We flew into Amman after a long night's layover in Dubai. Holy cow, the money in that airport! We had to split a little $8US egg sandwich for breakfast so we didn’t starve, only because we couldn’t afford anything else. We arrived at Mansour Hotel, our accommodation in Amman, to the biggest & most bodacious Jordanian man greeting us at the door yelling "WELLLL-COOME TO JORDAAAN!" This, we will soon learn, is the very first thing to come out of Jordanian's mouths as you walk past them on the streets or into their shops. All with the biggest smiles on their faces, so welcoming!
Our room at Mansour wasn’t ready yet, so we went out to get some lunch and we were immediately met with Carter's dream... huge spits of meat. We were FINALLY in the land of shawarma, Carter's heaven on earth. After months of curry, fried rice and noodles he was welcoming Middle Eastern Cuisine with open arms, and mouth! We started lunch off with a small shawarma each...
After a quick fix, we stumbled upon a super busy restaurant, Hashem. Without really knowing what to do or how to order, an unbelievable spread of middle eastern food was brought to our table by another huge Jordanian man: hummus, babaganoush, fresh tomatoes and raw onion with mint, bean dip, falafels, and hot out of the oven pita bread. OMG. I was beside myself (and immediately regretted eating a shawarma, giving me less room in my stomach for this masterpiece of a meal.) We dug in until we were in a literal food coma. What a WELCOME TO JORDAN, am I right?! *I'm drooling writing this*
This restaurant also ended up being one of the most "famous"/ must-try restaurants in Amman, as the King of Jordan has ate there and ever since it has been a hummus/ falafel hot spot. We rolled back to the hotel, got into our room, and fell asleep for the next five hours...food coma + overnight layover = sleepy time. Of course, only to wake up and go get another shawarma for dinner!
We were excited to explore Amman. The city was an endless sea of typical middle eastern buildings and amongst the old downtown, where we were staying, there were ancient Roman ruins.
The downtown streets were lined with costume stores with beautiful traditional Jordanian womens' dresses and capes. Arabic coffee shops and cafes that were packed with men and women smoking deliciously flavored shisha. Mazes of bazaars and fresh food markets intertwined through side streets that seemed to never end.
We had read a lot of great reviews about Rainbow Street which was supposed to be the heart of downtown; a pedestrian friendly street lined with cafes, shops and restaurants that you could spend an entire day at, enjoying a Turkish coffee, people watching, and milling about.
Well... this was a bit underwhelming as a tourist hot spot. This street was a regular wide street with cars whipping up and down, most of the store fronts were closed, there was one famous falafel shop that we stopped at and had a sandwich, and one cafe that had a few people at... annnd that was it. And as we were finding out to be the norm in Jordan, the meal was incredible.
We thought we'd give another "must see" attraction a try and headed to the Roman Theatre for sunset, which was only a 5 minute walk from our hotel. We got there... and it had just closed. Thankfully, one of the guards let us in, saying "only 5 minutes" which gave us enough time to get the gist of it. The amphitheatre was quite impressive. It just sits in the middle of old downtown and so it makes for quite a crazy contrast to see!
It was built in the 2nd century and could seat 6000 people in it's prime. They’ve created a community social scene around it nowadays, where plays and award ceremonies take place. It also has a great view of the hilltop citadel which was beautiful in the sunset.
The next day, we climbed up to the Citadel. We were taken back by the sheer size of the pillars that were still intact. We started to realize the incredibly rich history in Jordan - and we aren't even talking about Petra yet, one of the historical mysteries in the world!
Here are more views of downtown Amman that we stumbled across during our stay:
The Citadel sits on top of the largest hill in the middle of the city, which allows you to see a 360 view of the surrounding Amman area. It was up here overlooking the city when we were stunned by a beautiful moment we were most definitely not expecting. All of a sudden a synchronized prayer bellowed throughout the entire city below, evening Muslim prayer began and echoed in every direction like nothing we've ever heard before. It was a very wild experience we can say we will never forget. After visiting the Citadel, we were inspired to go an hour outside of the city to visit Jerash. This town is known for the Roman city of Gerasa, which is insanely intact (with some reconstruction) for being built in the Neolithic Age (ya... I don't really know what that means either... it's REAL OLD lol) The ruins site itself is said to have been founded by Alexander the Great.
We opted to not pay for a tour guide (one of the downsides of Jordan tourism being so expensive) so the following facts are straight from Wikipedia, please take them with a grain of salt!
The Arch of Hadrian, is the first structure you see and must walk through, to enter the ruins. It was built to honour the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 129AD.
This is the Hippodrome, where the epic battles and games would be held. I couldn't stop thinking about Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator!
Below is the Forum, where all activity of the historic-community would have taken place.
Here we are walking down the cardo, which is lined with these huge pillars the entire mile-length street. It was amazing because you could see long divots and marks cut into the road stone... and we overheard a guide saying it's from the repeated hundreds of chariots passing over them!!! This was thee coolest aspect of Jerash for me personally.
The next day, we had been discussing travel plans for the next leg of Jordan, and it all seemed much more expensive to do than we initially expected. Carter was fired up because he had a free car rental with Enterprise Rent-A-Car because he used to rent vehicles often at his previous job. Well he gets on the phone and dials Enterprise "Jordan Edition" and the conversation goes something like this:
Carter: "Hello my friend, I am from Canada and I would like to rent car"
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "Ok my friend, this no problem, where do you go and when"
Carter: "I want to drive to Dana Reserve and back, we will have the car for 2 days"
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "Ok no problem, this is most beautiful, tomorrow you come and pay in the morning"
Carter: "Great, the thing is though I have a free car rental with my Emerald points!" (Carter with a happy, smiling, stupid white person face)
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "You say car for free?"
Carter: "Yes, I have a free 1 day rental with my points. I would like to use them to rent the car for 1 day for free?"
Jordanian Enterprise Employee: "...ahhhhahah my friend, you are in Jordan, nothing for free! Whatever happen in your country, not work here"
After exhausting all options over breakfast with an awesome Aussie couple, we decided...why don't we band together to rent (and actually pay for) a car! We worked out the details that evening (over a couple of beers, thanks Helena) and set out to the car rental that morning.
Since you are always hearing from us, we've asked Helena & Gabe to write about our road trip to the Dead Sea and Dana Biosphere Reserve!
We first met Brittany and Carter in Jordan in what can only be described as the Ritz Carlton of Amman - Mansour Hostel. We were sitting on the vintage couches intrigued with our plates of grey boiled eggs, a wedge of laughing cow, maybe a container or two of aeroplane jam and amazingly fresh pita.
