There isn't a more Indian city then Varanasi, and you feel it as soon as you step of a train. The smell, the noise, the traffic the hustle... Even after spending two months in Nepal and a month in Indian North East, Varanasi still is very much capable of giving you a culture shock.
How long should you spend in Varanasi? Well, you can stay there for ever, and some people do. But unless you are planning on going full on hippy 3 days is then optimum time that I can handle.
Where to stay
On my both visits to the city I chose to stay at Mushi Ghat. It's 15 minutes away from the burning ghat, hence tends to be slightly quieter. Back in 2010 there were only two guesthouses: Shiva and Baba. This days they seem to multiply and they all nested one on a top of another. This time we stayed at Shiva's, a really nice family run guest house with pretty impressive rooftop restaurant. Cost: 550 RS for a double, with a bit of bargaining.
Having a boat cruse on Ganges at sunrise is an absolute must and an essential part of everybody's visit. There are plenty of people who will try to sell you the ride, including your guest house owner. As usual the best thing is to just show up at about 5 am at the Ghats and negotiate with a boatman. Actually someone who pretends to be a boatman, who will pass you on to another fake-boatman and at the end you will end up with this young captain. I named him Andrew after my nephew.
We have negotiated 200 RS per hour and agreed for a two hour trip. You can keep the cost down by finding more people at the ghats and shearing with them. Don't go for any per person fees, agree the entire amount in advance.
The ride takes you over to the new modern Crematorium, burning ghat, sunk castle and back. The best thing about the boat ride, is that you get to observe daily life going by in the ghats. You see people going for dip just few meters away from body remains and what not being dumped, and right next door there is a "shitting ghat" where everyone goes, well for a holy morning shit. Everything looks so chaotic and yet perfectly organic.
Ghats This is the prime reason you came to Varanasi, the city's life revolves around the Ganges or the holy mother as it's often refereed to. My personal favorite is the laundry ghat.
The handshakes. I must say I fell for this one on my first visit. Some dude tries to say hello and shake your hand. The handshake seamlessly transforms into a hand massage. Then before you know some other dude starts to massage your shoulders, and the show goes on...
Night Show Every night a show is performed at the main ghat as a thanks to mother Ganges. A good hour spent, especially watching the tourists. I dveloped a new hobby - taking pictures of tourists who are taking pictures.
Banaras University A very impressive complex which looks like a maze of campuses, alleyways and living quarter. You only need a couple of hours for your visit. Just grab some food and have a picnic in one of the parts. Sure as hell you will soon find a bunch of students hanging around you eager to have a conversation.
Burning is for Learning, Cremation for Education. When we went to see the burning ghats up close we were approached by one of the "workers" (expected) who really wanted to tell us all about the ghats the process and so on. We didn't fob him off right away because we actually wanted to listen and wanted to see where this will take us. He kept repeating Burning is for Learning, Cremation for Education which although rimes really doesn't make any sense. Apparently that guy works for charity (who else?) which helps poor people who can't afford the fees to get cremated in the holiest of all places. One can only be cremated using sandalwood, which is priced at 3000 rs per kilo. This is the part where I struggled to hold my smile back. Sure as hell the guy asked us how many kilos of sandalwood we would like to donate! I like the sales pitch, don't mention the money, it's all about the holy wood :-). We managed to get away with 50 rs which I think his story was worth. And to say the least he didn't back down easily. We actually found ourselves running trying to loose the guy in the street maze.
Sarnath - the place where lord Buddha gave his first preaching upon enlightenment. This is actually a very good day out. The place is somewhat similar to Lumbini - Buddhas birth place in Nepal. There are a lot of tuk tuk drivers who are willing to take you there for 500-600 Rs for a day trip, which is a rip off taking into account the place i only 13 km away. You can catch a van to Sarnath from the main road parallel to the train station, the price is 30 RS, but prepared to be ripped off, you are in Varanasi after all, being ripped off is a noble thing to do - creates job places. After you visit the Stupa, there is a network of temples around from every Buddhist country. My personal favorite is Japan.
