TIMS card (need a picture) - 2000 npr Everest National Park permit - 3000 npr Both permits can be acquired in tourist office in Kathmandu or at a checkpoint in Mojo (Just before Namche Bazar)
Cheese Circuit Conservation Area Permit - 2000 npr. If you are planning to walk in from Jiri you will need this one too. Cheese Circuit captures a small section of Jiri-EBC trek between Shivalaya and Bhandar, literally 3-4 hours. There is a permit office in Shivalaya which opens at 8 am, if you avoid it or pass through Shivalaya when the office is closed you won't be asked for that permit again, and you will be out of permit area within a few hours anyway.
Airports: Lukla - up to 20 flights from Kathmandu Phaplu - 2 weekly flights from Kathmandu
Bus/Jeep To/From Jiri - 1 bus a day leaving 5 am from Purano/Old bus stand in KTM downtown. Takes about 10 hours. Get tickets at least 2 days in advance. We had to ride on the roof and it's not as fun as it sounds! 550 npr From Phaplu/Salleri - 1 jeep leaving Salleri at 5 am, takes about 14 hours to reach KTM. It doesn't go to downtown and will drop you on the circuit road. Any guest house in Salleri will be able to book you a ticket for it. I don't know how to book a ticket for this jeep in KTM, my guess is that you will have to use a travel agent. 1200 npr.
From Lukla to EBC the trail is quite obvious, it's not marked, but it's impossible to get it wrong unless you stray of for side trips. From Jiri to Lukla it's much less obvious, there some markings but they are sparse and faded. There are a lot of villages on this stretch and your biggest danger is picking up a trail leading you to a near by village or a farm. Be prepared to stray of course a few times, as always friendly locals will see you heading in wrong direction and will point you to the right pass.
GPS is only useful to track your progress and occasionally checking where you. You don't really need it for navigation. I would advise to buy a large-scale map of Everest from Jiri, which is available from any shop in KTM for 300 npr. It's a good map with a lot of additional information such as distances between the villages in walking hours. A really good way of planning your trek based on the number of hours you would like to do a day. We planned to do up to 10 hours in the lower sections, than reducing it to 5-6 when we get over the 3500 meter threshold in Namche.
We didn't take neither a guide nor a porter, and I can't see why would we want one. The trails are obvious, there are no technically difficult places, you only carry your personal possessions (leave the rest in KTM), it gives you more freedom, keeps your costs really low. Having said that, if you are planning to deviate from the main trail and go on exploring the places where there is no lodging, need to cross glaciers or attempt summits, having a guide/porter is a good idea if not necessity.
Putting transportation and permits aside, food and lodging are your only costs. To give you an idea: Jiri-Lukla stretch: Room: 100 per person or free Noodle soup: 100-150 Dal Bhat: 250-350 Tea: 30-60 Momo: 200-300
Lukla-EBC stretch: Room: 100 per person, (200 at Gorak Shep). Noodle soup: 200 - 300 Dal Bhat: 450 - 650 (650 at Gorak Shep) Tea: 80-100 Momo: 400-600
I excluded things such as biscuits, chocolates, bottled water, beer etc, you could buy those at more affordable prices in places that are connected by road, all prices go up the higher you go. You can save a lot of money by buying water purification drops (20-50 npr) and they will last you for ages.
Our budget was 3000 per couple per day. I think we hardly ever went over 2000.==
Local Ncell sim card will give you connection in some areas, signal quality really varies. Lukla and Namche seem to be connected by cable, and generally have good and affordable wifi. From Namche to EBC almost every place will have a satellite phone and satellite internet. Internet costs go as high as $10 per 10 min.
All the places on EBC trail are supplied either with hydro or solar power. Until Lukla the electricity is generated by hydro-power and it is usually free to recharge your stuff. From Lukla to EBC you are normally charged about 100 npr per our to charge your stuff, and the charging rate is really slow.
How are the crowds?
Well this depends on the season. We did our trek early October. General impression: Jiri to Lukla - hardly anyone (Lukla to Jiri no one at all), Lukla to Namche - a bloody highway (horrible), Namche to EBC - OK actually, few people but well space out.
Hard to comment on this one for 2 reasons: 1-we did EBC straight after Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp and were well acclimatized. 2-the Jiri-Lukla stretch takes you over three 3500m+ passes, hence providing some acclimatization. We were also taking Diamox...
A general rule of thumb is that you should not pic up more than 500m of altitude gain a day. You also should plan for at least 2 acclimatization days: one at 3500m and one at 4500m. Also there is another rule to follow which is -DO NOT BE STUPID. It gets bad before it gets terrible. If you feel it getting you don't try to suck it up! Just descend! See this post for an itinerary Read about our EBC adventure here
Doing Everest Base Camp (EBC) - walk in from Jiri and walk out via Phaplu/Salleri - no flights
Normally when you do an Everest Bace Camp trek the plan is simple. You take a flight to Lukla hike up to Namche Bazar then to EBC and back to Lukla to catch your flight to Kathmandu.
Well this looked far to easy. We decided we just take a bus... The way sir Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did! Well to be fair some people still walk in from Jiri, but then they take a flight back, Hillary and Norgay didn't do that and neither would we!
Permits You need: TIMS card - 2,000, Everest National Park Permit - 3,000. We got ours in Kathamandu, but you can get them at a checkpoint an hour past Lukla. For TIMS card you need a picture, so make sure you have one.
