Hello for the final time from South Asia, after having followed up the Annapurna Circuit by doing the Everest Base Camp trek my advice is that if you're having any 'weight problems' forget about wasting money on expensive health foods and arguments with your trainer over whether you've lost 3 or 3.5lbs after 8 months on WeightWatchers- just go trekking in the Himalayas. My non fat (he's French) companion on the Annapurna circuit lost 5kgs in 2 weeks and despite binge eating for the last week I now have a body which looks like Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn or The Machinist. Not attractive.
Which isn't a good description of uniquely flagged Nepal, despite being here for 2 months it really doesn't feel like it as I've spent over a month of it lost in some of the most memorable scenery you'll find anywhere on Earth. And even in a country which doesn't play any sport (what they talk about I don't know) it feels like a very fitting place to end my time in South Asia.
Its somewhere I can't say I ever really got pinned down in my head, in just about every respect- ethnically, culturally, religiously, linguistically, even down to the food they eat it felt exactly like it looks on the map ie squeezed between India and Tibet. A strong Nepalese 'flavor' never really presented itself to me, it always felt like something borrowed from its neighbors and it's definitely the incredible natural scenery which I found most memorable about the country.
Geographically Nepal probably isn't what most people would imagine; unlike Bolivia or Tibet which have huge plains at very high altitude that the population can eke a living out of, this side of the Himalayas are just too steep (in places rising 7000m over just 20km and skiing's not even possible) and have virtually no flat areas whatsoever once the hills start. Therefore the vast majority of the population live in the lower valleys ie at <2500m altitude with Nepalese highways (walking trails) leading up to ever smaller communities the higher you go.
The steepness of the mountains and the poverty of the people means Nepal is one of the most environmentally fragile countries in the world. Apart from the need to clear land for agriculture it obviously gets very cold during the Winter and trying to maintain the countrys forest cover is a constant struggle. When you chop down trees in mountain systems it causes lots of environmental problems. The soil loses the tree roots which act as the 'glue' to keep it together, in turn this causes landslides which both silts up streams and rivers ruining agricultural land and also means trees can't regrow on the slopes so villagers have to look elsewhere for fuel causing problems elsewhere- a vicious circle which Haiti for example is at the absolute nadir of.
However, despite having a rapidly growing population and being dirt poor Nepal is doing a great job in preserving and managing what they have and planning for a precarious future; aside from the help they've received from international NGOs and the like the lions share of the credit must go to the wonderfully humble and incredibly hardworking people. Definitely a feature of the country I've grown to love about the country they almost strike me as 'highland Thais' in their positivity and warmhearted natures and aside from the outstanding scenery it's much of the reason why the country has such a high repeat visit rate from tourists.
But as in Bangladesh and India one of the most frequent sights you see here are posters advertising visa services with "Come and live and work in Canada/Australia/UAE etc." as Nepals population has ballooned to nearly 30million and economic opportunities are very limited. It's one of the poorest countries in Asia coming in the bottom few on almost all development indicators (infant mortality, GDP, literacy rates etc.) and as several Nepalis have told me their ability to develop is largely out of their own hands being landlocked between the 2 great competing powers of India and China. As one local put it "If we do a deal with India, China gets angry and vice versa".
For decades under the staunchly Hindu monarchy they'd been reliant on Indian help to develop their infrastructure in exchange for resources but India has never really responded and most Nepalis are now strongly in favor of increasing ties with the Chinese under the influence of the Maoists in Parliament as the Chinese will tend to get things like bridge and road building done much faster. This is of course very controversial as Chinese plans to extend the Tibetan trainline all the way to Kathmandu and to dam up various rivers and therefore harness their awesome hydroelectric power will take little consideration of the environment, or anybody further downstream. However, in a country where even the capital regularly suffers 16hr blackouts and the vast majority of the population live on <$3 a day
serious efforts have to be made to find a way to develop whilst sustaining the countrys vital natural resources.
The hills and valleys have left a series of strong largely untainted tribal cultures of which the best known in the West are of course the Sherpas and the Gurkhas; the Sherpas aren't just porters but an ubertough Tibetan like group from the Everest region who quickly gained fame not only for their indefatigable climbing and carrying exploits but also for their pride in their culture which even amidst todays mass tourism on the trekking routes is still very visible- I particularly liked the distinctive septum rings which the women wear.
