sirisa clark

the things I do and the words I choose


Welcome to Gorkhaland!

Ah Darjeeling, Queen of the Hills, how quickly you captured my heart!

Quieter than any of the towns or cities we’d visited so far, and small enough to walk around without the tourist-mongering of Pokhara, I was fairly instantly taken with Darjeeling. The TV in our ensuite room (two luxuries we hadn’t had in a while) certainly helped matters. The only problem was it was kind of chilly, like a damp autumn in England.

In fact, being in Darjeeling was like visiting a surrogate England. We went to the zoo and admittedly it was full of fauna more exotic than you’d find in a British zoo, with red pandas and black Himalayan bears practically showing off for us, and snow leopards and bengal tigers prowling back and forth in their cages in a manner that frankly broke our hearts. The zoo also contained the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Museum, featuring interactive models of the Himalayas, equipment from the early expeditions to Everest and weirdly, a telescope given to the Institute by Hitler.

We saw Harry Potter at the cinema (on the plus side, reclining seats. On the downside, the projection popped and fizzed and went out of focus, before suddenly cutting halfway through the film for the intermission). We even took high tea at the Windamere, a colonial heritage hotel perched high above Darjeeling (the decor was cool, but the sandwiches and cakes a little stingy). The rest of our time was mostly taken up with eating fried breakfasts in the local traveller cafe (where the witterings of inveterate backpackers became tiresome but the food was too sublime to abandon) and drinking black tea with doughnuts in Glenary’s bakery. When it got really cold we huddled in bed and watched hollywood movies on our little TV. What intrepid explorers we are!

Darjeeling definitely doesn’t feel much like India, but what makes it really interesting is that it doesn’t want to be India either. Everywhere we went, shops and restaurants proudly proclaimed that they were in Darjeeling, Gorkhaland. Signs painted on walls welcomed you to Gorkhaland, and large murals proclaimed Gorkhaland to be the ultimate goal. Darjeeling and its northern neighbour Sikkim have a chequered past of changing hands between Nepal, India and the British Raj, but now they want to declare themselves an independent state from its neighbours and become Gorkhaland, merging with the eastern portion of Nepal that is the traditional home of the Gurkhas. However, because of the complexity of the political situation between Nepal, India and China, negotiations and protests have necessarily been taken softly softly. One of the great coups of the Gorkha movement has been a campaign to ensure a Gorkha native was the winner of Indian Idol, giving him a platform to raise awareness of their cause.

Over tea in a cafe, we chatted to an ex-sailor in the Indian Navy. He told us he was certain that within the next 10 years Nepal would become part of China and India would split into four separate nations; Gorkhaland would be established in the Northeast of India, the south would become a Tamil nation, the North would become a Sikh nation, leaving Gujarat and the centre to the Hindu population. Who knows if his prediction will come true, but in the same week India moved some 30,000 troops to the Northeastern border with China. It certainly paints a turbulent picture of the future of the subcontinent


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Leaving Nepal

Our return to Pokhara from the trek marked the start of a week long recuperation period, in which I medicated myself with the foul-tasting Megapen and its companions, and Ben likewise availed himself of the restorative powers of Nepalese cooking rum, and the powerful roadside herbs he’d collected on the trek. That is until the fateful day we decided to hire a pedalo with Pierre and Sophie.

Ben and Pierre took the lion share of the pedaling duties, and also the heavy burden of drinking a litre of rum between them. By the time we made it back to shore (having pedaled the back waters of Phewa Lake until we were sure we were in Vietnam) it was dark and the boys were convinced another bottle of rum was the best way to round off a good day’s piracy. I disagreed and retired to our hotel to enjoy the evening powercut. Ben appeared several hours later, minus his bag and the various useful things within it, and plus some nasty scrapes on his face and arms. Having lost his medicinal herbs and gone off rum somewhat, our final day in Pokhara was somewhat more sober.