Transport There is one bus to Jiri leaving from Old (Purano) Bus stand, best to go at least 2 days before to get a ticket. The bus leaves at about 5am. When you get to the bus stand you will realize it's a hell on earth nothing like relatively organised Naya (New) Bus Stand or Swiss rail-type bus stands in India. Yes I do think that transport system in India is well organised. You have to ask around at different ticket stalls before someone points you to Jiri. We found our guy fairly quickly and were told that the tickets for the next day were sold out due to a festival, but not to worry we just had to show up at 5 am and they would get us on the bus somehow, easy!
Ticket Price is 550 npr
Kathamandu - Jiri - Shivalaya, 188 km on a bus and 11 km hike.
We showed up at 5 am as prescribed, were told that we will have to stand until we get out of town then we can get a seat on the roof, simples!
To say that we piled up in the bus like sardines in a can would be a classic British understatement... but I can't describe it any better... When we squeezed in we literally filled in all the empty spaces on that bus. Two kind Nepali girls let Dovile to share a quarter of their sit with so she found herself hanging halfway in the air. Still better than me being a 5-way sandwich. The key was if you breeze out you take less space!
One thing you realise really quickly is that Nepalis have weak stomach... Every 10 minutes you here someone yelling "PLASTIC!!!", a well prepared conductor would swiftly pull out a plastic bag and pass it on, a second later a puke-filled bag will be passed on to the nearest window. That system worked like a clockwork! Empty and full bags would pass back and forth right by your face. 6 hours later (once we leave the town my arse) they finally let us to get up on the roof. Oh what a treat!
While riding one roof was refreshing, to sit on a luggage rack you need an iron arse, my advise have your Lonely Planet ready, this is the best service it'll give you on this trip.
We arrived to Jiri at about 3 pm after the most enjoyable 10 hour bus ride of our lives (so far..).
We had to choose if we stay in Jiri or push on to Shivalaya. I was set on going, so I asked Dovile for second opinion and she said it was a good idea. The whole point of asking for second opinion is the chance that a voice of sanity would stop you from doing something stupid... So we pushed on.
We walked for about 1,5 hours until we joined a dirt road, I knew that Shivalaya was connected by road so that must have been the right way. Luckily soon enough we bumped into a group of 4 Americans who had the same idea until local told them otherwise and turned them around. So we decided to join the forces and find our way together. The American guys were a funny bunch. They were from Colorado, now... why 70% of all yanks that I met on the road were from Colorado? It must be the most populous state i guess...
We had to bushwhack for a few hours, soon it got very dark and we were only saved by decent headlamps of our Yankee friend. Do not buy a £5 ebay head torch, not if your life may depend on it.
We managed to get to Shivalaya by 7pm in a pitch dark, after getting lost about 7 times and almost breaking our legs on slippery rocks. We dropped at the first lodge, and went to our room for a mandatory "leach control". This is not a code word for something, literally means pulling leaches of each other. Some of them were more like blood balloons...
Shivalaya - Kinja - 27 km - 8 hours
Our first full day of trekking started with a nasty surprise. There is a conservation area called Cheese Circuit which captures Shivalaya. This means that to be in Shivalaya you need buy a 2000 npr permit. The permit office was still closed and I thought for a while if we should just go, but than I didn't know if there were any further checkpoints on our way and it was better be safe then sorry. So we bought the permits. Turns out there were no checkpoints and we left Cheese Circuit area in a matter of few hours. We should have just bounced before 8 am.
It'was a very steep climb up till Deurali, then you descend all the way down. It looked like you could take a bus or a jeep all the way to Bhandar. Since it was late September we had to deal with a bit of a funny weather. The mornings are cold, the sun comes out mid afternoon - you get really cold and sweaty , than sure as hell it starts raining by 3pm. Everyday is the same and repeats itself to the minute. I had a bit of a sniffle when I left This is one part of the trek where it's easy ti get lost, mostly because there a bunch of villeges around and a lot of trails crisscrossing, but not to worry every local knows where you supposed be going and will turn you around if you stray of course.
We got to an empty village of Kinja being socked in rain, tired and hungry.
The first lodge we asked offered us to stay for free on condition that we eat our dinner and breakfast there. Happy days! Our bill next morning only came up to 1100 npr - yes $11 for doing something that amazing.
Kinja - Jumbesi - 17 km
This probably wasn't the hardest day in my life on a trail, but it damn sure comes close. Kinja is at 1600 m and Lamjura La (the highest point) is at 3530 m, this means almost 2000 meters of vertical gain. You have to kick your knees up a lot, and it gets tiring. Also you have to deal through the whole cold-hot-wet cycle again. We managed to get to Lamjura La by 3pm.
This is me looking down on Lamjura La towards Jumbesi behind me. We really wanted the next town just to come. Every step down seemed like ages. It's a funny feeling when you finally have fought your way to the top and now you just want to roll down. We thought it took us ages to get down to Jumbesi (maybe two hours..).
What a beautiful sight!
Remember me telling you about the whole COLD-HOT-WET cycle, and the sniffles that come with it. I decided that it was a perfect recipe for pneumonia, or at least it didn't feel like it was going to get any better. So we decided to stay for a day or so until I get better. We stayed at a place of a local Medical Center girl. The Medical Center was supported bu NGOs and there were quite a few European folks coming down every couple of years. Hence the girl spoke very academically correct English. Jumbesi is a large village, it was one of the key points on EBC trek and now is one of the biggest victims of Lukla Airport. In old days flocks of trekkers would pass and provide much needed income to the locals. These days there are hardly any trekkers, we saw only two other couples. There are plenty of lodges which are almost entirely empty. Jumbesi is also connected by road, you can grab a jeep to Kathmandu, although this is something that you may need to arrange a couple of days in advance. Goods can be transported by road and not carried by porters, hence food prices are relatively low. There is a huge difference between places connected by road and not. The roads brings a lot of development and make everything twice cheaper.