Carter sitting with his hat backwards continuously rattling off about their ‘free car for the day’, we thought maybe these guys can be our friends. Who doesn’t like a road trip when someone else pays for the car!? It wasn’t long before the pair realised that Western rules don’t apply in Jordan (not totally surprising) and it was gonna cost them the big bucks. As a group of 4 backpackers on a tight budget, we thought "let's spread the cost!" And with that we were on the hunt for a new rental company.
We came to find Fox Car Rental. Us (Gabe and Helena) being Aussies, we thought it best we not try to drive or we’d end up on the wrong side of the road. However, Carter has no chance of hiring a car as he traded his license for a sleeping bag in Nepal (I think it was a tad nippy up on the Annapurna trail). So we turned to Britters to supply the license, she pulls it out in the rental office to discover it was expired! So finally, they all turn to me (Helena), I whip out my license and before you know it we are jumping in the car!
I wacked on my seeing eye goggles and off we went 60km on the freeway in the middle of two lines (keeping it safe) as much as Gabe begs to differ. Carter directed us down a sleek back road with no traffic and we were cruising. Our first stop was Madaba, a small town just south of Amman. We’d been there the day before and sussed out the lay of the land. So naturally we took Brittany and Carter to our favourite place... The Church of Nativity where on the ground there was a vintage mosaic map of Jordan. Unfortunately, it was Saturday and a service was on so they just got to see the photo we took the previous day and a priest talking in Arabic.
Next we hit up the local markets to get some groceries for lunch. Oh my god was it cheap; for four of us, we spent $4 CA and we got a few local mates as well!
Next was figuring out how we get to the Dead Sea. We’d heard about some of Brittany and Carter's experiences with information stations that had not been too successful but we were sure this time would be different.
Our first attempt was with a lady who could barely string an English sentence together, no dice. We stroll across the road to a new white building, labelled ‘Tourist Information Centre’, up several flights of stairs to find a guy who told us the Dead Sea was 30km away and pointed to a wall and said “head that way” in an ambiguous tone.
By this stage of driving, we decide it's best that Carter takes the wheel and if we get pulled over, play the confused tourist card. Before we knew it, we were approaching a police check point, a man in military uniform starts waving his arms out. Carter slows the car as his heart rate rises, the man walks right up to the window and at the top of his lungs booms out ‘HELLLOOO! WELCOME TO JORDAN!’ and waves us through. This soon becomes the norm at every police check of the road trip, and our favourite saying.
As we start to head along the coastline of the Dead Sea, we start to see the resorts, all charging at least $30 to access the water from their private beaches. Being the frugal backpackers we are, we decide to look for some free access, which we soon discover means pulling over on the side of the highway and heading across the rocky shoreline to find a spot to have a dip.
Entering the Dead Sea was everything we could of imagined and more, the buoyancy, the view, the sting in your eyes, it was amazing! On our trip back to the car we were all laughing at the suckers who paid to enter through resorts.. soon we discover who the real suckers were.
We headed to what we had read to be some of the most beautiful hot springs in Jordan. Only 20 minutes up the road and the salt had begun to crystallise all over us and sting in places that really hurt! But it was ok, we had arrived at the hot springs! We pulled up to the hot springs to realise that it is going to cost us $50 each for half an hour! This brilliant idea was quickly ruled out to save our back pockets, so instead, out the front of the hot springs we get our bottled water out and start showering, much to the amusement of a giant busload of rich tourists (who could afford the hot springs).
Although the bottle shower helped it was by no means a shower, so we were soon on the way to our accomodation in Dana. Three hours later we arrived at our lush resort in Dana Reserve, where we were sharing a 4-single bed room. The owner in broken English strongly encouraged us to have the buffet dinner with everyone else, only a small $20 each, but us again being tight backpackers, we decided we could make it on our own.
After 4 long showers to de-saltify ourselves we headed into the small town of Al-Qadisiya on the top of the hill. There we found 2 full chickens roasting. We got one chicken, 2 souvlaki’s, 2 containers of chips and that was just for Carter. We were soon on the edge of a cliff over looking the little village we were staying in having a massive feast, keeping a close eye on our wild dog friends, slowly closing in...
The next morning we were looking at what walk suited us best through the Dana Reserve, as we were on a time limit. The people in the accomodation weren’t too inclined to help as they were all guides wanting us to pay them a pretty penny for a stroll in the park.
We decided it was best to walk out on a trail that leads to the next town, but turn around about 3 hours in so we would be back in time to drop the car off that night in Amman. So we set off down a very steep hill, thinking not much of it, occasionally laughing about how steep it was going to be on the way back up as we slid down. We walk into this beautiful valley, dry as a bone but somehow flowers popping up all over the place, we walk along the trail for about an hour before we decide to go trail blazing along the river bed, thinking we might be able to make it a circuit trip.
It wasn’t long till Carter had us scrambling up a cliff to get a photo at the highest point... it wasn’t long till we realised every high point we reached there was another just above it. We’d started to hit peak sunburn point and the sweat to sun screen ration was not helping anyone.
We’d soon find a nice big shady tree to stop and have a snack at; the traditional hummus and bread. Satisfied, we moved on through the winding path to continue our journey. Getting excited as the the canyons around us were getting higher. Decided that the cliff was too steep to go up (despite Carter's protests) we headed back to a bit we could climb.
What then proceeded was a 100% sun and a hectic 2 hour up hill climb (for Gabe and I; Brittany and Carter didn’t break a sweat. Nepal had trained them well) back into town.
Back at Dana Inn we all jumped into the car and started to head off up the Kings Highway towards Amman. Naturally stopping first for an ice cream; ooh and the fresh pita guys before we left town.
Now we expected a winding drive as we had opted for the scenic route but what we didn’t anticipate was the random, surprise, unmarked speed humps along the highway. They would pop up out of no where and we’d all go flying into the roof and then cross our fingers hopping we hadn’t bottomed out the car.
It was a beautiful drive the terrain changed constantly from green lush fields to arid desert. The first town we passed after two hours of driving was At-Tafilah. The highlight for me was all the dead hanging animals with their head still on and covered in fur (just the heads) the bodies were naked (or so to speak). There were camels, lambs, cows and even chooks!
After cruising through Tafila we were in a hurry to Karak as there were some ruins we wanted to see, and the evening was fast approaching. Now lets all remember that by this point we’d all just had that earlier snacked and ice cream but nothing else. Someones head was going to be eaten if we didn’t find some food soon.
As soon as we got into town we stopped at the first falafel shack and then on to find shawarmas so that everyone was happy again.
In our haste to get food no one had checked the open times of Karak's Castle and next thing we knew, it had closed 5 minutes ago. With full bellies we got back in the car and heading off towards Amman.
