Nepal

I had a different blog lined up for today and I’ll publish it in the future. But last night and this morning I have been hearing about the devastating earthquake in Nepal and the appalling death toll. I’ve only been there twice but the country and the people left such wonderful memories that I feel very sad at the images I’ve been seeing.

My impression of Kathmandu was of a random jumble of buildings thrown together, with the narrow streets of Thamel seemingly unplanned and impossible to follow on foot. With little room to develop, buildings went upwards and what started off as a single story house or shop would have a floor added as the wealth of the owner increased. Adding storeys was a sign of prosperity. This might not have been the wisest method of expanding but it was the only option. I do not criticise.

My lasting memory of the people, both in Kathmandu and on the winding footpath to Everest Base Camp was one of friendliness. To a westerner, experiencing this for the first time, I looked upon it with suspicion – ‘what does he want?’ came to mind. To my shame. The reality was, they wanted to be friendly and they wanted to know more about this western visitor that had spent not far off their annual income for a flight to Nepal. I learnt to bargain with shop keepers with a smile on my face, and although the actual process was played to a few rules which felt serious at the time, it was worth it for the post sale banter. One woman selling little hand sewn purses sold me five for a little under £2 and as I put them away and walked off she gave me three more for free! The poor rickshaw driver who barely reached my shoulder in height and yet who pedalled my friend and I the two miles to Durbar Square for less that £4 (we gave him more in the end, despite having to get out and push when we reached a small hill).

The guides, porters and other local crew on out treks couldn’t be more helpful. The tea house keepers went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. A great place to visit and I will be going back someday.

But some of the most significant historical places in Kathmandu have been ruined by the earthquake. I saw images of the little temples in Durbar Square that had survived invasion and revolution reduced to little more than piles of bricks. The Monkey temple, Swayambunath, is a complex of little temples and shrines and from shakey footage I’ve seen on Twitter, one of the two large temples has collapsed. It goes without saying that I hope no one was injured there, but since the place was over run by mischievous monkeys, I hope they managed to escape the devastation too.

I’ve heard on the news and in Tweets from a couple of people I’m following at the moment and who were about to climb Everest, that base camp has been partially obliterated by avalanches from nearby Pumori and that up to 17 people have been killed there. I haven’t heard news about the villages through which we trekked. Namche is situated in a natural amphitheatre – in other words, built on terraces on the side of a mountain. Dingboche is similarly situated on the side of a mountain. In the past, bridges and buildings have been swept away by floods caused by collapsing moraine dams releasing melt water from the glaciers further up the valley. I pray these villages have escaped the damage and their inhabitants are safe.

Oxfam and Save the Children have set up appeals to help the victims of this terrible disaster.

My thoughts are with the people affected by this terrible event.

Tatty Pots

I dug my vegetable plot on 17 February. I enlarged it the next day and for the next few weeks, I dug it over, removed so many stones that I could build a small cottage and worked in compost. I weeded, removed more stones (my mum used to say that the garden grew stones) and weeded again.

All the while, my potatoes for planting were in egg boxes in a dark part of the kitchen as I waited for the shoots to start to grow. Except that for some reason, they didn’t grow. Not a single shoot, and usually I’m throwing potatoes away precisely because they are shooting. It’s been too cold to plant anyway. But now is the right time, The temperature has gone up and the rest of the garden is growing fast. So yesterday I got some seed potatoes and this evening I planted them.

I decided to experiment and so one lot went into a trench while another lot went in to individual holes. I’d seen this kind of planting at Dingboche in Nepal, so I was keen to see if it offered any advantages. I’ve planted about 15 potatoes – 10 in the trench and five in the holes.

Watch this space for the developments as they happen. If you can contain your excitement.

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Happy memories

This time two years ago I was celebrating my birthday at 4,400m in Dingboche. We had arrived the day before after a long trek along the valley of the Imja Khola river. This day was a ‘rest day’. In reality, an acclimatisation day during which we would climb at least 300m above the village and return to help with the body’s adjustment to altitude. It was a beautiful day, with strong sunshine and blue skies.

We headed off up the side of the valley and quickly gained 200m or so to look down on the little huts and bigger lodges that lined the valley floor. The stone walls dividing plots of farm land were visible as lines against the brown earth, and small, dark dots indicated where the potato crop had been planted. Colourful prayer flags fluttered from the gompa overlooking the village, and from flag poles and stones on the path.