Second day we decide it would be better to stay put, and recover from the cold before it turned to pneumonia. Our hostess's dad has recently decided that life in Jumbesi was far too much and enrolled into Jumbesi monastery. She was going there to visit him and offered us to join. this is one of the most respected monasteries in Nepal, this becomes clear when you see a helipad, a well honored monk wouldn't travel otherwise wood he? Sorry we couldn't take any pictures here... We were invited in for a tour and a lecture. We set through about 2 hours of Tibetan chanting, and I saw a couple of monks recording the lecture on their IPhones. Than we made a donation and managed to get out of the room. When I asked our girl about the lecture she said: "I was getting a bit bored, I don't actually speak Tibetan, but if you do than it's really powerful" Well, at least we got our fully legitimately blessed scarves!
Our 3 day stay only came to just under 3000 npr.
Jumbesi - Kharikola - 25km
Today we decided to push forward and get over the Taksindu La. I was quite looking forward to this day as this is where you get your first glimpse of Everest. It took us just under two hours to get to Salung, literally a bunch of spread-out lodges one of which was called - Everest view Point. A perfect place for a cup of tea.
You see a few old lodges which gone out of business after the airport was built. Which is a real shame as this is a beautiful part of journey.
We reached Taksindu La by mid-afternoon. The push to the pass is very steep and it's made more difficult by endless caravans of donkeys carrying supplies to Namche and upwards.
We stayed at a little guest house by the river. It is run by a lonely grandma who spoke no English and simply had to guess when we were ordering food. Both dinner and breakfast we just some random combination of potatoes, eggs and noodles. At the end of the day it didn't matter we just wanted our calories.
Kharikola - Chaurikharka - 19km
Another day that involved a lot of ups and downs and shearing the trail with endless caravans.
When you get to Surke, the trail splits. The upper trail takes you to Lukla, and we took the lower one down towards Namche. This was the last place where we got to enjoy solitude, free electricity and cheap food. The next day we were going to enter a trekkers highway, with crowds brought in by 20 flights a day from Kathmandu. Jiri to Lukla part is fairly cheap - price of Dal Bhat is 250-300 npr which is fairly good indication.
Chauriharka - Namche Bazar - 16 km
This was a very difficult day, you move constantly up having to cover 1500 m of altitude gain. We quickly realized how lucky we were to have a whole trail for ourselves over the past 7 days. Suddenly the trail turned into a tourist highway. Flocks of clean and cheerful tourists, fresh of a plane were passing by, hi-5ing and greeting everybody, such a contrast to the two of us being washed up, tired and dusty. Additionally a lot of overexcited freaks thought it's be a good idea to stop and block the entire pass for photo-session, seriously? As this wasn't enough, you get a bunch of scary Yak caravans which threaten to rum you of the road. We thought that if this how it's going to be for the rest of the trek, we may as well turn around and just go home.
We reached Namche by 3pm. It's a fairly big town complete with numerous lodges, German bakeries, shops and trekking agencies.
Namche Bazar - Rest day.
The general rule of thumb is that you do one rest day at 3500 meters and another one at 4500 meters. I don't think we actually needed an acclimatization day as we have just crossed 3 passes going over 3500 meters, and were still acclimatized from the Annapurna trek we completed a week before starting EBC. However we had the time so decided to spend a day exploring around Namche.
We decided to explore surroundings and visit Khumjung and Khunde villages.
While still being fairly cheap Namche is considerably more expensive then villages where we stayed previously. Cost of room is 200 npr and a Dal Bhat - 450.
Namche Bazar - Shomare - 15 km Luckily our worries about massive crowds didn't came true. Lukla to Namche is very busy indeed, however, then people seem to spread out, perhaps some trek to Gokyo lake. This was one of my favorite days. You start by going towards Everest with a number of 7000-8000 meter peaks towering right over you.
You descend some very steep steps towards the river bottom at Phunki Tanga, than you have a very steep climb up to Tengboche. A beautiful village with a view of snow-caped mountains and an impressive monastery.
Trekking to Tengboche is a good alternative to spending a rest day in Namche. We decided to push on and descend to a small village of Shomare (4000m) just an hour past a major village of Pangboche. There are only a couple of lodges in Shomare one of which happen to be closed. At dinner we met two other guys (Indian and Dutch) who were trekking from Jiri, although they were smart enough to hire a car and spare themselves a horror of bus ride from hell. It was their second crack at EBC. The first time was 2 years before when they got as far as Lobuche, than got snowed in for a couple of days and had to abandon the trip. Their plan was to push the next day all the way to Lobuche with an altitude gain of almost 1000 meter. I told them that it sounded too ambitious and that picking up more than 500 meters in a day is pretty dangerous. They said that they have done 1000 meter gains before and were alright. Well there is a big difference between ascending from 2000m to 3000m and ascending from 4000m to 5000m. Well best of luck guys.
Shomare - Dukla (via Dengboche)- 10 km This was going to be a quick day. Dukla is literally a guest house at a trail head. It's located at altitude of 4600m and is a good place for a second acclimatization day. We were going to take a lower trail via Periche, however, somehow we managed to miss our turn and ended up in Dengboche. We decided to cut a corner here and take a higher trail which passes right above Periche.