On this leg of the trip Carter began to bring the drone out, so we would stop at every mountain on the side of the road, run to the top, Carter sets up the drone, we are all posing for our great photos only to find out that the camera had started to play up! none the less these hills provided us with some of the most amazing views of the terrain in Jordan, an absolute delight for us to see.
Eventually we made it back to Amman, driving through the darkness. we dropped the car off and back to the Ritz Carlton we headed.
The end of our fantastic road trip was upon us with two new friends. The first travel buddies of our trip, they had set the standard high and it was going to be hard to beat.
See you guys in Toronto soon!
The next day the Aussies went to Aqaba, a southern city on the Red Sea, and we had a free day in Amman once again. We finally did what I had wanted to do for the three or four days we were in Amman previously... we went to the mall on the rich-side of town and got me a Starbucks and Carter a Big Mac. So Carter could scratch yet another country off his list of "Big Mac's around the world!"
The next morning we caught the public bus to Wadi Musa, the village essentially created and set up for mass tourism to one of the seven Wonders of the World, Petra.
We arrived to Wadi Musa in the afternoon and booked ourselves into our first dorm we’ve stayed in a while. As we walked into our room, we saw this big friendly beard that we recognized. Gabe and Helena were not only at the same hostel, they were the same room as us! They showed us around town and how to do Wadi Musa on the cheap because the entire city was a tourist trap if you didn't work hard to find the authentic local restaurants and grocery stores at low prices.
April 5th: Carter's birthday!
We woke up early today because it was Carter's 29th birthday and we had reservations at the 5-star Marriott in Wadi Musa, WOOO!!! We wanted to check in as early as they would humanly possibly allow us, so we could absolutely bask in the luxury we were 100 percent not accustomed to. Please note: we booked this on points - that once again Carter had accumulated at his previous job - as there is absolutely no way this was in the budget (even for a birthday!)
We paid an insane 5JD ($10CAD) to get to the Marriott, that was only 5km away, crazy expensive! Of course, the Marriott was perched on the highest hill in Wadi Musa looking over all the lesser-hotels in town. This unfortunately gave the local taxi drivers a pitiful reason to charge so much for a quick 5 minute lift "my friend, this place is on top of big big hill, I use much gas for this drive to go up hill"
We arrived and were welcomed into the Marriott's beautiful lobby at 9:00am (yes - we were desperate to soak up every single second in this hotel that we were legally allowed to as paying customers). We were treated to a Turkish coffee and were told our room was not ready yet (duh, has anyone ever checked in that early to a hotel?!) but that we could enjoy ourselves in the lobby lounge until it was ready. Not only did we enjoy the Turkish coffee but we also moved onto the three different teas that we complimentary in the lobby as well! We made sure we stuck with our motto "if its free, it's for me"
After an hour or so, we were escorted to our room. The room was a REAL treat for us... it even came equipped with a robe and pair of slippers for the birthday boy which he did NOT take off the entire duration of our stay.
That night, we were treated to a deliciously filling meal and celebratory birthday drinks courtesy of our amazing, thoughtful and very loving friends, James and Clare, as a birthday gift to Carter. We enjoyed the dinner so much, we forgot to take a photo BEFORE devouring it! Oops!
It was one of the fanciest dinners we have had on our trip to date... and Carter wore his birthday slippers to the occasion.
The next morning, we woke up at 5:00am to be at Petra by 6:00am, the time the gates opened. Our entrance was "free" because we had purchased a Jordan Pass which we recommend everyone doing if they plan on ever visiting Jordan for more than three days.
PSA: a Jordan Pass is available to anyone planning on staying in Jordan for more than three days (to encourage tourists to not just do day trips in to Petra from surrounding countries.) It has to be purchased before entering the country and costs $99USD BUT it includes your visa ($75) and major attractions entrance fees. The visa and Petra entry fee ($50) alone make this purchase well worth it.
When we entered, we were one of a handful of other visitors and we again cannot recommend this enough!! To walk along the canyons of Petra in complete silence is unheard of, and even more so, to be completely alone, looking up at the Treasury or Monastery in awe, is well worth the early wake up.
The city itself is accessed through a 1.5km stretch of gorge called The Siq. It's like walking back through time, as you can easily imagine having a powerful river flowing through these crevasses long ago... and then to have it transformed into an ancient entrance to a hidden mountain city. Craziness.
After 15 minutes of walking through the narrow, curvy sliver in the rock, it opens up to the jaw-dropping Al-Khazneh (also known as The Treasury) that stands at a staggering 128feet high and 82feet wide. This masterfully-crafted, head scratching, work of art was carved out of a sandstone wall.
It was beautiful!!! But we didn't spend too much time admiring it as we knew we wanted to get up to the Monastery before more tourists came in. Right in front of the Treasury is where the local Bedouins set up their shops, and hang out with their camels for tourists to take photos with in front of the Treasury. This space was filling up quicker than we anticipated, so we took off for the hike up to the Monastery.
Petra is an ancient civilization that is still a mystery of who inhabited it and how it was built. Here are some of the sights throughout the Rose City:
It took another 20-30 minutes for us to reach the Monastery. The Ad Deir (Arabic term for monastery) is the second most popular structure within Petra and for good reason. It stands at a whooping 50 meters high and 45 meters across. We were glad we started out so early in the morning because one, it was only us and the Monastery for at least 30 minutes and two, it was getting freaking hot out! At least we did the climb in the fresh morning air.
By 10:00am, the camera's battery was dead and we were both sweaty, thirsty and ready to head back. As we hiked down and out of Petra, we were SO incredibly proud that we woke up early enough to avoid the hoards and hoards of people that now inhabited Petra. There were hundreds of people milling about at the Treasury; sitting on it's front steps so you could not get a picture of the famous building without 75 randoms in your frame. There were girls in flowing dresses and floppy brimmed hats, with their PHOTOGRAPHERS and lighting boards, taking photo after photo for Instagram; Chinese tourist with selfie sticks paying outrageous amounts of money to sit on a camel (and not even move); and Bedouin hustlers trying to sell you overpriced souvenirs. Good riddance Petra, we out. If you need us, WE POOL SIDE CHILLEN AT DA MARRIOTT BABY!
We escaped to the quiet and serene landscape of the pool LOL. We didn’t leave until 5:00pm that night! Unfortunately, after the highest of highs, we had to return to the lowest of lows and checked ourselves back in to the Valentine Inn hostel where we spent the night in a 14 person dorm room...*sigh*
The next day we shared a cab with two nice travellers from Croatia and Germany to the land of Wadi Rum. The great desert that Lawerence of Arabia and the Martian were filmed. We got dropped off at the visitors center, met back up with the mates Helena & Gabe, and shortly after, our tour guide Majed came to pick us up. We enjoyed tea at his home before his cousin picked us up in the open air jeep for the day tour of Wadi Rum.
