Thursday, April 19, 2018

Beautiful Bombay

Having completed the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, it seemed like a golden opportunity to reconnect with my ultra running friends Amit and Neepa, in Mumbai, India. I first met them in 2009 during my Comrades Marathon race in Durban, South Africa. Amit and Neepa were the first runners from India to compete in the Comrades Marathon ( 89 km Ultra Marathon ), both have completed this grueling race multiple times and subsequently Amit has become the Indian Ambassador for Comrades, written a captivating book about his journey leading up to and including the race ( “Dare to Run”, available on Amazon) and been awarded the “Spirit of the Comrades” award in 2016.

Neepa is absolutely incredible, having paved the way for female ultra runners in India to participate in this race!
We all share a similar desire for travel combined with running adventures, to test our mettle and keep ourselves fit for living our best life.

Neepa met us at the airport with Khwaja , who has become quite famous amongst their friends after he was mentioned in “Dare to Run” as their driver who helped them train ... ( read the book to find out more)! Right now Amit is in his peak training period for this year’s Comrades Marathon coming up in about 7 weeks or so.

Our stay with them has been a magnificent introduction to Mumbai and India.

Over the past month we’ve visited temples and churches of many religions and learned so much about different cultures which has been fascinating and illuminating. We’ve even had the opportunity to feed the sacred cows at a temple.

Khwaja drove us to the Kanheri Caves in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, located on the western outskirts of the city. Along the way he pointed out the billboard with the picture of Namrata on it ( the beautiful daughter of Amit and Neepa who is becoming a successful model).

It was almost debilitatingly hot and humid as we walked through the park to see these 2000 year old caves and monuments cut into a massive basalt outcrop. They have been dated from the 1st century BC to 11th century AD, an era that saw the rise and decline of Buddhism in this region and these 100 plus caves are precious insights into history.

Most of the caves were designed for simple living in a monastery setting.
A large Buddha, a Bodhisattva who represents compassion and an evolved water management system in the form of water cisterns left us in awe.

A visit to Swami Narayan Temple and the Krishna Temple, followed by a walk up to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount in Bandra gave us as broad overview of some of the different religions practiced in this area.

Next up was a fun filled day in South Mumbai and the Colaba district. Beautiful architecture abounds in this area and it really is the place to shop, eat and visit museums and galleries. It was here that we enjoyed a thirst quenching glass of sugar cane juice from a street vendor and devoured wheat free chocolate cake that melted in our mouths at one of the numerous quaint cafes near Khala Ghoda ( Black Horse) Square.

We popped into the stunning Taj Mahal Palace Hotel facing the Arabian Sea and Gateway to India. It was sobering seeing the wall of remembrance, tastefully and discreetly positioned adjacent to the lobby area, dedicated to those killed on the 2008 terrorist attack.

Lunch was enjoyed at the iconic Leopold’s Cafe, also attacked on the same day in 2008, as well as being mentioned in the novel “ Shantaram”.

A ferry boat ride to the island of Elephanta ( or Gharapuri), 11km out to sea, is a fabulous day adventure. Here we found a series of ornately sculpted, 5th century caves and a main temple cave dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

These caves have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the residents of the island run small restaurants, market stalls and offer their services as guides.

We decided to hire a local guide who turned out to be very enthusiastic and informative and we learned so much about the subject.

During the Portuguese Colonial era, the name “ Elephanta “ was given to the island because of a large elephant sculpture found there. It is no longer there, but there are most certainly lots of brazen monkeys trying to steal food and drink from tourists, by snatching items right out of your hand.

Unfortunately many of the sculptures were destroyed by the Portuguese who decided to test their canons in the caves. As a matter of interest the Portuguese colonized India in the 1500’s.

We’ve gained so much from our visit to India, first and foremost the opportunity to reconnect with our friends.

It has been fantastic to experience the rich and diverse culture and history and majestic architecture, especially of the Bombay region. In addition, it has been a gastronomic delight, where we’ve been exposed to the delicious tastes and nuances of local and regional cuisine and I’m lucky enough to have been taught a few recipes from Neepa which I can’t wait to add to my vegan blog!

We’ve been staying in the lovely area of Juhu near the beach, which is apparently also the home of some of the Bollywood stars.

The adventure started with a backpack each and we are leaving with an additional suitcase packed to the brim with all kinds of wonderful items ranging from brass elephant head door handles to a custom fitted sari for me and kurta for Dreadknot.
Over the past month we’ve traveled on planes, trains, automobiles, rickshaws, ferries, horseback and on foot, experiencing different climates, terrains and cultures.

I realize how fortunate I am in this life and a feeling of gratitude permeates my being.
The fact that I am able to test my personal limits by embarking on fairly challenging physical adventures around the globe is a real privilege. I am eternally grateful for all my opportunities to interact with so many different people and cultures from around the globe, expand my world vision and nurture my understanding that we are all in this together. Rather than focus on our small differences we would do better to focus on our abundant similarities with respect and a willingness to learn.
From India with love.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Completing the Annapurna Circuit: The Perfect Circle 

Welcoming in the 20th day, our last day trekking the Annapurna Circuit, we were rewarded once again by somewhat clear skies and spectacular views of the massive Annapurna Mountain Range peaks. 