In a couple of hours of easy walking we reached Dukla. And guess who we saw there? The guys from the night before... Both of them got cut down by altitude sickness and they decided to take a rest day. What did I told you? Don't mess with altitude! There are a lot of people who get in trouble on EBC trek, mostly because Lukla Aiport allows you to get fairly high fairly quickly and do the whole thing in a space of a 2 week vacation. And this could really let you down. We saw about 6-7 helicopters a day flying towards Gorak Shep to pick up tourists who underestimated the effect of altitude and had to be brought down to Lukla.
Cost of Dal Bhat - 500 npr
Dukla rest day.
Today we decided to go Dzonghla at 4900 meters for an acclimatization trip. It's a beautiful hike, there aren't any people apart from occasional porter hauling supplies. And you get to pass by some amazing scenery.
Dzonghla is a base for a trek to Gokyo over Cho La Pass. This trek involves crossing a glacier, hence you are highly recommended to take a guide even if only for the 2-3 days needed to reach Gokyo.
Below is a view of Dzonghla from a ridge above.
Dukla - Gorak Shep - 7,5km
This is a short day, but altitude makes it fairly strenuous. First you have to get over the pass right above Dukla. This is a very strange place as it acts as a memorial graveyard to all those people who have died on the mountain over the years.
Shortly after the pass we reached Lobuche for a quick cup of tea moved onward to Gorak Shep. You get to walk parallel to mighty Khumbu Glacier, admiring mega-tonnes of ice slowly moving a few centimeters a day.
There are 2 large lodges at Ghorak Shep. If you would like to stay at the newer one which is more solid it's 400 npr and a cost of Dal Bhat is 650 npr. Which if you think about it should only come to $15-20 for staying at the top of the world at 5200 meters altitude.
Day 13 finished with me falling sick (again), this time I came down with a nasty stomach bug. I spent these 2 days laying down and not eating anything but tea and sugar. Not the highlight of the trip.
Gorak Shep - Kala Pattar - Lobuche
After spending 2,5 days laying down and not getting any better we have decided to abandon the trip and descend to a lower altitude for recovery. I was really gutted at the thought of us having to give up when we were literally a few hours away from the EBC and Kala Patar peak. We packed our stuff, payed our bill and were leaving when I decided - now or never! EBC wasn't such a big of a deal as there wasn't any expeditions at that time. Kala Pattar a top of the hill towering over Gorak Shep at 5550 meters was the real prize. We decided that it had to be done.
Normally it takes about 2 hours to hike to the top, altitude may make it harder though. A few minutes after we started to hike I realized that I was running out of steam. I simply couldn't make my legs move. My first reaction was- it must be the altitude. However, I was well acclimatized, spent 3 nights sleeping at 5200 meters, and haven't gone much higher than Gorak Shep. It couldn't have been altitude... Than it downed on me... I spent almost 3 days not eating, normally it's not a problem if you don't exercise you can go for several days without food just by burning your reserves. However, at an altitude of 5000m + your body burns calories at much more accelerated rate. My best guess is that, while lying down, I simply ran out of energy. We went through our backpacks and pockets trying to find anything that I could use to refuel my tank. We scored 2 dry breads, and a hand full of Halls cough-sweets, sweets - great! Than I saw them proudly stating on the pack - "Halls-sugar free only 1 calorie"! Sugar free - bastards. Well 1 calorie is better then nothing - I swallowed a whole hand-full hoping it would make any difference.
I worked out a system where I would count 20 steps than stop and count till 20. After 100 steps I'd stop and count till 100, and every 10 minutes i'd take a 5 minute break. It was very odd feeling, I didn't feel tired, didn't feel dizzy or nausea, I just simply had no energy to go as if I just finished a marathon just before that. It snowed the day before and the track was covered in fresh and soft snow. I was doing the whole thing wearing my summer trainers. Not a good idea... But with a bit of inventive engineering every problem can be solved. I got 2 stiff plastic bags, put them over my socks and tied around the ankles. And Voila! what you can see on the picture above is my improvised water and snow proof socks.
4 hours later we finally managed to get to the top for some stunning view on the Everest range.
After taking few pictures and getting our breath back we walked down to Gorak Shep in under an hour. We popped back into the guest house for a bowl of soup and some hot tea. In Gorak Shep it's very common for groups to leave some sort of memorabilia. Usually it's a signed T-shirt or a scarf, my favorite was the one below - Wexford Strawberries for Sale.
Over the next 3 days we have retraced our steps back to Lukla. This time we decided to make a detour and visit actual Lukala Airport just to see why is it being called most extreme airport on the planet.
Watch this little video. Next time I'm taking this flight.
On this day we pushed all the way back to Bupsa, it was a bit too ambitious and we had to walk the last hour in twilight stumbling over rocks, which is not the best thing when you tired and just want to get get some of that Dal Bhat. We stayed in a house of a professional mountain climbing guide. He came back home from an expedition as we were having dinner, they just had an attempt at one of the 7000m peaks, unfortunately they didn't manage to summit that time. He had a bunch of pictures with him on the summit of Everest, Annapurna and some other peaks. It was amazing to meet someone who actually been to the top of the world.
Bupsa - Ringmu - 17km This is a hard day because you have to get over Taksindu La at 3500m. Prepare for the trail to be quite busy and for numerous donkey caravans that you will have to give way to.
We have reached Ringmu by late afternoon, and asked a guest house owner to call his mate in Salleri and check if we could book a Jeep.