We visited the Lawerence Springs:
We climbed a great big red sand dune which was a first experience for us! Carter and Gabe tried to sand board down it with a broken board but in the end, it didn't work but the views were amazing:
So we all ended up running down the massive dune, and spent the rest of the day getting red sand out of...everywhere:
The next attraction was a massive canyon, that you had to scale along a narrow walkway through but it was a dead end. Carter climbed up to see if there was anything beyond where we were stuck... but there wasn't. We're still perplexed of why this is an attraction that guides would take a tourist to?!
We realized it was because during our brief walk, our guide could fit in a quick nap. We legit woke him up and he took us for a lunch break. Our guide was hilarious; he did a great impression of all the nationalities he’s hosted for the last 25 years. He didn’t know how to “speak” Canadian so we taught him to say "eh" after his sentences and to refer to Canada as the Great White North. The rest of the day he would say stuff like "This sun is so god damn hot...EH!" Yelling EH, and laughing hysterically afterward. We hope he drops it on some Canadians in the future.
After lunch we saw a mushroom rock...
We then went to another canyon where you could climb to the top of a massive natural bridge:
And then ended the day at our very own sunset point. This was the best experience, to watch the red hot day's sun turn into a glowing hue over Wadi Rum's super unique landscape. After the sun went down, the American with us yelled "Wow! What a show!" and started a solo slow clap. His genuine sincerity is what made Carter and I decide to adopt this hilarious reaction to sunsets and continue to say if after any "show" to date.
After sunset, we drove in the dark desert (which was an awesome experience in itself) to the Bedouin camp we had booked with Majed. The camp was tucked away between two huge rock formations and had only a few traditional Bedouin tents to sleep in. It was beautiful.
A traditional Bedouin dinner was prepared for us; cooked by the sun's heat in a barrel buried in the sand. Majed dug up the barrel top, brushed the remaining sand off the lid and pulled out the entire dinner! Fall off the bone chicken, roasted tomatoes, onion and potatoes. Accompanied by kitchen prepared green salad, rice and of course, pita bread. After dinner we had tea and enjoyed conversation with other people staying at the camp. Bedouin tents are very “family” oriented and cozy, the atmosphere encourages conversations over traditional sage tea.
Finally, a sleep with dead silence! No coughing or horking, no hostel banter, no horns, no dogs, no roosters. Silence. That night, we both slept like the rocks that surrounded us. So deep that we actually all woke up kind of groggy! But as we left the serene comfort of our tents, fresh breakfast was being served. Hummus, cheese spread, yoghurt and fig jam, the overdone boiled eggs and yep, you guessed it, pita bread.
After that, Majed personally drove us back into the village to a cab that was waiting to take us to Aqaba.
The thing with Jordan is that the tourism is catered and geared towards those without budget; hiring a driver, renting a car for the entire duration of their trip, taxi'ing down the entire country, and staying at Hilton resorts. Jordan hasn’t quite figured out how to cater to budget travellers and budget travelers haven’t quite figured out how to travel Jordan on a shoestring. It’s really quite difficult, you have to team up for power is numbers, like we did a few instances with the Australians, German and Croatian. However, the beauty is you're meeting new friends around the globe.
Exhibit A of Jordan being too expensive (the most expensive country we've been to thus far) is having to give Couchsurfing a try for our first time. Couchsurfing is a method of free accommodation for travellers; they use a website to pick a host who is willing to let travellers quite literally sleep on their couch (or extra bed, if they have one). In exchange may be cooking your host a meal, hanging out with them, having good conversation, or just simply, they are travellers themselves so they are paying it forward.
Once again, our saviours, Helena and Gabe arrived in Aqaba a day or two ahead of us and were nice enough to ask their Couchsurfing host, Andrew, if we could come crash as well. Andrew was nice enough to say yes and we arrived in Aqaba that day. Andrew was an nice English bloke who was teaching at an international school.
We spent two days in Aqaba milling about and decided it was time to make our way to our next destination of Egypt. We did some research of how to get there: through Israel or via the Red Sea. To avoid any conflicts of having an Israeli stamp in our passports, we decided to ferry across the Red Sea to Egypt.
Our ferry took off at 11pm that night. As we waited for our ferry, we decided to go to South Beach and snorkel the Red Sea and we were blown away!! The state of the coral and array of sea life was absolutely incredible.
Exhibit B of Jordan being too expensive; we hitchhiked to the ferry terminal because we were saving our last remaining JD for a drink on the ferry. The ferry was scheduled to arrive in Egypt at 2:00am - scheduling that we found very, very odd (and maybe slightly illegal or else why would they choose these times??) The ferry was ALL Arabic men... and Carter and I. Oh, and after spending some time on the ferry we found out that there was one other tourist, an old, very very lost soul.
When the ferry docked, Carter and I lined up to receive our Egyptian entry stamps and the guard asked us where the other white person was..?? What!? just because we were caucasian, and he was caucasian, we were assumed to know him?? Carter and I joked to each other. Coincidentally, we did know where he was sitting, so I went to retrieve him and brought him to the guard. We were then all escorted together off the boat and to border security. They scanned our bags, looked at our passports and sent us into an office to buy our visas. Thankfully, I read up on the visa process (byproduct of being deported = major border crossing anxiety) and knew that because we were landing in Sinai, Egypt - we had to pay for a different visa that allowed us to exit Sinai to Cairo and the rest of the country. Carter and I were armed with the right amount of USD to pay for said visas, knew where we were staying that night, and where else we would travel in Egypt. Which altogether, made this boarding crossing process quite simple and easy.
Our lost soul friend from the UK who we will guess was 70, however, was having a rough go at this particular time in this life. The man has long grey hair, with a few dreads intertwined, a Thailand t-shirt, at fishnet vest with various pins attached to it, ripped pants, weathered leather flip flops with even more weathered feet. In our very brief convo he told us the following...
- He was British, but hadn't been back in 15 years
- He was coming from Cambodia, where he's lived for the last 8 years
- "Someone" booked him a flight to 'Amman'... He wanted to fly to 'Oman'
- He got to Amman, realized he wasn't in Oman and still wanted to fly to Oman
- He found out flights to Oman were expensive from Amman, so he took a bus to Aqaba, to go to Egypt on this ferry, to get to Egypt, to fly from Cairo!
- Now that he was going to be in Egypt, maybe he would stay, maybe he would go to Cairo to fly, maybe not.
- He doesn't know where he's staying once he arrives in Egypt that night
- He has no money on him, or know the currency
...The Egyptian officers are just shaking their heads, informing us we need to wait for him at each station, and finally just brush him through customs into their country! But... only on the condition that we (yes - CARTER AND I) take him with us to the hostel we're staying at and pay for his cab to ensure he gets there safely! What the ! Haha we could only laugh at what a strange series of events had taken place.
