Travelblog#50: Trekking the Himalayas Part 1 (Langtang Valley Trail) – Nepal

11th-14th March, 2015

 

Day 1

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The bus from Kathmandu to the trailhead for the Langtang Valley was slow but the mountainous terrain of rice paddies it gradually rolled its way through were a pleasing sight. It took eight hours, in all, and during the journey I got chatting to a Swiss guy called Chris who had been living in Nepal for several years. We arrived at a village called Syabrubesi at 3pm and, with not many hours of daylight left, the two of us began hiking.

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About an hour in we reached the first guest house. The owners claimed that we wouldn’t see another one for at least two hours, so it was *cough cough* within our best interests to stay with them, or we would risk being stuck in the dark.

We both knew they were likely lying, but Chris decided to stay there anyway. I was on a shorter time-budget than he was so I, apologetically, told him that I was going to carry on walking.

It was only half an hour till I saw the next tea-house, confirming my suspicions. Another half an hour after that I reached a village called Pairo. I could have probably been able to reach the next village called Bamboo if I liked but, with only an hour of daylight left, I would have been cutting it a bit fine and, considering that the region ahead of me was labelled as ‘landslide’ on the map, I was of the mind that they were telling the truth this time when they said there would be no more accommodation options between.

It was the discovery that there was a hot spring in Pairo which swayed the decision for me; I had heard that chances to wash can be a rare and/or expensive affair while on tea-house treks in Nepal.

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After bathing, I went to the place I was staying at – Namaste Guest House – and ordered dinner. When I told the owner to make sure there was no meat in my food he shook his head and said, “No meat here. We are from Tibet. We are vegetarian too.”

 

Day 2

My friend Roy – a name regular readers of my blog will recognise – advised me that a lot of trekkers wake up too late and end up doing most of their hiking in the midday sun, and it is much better to rise early. With this counsel in mind, I got up at the crack of dawn and ate a quick breakfast of tsampa (a local kind of porridge made from barely), and by 6:45 I was on the path again.

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Langtang was turning out to be a great place for wildlife: I had already seen a lot of birds the day before but that morning I saw many more, most of which were strange to me and I could not put a name to. I also saw three groups of langur monkeys, a few squirrels, and two antelopes.

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Within an hour I reached Bamboo, where I passed through a rather magical woodland for which the village gets its name.

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For the next few hours which followed I was walking through alder forests as I followed the river deeper into the valley.

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I drank plenty of water that day: one of the causes of altitude sickness is dehydration, and I was stretching the safety guidelines of acclimatisation by quite some margin. I knew what the symptoms were though and, if I began to experience them, I knew what to do; turn back and make a partial descent.

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Eventually the almost canyon-like valley opened up a little and the terrain – between all the steep mountains around me – became wider. Small Tamang villages became abundant.

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I reached Langtang Village at around 3:30pm and, although I was feeling a little light-headed, I was certainly not feeling unwell enough to turn back, so it seemed I was one of the lucky ones who acclimatises quickly. I had ascended almost 2,000 meters that day, going from 1,800 to 3,500.

I ate tingmo (a Tibetan style bread) with soup and asked for a cup of seabuck thron juice to wash it down. It came hot and was exactly what I needed to warm myself up. They offered me a free hot shower, powered by solar panel, which was a pleasant surprise. I had been told by many friends that people who trek the Nepali Himalayas generally don’t wash very often because it was expensive, but so far I had managed to wash for free two days in a row. It felt a little bit like I was cheating, but a free shower was certainly not something I was going to turn down.

I ate a second dinner a couple of hours later while chatting with a young Indian couple who had not quite managed to complete the trek (they turned back because they began to feel breathless). They also told me that there had been problems with too much snow, but it was thankfully now melting.

 

Day 3

I rose early, ate breakfast, waved goodbye to the owner of Peaceful Guest House, and was on my way again.

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It wasn’t too long until there was snow beneath my feet, and after a couple of hours I reached Kyanjing Gompa.

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I ate an early lunch as I contemplated what to do next. This was the end of the road for the Langtang Valley trail, but there was still a viewpoint on a nearby mountain called Kyanjing Ri which most people end up climbing. Most people also spend a night in Kyanjing Gompa first though, to help with acclimatisation, but I was feeling impatient.

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After finishing my lunch I decided to give it a go. The trail was hidden beneath residual snow so I got lost for a while. I eventually found a trail which led me into waist-deep snow, making me very conscious of the fact that I was alone and without a guide.

I saw that there were a group of people heading down the mountain towards me, so I waited. When they reached me I found out that the trail I was on was actually for a much higher summit – a summit someone like me (inexperienced and guideless) would be foolish to attempt. They pointed me in the right direction.