Ringmu - Salleri - 14km
Just over 3 hours. The road actually stretches all the way to Ringmu, however there were numerous landslides which made it impassable. We had to climb over several trees and climb up and down a hill to negotiate our was around the landslides. Once you out of the forest it's a straight pass to Phaplu airport (2 flights per week to KTM) and a couple kilometers further to Salleri. Salleri is proper town with all the standard amenities and civilization. We stayed at the place recommended by the GH owner in Ringmu, but were told that because tomorrow was Dewali there might not be a Jeep for the next couple of days. It's been long 3 weeks on the road and we were well set on going back to Kathmandu and preparing to our next adventure - India.
Luckily we got some good news! There was one Jeep going and we could get 2 sits! A ticked guy showed up at our guest house, wrote us two tickets (1200 npr each) and told us to be outside on the main road at 5am.
Salleri - Kathmandu - 272km
This was the most beautiful and most horrible ride I ever took. And that is a lot... The whole journey took us 14 hours. There was another French couple and a bunch of Nepali guys who were picked up and dropped off at various points along the way. It seemed like a new road was in process of being built. But in a sort of a funny fashion... you would be driving on a dirt track than a good road for kilometer or so than back on dirt and so on. A few times the road takes you up on a ridge and drive along the ridge with a void on both sides. I think that by now they must have finished the road which should make the journey shorter and way more pleasant.
Somewhere halfway trough the journey we came to a foot bridge where we ditched our jeep, crossed the bridge, had lunch and were picked up by another jeep. You have a guy looking after your group all the time so there is no chance you will miss a jeep. They dropped us off at Patan just on the main road to Kathmandu we were far too tired to haggle and took a first taxi to Durban Square (600npr) shearing it with the French guys. Getting to our hotel in Kathmandu was like coming home, it was so strange to hear all the noise, having warm nights and not having to dress up when going to bed. We missed civilization... 2 days later we really wished we were back on the mountain...
If you liked it please comment so I know how much effort to put in!
On this day we have decided to climb, not more not less, Armenia's highest mountain - Aragats is a single peak and dormant volcano towering at 4090 meters above sea level.
There is a long and a short way of climbing Aragats. The long way involves a 3000m ascent from the town of Aparan and makes it for a very long day. The shorter way is starting from town of Artashat which is easily reachable by public bus from Yerevan in about an hour. The second step is to get a ride up to Cosmic Ray research station at about 3200 meters. We found a local taxi driver who agreed to take us there and wait for about $35 in his old Lada. It's about 40km up windy and beat up roads, so all in all is a good deal. After about an hour and a half we were at the research station and agreed to be back at our taxi in about 5-6 hours.
We started to walk cheerfully up a slightly steep hill, just to stop in 2 minutes grasping for breath. At that point we realized that we flew up 3200m in a taxi, which put us straight into altitude sickness zone. This was the first time I really felt it, you don't feel tired or exhausted, you just feel suddenly weak.
After about an hour, you pass by a small pool of ice. That gets you thinking, we were doing it in September so it mush have survived the entire summer. The temperature on the top must drop way below zero at night. There are a few trails, but it's kind of obvious where to go.
After about 2,5 hours of slow determined walking we have reached the top. The scenery looked like surface of Mars or something from a post apocalyptic film.
After a mandatory photo-shoot we picked an alternative trail to come down along the ridge. We followed the trail half way, than it kind of disappeared and we simply followed the ridge. I guess we have missed the point where we had to decent of the ridge, so we had to climb down the rocks, and than walked for couple of hundred meters until we reached a trail taking us back to our taxi.
By 7 pm we were back at Yerevan for a warm shower and a cold beer!
When we visited Armenia we decided to stay in Yerevan and take day trips out. Luckily Yerevan's central location and the county's small size makes it easy.
Armenia is the first country to adopt Christianity, and Armenians won't miss a chance to tell you about that.
On this day we have decided to take a day trip to Khor Virap - an ancient monastery located just 800 meters from a border with Turkey. The easiest way to get there is to take a bus from Yerevan's central bus station towards the town of Ararat (not to be confused with the mountain) and ask to drop you at Pokr Vedi. From there it's a 4 km hike to Khor Virap.
It's a beautiful walk towards the monastery especially on a clear day as you can see mighty mount Ararat on the background. To climb Ararat is a bit complicated as the Turkish-Armenian border is closed, so you will need to detour via Georgia and than get a climbing permit from Turkish authorities.
It takes about an hour to visit the monastery, but the area around it is the real attraction. Make sure to go down to the cave underneath the church. It gets a bit claustrophobic, and gives you a bit of a funny feeling as if there is something out there.
Important bit, we thought there was a bus from Khor Virap to Yerevan a couple of times a day, well it's not there. The bus stop is only for tour buses, so just walk back to the main road and catch a public bus. We spent about an hour playing cards with friendly locals before we realised that a bus won't come.
We met a young Polish couple who hitchhiked all the way from Poland. Apparently Turkey and Armenia are very easy to get a ride, and most people will be happy to speak to foreigners.
Mtskheta - an ancient Georgian capital and christian heritage
Mtskheta is an ancient town and one of the historical capitals of Georgia, located about 20km out of Tbilisi. Mtskheta was the place of Georgia's adoption of Christianity in 3rd century AD and still is the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church. It's a both main tourist destination and a christian pilgrimage site. Not many people know, but Georgia was the 2nd country to adopt Christianity. Armenia was the first.