And so on to Kathmandu! Now I’ll admit, that on first acquaintance, I wasn’t much disposed to like Kathmandu. Even before I got there, I’d heard numerous times what an unpleasant, noisy, crowded metropolis it was, calling to mind my dislike of Delhi. And once we’d arrived and checked into the cheapest hotel we could find (a two pound a night crack den, sporting de riguer student hippy graffiti)  I was convinced that the naysayers were on the money. Having come from fresh mountain air, the pollution of thousands of motorbikes winding the streets was a physical slap. But much worse was their noise – horn-honking communication is a part of the highway code in Nepal and India, so much so that many buses and trucks have “Blow Horn” painted on the back as part of their fantastic paint jobs. Aftera day of wandering the streets I had a raging headache and Ben and I were plotting our escape.

That said, after the first tiresome day, we moved to a quieter and cleaner hotel, and started to find some of the city’s hidden gems. Practically every corner of Kathmandu has a small shrine or temple on it, littered with incense stubs and wreathed with marigolds. The soaring pagodas of Durbar Square had seemed on the verge of ruin the first time I saw them, but when the grey clouds finally broke and the sun shone, I saw the city in a happier light and fell for the steep buildings with their fluttering red and gold trims. Also, it may have helped that Ben found our new favourite cafe, Cameleon. The decor was cool, the food was tasty, and they played the best Hindi music we’d heard since arriving in the subcontinent (one tune with a kind of seventies car-chase music feel had us bopping in our seats for a good 5 minutes).

We also discovered the Snowman cafe, which served up slices of the most delicious cakes imaginable. We took Sophie and Pierre there for breakfast one morning, where Pierre indulged in two slices of cheesecake for breakfast, and Ben ordered the “Chocolate Love” – a rich, almost brownie-like chocolate cake that appeared to be iced with chocolate mousse. Now Ben is not really much of one for sweets, particularly rich chocolate, so naturally I thought I’d be getting a certain amount of that cake myself. I did not anticipate Ben polishing the whole thing off, and entering into a chocolate-induced hyperactive state that he insisted could only be cured with a slice of apple pie. I was worried his head would explode, but sure enough the apple pie seemed to set him on a fairly even keel again.

After breakfast we bid a fond farewell to Sophie and Pierre, and headed off to catch our bus to the border. With seventeen hours on a bouncing, spine-crippling Nepalese bus ahead of us, we felt that provisions were necessary. And those provisions were valium.


When you know it’s time to stop trekking

Where was I? Oh yes, halfway up a mountain…

So, the days after Manang were fairly hard going, mostly because all the air was gone and walking five paces left us out of breath. On the day before the Thorung La pass I got a slight headache and, in a fit of altitude sickness paranoia I took a diamox tablet, which helps you acclimatises to low oxygen. Unfortunately the side effect of Diamox is tingling. In Ben’s case it was in his hands and feet for 20 minutes. In my case it was 10 hours of head to toe pins and needles that centred largely on my face, leaving me completely zoned out for much of the afternoon and evening and praying the effects would wear off overnight.

Many people tried to convince us that crossing Thorung La requires starting at 3am in the morning, due to the winds that apparently kick up late morning and make crossing a bit of a bore. I argued that I’d rather walk in the wind than in the dark, but we conceded to leaving just before sunrise. I’ve still no idea whether this was the best plan or not, as the hardest part of that day’s climb was a steep 500m right at the start. On the one hand I was terrified to be walking in the dark without a head torch. On the other, I think if I’d seen what I was climbing I might have given up. Fortunately I fell in behind a nice Texan lady who was quite the experienced mountaineer, and walking behind her kept me at a reasonable pace, whilst she gave me advice on regulating my breathing and ‘rest-stepping’ (not the latest musical genre Ben was hoping for, but a way to shift your weight onto your back leg whilst climbing to rest your muscles). By the time we’d reached the top of the steep morning climb the sun was up, and we met Sophie in a guesthouse for a warming cuppa before tackling the pass.