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When I finally made it to the top it was a fantastic panorama, but it did challenge my fear of heights. I also managed to find the correct way down the mountain, too.

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By the time I reached the bottom again it was 1:30pm, so I had plenty of time to make my way back to Langtang Village, giving me a head start for the next day.

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Day 4

I spent most of this day walking my way back down the valley, leaving the snow behind and entering the forest again.

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I spotted more birds along the way, and I also called in at Namaste Guest House in Pairo briefly to say farewell. Shortly after, I turned off from the Langtang trail and began walking along a footpath which snaked its way up a mountain towards a village called Thulu Syabru, past lots of bamboo trees.

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By the time I reached there the area had become enveloped by clouds and it began to rain. I settled into one of the first guest houses I came across. A place called Paradise Hotel which was run by a very nice lady and her family.

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I went to bed early that night. The next day I would be starting upon the Gosainkunda trail to reach the secret lakes.

 

To read Part 2 of my trek through the Himalayas, click here. For more photos from Langtang Valley, click here.

 

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Travelblog#44: Ifugao Rice Terraces – the Philippines

15th-18th February, 2015

Leaving Manila in behind, me and my three travelling companions – James, Chloe and Pedro – made our way to the bus station, where were loaded upon an aged vehicle. Once every space was filled, extra chairs were assembled in the aisle and more passengers were loaded on. This kind of thing is generally the norm in Asia, if you are travelling during the day, but this was night and… wasn’t this service advertised as a ‘sleeper’?

Ohayami are certainly not a company I would recommend to future travellers.

As the bus drove out of the city, engine straining from the weight of over 60 passengers, I discovered that my seat didn’t recline, and accepted the fact that sleep was going to be near impossible that night.

 

Banaue

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Banaue is a mountain town in the highlands of North Luzon. It is the gateway to the Ifugao Rice Terraces; an ancient complex of paddies spread across the Philippine Cordillera which archaeological evidence suggests are over 2,000 years old. In 1995 the area was awarded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was one of the places which had originally inspired me to come to the Philippines.

When we arrived in the morning it was raining and we were very tired, so we resigned ourselves to a lazy first day. We settled into a nice guest house called Querencia Hotel, which had restaurant overlooking the mountains, and we relaxed, occasionally turning our eyes wistfully to the window, where the downpour seemed to carry on relentless.

It eventually cleared up for a while, and during this brief lapse we ventured outside and made our way over to a local viewpoint, where we caught sight of mist drifting across the valley, blocking much of the scenery from view but making for an atmospheric landscape.

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We then wandered over to a nearby museum, which was filled with artefacts and had lots of information about the culture and history of the Ifugao tribes who call these lands home.

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After a good night’s sleep – and much improved weather – the following morning we were ready to start exploring the area properly. We went for a wander along a trail which followed an old irrigation canal through some of the rice fields outside Banaue, passing Tam-an – a humbly picturesque village – and then Poitan, which had some traditional Ifuago huts.

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We then returned to Querenia Hotel and packed our bags before jumping upon a jeepney heading to Batad. We had ideas in our minds of venturing out on a trek from there so we could see some of the terraces and villages which are a bit more off the beaten track. By a stroke of fortune we met a woman on the jeepney called Joy who was a registered guide. She was from Batad and spoke very good English, so we told her that we were interested in hiring her to take us out on a trek the next day if the weather was agreeable.

 

Batad

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Batad isn’t properly joined up to any roads so we had to get off the jeepney and walk the last few kilometres. We managed to make it to the village in time to see its breathtaking terraces before the sun went down, and then we claimed a dormitory-style room in a simple lodging house. It rained all night, and when we got up the next morning the entire village was so enveloped by fog that all we could see from the balcony was white. We began to worry that we were going to have to rethink our plans to venture out on a trek that day, but luckily the haze gradually lifted and the sun came out.

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We contacted Joy and told her that we could be ready to leave within a few minutes if she was still free to take us.

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Shortly after that, she was leading us out of the village through the terraces. Along the way she told us lots of interesting facts about the area and its people, and she was also happy to do her best to answer any questions we had. All but 2% of the people living around Batad have converted to Christianity, but some of their old summer festivals are still in practice, and she was able to tell me that the wooden effigies of a sitting man I kept seeing everywhere were depictions of Bulul, who, back in the days when they were animists, was placed around the fields to guard the rice.

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Once we had crossed the Batad terraces Joy led us over a mountain and through some woodlands. At around midday we reached a village called Cambulo, where we ate lunch, and then for the rest of the day we were hiking along a ravine with very striking scenery.