We held up our end of the deal and got him there safely at 3:00 in the morning. The next day we ran into our British buddy, he informed us he would likely stay there for a week..."it's nice here, and it's cheap...thanks". We wished him all the best and left the hostel with our confidence restored, I mean, if that dude can do this travelling thing...literally anyone can :)
Getting to Nepal was downright the worst transportation we’ve been on and had to endure on our entire trip... and I truly mean endure. It was an absolute mental and physical grind the entire way.
First off, not one single person in Varanasi could give us a straight answer, or the same answer, to our very important question of “how do we get to Nepal from here?" Everyone had a different opinion, a different method and altogether different information to give. Travel agents, bus stations and hostel managers - not one person seemed to know the exact/ proper route to Nepal.
We ended up meeting a girl in a hostel lobby who had just returned from the main bus station which was 45 minutes away; she said she had just bought a direct private bus from Varanasi to Kathmandu but it runs only every other day at 7pm. So we kept this in mind as we continued to ask and gather intel on this mysterious transportation route. After much debate on whether going comfort versus budget-friendly, we ended up wanting to go the comfort method. We decided the private direct bus that goes directly to Kathmandu that leaves every other day at 7pm from the main bus station would be our best bet. We had to make it to the bus station an hour before departures so we took our "expensive" tuk-tuk ride 45 mins to the bus station at 5:30pm only to arrive to hear that the bus wasn’t running that day (March 7th) and the next bus was at 10am on the 9th. What the hell kind of system is this! The girl we talked to at the hostel had JUST come from this same bus station!! So dreadfully, we were told our only option is the public bus which goes somewhat close to the border and we’d have to cross the border by foot to arrange another bus on the Nepal side. However, one positive was that there was an A/C bus leaving at 7:30pm. So we grabbed dinner and boarded the “A/C tourist” bus which based on our experience, was never as advertised. Of course, it was not. The two seats only managed to fit Carter's full bottom and one-half of mine, the bus driver was a lunatic (again, not surprising) and we had to spend 10 hours overnight this way. We were in grind mode and we knew this would be a difficult journey so we traveled through the night sitting upright and tried our best to keep positive...eventually at 5am we arrive at the town neighbouring the Nepal boarder. The bus driver and other random Indian people who seemed to have nothing else going on at 5am, took it upon themselves to guide us and the 3 other backpackers to where we needed to go. To stamp us out of India in the immigration offiice and continue onto Nepal. With some guidance we took our first, and last, cycle-rickshaw across the boarder into Nepal.
Again, a very friendly and easy process to get our visa-on-arrival at Nepal immigration. Immediately after customs and our arrival by foot to the bus station, like everywhere else in the world, the bus station hustle began. “Sir, where you going? Pokhara - here! Pokhara - here!” “Sir, Kathmandu, this bus. In. Yes. Kathmandu. Come!” "Sir, how much you pay?" "Sir, best bus in Nepal...Pokhara yes!" In the same way the allies do not negotiate with terrorists, we do not negotiate with bus station hustlers! We continued to walk, ignoring men following us to get us into their buses. This one insistent man keep following us promising us this one bus was the only bus going to Kathmandu. The bus he was pointing to, I find it hard to even call it a motor vehicle... it must have been manufactured in the 70s and has not received one repair or scheduled maintenance since. It’s a local city (mini) bus. Open dusty windows. Small Asian sized seating, absolutely no knee room, even for me! Again, based on our past experience, we KNOW it will be jam packed to the brim with locals getting on and off (every few kilometres) for the entire duration of the journey.
At this time, we see the horror of our future - Google maps read that it would be 6 hours from the border to Kathmandu on this bus. Nuh-uh. Nope, not after a 10 hour overnighter. So we shoo him away and continue to walk towards the bus station where we were looking for a more reliable/comfortable looking bus...because there are at least 6 in the bus station that look like beautiful tour buses. Then we hear “mister! I don’t lie. This only bus to Kathmandu!!” It’s the same guy hanging out of the door of this awfully dreaded bus slowly creeping beside us. We are still not sold in the slightest, told him no until he turned around and parked it again. Just up ahead was a police check so we decided to ask the cop if there were other buses going to Kathmandu at ANY time that day (because we were damn hell bent on NOT getting on this bus we had seen with this sassy crook). He gets on the phone and says “yes, there is only one bus going to Kathmandu today, the rest are going to Pokhara...wait here it will come by soon” So we sit and wait patiently with the officer, big smiles on our faces awaiting the bus he's referring to. When all of a sudden the dreadful mini bus comes rolling down the street, with the same Nepali man hanging out the side door, a stack of money in his hand and a shit eating grin on his face. "Ahh here is the bus my friends" the officer says. Good God Almighty. At this point we had no choice to admit defeat and pay this man to board his sh*t box on wheels...
We board the bus and it instantly gets worse. The annoying man tells only 10 minutes into the trip that it's not going to be 6 hours, with the mountain roads, traffic and construction, it will be 10 hours to Kathmandu!!!! UGH. Here we are 5 kms from the border and we have already stopped TEN times to try and pick up locals until they deem the bus sufficiently full to carry on the trip (this is very common with the local busses, they hang out the doors and yell the final destination as they pass through crowds of people in hopes someone will board...AND IT ALWAYS WORKS) This. Is. Going. To. Be. Awful.
Fast forward 1 hour, the bus is jammed packed entirely of Nepali locals, and Carter and I. For whatever reason, the man won’t put our bags on the roof, so now locals are just sitting in the aisle with our bags, and they're getting stomped on, or sat on, by everyone squeezing in. Carter and I are squished up against a window and his poor legs are basically in the splits because he can’t fit his knees in between the seat in front of him. Locals were sitting on the floors in the aisle, standing in the aisle, beside the bus drivers bench, hanging out the door, and sitting on each others laps....FOR HOURS. This bus was at maximum capacity, 20 people ago. We were in mental agony.
Fast forward another 4 hours, we stopped for lunch as these busses always do, so we assume this must be half way. We inquired, to double check and now the annoying man is saying still 11 hours!!! We weren’t even a quarter of the way there. OMG. So we get back onto the “bus” and I start a new show 'The Sinner' that I had previously downloaded onto my Netflix app (thank friggin' goodness.) I am completely checked out and trying to take my mind off of this reality. Carter is beside himself rattled with unfortunately no Netflix show to preoccupy him. Even though Carter didn't want to watch The Sinner with me... the entire row of Nepali males behind me did. There were some race scenes in each episode and I could feel the intensity of the men's eyes watching my screen from behind me, so we were all entertained for a little while!