Standing on the terraced garden of “See You Hotel” with Dreadknot, while admiring the view, I yawned and rubbed my eyes and when I looked up, the mountains were obscured by clouds.... the weather changes that fast up here. As we packed up our backpacks and prepared to leave, it became increasingly more overcast and the sound of heavy thunder reverberated through the mountains.

Leaving Pothana we had to check in again with the ACAP tourist police after we said goodbye to the large group of Dutch trekkers who had their trekking completion party last night which we enjoyed observing, where they thanked and had a very heartwarming dinner party with their many guides and porters. Everyone was having an absolute blast, dancing and being happy together and the feeling of good will and friendship building was absolutely beautiful.

Our route today was to be via Australian Camp (AC) and then on to Kande. Half way along the trail to Australian Camp, the heavens opened and we were pelted with rain and hail. Fortunately we had our trekking umbrellas at hand, rain covers for our packs and we could take refuge in the dining hall of AC. Accompanying the rain was a very fierce wind, driving the rain sideways, leaving us with drenched pants.

The heavy rainstorm lasted two hours after which the sun came out, the wind abated and we continued our downhill walk to Kande where we ended our trek. 

On the local bus drive to Pokhara we enjoyed the company of two Swedish hikers and once the bus came to a stop Lakeside in Pokhara, we got out onto the street and I asked a woman we saw whether she could recommend a place to stay. She was from Russia, lives here part of the year and very kindly walked us 1km to the hotel/ family stay lodge she stays at which was perfectly located for all the amenities of this very hip and cosmopolitan part of town.

After an afternoon of shopping for clothes to wear, getting our laundry done and catching up with awesome trekking friends who are also in town we feel satisfied and accomplished.

We’ve been following the red and white blaze, marking the Annapurna Circuit since the start of our journey at Besisahar. According our map “ Around Annapurna” , the official full Circuit follows the path we are taking, while most trekkers end on an alternate, shorter route. This map is a ‘ must have’ and for weight purposes there is a smaller pocket version.

Hiking the Annapurna Circuit and walking on foot for 20 days through this region of Nepal, has not only been an incredible and challenging physical feat but also a great journey in learning about this beautiful country, it’s people, culture, geography and history. The kindness we have received along our journey has been wonderful. Most of the tea houses we’ve been accommodated and fed in, have been smaller family enterprises and we’ve felt as though we have been welcomed into these families homes and have had the privilege of being exposed to their daily lives. All of our hosts have been gracious and genuinely interested in where we come from, how far we’re going and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed having warm conversations with them.

The Circuit has taken us over 230km/150 miles on foot through verdant subtropical farming climates, jungles, alpine forests, high arid mountain terrains above the tree line, through deserts and river beds. The route is a circular journey through the Annapurna Mountain range, giving us an almost 360 degree view of all of the massive peaks. We’ve hiked in the blazing sun, being snowed on and been pelted with rain.

The telecommunications system here is really good and we are amazed at the availability of WiFi in virtually all of the most remote mountain villages. There is also massive infrastructure development here at present, most notably with the construction of new roads, which at this time requires jeeps to be able to drive on, but no doubt in the future, more of them will be paved.

Thank you to the beautiful people of Nepal who helped make our journey such a pleasurable and memorable experience.

This trek has also been dubbed a “ world party”  and has lived up to this reputation as we have met and interacted with fantastic travelers from around the globe, all united in an epic quest to hike this incredible trekking route. 

It has been worth every step of getting out of our comfort zone. When you travel through a country on foot you experience it in a very deep and personal way, as you are moving through it slowly and experiencing it with all of your senses at all times. The difference between being a traveler rather than a tourist is that you assimilate your experiences into your being in a deeper way.

We are eternally grateful for this opportunity!


Friday, April 6, 2018

Shikha to Pothana: Trail of Neverending Stairs

Shikha to Ghorepani: Hail and rain in a Rhododendron forest

Up skyward was the name of the game today....again to 9,380ft / 2860m, our destination being Ghorepani (Horse water). 

Saying goodbye to our hosts and Patrick from Plymouth, who has been very helpful to us, we started our rock stair climbing through the most spectacular Oak and red and pink blooming Rhododendron forests imaginable. It rained and even hailed with reverberating thunderclaps all the way up and we finally got good use out of the trekking umbrellas which we’ve been carrying all this time. 

We had wonderful, friendly encounters with the local people we met along the way today, from porters of other hikers, to school children who spoke very good English. One man we spoke to told Dreadknot that he looks like a scientist... we laughed.... it must be the bushy silver beard!

At the halfway point of our stairmaster extraordinaire exercise today we stopped off in Chitre for a lunch of vegetable fried rice, apple pie and ginger tea. On a funny note, Dreadknot has always hated ginger and now he is the first to order ginger tea!