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Later that afternoon we reach Pula, a small village perched upon one of the mountain peaks.

 

Pula

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It only had one guesthouse, which was owned by an elderly lady whom everyone called “Aunty”. There was a French couple also staying there that night, and their guide and ours worked together to rustle up some vegetables and rice for dinner. While they were cooking Aunty’s grandson, Marvin, chatted with us about his life growing up in the terraces and his plans to get a job abroad for a while to improve his English. When we had finished eating we all sat around a fire and Marvin initiated a few puzzle games.

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In the morning we rose bright and early. We were all keen to get going, as we were hoping to get back to Banaue by lunchtime so we could catch the midday bus heading to Sagada. We were accompanied by the French couple and their guide for the remainder of our journey as we walked for four hours through a terrain of forests until we reached the main road. Once there, we thumbed a passing dumpster-truck and jumped onto the back.

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For more photos from the Ifugao Rice Terraces, click here. My travel-buddy James also has his own photography website.

If you are interested in embarking upon a trek around the area with Joy (whom I would highly recommend as a guide) then she can be contacted via email (jpoligon@yahoo.com) or her telephone number (+639366580357).

Travelblog#32: Pulau Weh – Sumatra, Indonesia

14th-19th December, 2014

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During my time on Pulau Weh I stayed at Yulia’s Guest House. It may not have had a sandy beach but its restaurant area balanced over the water, and the background sound of waves breaking against the rocks, more than made up for that.

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I was a little tired from my jungle trek and my bus journey through the Gayo Highlands, so I didn’t do much at first. I rested, slept, and the next day I woke up with enough energy to jump into the sea and swim over to the nearby Rubiah Island for some snorkelling. There wasn’t much coral – much of it had been swept away by the tsunami in 2004 – but there was lots of fish, and I even spotted a moray. There are some efforts currently underway to create an artificial reef, and on the day I was there I witnessed some divers busily attaching corals to concrete objects which had been dropped to bottom of the seabed, to help encourage more to grow on them.

When I swam back to Yulia, Dominique had arrived and was sat in the restaurant area. For those of you who haven’t read my other blogs; Dominique is a Canadian girl I keep bumping into because we are taking similar routes through Sumatra. The last time I saw her was at Lake Toba, but we already knew when we parted back then that our paths would cross again. She had a new friend with her; Oleg, a young German man she met on the boat.

After a quick catch up over breakfast, the three of us wandered over to Iboih Dive Centre: Dominique was interested in getting her PADI Open Water Diver certificate, and Oleg and I were just interested in general diving. The prices we were quoted were remarkably cheap (probably the cheapest I have come across in Asia so far) and the outfit seemed quite professional, so I told them I would be going under with them the next morning.

Over the two days which followed, I ended up blowing the last of the funds that I had put aside for diving. I saw barracudas, turtles, several mimic octopi which we watched for a while as they shifted their shapes to impersonate the corals around them, dozens of morays, and countless of other species that I cannot even name. Most rewarding though, for me, was the underwater landscapes of dramatic canyons, caves and ocean walls – all covered in beautiful coral, and teeming with schools of fish.

I spent the rest of my time on Pulau Weh relaxing: I read books while lazing in my hammock, wandered around Iboih, I made a few friends, and in the evenings I ate at Oongs Restaurant, where Oong herself a cooked up a delicious family style buffet dinner of vegetables and fish every night.

On my final day there it was raining but I knew that, despite this, there was one last thing I needed to do before I left: a motorcycle tour.

I still had not got back behind the wheel since my little accident on Lake Toba, and it felt like something I needed to do soon to regain my confidence. Pulau Weh was an ideal place for this because the roads are good and there are some attractions around the island which I wanted to check out, so, I packed my raincoat, snorkel and a bottle of water into my daypack, and set off.

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I drove quite slowly and carefully at first, but I soon got the hang of it again and within a few minutes I was roaming around with confidence. Aneuk Laot Lake and the volcano near Jaboi village were both quite disappointing, to be honest – the lake was not very pretty and surrounded by sludgy banks and houses, and the volcano didn’t have a crater and was just a sulphurous gash in the mountain – the coastal road, however, was great.

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What I did find very interesting was the underwater volcano which is just off the shore from a beach near Gapang. It didn’t take long to find it; I just swam out and suddenly found myself surrounded by bubbles escaping from a series of fumaroles. They were only about 10 meters down, so it was very easy to duck dive and get a closer look at the volcanic cracks on the ocean floor.

More photos from Pulau Weh can be found on my Flickr.