As the journey goes on, we find ourselves on mountain side cliffs with no guard rails in most spots, overlooking a 100 meter drop into a massive rushing river, and overtaking trucks around corners while other vehicles are coming head on. There was definitely a few moments where we thought that at any moment this bus could tumble over the edge, ending this nightmare... which actually didn't seem like such a bad thing at the time!
Two hours later, the bus is in dead stopped traffic on the a cliff side with other busses, trucks and cars lined up as far as we can see. HOW? We are in the middle of nowhere! Well, the bus driver turned off the engine, and we sat there for 1 hour. Seriously, see the picture below.
Long story short we arrived in Kathmandu from the Indian border after a 16-hour journey on this mini bus. I crushed the entire season of 'The Sinner' and had plenty of time to talk Carter out of the deep dark hole he put himself in. Even though we were really pissed at the annoying guy and even more mad at the sheer amount of time this ride took, we discussed that our anger turned into empathy somewhere along the way. We felt so bad for the other people on this bus. Here we are, completely rattled at the fact that we have to take this bus...one time in our lives, while crammed into a tiny seat. While local people surrounding us take this bus all the time out of necessity; almost half of them are standing or sitting on the hard floor, and some have newborn babies or young children accompanying them. It was a very eye opening experience for us.
When we finally arrived in Kathmandu, Carter had some new Nepalese friends through a lacrosse connection who met us in Thamel (the tourist neighbourhood in Kathmandu). They had pre-arranged a guesthouse for us. It was quite nice coming into a city, especially after the ordeal getting there, and having accommodations taken care of and friendly faces waiting for us.
The next day we explored the Thamel neighbourhood. Thamel is an amazing maze of pedestrian streets with shops upon shops dedicated to handcrafts made my local tribes, trekking stores and delicious looking restaurants. It was such a complete change from India! There were Buddhist flags lining the streets over top of us; it looked quite magical, just as you would probably imagine Nepal to look like.
The next day, the lacrosse guys picked us up at our guesthouse and showed us around some sights before Carter put on his lacrosse clinic that afternoon. We visited the neighbourhood of Paten, which was so beautifully historical, the Golden Temple, the main square and the living love goddess temple. We also had local egg bahra at a hidden treasure hole in the wall. Carter tried the locally made rice whisky here and he said it’s the best homemade alcohol he’s had on our trip so far (he's had a lot to compare it too!)
The lacrosse clinic had 10-15 Nepali men in attendance; most were just learning the game but had a very big passion for the sport. Carter started teaching them the basics, moreso so they will know how to teach others once the lacrosse organization gets up and running in Kathmandu. Carter started the clinic with how to hold the stick properly when passing and catching and then he went onto passing the ball, line drills and practice tips they can use for their own team practices and training. It was so amazing to see an entire group of men and friends who were so passionate about such a foreign game. They are determined to bring the game of lacrosse to Nepal and start the league across the country. It was especially special to watch the villagers come in, gazing curiously over at us, and the kids running full speed into our clinic and immediately picking up the sticks to be taught. And even MORE amazing was to watch the men, whom Carter had JUST taught, teach these kids... and then these kids teaching kids who showed up after them. Some of the kids were absolute naturals at it as well! Some just used the ball to practice their cricket throw - but all in all, it was such a successful and heart warming afternoon.
After the clinic, we all shared some chai (chee-ya) and talked more about the history and logistics of the game. Shortly after that, we split ways and a couple of the guys offered to take us to the Monkey Temple. This temple is infamous to watch the sunset because it sits above the Kathmandu Valley. This temple was gorgeous, not so much the actual building itself but the entire hill it sat upon was completely covered in prayer flags, new and old. Colourful and sun-bleached flags ran from the top of the temple, to trees, down walkways - it was incredible. The entire temple itself was surrounded by prayer wheels so Carter and I walked left to right spinning each one by hand for good luck.
Our final day in Kathmandu was solely focused toward getting gear and getting equipped for our Himalayan trek! We were embarking on a 10-12 day trek to Poon Hill & Annapurna Basecamp, 4130 metres above sea level. I already had my fake down jacket from Vietnam but Carter needed to source out a “North Fake” jacket as they call them here. Since Thamel was entirely based around trekking tourism, the price hunting was fun and easy to do. The haggling and joking with shop owners even more so. At the end of the day we purchased: two fleece sweaters, one down jacket, one customized patch that Carter designed to go on said jacket, 4 pairs of thermal socks, two gloves and a bottle of Nepal’s signature whiskey.
Below is Carter and his Nepali bestie. He spent an entire 3 days in this guy's embroidery shop. 3 WHOLE DAYS. I had to drag him out by his ears (practically) to let this poor guy get to work on the custom patches Carter and he created.
The next morning we packed as little as we could survive with on the mountain into my bag and left everything else behind in Kathmandu as we set off for Pokhara; the starting point for all treks Annapurna. The bus was much more enjoyable this time around; we fit into the seats, it was actually a direct bus that never stopped to pick up locals, and only one person was puking out the window. We’d call that a successful trip! We got into Pokhara 7 hours later (exactly what we were told at the beginning of the trip, again, a rarity success!)
Pokhara is beautiful, the city center surrounds a grand lake. So all of the shops, restaurants, hotels and bars are either lakeside/view or only a couple moments walk to it. This town is even more so set up for tourism, so the shops and restaurants, although are much more expensive, are great in quality and diversity/selection. We indulged in some adult beverages (I needed some liquid courage to go into the first day of trekking to be quite honest) and had the best pizza we’ve had on the trip thus far at Godfather's Pizzeria. If you haven’t noticed a trend in our blogs, I’ll just call him outright right now: Carter has a pizza problem. He’s addicted. Every time we get into a bigger city he Googles the closest Pizza Hut because "who knows when we may find good pizza again”... even though in every city he manages to find it.
Other than hopefully the proper gear we picked up the day before, we were pretty unprepared, if I am being completely honest. We’re going on a 10 day trek in the Himalayas, independently, and we don’t even own a map?!? Our saving grace right now is that our lacrosse friend, Ananta, has set us up with a guide who is trekking with a solo lady from Scotland, who happens to be doing the same route as us up until Poon Hill (which is only the first three days of ten). We’re relying on him to get us to where we need to go and pick his brain for what we need to do for the last seven days of our trek. We have our gear, our altitude sickness meds, tiger balm for sore muscles, our Annapurna Conservation and trekking permits and a guide "kinda".
We should be set... but we’ve both lost weight. Carter an astonishing 30lbs!! Our muscles are basically gone and our legs are noodles, how are we going to accomplish this?!