Reaching Ghorepani was akin to reaching nirvana, we were so exhausted from all the climbing.....925m/ 3034ft of elevation gain today! That on top of an 744m/2440 ft climb yesterday was killer!

Once again, as if on cue, the heavens opened up and unleashed a heavy rainstorm just as we found a room. We were turned away from 2 hotels as they were fully booked at first. It is pouring out there and there is an electrical power outage here on top of this mountain. Ghorepani is an extremely busy trekking town, with multiple lodges and hotels. Trekkers arrive here from every direction to do various hikes that are available from here, the biggest draw card being Poon Hill, which when clear gives epic views of the Annapurna Range.

The Annapurna Circuit forks into two potential trails to end the Circuit. We are choosing the original longer route through Todopani, Ghandruk, the Australian Camp down to Lumle where it officially ends. Depending on how fast we are able to hike , this will take another 2-3 days, after which we plan to spend a couple of days in Pokhara before returning to Kathmandu.

It’ll be early to bed tonight, snuggled up in our cosy sleeping bags with duvets on top!

Ghorepani to Ghandruk:

The magnificent sight of the peak of Annapurna South welcomed us into the day. The rains had stopped, the sky was partly blue, still with evidence of a threat of more rain to come.

More climbing was the order of the morning out of Ghorepani on the challenging Ghandruk Trail, part of the original Annapurna Circuit. We did not go to the Poon Hill lookout at 04:00 am, as we got the same vistas from this trail at a vantage point high above the town. We could enjoy the peak of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna South from the Deurali Pass lookout.

We climbed back up to 10,600ft/3231m and then endured a punishing downhill on uneven rock stairs, dropping 2000ft/610m in elevation just to have to climb back up another 1000ft /305m before we could enjoy lunch at Tadapani in the mountain top.

By the time we reached our destination of Ghandruk, (Nepal’s second largest Gurung community), we were ready to call it a day. The entire afternoon was spent plummeting downhill through a vast Rhododendron forest alongside a stream. Our knees and the bottoms of our big toes were feeling the pressure. 

We walked past a sticker on a pole which read, “ Auditions are being held for you to be yourself. Apply within.”

Ghandruk is a beautiful town. The views of the Annapurna range include : Annapaurna South, Himchuli, Gangapurna and Macchapucchre(Fishtail). The clouds parted after 6pm to reveal these majestic peaks to us. We are in awe and feel so fortunate!

There is a temple at the start of the town with beautiful views and 670 steps leading up to it from the village, which we walked down. The old part of the village is extremely picturesque, all the buildings built from stone, with slate roofs and neat gardens. We passed by the Ghandruk Cultural Museum and Lama Heritage Resort.

Relaxing in the dining hall of The Hungry Eye after a hard day of hiking and a freezing cold shower we enjoyed the company of fellow trekkers and were told the unsettling information about a series of recent murders on the trail, it sounded like solo trekkers in particular were being targeted.

After numerous cups of ginger lemon honey tea and Dal Bhat we settled in early to be energized for our last couple of days on the spectacular Annapurna Circuit.

Ghandruk to Pothana:

After a knee breaking descent down the mountainside from Ghandruk following a sleepless night due to a chorus of barking dogs, we were faced with the awful reality of climbing up the mountain on the other side to Landruk. To be honest, I was not a happy camper and inched my way up another thousand plus rock stairs. I started feeling a little better after I fished around in my backpack and found a roll of sports chews with electrolytes and glucose in them.

We stopped in at the Moonlight Guesthouse and Restaurant in Landruk for a bowl of veg noodle soup to give us some more energy to keep going. The owners proudly exhibited the volleyball championship medals earned by their son on the walls. We noticed that the local school high up on these terraced slopes had a good volleyball court in the grounds.

Lesson from the trail: Many small steps make big progress. Just when you think you can’t carry on anymore or you feel that you can’t reach your goal.... just continue moving forward, “ Slowly, slowly” as the local Nepalese tell us and eventually you will get there.

After Landruk, we walked through Tolke still high up in the mountains and then trudged through a few more small villages. We have used our map app often to check whether we’re on the correct trail or not and have even had to backtrack and make a correction.

I had the feeling of being saved when we arrived at Pothana, a haven up in the pine forests, just as the rain started coming down heavily. Our trekking umbrellas have come in very useful during this last section of the hike. We even got to have a hot shower!

Tomorrow is our last day on the Annapurna Circuit. We have chosen to walk every step of this epic hike on the original route, starting in Besisahar and ending in Lumle, near Pokhara. It’s been tough and not many people hike it from start to finish. This last section in particular has been emotionally and physically taxing as we have been going straight up and down mountains multiple times on a daily basis. Tomorrow we go through Australia Camp and then on to Lumle where we finish and will spend a couple of days in Pokhara to decompress.

Tonight we are cosy and safe at “ See You Guest House & Restaurant “.

We’ll check in again at the end of our quest tomorrow.

Namaste from Nepal:

N never

E ending

P peace

A and

H happiness