You can get a minibus from Dibude bus station, same place that you get a bus to Kazbegi. You will need to get a ticket from a small window at kiosk-like ticket office. The ride takes about 1 hour and costs 1 GEL. Prepare for the minibus to get seriously full.
Once you get to Mtskheta prepare to get "templed-out". It's a capital of Georgian Christianity after all.
Main sites to visit: Jvari (The Cross) Monastery. Samtavro (Place of the Ruler). Bebris Tsikhe (The Elder's Fortress). Located further up the main road from Samtavro.
We decided to go first towards the Fortress. It was fun climbing the ruins although a bit dangerous in flip flops :-). Than we came down to the river and found a place to cross and found an off road track leading up to the Jvari monastery . It's about 4 km hike, as there are a few trails crisscrossing you have to have your wits about you and check were you turning unless you want to get lost in the middle of Georgian nowhere.
We bumped into this pack of hostile bulls or buffalo blocking our pass, when we tried to approach them they would get up and make unfriendly advances at us. We ended up having to bushwhack across nettle field to get around them. Well, I'll take nettle stings over a buffalo headbutt any day of the week.
Jvari was a highlight of the day. A great view point over the town and the valley beyond.
Akhalkalaki is a small Georgian town on a border with Armenia. About half of the town is made out of ethnic Armenians. We arrived after 6 hours on a local bus. I went on a scouting mission around the center and quickly found a decent guest house for about 50 GEL. The town itself doesn't have much to offer. However, there is a nice fortress which was recently restores and provides good views over the surroundings.
After visiting the fortress we popped into a cafe on the other side of the crossroad (sorry didn't take a note of the name).
We ordered our meal and a couple of beers. The idea was to have a quick snack and have some rest after the bus ride we had. Than the owner has noticed that I was Ukrainian and offered to have some Cha Cha - local moonshine. He got out a water bottle full of Cha Cha and purred shots to Dovile and I, it would be rude to refuse so we downed it and washed up with beer. Than his relative turned up, he also decided to have a chat about politics and the war, and of course that had to be accompanied by Cha Cha. Dovile isn't a big fan of spirits, let alone moonshine, but you have to follow the customs, and in any case we were already leaving... As soon as we got to the door, the clouds broke and it started to pour and hail. It looked like a solid wall of water... There was no way we were getting out there. The owner told us not to worry and got the rest of the bottle out... Not again... We drunk until we finished the whole liter of Cha Cha and could barely stand. I don't remember how we got home, but I do remember waking up with a massive hangover.
Day 2 Vardzia
There are two reasons to visit Akhalkalaki 1-to go to Armenia, 2-to see Vardzia.
Vardzia is an ancient cave monastery site in Georgia. It dates back to 11th century and was started by Giorgi III, and continued by his daughter Queen Tamara.
You can take a bus for 5 GEL each way from the central bus station. We decided that since there were two of us it made more sense to take a taxi. We approached the first cabby we could see at the bus station, and after a bit of haggling agreed on 40 GEL for a round trip, so double the price of a bus but without having to worry about the time and with stops on the way.
Like this castle for example
Vardzia is truly amazing. I have been to cave temples before, but never to anything of this magnitude.
There was an entire city based in those caves. The rocks kept people and food cool in during hot Georgian summers. The complex is well preserved, you can easily identify living quarters, kitchen, winery, temple and other places. As well as a few long and scary tunnels taking you from place to place beneath the rock.
Marshrutka from Didube bus station takes about 3 hours up the windy mountain roads and costs 10 GEL, you pay to the driver and they leave when full.
If you are planning to climb Kazbegi (5033m) you will need a guide or at least someone with solid mountaineering skills. Mostly because you will have to cross Gergeti Glacier at 3000m.
We had a much less ambitious plan, just to reach the Holy Trinity Church and get to a view point of the glacier.
As soon as we got out of marshrutka we were surrounded by old women offering a room. We picked one and got a room and food for 70 GEL.
You can get a jeep up to the church, or hike up to Gergeti and take a trail bending the hill on the left side.
It takes about 1,5-2 hours to reach the Church, there are only couple of spots where you can refill your water bottle. Once you get to the top this when you get to enjoy the view.
The church is very pretty and it gets rather busy with both tourists and pilgrims. After a quick photo session we decided not to waste any time and push on to the view point. The trails is not too steep and easy to follow, it only took us another 2 hours to get there and see this thing of beauty. Mighty Kazbegi towering over the glacier. We could see some tents camping just below the glacier, we were told that this was the only place you could refill your water after the Church.
After visiting Svaneti and cutting our trekking trip a bit short we had extra 2 days and we decided to pick Kabuleti
Kabuleti is a seaside resort town just 20 km away from Batumi. It is made out of a seaside road and a parallel street stretching for a bout 7km. We quickly found a place to stay on the street just behind the main road. Generally every second house lets out rooms and the cost depends on season and level of comfort. We found a pretty basic room for 20 GEL a night.
This is one of those very odd, old-fashioned Soviet-type places. The waterfront is clearly up for redevelopment, it has a bunch of abandoned concrete buildings, but nothings seems to be being built.
A couple of shut down restaurants have been turned into piss corners. The funny thing is that the smell is so vile that you can't even seat in the restaurant next to it. There is no way that the owner doesn't realize that this is the reason his place empty. Well this is beyond me...
My, by far, most favorite thing about Kabuleti is the live music in restaurants. Boy they like it there they really do. We were having a dinner in one restaurant across the street from one with live music. The music was so loud that we couldn't hear each other. That restaurant and the two right next to it, on each side, were completely empty. And again, it is beyond me, how come whoever runs the place sees it as brilliant idea!