From Pokhara, we jeep to the entry point of the sanctuary, Galapule. We registered at two separate checkpoints, get entered into the system as “active trekkers” and start the first couple hours of hiking. We’re dressed for Basecamp temps, so our first few moments in the sun we are already de-layering and sweating. We should be in shorts and t-shirts but we’re in trekking pants, undershirt, and fleece. Better to be over prepared than underprepared! (Minus having to lug it all up the mountain, whatever, it’ll probably hopefully come in handy later on.)
This portion of the hike just follows a very rough road, where the occasional Jeep or 4x4 would pass us carrying locals, other lazier trekkers or supplies. It was an ascent most of the way but it was a great warm up start to our 10 days of inclination. About 2 hours in we stopped for lunch and it was in the most surreal village - it was as though we had stepped back hundreds of years. As we ate lunch, we watched a husband and wife use two bulls to cultivate their terraced farm land, the homes were traditionally made with stone and had slate rocks as the shingles and everything else was made of wood. On top of it all, we were in the deep valley looking up at a mountain side of farm terraces all the way up to the top.
Our “guide”, Rajan, said this is a tribal area and the indigenous people here have been settled here for thousands of years, hence why so much of the land and mountain side is already cultivated. We then got up from lunch, I could already feel that my legs had stiffened, and we continued on for another hour or so until our destination for the night, Tikhedhunga. Already, I know this: we have to get better at drinking water (we barely got through one litre for the both of us), Carter needs to walk slower or shorten his steps or else I am going to die trying to keep up with him, we will need to stretch every night BUT I really think we can do this trek without too many aches and mental anguish.
We stayed at Laxmi Guesthouse, the room was only 500NRP ($6CAD) for the both of us. A very, very basic double bed... and that’s it. We have to pay 150NPR for a hot water shower, pay for wifi (which we didn't, as we wanted to go off the grid), pay for really anything else we would need or want and it will only get more expensive as we move higher up the mountain. As soon as we settled in, Carter had to hang everything he was wearing that day because it was soaked in sweat. This will be an issue all the way up the mountain... at least it's warm enough down here to actually dry. He may be putting on icicles as we move higher and it's too cold to dry out.
This village was such a nice, relaxing and peaceful place; from our balcony you could hear the river rushing, someone in the village was playing Nepalese music, and kids were laughing far off in the distance. This was only the first night but it’s set our expectations high for what’s remaining. We have decided that each night we get to our final destination, we would take a shot of whiskey as a congratulatory present to ourselves. And then to our surprise, Rajan invited us to come along with them to the near by waterfall to take a refreshing swim! Of course Carter jumped in like the polar bear he is and I used the waterfall pool like a recovery ice bath for my legs.
Our first night, we enjoyed a great chat with Rajan and Helena, the Scottish lady, who told us she was an author who is living in Nepal as inspiration for her next book. *After we finished the hike and connected back with the internet, Google also told us that she's won many awards for her book "The Big House" and is published by the same publisher as JK Rowling!* After dinner and our chat, we headed to our room, took an extra blanket to layer our bed with, rolled out our -20 sleeping bags and fell fast asleep! Here's a view of our luxurious mountain accommodations **note the bedside whiskey bottle**:
Waking up at 7am to hot porridge and masala chai tea in the valley was amazing... but then BAM! 3500 steps right off the bat to start off our day's trek. Struggling up these steps, we passed little villages, suspension bridges, and goats along the way. Ullier is the town at the very top of this hill, so we stopped for a Snickers break (our chocolate bar of choice for the trek - we ate so many, Snickers should probably contact us for a sponsorship deal) and a Coke to keep our energy levels up. Also, this was the first glimpse of snow covered Annapurna 1 peak. It was breathtaking! And also completely overwhelming because we could see how much further we still needed to go!
After our snack stop, there were another 2000 steps no one told us about! We stopped for lunch at the very top (and thankfully, the end) of the steep steps. Here, we enjoyed another plate of vegetable fried rice which is basically the only thing we can afford in the mountains as the prices go up and up with the elevation. Ullier is the last mountain town that motorized vehicle can reach; after that, everything brought up is on the backs of porters or mules and that's why the prices for everything dramatically increases the higher you go (understandably). After our lunch break, we finally bought a map, since the next day we’d be leaving our friend Rajan, who has been an amazing “complimentary” guide thus far.
Again, up we go, but these stairs zig zagged through towns and had plateaus that helped our calves' cause. Today was CLEARLY an ascent day; straight stairs... up hill... grind. The elevation we were now at is above 2000M, and with your bag on your back, you definitely move slower than normal. But then you are consistently seeing porters who are carrying all the bags for 2 or 3 trekkers each, that weigh anywhere from 20-30kilos each bag, and they put your little dinky 14 kilo bag to shame. It makes you toughen up a bit. And by "you", I mean Carter because he was my mule, I can confidently say I would have doubled over by now if I had to carry the bag he was lugging up the mountain.
This is Carter trying to carry a porter's load - this weighed 60kilos. If you can't already tell by the strain in his neck and how red his face is... it's fricking difficult. And these guys are doing it in flip flops and stopping for cigarette breaks frequently along the way. It's a sight to see, and even then its hard to believe.
We walked for another two hours before reaching a tea break but this stretch of our hike was so beautiful. We walked through deep forest of the sanctuary; the natural waterfalls that turned into the most crystal clear cold mountain water streams; the moss covered trees and the blooming rola ghuna flowers that were varying from hot to light pink. It was like scenes out of a Disney amusement park but it was just one tiny beautiful speck of the Himalayas.
From our last stop, we were pretty tired from the intense non-stop incline all day but powered through to Gorephani for the last hour and a half. In total, we trekked uphill for 8 hours with only 4 scheduled stops. We checked into Peace & Excellent View Guesthouse and it was incredible! As soon as you stepped inside there was a big fire going that people were gathered around looking at their pictures from the day, playing cards and drinking chia. The worker who showed us to our room started the rate from a 700NPR double room with attached bath - in which we asked for less because we were on a budget. He got excited at the fact we were on such a budget that we were doing the trek without a guide , so he showed us another room for 300NPR which was quite cozy and had the biggest warm-looking duvets at the end of the bed. We settled in, enjoying the warmth of the sun coming through the windows, and then 15 minutes later the same man came back to say “you know, it’s not so busy I give you best room for 300!” We had a free hot shower and free charging outlets - a rarity in the mountains! Even our first stop was charging 150NPR for each luxury. This place had a very nice homey feel, including the delicious homemade dinner we received. Carter and I spent the entire night on the bench by the fire, talking with other trekkers and drinking some well earned beers. I don’t think we even lifted a butt cheek.