Now having built the pass up in my mind to be the most daunting challenge of my life (sorry dissertation), I was quite pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the climb went, and also by the number of people telling us how surprised they were by its difficulty, but I guess we all had different expectations. The pass itself is a wide flat plateau, covered in prayer flags and signs congratulating you on your trek (as though it were finished!) Ben pulled out the can of Carlsberg he’d been lugging up the hill to celebrate with (his Thorung LAger, geddit?) but was slightly overshadowed by our new Australian friends, who pulled out a litre of Jaegermeister. They were however, pulling it from their porter’s backpack, so I think Ben’s achievement was a little more impressive myself.

Now getting down from Thorung La, that was the part that proved a little daunting. Remember how it snowed back in Manang? Well that snow was still on the ground on the other side of the pass, and in places it had melted and refrozen. I was doing fairly well for the first hour or so, but all of a sudden I slipped and landed squarely on my arse. Will the Aussie very kindly told me it was quite an elegant fall, but nonetheless it shook my confidence, and after that the difficulties started to pile up. My weak knee started to complain, his friend joined in, a passing mule clipped my backpack and nearly sent me flying, and one section of path was so iced over that I had to creep along it holding both my stick and Ben’s hand, hyperventilating all the way. Once the icy bits were out of the way, there was still 4 hours of constant downhill that left my knees shaking and miserable.

BUT, we made it down! And boy was that a cause for celebration. That night we met up with the Australians, the French and an English couple we’d met along the way to drink beers and listen to reggae around the fire in the Bob Marley guesthouse in Ranipauwa. We had made it, we were tired but happy and full of our accomplishment. Except of course there was still the pesky matter of another week’s worth of trekking to get back to Pokhara… We walked another two days and then spent two days in a little village called Marpha (Ben: one night in Rani, two nights in Marpha – get in!) Our guesthouse there came with excellent meals and a resident 10 year old girl, Sogun, who insisted in joining all our card games and pretending to whisper in our ears. Having had our day off, we set off for the next town with Sophie and Pierre, and another French couple they had met on the pass.

However, from first thing in the morning I had a pain in my thigh that I assumed was related to the damage I’d done to my knee. I also had a nasty rash on my ankle that was making walking uncomfortable. The nine hour walk that followed was therefore something of a trauma for me.

At this point I need to take you back a couple of weeks to before we left Pokhara for the trek. Thinking that a little practice hike would do us good and prepare us for the challenges ahead, Ben and I decided to climb to the Peace Pagoda that overlooks Pokhara and its lake, with stunning views of the Annapurna range in the distance. However, about 30 minutes into the forest path, we met two Spanish women in a state of great distress, who told us they’d just been robbed at knifepoint. As we had just been sorting out trekking permits and visa extensions, we were carrying passports and a fair amount of cash, so decided to scarper as fast as we could, avoiding the main path and descending as quickly as we could. Unfortunately this meant slipping about in the wet undergrowth and me falling over about 5 times before we cleared the forest. So scared and shaken was I that I didn’t notice the three leeches that managed to attach themselves to my ankles. This was no doubt a blessing as I’ve always been terrified of being bitten by  a leech, a creature that combines the worst qualities of my two great nemeses, the slug and the mosquito. Nevertheless, after a couple of hours of bleeding, the bites scabbed over and were no longer a problem (I had golf ball sized mosquito bites that were starting to blister to worry about).

Fast forward two weeks and one of these leech bites that I’d thought were on the way out has developed a nasty red rash around it, presumably from dirt and sweat and rubbing socks. Thinking it was a chafing rash I put surgical tape over it, which just angered it and turned it into a square rash.

Square and livid

By the end of our nine hour walk I was hobbling, and the next morning it dawned on me that I could barely walk to the dining room for breakfast. And the pain in my thigh? Not just sore when I walked, but when I touched it too, like a bruise. Our guesthouse owner told us there was a health post 15 minutes’ walk down the road. 45 minutes of hobbling later, we found the doctor and explained my two unrelated leg problems. Except of course they weren’t unrelated. The rash was an infection in the leech bite, and the pain up my leg was the infection travelling north. He gave me a week’s worth of antibiotics (MEGAPEN), a week’s worth of double strength Ibuprofen, and a special drug to counteract the unpleasant side effects of MEGAPEN. Once I started taking the antibiotics, the infection up my leg actually revealed itself as a thin ribbon of inflamed red, running from my ankle to the top of my thigh.