These women are clipping grass with scissors, and your though your job sucked...
According to Wikipedia: The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the "Toy Train", is a 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railway that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal, India. Built between 1879 and 1881, the railway is about 78 kilometres (48 mi) long. Its elevation level varies from about 100 metres (328 ft) at New Jalpaiguri to about 2,200 metres (7,218 ft) at Darjeeling. Four modern diesel locomotives handle most of the scheduled services; however the daily Kurseong-Darjeeling return service and the daily tourist trains from Darjeeling to Ghum (India's highest railway station) are handled by the vintage British-built B Class steam locomotives. The railway, along with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway, is listed as the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site.
It's not practical...like at all... And it doesn't go (as of 2015) to New Jalpaiguri. A landslide has destroyed a part of the track between New Jalpaiguri and Kurseong, and now the train only runs between Kurseong and Darjeeling. Realistically you can't (wouldn't) take the to get to Darjeeling. Once you got on a jeep at New Jalpaiguri it's just to easy to keep going till Darjeeling without having to get off at Kurseong and hope that you'll be on time for the train. The best thing (providing that the track hasn't been fixed) is to take the train down and catch a jeep from Kurseong.
You have 2 options. To take a 3 hour round trip tourist train for 300 rs which is likely to be booked up, or to take an actual commuter train for 25 rs. The toy train is an actual train, run by Indian railway and a part of the IR reservation system.
And you though your job was tough...
The train moves with a quarter of jeep's speed. When you build roads and railways through the hills you have to make the most of the flat the space. And this is the most beautiful thing about the toy railway. It actually runs through people back yards. The local's are so used to it, that they don't pay any attention and in a way it feels like you doing a bit of reality TV. This video should give you a feel, never mind my Russian commentary.
Once upon a time Khonoma was a center of Nagalend's struggle for independence against British and subsequently Indian union. Khonoman's are really proud of their heritage, and won't miss a chance to tell you about it. Ironically being a heart of independence movement is now playing to Khonoma's advantage. Indian government has changed their tactics in fighting Naga separatists from hardcore military to economic. They have been pouring millions of rupees into Nagalend's infrastructure, and Khonoma received a massive 3 crore grant to be developed as the first green village. This involved painting all the roofs green, which subsequently burned out, so technically Khonoma is a grey village.
How to get there
We red that there was a jeep going there from the road leading in that direction. After scouting Kohima's jeep stands we came to conclusion that there were none. We bargained and managed to get a taxi for as little as 500 rs for 20 km drop. Later we learned that there was a bus, but it leaves Kohima in afternoon and departs from Khonoma next day, early in a morning. The best way is to take a taxi there and try to hitch a ride on return.
Where to stay
Home stays is the only option. There are a couple in the village and you are advised to google them up and call ahead. As always we didn't do that. Instead we showed up at the village door. Yes every village in Nagalend has a door or at least supposed to have one. Shortly after we were met by a local drunk man who was far too eager to show us around. It's a real shame I can't find his picture. He volunteered to help us with a home-stay and took us to none other than Khrielevo Savino - Village Association Chairman. I don't recall what it costed us exactly, but I believe the stay, dinner and breakfast landed us with a 2000-2500 rs bill, which by home-stay standard wasn't bad. Once we checked in into our modest room the guy (sadly I don't remember his name either) volunteered to take us around.
What to see
There are a couple of standard places to visit such as Khonoma fort, which offers a good view of Naga hills around.
But as we were lucky to have our slightly intoxicated guide he gave us a full tour of the village such as: Village council circle, for gathering of local elders.
Communal hall with communal kitchen. This is where young man who reached certain age live after they leave their families and before they find their wives. It's worth noting that Nagas have very strong sense of community. A lot of decisions are taken by the council using direct form of democracy. And things such as repairs, well digging, upgrades are done by the entire village gathering up and contributing.