We carried on at an easy pace for another 100m of height gain before stopping and listening to our trek leader say a few words about loved ones who couldn’t be with us. It was a very moving speech, made more so by the location and the efforts we’d all made this far. There were few dry eyes in the group.

Then some of the group carried on a bit further while others made their way back to the village. I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the sun and took advantage of the warmth to wash and dry my hair – a luxury that had been impractical until now.

Later, we made our way through the village to the recently opened bakery where I had a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie. After dinner that night, a chocolate cake was brought out to celebrate my birthday and everyone in the lodge had a piece.

It was a special birthday.

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Dingboche

Of all the places we visited and trekked through, my favourite village was Dingboche. It was our second acclimatisation stop, and our rest day co-incided with my birthday. Surrounded by steep sided hills, Dingboche sits in the Imja Khola valley under the shadow of Ama Dablam at 4410m above sea level. It is the highest permanently settled village on the trail to Everest Base Camp and the last place that crops can be grown. Here, the crops are potatoes and barley and so important is the harvest that the use of any smoky fuels during the growing season is banned to make sure the crop yields are good.

It was a long day’s trek as we arrived at the lower end of the village, and there was still 15 minutes of steady plodding until we reached our lodge – the Peak 38 View – at the far end. The fields and lodges were bordered by drystone walls which were extensive and well maintained. We passed farms and lodges, each proclaiming a slightly different altitude. There were two lodges opposite each other, one asserting that it was 30m higher than the other. I passed between two without having to climb more than a metre and I wondered whether there was some altitude envy that lodge owners suffered from. The ground was hard and dusty but the farmers wives were out digging and planting the potatoes in small mounds of earth.

We were worn out and glad to have reached our next stop. In the dining room, the usual hot drinks were complimented by platefuls of biscuits which went down very well, and very quickly. Outside as we ate and drank, a beige yak calmly watched us through the windows. ‘Kaur’ was the lodge owner’s yak and was very docile and friendly. She had worked for most of her life and was now being rewarded with a home and regular food. She would turn up morning and evening and wait for her meals.

The acclimatisation day allowed us a leisurely climb to the hill behind the lodge the following morning. The afternoon was for us to rest, recuperate and do any housekeeping and laundry and it was the perfect place for me to spend my birthday. After washing my hair, a rare luxury despite the freezing water, I sat in the sun and enjoyed watching the clouds slowly make their way up the valley. I felt I could have stayed here for several days as it was so tranquil and relaxing.

Later some of us walked down the the bakery and I indulged myself with some apple pie and a mug of hot chocolate. It was delicious and so out of place that it felt like cheating. A local woman came in to the bakery and ordered a coffee. We were told later that there was a different pricing structure for the locals, which was fair enough. On offer (although none of us took it up) were several varieties of  roast dinner. It was so out of place to see ‘Roast Chicken, roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy’ for R670 (about £6.00) at 4400m.

We had fried egg and chips for dinner and I was surprised that after food came a cake covered in chocolate, with some candles and a little sign saying ‘Happy birthday, Dave’. It was very touching and after the groups had sung happy birthday, we shared the cake out amongst everyone in the lodge, including some Swiss trekkers on the next table.

That night I was woken by a sharp cracking sound and I automatically thought of an avalanche on Ama Dablam. But the flashes of light told me it was thunder and lightning. The following morning, we woke up to a thick covering of snow and a beautiful, clear and crisp day with stong sunlight and deep blue skies. We set off in these glorious conditions for Lobuche but the clouds soon started gathering and we spent most fo the day walking in falling snow.

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This time last year…

… I was flying high over Europe on my way to Nepal and the start of  a trek to Everest Base Camp.

I was thinking about it last week when I was backng up image files. I flicked through all the photos I’d taken during the 17 day trip. It brought back a lot of happy memories of the places, people and achievment. And a few unhappy memories of stomach upsets and long drop toilets.

But overwhelmingly it was a trememdnous experience and one I’d jump at the chance of doing again.

I apoloise to all who know me and who over the next fortnight will probably be subject to ‘this time last year…’ comments from me. Please be tolerant.

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