Needless to say, we concluded that the trek was officially over, and hopped a bus back to Pokhara…


Real World Annapurna

Okay, for real reals this time, Ben and I did the Annapurna Circuit. Or most of it anyway. And there was none of this mimby-pimby porter/guide stuff neither, we carried our own bags and let the Lonely Planet be our guide! (Although I’m not knocking having a porter, those dudes are awesome, and will often run ahead and book a room for you in that night’s village, and make sure your food order is top of the pile, which can be pretty handy…)

So, after a couple of lovely days lounging around in Pokhara, we caught an early bus to the trailhead in Besi Sahar. We met a couple on the bus who were off to do the same trek (also without porters and carrying bags twice the size of ours!), and so we spent the first couple of days walking with them, discovering on the way that the woman Fereshte was a Londoner, and had been at Warwick at the same time as us – small world!

The trek started out fairly gentle, following the dirt road through a sub-tropical landscape and criss-crossing a milky blue river. It was only half a day’s walking, but novice that I was, it still felt like a hell of a day for me. In the guesthouse in Bhulbule that night we met a French couple, Pablo and Marie, who were in the middle of a year long trip, from France to Japan, via Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Nepal, India and China. Boy did we feel like losers!

Day two was Ben’s birthday, and we made various friends along the way, but somehow ended up in a guesthouse all alone at the end of the day, as the more experienced trekkers decided to push on to the next town. I’d been hoping there’d be a convivial day’s end for Ben to celebrate his birthday with our new friends, but he assured me that being in the Himalayas for his birthday was enough. He drank one beer and conked out around 5pm, so I guess he was pretty content.

Now the trek was two weeks long, so I’m not going to bore you with a day by day account (I’ll leave that to Alterna-Siri). But much like Alterna-Siri and Diane, our days started at 6.30am with breakfast. Most days we walked between six and ten hours, arriving in our village for the night in time for a late lunch, a bit of reading and some cards before dinner, and then a very early night. Once we got into the habit of stretching properly before and after walking, life got a lot easier, and I settled into the walking.

The early stages of the trek were the hardest for me, as we had to walk along where they are currently extending the road, and that means roughly ‘blasting great chunks out of the rockface to create a path’. In places the path was only a foot or two wide, made or rubble and dirt, with a steep drop to the side. These are the times that I stopped walking and started crying, telling Ben there was no way I could cross and that I was going to die here on this bloody cliffside. And Ben, god bless him, talked me through those grim moments, and even walked me through them at times, holding my hand to guide me across. I was also massively helped by several strangers,  who lent me their walking poles for added balance and reassurance on crumbly descents. After seeing how much the poles helped me, Ben found me a long stick to use as a pole, which we dubbed the Hoff for its life-saving properties. The Hoff was my constant companion for another 2 weeks.

After the roadworks the scenery changed from subtropical rice terraces to wide, shaded alpine paths, making me much happier. I was determined to make it across pass at this point, because there was no way I was going back over the road-building parts!

And there were mountains, the whole time! Did I mention that? Sometimes I couldn’t really look at them because they gave me vertigo just to think how high they were, and much of the time I was just watching my feet anyway. But Ben… I’ve never seen him so delighted by anything. Some days there were huge operas of mountains, and some days they’d be hiding, but every once in a while a cheeky mountain would stick its head out. On day 5, walking from Lower Pisang to Manang, nothing was on show as a thick low-lying cloud had obscured all the sky. And sure enough, as we arrived in Manang, it started to snow, and didn’t stop all day.

Fortunately, Manang is the place where you stop to acclimatise, so we sat tight and hoped for clear skies. The next morning everything was clear, and we found ourselves surrounded by snowy peaks. We did an acclimatisation trek up the hill (just 400m!) to a gompa (monastery) with the most breath-taking views of the whole trek (at some point, my camera will make nice with the net cafe computers and I can actually upload some photos maybe…)

On the way up the very steep  hill, we met a French guy and girl that we’d met the day before in Pisang, Sophie and Pierre (hello Sophie if you’re reading this!) I was in the midst of one of my steep climb panic attacks (mostly thinking how the hell I was going to get back down again), and Sophie saw my distress and helped me get up the hill. At the top she suggested we four continue together to the pass, as she found my pace much more pleasant than her companion Pierre’s (Pierre walks up mountains like he’s going for a stroll to the shops. At the pass, everyone was wrapped up in great big down jackets and gloves and hats and all sorts. Pierre was in jeans and a hoody).