We than popped into a house of the legendary hunter. Who proudly displayed dozens of monkey sculls, sort of a modern substitute for traditional human sculls back from head hunting days. They looked a bit creepy and Dovile refrained from taking pictures of them, sadly.
And of course the famous big gun! This is an actual gun, in working condition and it needs two man to fire.
While taking us around our guide popped into a couple of houses here and there, emerging in a tad more drunk state after each visit. In India when someone gets friendly and offers to help you normally expect an awkward conversation at the end where they will ask you for something at the end. Having said that, Nagalend isn't exactly India, our well drunk (by that point) guide gave us goodbye hugs and went to get some well needed sleep.
The largest river island in the world (apparently)
On this trip we decided to venture of the bitten track and explore a bit of India's less visited North East. We jumped on a train and NJP Junctions and set of for Jorhat - the city right in the heart of Assam. We got of at Mariani Junction as Jorhat Town station is well connected to the rest of the network. We quickly found a cheap hotel, there are a few similar ones around Solicitors lane near ASTC Bus stand. Jorhat itself is a dusty Indian town and probably not worth a visit in its own right. Our plan was to visit Majuli - an island on mystical Brahmaputra, supposedly the largest river island in the world and a cultural heartland of Assam.
Next morning we got a van from just outside the ASTC and went to Neamati Ghat to catch a ferry. Nemathi Ghat is a wonderful place in its own right. Just like any Indian public transport terminal it's full or organised chaos, where everyone seems to wait on something but no one knows what exactly is going on. We showed up at a supposedly right pier, there were a lot of people waiting but no one was able to confirm if it was actually the right place. The ticket counter wasn't going to open until the very last moment. Suddenly everyone started to shift to the next pier, we followed them fighting our way through the crowds. Just as we reached the pier, the flow reversed and the moved back to the first pier. False alarm...
Finally when the ferry came it became free for all. In India you know better than letting anyone through and playing the "after you game". People were pushing and climbing over each other, it was wonder no one got knocked into the river. We fought our way on the top deck, luckily both of us are larger than an average Indian.
The top deck started to fill up, first with 2 jeeps and then with about 20 motorbikes stacked neatly as if they were puzzles. Than even more people got on. We managed to seize a small patch on the floor and sat down on our backpacks. The locals were staring at us, but in a good way with a warm smile. I guess for them seeing these two hippies taking this ride was as exotic as it was for us actually doing it. I remember thinking if the boat was to go under pretty much everyone was a goner.
There were a few buses and jeeps waiting to take us to Kamalabari. Now when I look at the map I can see at least two hotels on the main road, but it wasn't the case as I remember it.
You can't stay at a hotel
Right at the cross road there was a place called Mona Lisa Hotel. I thought well that was easy enough. But when I asked for a room the guy gave me a very puzzled look and said that they don't have any. I asked if all the rooms were taken, and he gave me another puzzled look and said that they don't do rooms. There it downed on me. I came across this before in rural Kerala, in some places in India Hotel means Restaurant, and Lodging means ... well hotel. Ideally you are looking for a place that says Hotel & Lodge. Makes sense right?
We found one guest house, you had to walk up to the main crossroad and turn right than walk for about 200 m and the guest house was on the right hand side.
First things first. You come to Majuli to see Satras or Xatras which is a type of monastery. We went to visit Kamalabari Xatra, which was a small and very neat and quiet monastery. No hustle at the door and the entry opened to everyone. It had a small museum which was a size of the bedroom with a couple of scrolls and other random artifacts. There was no one at the door so we popped in, just as we were leaving the guy popped out and charged us 50 rs for entry ticket. I thought it was a kind of scam, but hey it's for a good cause.
As it's not one of the places that gets a lot of foreign folks it's a kind of a place where you get tired from Namaste and How Are You thrown at you from under every bush. We also had to get used to being photographed and filmed. And I mean more than Indian usual...
You got to love Indian capitalism. You can be literally in the middle of nowhere and you will still find a massive billboard advertising for one of cell networks. Vodafone usually leads though.