A bit more controversial are the Gurkhas and more specifically their positions in the British army which have long been open to any Nepalis not just the Gurkha tribe. In terms of status, becoming a member of one of the Gurkha regiments is virtually the highest thing ordinary Nepalese men can aspire to and the selection process is monumentally competitive as boys will spend several years in training specifically to pass the rigorous assessments budding recruits are subjected to. The reason it carries such a high status is partly the honour of being a soldier in the regiment etc but mainly financial. As with nearly all Asian countries working children will send a huge percentage of their pay cheque home and due to the salary earned being nearly up to British levels Gurkhas will often send home +75% of their wages so its no surprise families will throw week long parties when their sons are accepted as effectively the family is financially 'made' and there are plenty of stories of parents forcing their daughters into marrying Gurkhas for nothing more than the financial security it entails. And this is where social problems have arisen; the consequences of an individuals success/failure were explained to me during a couple of chats I had with local guys and their experiences of trying to get into the Gurkhas. One was a porter on the Everest Base Camp trek and was a couple of years younger than me, he told the story of after 3years training as a teenager he was rejected by the Gurkhas at the first round of testing because he was 2cm too short. He was carrying a load of no less than 110kg (they get paid by the kilogram so will carry up to 150kg or roughly 2.5x my weight) and could only walk short distances before having to rest as it was such a heavy load. He explained that the only other work option was as a subsistence farmer or perhaps another form of labourer and I couldn't help but feel very, very sorry for him as he trudged away. At the other end of the scale whilst on a bus journey the middle aged guy next to me told me he was an ex-Gurkha and taking advantage of the change in the law a couple of years ago was about to move to Hampstead of all places; he readily admitted that in a country as poor as Nepal the prize of success in getting in is now far too high and whilst it would be an exaggeration to say its life ruining if you're rejected, your options in so many areas (job,marriage prospects etc) look pretty bleak. Whilst Joanna Lumley et al obviously meant well in demanding equal rights as British soldiers the social situation that's been created here is just not fair.
Once again the main focus of the month was a trek, this time the 19day route around the Everest region. Most people make the trek much easier (cheating) by flying in to a point about halfway on the trek then renting porters to carry their stuff but I did it the hard way, walking 4 days in and out and carrying my bag the whole time. And it was tough. Whilst the profile of the Annapurna circuit was gradually up, over the high pass then gradually down, EBC was much more undulating. For example on the first day I had to ascend 1000m then descend it all straightaway followed by a tortuous 2nd day where I climbed 2000m before descending 800m. I appreciate those numbers might not mean much to many people but take my word for it when I say that's very tough. And then I got to altitude. In the Andes you'd be beginning to climb the higher peaks and anywhere else in the world you'd be in the clouds but 4 times on the trek I hit 5500m or so. If you've never been at serious altitude it does strange things to your body: you have only 50% oxygen as at sea level to play with, you're constantly thirsty as you're panting so much which means you lose a lot more fluid than at sea level, 'once every six seconds' becomes 'around once every six days' and sleeping is really hard not just with the cold but the unwanted requests from your bladder to empty it into outdoor toilets which at 1am at 5100m is not fun let me tell you. But whilst the nights suck it's the days where you get rewarded; about 10 years ago I seem to remember the newspapers announcing that Everest would be henceforward known as Chomolungma (the Tibetan name) but thankfully the needlessl PC change didn't stick as Everest simply couldn't sound any better. In sheer size as well as height its a gigantic mountain and up (fairly) closey it's daunting to see. The top is so high that it's actually out of the atmosphere and the 250kph winds which can hit strip the mountain of snow so the high parts are more of a chocolate brown color than the white you'd expect, indeed the most famous description of the mountain is "Like a grossly fat man in a room full of beautiful women". I really didn't agree with that as whilst the Everest Base Camp isn't all that great (you can't even see Everest's peak from it) the surrounding ice flows leading up to the mighty mountain are just breathtaking. However, probably my favorite part of the the trek was from another peak where we had perfect views of the beautiful Gokyo lake, the gigantic Ngozumba glacier as well as Cho Oyu (6th highest mountain in the world) Makalu (5th highest) Lhotse (4th highest) and Everest itself. I did the trek with a Dutch companion and looking out at the top of the peak I couldn't help but exclaim "In terms of mountain scenery this is surely the most spectacular region n the world".
