had though that the umbrellas being sold on the street looked sturdy, but after 15 minutes looking outside and just seeing people with the white transparent umbrellas having trouble, we changed our minds! After our breakfast, we went back to the hostel where we spent time to inventory everything we carry in our backpacks to see if we still needed all of it. Later we went for a walk to see the Citadel and the park surrounding it. We had a nice supper in a restaurant located in the main pedestrian street. Our our way back to the hostel we bought a bottle of wine to enjoy while chatting with our roommates for the night.

The next morning we had a weird experience.  AA suddenly felt ill, runny nose and dry mouth. Our roommate from Dubai was laughing at us a little bit, but soon Seb started to have a runny nose and was coughing as well. Few minutes later, we were all three sneezing, and looking for tissues to blow our noses. There must have been something in the air outside or in the hostel because as soon as we got out, no more runny nose. We checked out and left our bags at the hostel for the day to visit some more sights of Istanbul.

We walked to the Bosphorus, where we sat down and had improvised breakfast sandwiches. We went for a walk in the more touristy quarters surrounding the citadel.  We met many really cute kittens, one must have been just a few weeks old. Small enough to fit in a pocket (which AA considered for a few minutes). There are many stray cats and dogs in Turkey. It is really sad to see them eat garbage and being very skinny.  

We finally made our way to Hagia Sophia Mosque as well as Sultan Ahmed Mosque (known as Blue Mosque). We decided to have a look at the Blue Mosque and followed the crowd. The inside courtyard of the mosque is filled with big interesting information boards. They cover the beliefs of Muslim and the history of the religion. We lined up behind quite a few tourists, but the line was moving fast. Seb had though of carrying his orange Jordanian scarf, so AA was able to cover her head without having to rent a scarf. We took our shoes off and walked in the mosque. The mosque is beautiful, and has amazing mosaic tile work. The area where locals go to pray is through a different entrance. The men and women pray in different areas as well; the men in the larger area in the middle of the mosque and the women towards the back. Many tourists where being really loud and not very respectful of the people praying. We spent some time taking the beauty of the place in before going back out in the city. 

We continued to explore Istanbul for the remaining of the day, before walking back to the hostel to get our bags. We decided to get ourselves some Starbucks coffees so we could enjoy American style coffee and free WiFi. Seb ordered 2 large coffees while AA stayed outside keeping an eye on the bags and the only available table. When we tried to log onto the WiFi, it didn't work so we asked the employees who told us we needed to register with a valid Turkey cell phone number... Which obviously we don't have. And if we did, we probably would not need free WiFi as there is usually a data package with the phones... After drinking our huge coffees, we needed to use the bathroom, only to be told that they were not open right now. This was not the best Starbucks experience and we will probably stick to the very basic little coffee shops next time we are looking for a place to spend time and use WiFi.

After our deceiving Starbucks experience, we walked toward the underground station to get on our way to the airport. We decided to walk instead of getting on for just one stop on a different line. We were walking toward the station when suddenly AA said that maybe we should double check that our flight was really leaving from Istanbul Atatürk Airport. We had been so sure that this was the case that we didn't feel the need to double check again. We were really surprised to see that our flight was actually leaving from Sabiha Gökçen Airport. This airport being at the other end of the city, on the Asian side!  We didn't expect that, so we rushed back to the subway station we were just at, got on for one stop to Taksim and almost ran to get to the bus stop where we first arrived in Istanbul. We were lucky enough to catch the bus who then brought us to the right airport. It is a good thing that we are always on the safe side when planning time to get somewhere, because we arrived just in time for the start of the check-in. It was a very good reminder to always double check the booking confirmation.

There was a pretty big line up at the Air Arabia counter, and things were moving really slowly, but hey, we were at the right airport now! The crowd was also different, because our first flight was to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Most women were wearing their headscarves. We finally checked-in and decided to go through security right away thinking that food could wait. Making sure we were going to catch our plane was the priority. We found our gate and went back to the restaurant area and sat down at a table only to be told they were closing in ten minutes and we couldn't order food. We walked to the second level of fast food restaurant, but they too where already done, because they close at midnight. Apparently 10 minutes before you can't buy anything. We hurried to the sandwich shop we had seen by our gate and surely, it was already closed. So we had to go with the only option left, a really expensive not really tasty dry sandwich and small bottles of water. We ate our lunch and finished jut a few minutes before boarding. The plane took off at 1:10am, almost on time. We had a short one hour and ten minute connection in Sharjah Airport, but we landed almost 30 minutes late. By the time we got off the plane, in the bus and through security, it was already the last call. We hurried to the right gate, and took another bus... who brought us to the same plane we had just left minutes ago. It was quite funny because when we checked-in at the Air Arabia counter in Istanbul, the guy had given us the same seat numbers for both flights so we sat in the exact same spots. This second flight was pretty smooth and we arrived on time in the buzzing city of Kathmandu in Nepal.

Hagia Sofia :


Sultanahmet :