Day 2 - Festival
Somehow we managed to make right for Assam Majuli Festival, which we didn't even know existed. Which was held at a village 5 km away at Sri Sri Auniati Satra (mid-November).
As always with Indian celebrations it's amazing how much noise, scent and color there is. We just wandered the streets, ate a lot of sugar sweets and drunk litters of tea. And of course more photo sessions, pretty much everyone wanted to have one taken with the visiting celebrities. i.e. us...
Not many people, even in India, heard of Nagalend. As a matter of fact it was almost impossible for a foreigner to visit Nagalend until 2011, when an incredibly bureaucratic and restrictive entry permit was scrapped. Tucked away in India's North East on Burmese border Nagalend was truly cut off from the rest of the world. This is just to give you an idea of where the place is.
A few words about Nagas. Nagas are not Indians. They look nothing like Indians, don't speak Hindi, don't practice Hinduism and don't regard themselves as Indians whatsoever. They are tribal people of Mongolian origin, made up of 16 independent tribes who speak mutually unintelligible languages. Most of the Nagas have been converted to Christianity and Nagalend is the only state in India where English is official language. We visited Nagalend late November, and it was an odd filling to see shops selling Xmas decorations. I think if we didn't pay in rupees we would not known that we were still in India.
We red about Dzukou Valley and it being a place of great significance. But it was hard to find much else. A starting point for Dzukou valley trek is on Kohima to Manipur "highway" 20 km away from Kohima and just past Zakhama village. We couldn't find a bus or a jeep going over there, and decided to start walking and hail a transport once we were out of the town. Well that didn't work out well, we only saw two buses passing by and non of them stopped. Hence we ended up walking the entire 20km stretch on a dusty road. We stopped at a few places for tea, and every time when we said that we were going to Dzukou valley we were told "it's very far, don't go there".
It took us about 4 hours to reach a trail head at Zakhama. As soon as we started walking we got lost. It's really hard to navigate as there isn't a reliable offline map of this trail. I normally use Maps Me, which served me well all around the world, but Nagalend is really poorly mapped out. Add to this numerous trails which crisscross and not having many people around and it becomes really easy to stray off course. Your best bet is to keep finding people and asking them to put you in the right direction. Once we passed the first section of the trail (with all those other crisscrossing trails) the way became quite obvious.
It's a very steep trail through a rhododendron forest. I have messed up my knee a couple of weeks earlier during a jeep ride around Sikkim, and it quickly became a very painful climb. It takes about 2 hours to reach the top of the ridge and get out of the rhododendron forest. You can't really see anything during the climb, and it builds a suspense. What is so special about that valley anyway? You think that until you get to the top and this just opens up in front of you...
Endless, gentle, rolling hills covered by a carpet of dwarf bamboo create a surreal feeling of being in a movie like Lord of The Rings. Dzukou is a valley on the top of the mountain plateau and it looks nothing like the Naga hills it's surrounded by. A few years earlier there was a massive fire raging for several days which destroyed most of the trees.
It took us another hour to get to the shelter which is made up of 2 solid building, an outdoor kitchen and a gazebo. There is water source right next to the shelter. While the buildings are solid from outside, there is nothing more than a concrete floor is inside. If you are planning to sleep there, you will need a sleeping bag and a mat, other-vice you will freeze to death on the concrete floor. Especially if you do it in late November, and don't be fulled by thinking it's India it's hot. At an altitude of 2400 meters night temperatures drop below zero.
One negative thing I have to say is about the amount of garbage which is dumped into a hole at the back of the shelter. And the number of rats that come with it. They really need to workout a better system.
I believe you pay 100 rupees per person to use the shelter, but the keeper wasn't there so we were up for a free night.
An hour later a group of about 20 local village youngsters turned up. They were laying a 10 km pipe from a water source up on the mountains down to their village. They scooped some water in the shallow well and boiled a tea, which they kindly offered to us. We had a little chat. They explained that this was a very Naga thing. They generally have a very strong sense of community. It's normal for a whole village to do things together for common benefit.