On the way out I got really quite ill on another horrible ascent and after practically passing out on the path begged a local family to let me stay with them. Thankfully they did and after giving me the most welcome cup of tea I'll likely ever have I made a great 15hr recovery after feeling like 'Sancho Panza after the rose water' for a while. I then utterly thrashed myself to get back to a road and took the single most scary bus journey I've ever taken. Worse than the death road in Bolivia it was more of a sheep track than a jeep track and the driver lost control on the mud bath of a road so many times with nothing but 1500m+ drops down the cliff face to steady any falls. At times truly terrifying it was eventually 5hrs late which in Nepal is about par for the course. They have quite different ideas of time here, its currently the year 2067, its the only country in the world that I'm aware of that uses a '15' min measurement (ie Nepal is at GMT+ 5.45) when trekking if you ask how long to the next village '2hrs' would tend to mean 3-4 and literally the 'best' bus journey I've taken in Nepal was only an hour late. It's gotta rank as the most frustrating place I've been in for getting around as 4hrs become 9, 6hrs become 10 or 7hrs become 13 and entire days get lost. Conversely the one night bus I took turned up 3.5hrs early to arrive at 3.30am so had to sit around in the dark for 3hrs before the day began. But in truth I'm just thankful I've somehow spent just under 9mths in South Asia without being in a road accident of any sort. If it feels like I've written too much about how bad the roads are in this part of the world it's an indication of just how much your quality of life is lowered by them. Your are 30x more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in Europe and whilst lessons and the testing system in most countries have created a situation where 95% of drivers are well aware they have a potentially fatal weapon in their hands and take care accordingly, in this part of the world they just do not have this concept at all. A motorized vehicle is simply to get from A to B as quickly as possible and the bigger your vehicle the more clout you have and its everyone else's problem to get out the way. It's also a miracle I've not got into any fights as I've never given out so much abuse to people (drivers) as I have in the last few months- even when we're playing Brighton. Like mosquito bites you simply never get used to the feeling of cars or motorbikes missing your ankles by a few inches as the drivers constantly take wild, extreme risks with your life to save no more than a few seconds. Kathmandu could be a very nice place to be but it's image of a shangri-la has long since vanished due to the traffic. It apparently holds the terrible record of having the truly disgusting (and laughably 'sacred') Bagmati as the most polluted river in the world running through it and has one of the lowest air quality ratings of any capital city in the world. The streets are rarely more than 8-10m wide and with vehicles going both ways not following any sort of rules aside from a vague 'drive on the left' like virtually all cities in S.Asia it's simply very stressful walking around. I realized I'm subconsciously having to give myself pep talks to get up and face the streets and it's definitely the thing I'm most looking forward to leaving behind in South Asia.
That's because I'm now in a very excited mood as I'm off to the Far East tomorrow beginning in Tibet; so far things have been generally very easy traveling in Asia. In terms of languages whilst they're very difficult in just about everywhere there have been enough people who speak English so getting around just hasn't been a problem, in fact the only place I had to pick up some local lingo was Indonesia and that's widely regarded as one of the easiest major languages in the world! Perhaps best of all though has been the prices, with the exception of Taiwan at the very beginning and Singapore everywhere has been cheap and whilst in some places (Bangladesh, Indonesia) you get a quality that reflects that, in the likes of Vietnam or Malaysia you pay a bit more and the quality of things is fantastic. Certainly in terms of value for money Asia is miles ahead of any other continent particularly in accommodation and of course the amazing food. They do make a lot of money back on visas though as when Bangladesh charge $65 for a month or Nepal $100 for 2months a quick sum shows me I've somehow spent 8% of my total budget on visas! I have at least been able to get them however and I'm a little bit worried moving onwards at the increase in costs and starting to get rejected for visas in the route home I have planned.
Hopefully the good stuff will continue though as I head into China but as with Myanmar please, please, please don't write anything remotely sensitive. As I understand it they filter emails looking for certain phrases ie Dalai Lama, Tianamen Square massacre etc so if you're gonna email me don't put in anything too controversial as stories of the Chinese authorities 'bombing' email accounts and the like abound and obviously I'd like to avoid all that. Keep well.