The beach is a bit odd, because it's made out of big rounded rocks it's quite hard to get in and out of the water. All in all we have spent two days just chilling, eating hachapuries and drinking beer.
To hike from Mazeri to Mestia and onward to Ushguli. Mestia to Ushguli part is very popular with well-marked trails and lots of home-stays along the way. We decided to make it more fun and supplement by an extra day of less populous Mezeri - Mestia trek.
Mestia is a capital of Upper Svaneti region and a major tourist destination in itself. People come here for trekking, to see Svan towers and just chill in the beautiful setting among 4700 meter peaks.
Mazeri is much less visited, but it's popular with climbers who tackle Ushba. To get to Mazeri we took a marshrutka from Zugdidi towards Mestia and asked to let us out at Becho. From there we hiked 7,5 km on a jeep track up to Mazeri. As you hike up you get the first glimpse of Ushba being wrapped in clouds.
We quickly found a place to stay in a guest house of Yuram and Djamala, negotiated price down to 35 GEL for half-board.
Yuram and Djamala took really good care of us, we stayed with them for 3 nights, talking a lot about how Svaneti and Georgia overall changed over the last few years, and drunk some really strong Cha Cha (moonshine) Yuram used to be a boarder guard so he knows the area very well and can tell you all about the surroundings.
It's about 16 km from Mazeri to Mestia and should take about 8-9 hours. Altitude start/end: 1600/1420m; highest point is Guli Pass - 2960m. The trail is marked by quite a common marking of red and white stripes (just like Indonesian flag). GPS on my phone has been playing up lately, the day before it showed that we were in the middle of the Ushba glacier when we were about 5-10 km off mark. It wasn't a problem at that point, but created a concern that I couldn't fully trust the GPS reading. We left about 7 am planning to make it Mestia by 4 pm.
We followed the markings and occasionally checked GPS map on my phone. I use RMaps and MapsMe, both work offline, and Rmaps allows you to download Open Cycle topographic maps. By about 10 am we have reached a small clearing which had a few shepherd's plywood cabins and a small fenced off area for cattle.
Following the marking we have turned left and carried on walking along the creek coming down the Usba glacier. This was the point when I remembered Yuram saying that apart from the place with the cabin's there wasn't any water on the way... so what is the deal with the creek? I checked my GPS and we were going way of course towards Ushba, but than there were markings so what to trust? Could it be that my GPS is wrong again and we are on the right trail? or the map is wrong? or the old trail is no longer there and the marking lay the new trail?
We could see something ahead of us which looked liked Guli Pass. I got really disoriented and ran up a hill (didn't even drop my backpack), to get some sense of what was around us and if there was an alternative trail to the right that we could cut to. But there were just more hills and gullies and nothing looked like the map.
I decided to carry on following the marked trail. It must be leading to Mestia, and in any case, it's easier than trying to cut through the mountains off trail, especially when we couldn't trust the GPS. After another hour the clouds cleared and I could see something that looked very much like Ushba glacier, we were right at the bottom of it. At this point it was clear that GPS was right and we were way off our course. I saw a small tent on an edge of the glacier, dropped my back pack and went to see if I could find someone. The tent belonged to 3 polish climbers. The day before we saw a chopper circling Ushba, Yuram told us that a climber died on the mountain. The guys told us that the chopper was one of their mates and he only broke a leg and was fine.
We checked their map against my GPS and it all made sense. The markings were leading right to the middle of Ushba glacier, and if we carried on in that direction we would end up in Russia, and that wasn't part of our plan. Turns out that Georgians mark all the trails in exactly the same way. That wouldn't be a problem if the trails didn't cross... Marking two interconnecting trails with the same mark is like:
It was already about 4 pm, was clear we wouldn't make it to Mestia, and we burned far too much energy going up and down the mountain. In theory we could have gone back back to Mazeri, but a thought of telling Yurama and Djamala how we messed up was a bit to much. We decided to go back to the cabins, which must have been the place where the trail splits, and stay there overnight.
The cabins were really thin, they had some metal-framed beds and one even had a wood-burner. As we were going to have late lunch and a dinner in Mestia, we didn't have much in terms of food. Luckily Jamala packed us some bread and cheese, we had one pack of pot noodles and a whole field of blueberries!
After collecting the blueberries, eating cold water-soaked noodles and leaving the bread and cheese for breakfast we looted the area for wood, ransacked the fence and fired up the wood burner. At midnight a herd of bulls showed up. They started fighting among themselves, than must have smelled us and started to circle around that cardboard hut, occasionally giving it a nudge. That lasted for good couple of hours until the bulls lost interest and moved on. As the hut was so thin the heat was escaping and it was getting really cold as soon as the fire died down. We spent the whole night burning the rest of the fence and cuddling next to the fire.
We decided to leave as early as possible, and hit the road around 6 am. From the huts, we hiked up until we reached the top of the pass. We have wasted quite a lot of time and energy on trying to find a marked trail or align with GPS. There isn't really a trail, there are occasional markings pointing you in the right direction. But basically you just have to negotiate your way up until you reach the top of Guli pass.
This is where it gets really difficult, the way down the pass is very steep and guess what? there is no trail either? We have tried to align with GPS trail, but it quickly became obvious that it must have overgrown or otherwise disappeared. At the end we had to take bearings using a compass and descend down some very steep hill being knee-deep in slippery grass and loose rocks. This was our first hike on this trip, and I really didn't want it to be our last one...