They decide to push on to the next village and sleep there in a community hall.
We went to the kitchen, restarted the fire and boiled us some instant noodles. We quickly ran out of wood and had to resort to burning some of the timber logs stocked around. I felt quite bad about it, but in a way it was a matter of survival. It was far too cold to sleep on the concrete floor. In a hind-side we could have used timber planks to build a sleeping platform raised from the concrete floor. But we decided our best bet was to spend the night in the kitchen, keeping the fire going and trying to get some sleep. That could have been the case, if it wasn't for the bloody rats. God they were freaking us out, those things don't sleep.
We were looking forward to sunrise and much welcomed rise in the temperature. And when the sun finally shed some light on the valley that what was saw....
We decided to go back a different way following the trail where the village guys came from. This would take us back to the main road just outside of Viswema.
A half way through I felt sick and started puking my guts out. My first thought was it must have been that tea they shared with us. The water well look very dodgy, but I saw the water boiling, could it be toxin poisoning? You can get poisoning from boiled water if there is a high level of toxin already built up there. I freaked a little, found an abandoned fireplace and started eating charcoal. Man... that stuff is gross, it's like eating sand and aftertaste won't go away for hours. I than figured out that it must have been a Lychee flavored soft drink I just had. Dovile had only a sip and I downed the entire bottle, hence she felt a bit funny and I was well messed up. Not sure if eating feast full of charcoal helped, but I like to think it wasn't in vein.
We reached Viswema in under 4 hours, and were told that if we walk back to Zakhama we should be able to catch a jeep to Kohima.
Not many people know that Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975. It was jammed in a limbo between monarchy and communist tendencies coming from both India and China. Still it's a very shake state. China is next door, and even if no one in the western world heard a word of it there are some serious tensions there. Foreigners need a permit to enter Sikkim and if you want ti visit upper Sikkim then you will need to guide up and get another permit in the top of that. Sikkim fills more like Nepal rather than India. People are Nepali, the language is Nepali, not many folks wanna hug and take your picture that is definitely more Nepali then Indian. Any one who spent an hour in India would understand.
Tea, train, town On this trip to India I came with a bucket list, and since I never met anyone been to Sikkim it was surely on the list!
There are two ways of getting into Sikkim; one is via Rangpo checkpoint if you are going to Gangtok; another one is via a windy secondary road to Jorethang, if you are planning to to go towards Yuksom the ancient capital of Sikkim kingdom. If you chose the former you can get your permit at the check point (DO have your passport pic and a cope of your passport) the latter requires you getting a permit in Darjeeling . Of course we had to go the hard way.
Well, if bureaucracy wasn't invented in India it was surely perfected there; and Sikkim permit will make you believe that... big time!
First you need to go to a "Sikkim Travel Desk" at the immigration office, your hotel will be able to point you there. It's just apposite SBI (State Bank of India). Enter one dull, dark building ... find the desk where they process foreigners... tell them that you want to go to Sikkim (NO SHIT!), and wait to have your permit written out. Actually not as leniently as I made it sound. At the end you get your Sikkim permit written it out to you! Bingo... Well not quite, it still needs to be stamped by a magistrate to become valid. They tell you that you have to, and i quote - "get out of the building, turn left, walk down the stairs and turn right". That is about right apart from the fact that Magistrates office is about 2 miles away towards the Zoo. You have o keep asking the shop owners how to get there. Once you inside keep on asking as there is naturally nothing there to help you point the right way. The good news is that once you have stamped your permit you are pretty much set to enter mystical kingdom of Sikkim.
You need to be at the jeep stand as early as possible. The way the system operates; when you buy a ticket you get allocated a seat. The earlier you buy the ticket the better the place you get. And in Sikkim the place you get on a 3 hour jeep ride is a big deal. We got two sits on very back and braced ourselves for the next 3 hours to Jorethang. It's a really bad road, a lot of serpentine, and some really crazy driving too. We crossed the river and stopped at the checkpoint. At that point Dovile was about to faint, so she welcomed the break. We got of the jeep and went into the office, they checked our permits and stamped our passports just as if we were crossing an international border. Once we arrived at Jorethang we were told that next jeep to Pelling was not until 3pm. We went to have lunch and popped into pharmacy to buy some motion sickness pills - VOMITSTOP. That was a brilliant idea and made our life so much easier over the next two weeks.