Okay, the Thorung La pass and the party on the other side and the nasty leg infection that curtailed our trek will all have to wait until the next post, cos I am out of time dudes! Gotta go eat lunch, gotta go catch a 17 hour bus to the border. But next time I’ll tell you all that, and then a bit about Kathmandu for good measure.

Until then, email me! Tell me what’s going on at home! I miss you guys!

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The Annapurna Circuit

NUTBALLS. I just logged on to my blog to try and get to grips with telling you all about our trek on the Annapurna Circuit, and found a draft I’d apparently started but not finished. But none of it looks familiar, I don’t remember writing any of this! And hold on a tick, we didn’t set out from Kathmandu… We didn’t get all the way to Ghorepani… We didn’t have a guide… And who is Diane???

Either I have a split personality and Alterna-Siri also went trekking (with Diane and a porter, lucky Alterna-Siri) or… I’ve left my wordpress account logged in somewhere else? Anyway, here is Alterna-Siri’s post, I will tell you about my adventures in the next one…

Now that we have finally completed this 18 day adventure I will try to sum it up as best I can.

October 11th = We took a bus from Kathmandu to a small village called Bhulebhule. It was a long tiresome ride that took about 10 hours.  Once we were about an hour away the bus had to cross several bridge-less streams and rocky rivers to get to our destination. Bhulebhule is a village that sits at an elevation of 850 meters and has an environment similar to that of a rain forest with many beautiful flowers and large leafy plants.

October 12th = Bhulebhule – Bahundanda ( 1270 meters )

All the days we trekked started early.  Typically we would wake up around 6 am and eat breakfast around 630 before heading out.  Yet we were notoriously late to start every day.  Our guide/porter would say we should leave around 7, but we generally rolled out around 8 am instead.  O well.  This tradition may have been mistakenly started by me the first day.  As I was eating breakfast and waiting for Diane to come and join, more then 45 minutes passed.  Being warned that she was not particularly fond of mornings, I decided to wait it out and give her space.  After I finished and went to our room to look for her I had accidentally locked her in the room as there was a deadbolt on the outside of the door.  Oops!  Needless to say, it was an interesting  way to start off the trek.

On our first hiking day we saw snow capped mountains almost immediately which was really exciting.  Lots of really amazing waterfalls as well.  Only hiked about 4  pretty mild hours.

October 13th = Bahundanda – Chamje ( 1410 meters )

Hiked for about 6 1/2 hours, there were some tiresome ascents but still pretty mild hiking.  There was one really amazing waterfall 10 min before we arrived in Chamje that was gushing with glacial water and had a complete rainbow visible in the spray.

October 14th = Chamje – Dharapani ( 1960 meters )

October 15th = Dharapani – Chame ( 2710 meters )

October 16th = Chame – Lower Pisang ( 3240 meters )

October 17th = Lower Pisang – Manang ( 3540 meters )

October 18th = Acclimatization day in Manang

October 19th = Manang – Yak Kharka ( 4020 meters )

October 20th = Yak Kharka – Thorung Phedi ( 4540 meters )

October 21st =  Thorung Pedi – Throrung La ( 5416 meters ) – Muktinath        ( 3800 meters )

October 22nd = Muktinath – Marpha ( 2680 meters )

October 23rd = Rest day in Marpha

October 24th = Marpha – Kalopani ( 2530 meters )

October 25th = Kalopani -Tatopani ( 1190 meters )

October 26th = Tatopani – Shikah ( 1780 meters )

October 27th = Shikah – Ghorepani ( 2750 meters )

October 28th = Ghorepani – Birethanti ( 1050 meters ) – Pokhara where we finished!