Once we came down to the bottom of the valley it was easy to find and follow the trail. We bumped into a few people hiking around the area. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top hill hanging over Mestia.
We were so exhausted that we decided to cut our loses and abandon the trip in Mestia. Afterall we still had 2 months of trekking in Nepali Himalayas ahead of us.
A pretty ordinary actually... To hike Adam's peak - Sri Lanka's holy mountain from Dalhousie. Adams's peak is the most holy place in Sri Lanka and a major point for both tourist and religious pilgrimage. From Dalhousie it's only 5000 stairs... easy right?
Practicalities - it's easy enough to get to Dalhousie - the most common starting point. I took a bus from Kandi to Hatton where at the bus stop everyone knows where you supposed to be going and will put you on the right bus only a couple of hours away.
Dalhousie is no more than a base camp. It has a bunch of guest houses, market, bus stand and a monastery. Fairly easy I found a guest house for 800 rupee. The plan is to be on the top for sun rise which in March is at about 5:30 am. I decided to do an "under 2 hours challenge", there isn't really a challenge, but it wouldn't be fun if I haven't made one up for myself. So there it was. I left the hotel at 2 am and rushed down path. It's a beautiful feeling when you leap step over step as if you were flying up the hill, but it only lats about 5 minutes.... Than it gets hard... really hard, you have to work out a comfortable pace and make frequent stand up breaks and at least one sit down. Having said that, there were some 80+ grandmas who were hiking up like terminators- unstoppable! If you don't challenge yourself (spelled - make your life difficult) it can be quite an enjoyable walk, there are tea stalls and shops all the way through. Well, I did it in just 1 hour and 50 minutes!
There is a temple on the top. You can make a donation and have a prayer said (or sang) for you. Sunset from the top is brilliant:
I was about to go down, but than I saw a staircase leading in the opposite direction and a sign saying "Ratnapura". It'd be silly to go up and down Adam's peak the same way, wouldn't it? Especially because this is exactly what everyone else does. It took me about 15 seconds to make up my mind and decide on the following plan. I'll go down the Ratnpura route, which I knew was longer, but it's downwards, hence no biggy. Than I'll take a bus and get back to Dalhousie.
I was down by about 10 am, took me not more than 4 hours. Was quite a pleasant walk and a drastic contrast to overcrowded Dalhousie route. The idea is is that the harder it is to get to the top the more karma-points you get, hence the only guys who do it the long way are monks, well and me, but I'was going down so it doesn't really count.
There is a bus stop at the bottom of the trail-head and a shop with a few very curious locals. Wasn't long before I got on a 1,5 hour bus to Ratnapura town from where I was going to get an easy connection to Dalhousie. I got of the bus just to realize there was no bus stop toward Dalhousie, which wasn't a problem. It's often the case the destination name isn't written in English or you simply have to change buses, been there done that, all fine. I tried to ask around, and that's is when I realize that I'm well of the beaten track. No one speaks English, literally no one. Oh yeh - that was 2010 and I had dumb Nokia so no GPS or Map, and I didn't take a Lonely Planet with me, since it was a simple up and down jog. I try Dalhousie, Dauhooise, Dal-house, Dalhooisee, until I remember the little of Hindi that I learn on the road Sri Pada (Holy Mountain) - BINGO. The guys put me straight on the right bus, and I switched off almost instantly.
I got of the bus rubbing my eyes and being ready for a nice Lankan curry... just to realize that I was exactly at the place where a bus picked me up some 5 hours ago. At that point it was already 3pm. I had a choice to get back on the bus and take my chances finding a ride from Ratnapura, which worked out so beautifully last time, or hike 10,000 steps up to the top and 5,000 down. This is what I call a "Impossible dilemma"... After conducting in-depth assessment of my options I rationally decided to toss a coin. The coin said - "you are walking up mother f**er", you can't argue with a coin can you?
This pic is taken on the way down, on the way up I have run out of battery.
So here it began, 6 most painful hours of my life... You start pushing up the stairs, just to run out of stamina i about 15 minutes. Then you work out the system: 1- count your steps - makes muscular pain easier to take. 2-break you step. do 20 lefts and 20 rights, otherwise your right (if you are a righty) knee takes all the damage, and you fall. I know, I fell and couldn't get up for 15 minutes or so. 3-don't eat, stress and overexertion can give you stomach ache. You can walk on hungry with a bad stomach it's much harder. 4-watch out where you sheet. That's an odd one... but there are leaches everywhere and they are after your arse... 5-have 2 cycles. A short one - 5 min stand up break every 15 minutes, a long one - 5 minutes - sit down break every 4 short cycles. If you master all of the above you turn into a robot and there is nothing that can stop you from having curry for dinner!
As you get closer to the top a hand rail starts... This was a beautiful site, I knew I was close! I grabbed it and pulled myself up, I haven't even realised how much strength I had left in my hands... It was so much easier than walking, just pulling myself up the rail. Why did I bother to walk at the first place?
By 10 pm, I was on the top. I dropped on my knees and praised Lord Budha for about 15 seconds. After that I was flying down the stairs like an antilop. It took me lest than an hour to reach my place, and surprise everyone big time. My host told me she was about to warn police as she realized I wasn't back, as everyone gets back by 8 am latest. Cooked me some of that carry I craved for and sent me of to bed.
The metrics: 15,000 - steps up and 15,000 steps down - an equivalent of 750 floor building. 24 - kilometers walked - just... felt hell of a longer! 23 - hours on the trail (includes 3 hours on a bus) 1 - knee - well messed up.
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