Halfway through the ride we had to stop at a small village and were explained that the jeep broke down. Suddenly a ring of experts gathered around the jeep, with everyone taking turns at giving their expert opinion. Every passerby felt obligated to stop and chip in, which in turn would trigger a wider discussion. There was no way we were getting to Pelling that day... Well the tides have turned. The consortium of automotive experts managed to figure out the problem. It was a wire connecting accelerator pedal that snapped. Our driver managed to pull the wire out through the front and lead it back through the front window. In this way he could accelerate by pulling the wire with his hand. I never seen a man more pleased with his engineering! And he did get us to Pelling that night after all. We stayed at a basic hotel where the jeep dropped us off. I don't remember the name of the place but it's the first one as you enter the town. We payed 500 INR, which was a good value considering everything is slightly more expensive in Sikkim.
Not the worst terrace view...
Trekking to Khechiberi Lake
The next day we set off to explore rural Sikkim by trekking 15 km towards secluded and holy Khechiberi Lake. You start by descending from Pelling towards the river. There isn't much in a way of signs or markings and maps are not supper handy either. Generally because Sikkim is so isolated and of high military importance it's not very well mapped out comparing to the rest of India or Nepal. Using the latest version of MAPS ME app that allows you pre-load offline maps is probably best. Prepare to get lost and be put back on the trail by friendly locals.
Once we crossed the river we bumped into a couple of wild orange trees where we stocked up on some under-ripe oranges. Than we crossed a road, at which point the map told us we had to pic up a trail up through the forest. We quickly found a trail and went up just to realize that it lead to a clearing for grassing cattle. We went down, walked along the road and picked up another trail up which half an hour later got us up to a bunch of houses where we managed to find one soul who told us we were way of mark and had to go back to the road.
At this point we decided that we lost far too much time and energy trying to find that forest trail and our best bet was to follow the jeep road all the way to the lake.
We were recommended to stay at a place called Pala's Home Stay which is located on the top of the hill on the left hand side as you approach the lake. There are a few signs pointing you to Pala's and you have to climb some steep steps for 20-30 minutes before you reach the ridge. Pala is a super-delightful 70+ grandpa, and the place is run by his daughters. They charge only 500 INR per person which includes all your meals. And the meals are supper delicious.
The next day we decided to stay put and explore a holy cave. The cave is located on the top of the hill overlooking Pala's place. We walk through a very primitive village, which despite being on the top of the hill and right in the middle of Indian nowhere had a little shop and was fully electrified. Check out this picture of a mum and a kid turning big stones into small. And you thought your childhood sucked...
It takes about an hour to hike up to the cave. The trail is well walked and obvious. Do take plenty of water with you as you will have to walk through some very hot and humid jungle.
Way to Yuksum
Yuksum is an ancient capital of Sikkim, place of King's coronation, major pilgrimage site and a starting point of Kanchenjunga trek. It's also as far as you can go without obtaining a special permit given only to guided groups.
It's only a 10 km hike, but it's made much difficult by the fact that the trail is not on a map and there are no signs whatsoever.
First we came down to the holy Khechiberi Lake.
We walked on the paved road back towards the junction until we saw first and only sign on the right hand side pointing to Yuksum. You have to follow a general bearing towards Yuksum, passing a lot of local villages and keep asking for directions. Prepare to get lost and a lot.
We saw a lot of boards describing various investment projects into the local infrastructure. Seems like Indian government puts a lot of money into the region to keep separatist at bay and prevent locals from looking towards China.
We reached the town by late afternoon. There are a few sights that you have to see such as coronation place, a monastery and a temple with some massive prayer drums!
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.