This experience, even though it’s the first full day of hiking, will be incredible. More than I ever thought possible or anticipated. I wasn’t negative going into the trek but I definitely had my trepidation’s about it - will I be sore, are we going to be warm enough, can we shower, will we get lost, should we have a guide? Are we crazy? But even after the first night, I feel completely comfortable that we will be just fine, and moreover, we will throughly enjoy ourselves and the new experiences and sights the daily treks bring us. Rajan was very nice and informative. He’s been trekking as a porter and then guide since he was 15! He is now 24 and has 8 years of experience under his belt! He was in the mountains during the 2015 earthquake and he first hand saw the devastation that overtook the village he was stranded in. Children were orphaned, families were robbed of their livelihood and homes were destroyed. He was guiding three British girls and together they’ve started a fund and organization that has an office in Toronto so he was very enthusiastic when he found out I was a professional fundraiser.. from Toronto. I am excited to get home and visit the office to really learn how I can help. The mountains themselves are magical - every new peak takes your breath away. I can’t imagine the monstrosities these ranges are but I guess we’ll find out at Annapurna Basecamp (ABC) as we look up to the tenth highest mountain in the world!
Last night’s sleep was an absolute dream!! Not only were we tired from the ten thousand steps we took the day before, we were warmed by the lodges fire all night AND used our sleeping bags and the huge blankets provided to us for the warmest cloud-like sleep ever. We woke up at 4:45am to climb Poon Hill for sunrise. On a clear day, you can see the entire mountain range with over 7-9 different peaks. We layered up in everything we brought to bare the midnight temps at 3200metres. Again, up we went. It was an hour of straight stairs. The top was a land platform and we could faintly see the mountain peaks in the distance as the sun came up behind them.
It was fairly cloudy so unfortunately not every peak of the range were visible. However, for Carter and I who have never been around mountains like this, even seeing the 4-5 that were visible, was completely amazing. The clouds move fairly quickly over the peaks and ridges so every few minutes the scene would change; another unique and beneficial experience to mountaineering. We enjoyed a hot tea (for a crazy 170 rupees!) and waiting until the sun fully shone through. The sight kind of left me speechless and still has. I don’t really know how to explain how amazing and magically mysterious mountains are. We could stare at them all day, the sight of the same mountain range will never get old. We stayed up on Poon Hill for an hour before we decided we better head back down for breakfast and get on our days' trek.
We were heading to Tadapani which is 5 hours away. We had a big egg breakfast and went up to pack... but before we actually started packing, we snuggled in the huge blanket for the last time for a few extra minutes. Rajan left without us as Helena, the older Scottish lady he was guiding, was going much more slowly these days. So we sat by the fire while we warmed up before leaving for the day. We were probably 45 minutes behind them but we caught up with them fairly quickly. It didn’t take long before we could see how slow she was really moving today (we can’t blame her the trek is TOUGH and she’s an inactive 60 year old - she’s actually rocking it). So we went on ahead of them. Today was a really great day; the first hour was a steep incline a mixture of stairs and natural roots. The next 2.5 hours was downhill - which is the worst for me - and it was mostly dirt path and roots with strategically placed rocks. It was a fairly easy day in terms of hiking and body-tiredness.
We had lunch in Barithani, where the price of Coke went up from 150NPR to 250NPR and the vegetable fried rice went up from 320NPR to 400NPR! From there we had another hour downhill and a very steep climb for 45 minutes before we reached our final destination of Tadapani at 2:30pm. Altogether it took us the 5 hours it was supposed to. We forgot to ask where Rajan had booked that night so we wandered around asking for his name with no luck. We ended up staying at Supper Viewtop Lodge (yes, Supper with two ps) and got a panoramic room of windows with views of the mountains. It was magnificent; laying in bed you’re entire view was the Annapurna range. And all for a whopping 300 rupees! The man at the lodge whispered to me “how much you pay last night... ok is good, you pay same tonight” when I told him 300.
Side note: It's only day three and I am ALREADY running out of adjectives to describe the views and sights we are experiencing! So, please bare with my "amazings", "fabulous", and "breath takings" - there is just not enough words in the English language to describe the Himalayas!
The two windows in the back were our room; those windows were at the end of the room and we also had an entire wall of windows looking over Fishtail Mountain (the peak you can visibly see in this photo)
Around 3:30pm, we saw Rajan and Helena come into the village and we called down from our room window to make plans to meet for tea. We met Rajan at his lodge and he helped us map out the rest of our journey. He gave us recommendations for the better teahouses along the way since he's been climbing Annapurna for the last 8 years and has always sourced out the best ones in the village based on little perks they had (good views, best coffee, hot water)
As we were finishing up our tea at Rajan's teahouse, a man from OUR guesthouse came over to tell us it’s dinner time and we should come back to order (LOL) I am not sure how he found us but he was ensuring that we ate at his place and not theirs. This is very common and expected in the mountains because the room rates are SO low, they make their money off their guests eating dinner and breakfast there as well. It was quite funny. So we went back to our place, that also had a fire by wood going, and ordered some soups. This is the last fire we would see for the remainder of the trek, even though it will be getting significantly colder. We learned that this is because the sanctuary is so protected, it's prohibited to cut down trees for fire wood. We also met a very nice bloke from the UK who has been traveling to Nepal for mountain treks for over 30 years and we had a great conversation with him and shared travel stories. Just as we were finishing dinner, a storm rolled in and we got tucked into our sleeping bags and watched the thunder and lighting in the peaks of the mountains before falling asleep.
In the morning we were woken up by Chinese tourists yelling and laughing at sunrise taking peace sign and namaste photo after photo with the breathtaking clear views of the mountains. From our beds, and the comfort and warmth of our sleeping bags, we could see Annapurna South, Machapuchare Mountain (nicknamed Fishtail Mountain) and Annapurna 1 in the distance - it was right out of a green screen movie set.
We had a great slow lazy morning where we took pictures of the sun coming up and shining light on the mountain tops for an hour. We enjoyed a hot cup of organic coffee and then finally our breakfast. We chatted with a very nice guy from Hong Kong who was travelling on his own, and the British man some more before packing up and heading to Chhomrong... but not before we got in on the fun the Chinese tourists were having with their photo shoot!
We left at 9:30am. Getting to Chommrong should take us about 4 hours of downhill and 'Nepali flat' they call it. Now that we’ve trekked this route we learned what Nepali flat really means...up & down, up & down and is never actually flat. The first portion was all down hill, dirt path and no stairs, zigzagging through hillside terraces as we descended down into a mountain pass/valley. However beautiful, it freaking hurts the toes - jamming into the front of our runners.
There are "informative" signs along the trail and we've been using them religiously since we left Rajan. Which should tell you how little we actually knew about the trek... we were relying on the jam-packed informational map below:
After two hours of downhill we finally came to a big river and suspension bridge. We climbed down to the rushing river, for a Snickers break and basked in the sun's heat while slipping our feet into the glacier water to rejuvenate them for the rest of the hike.
From there it was up hill in the midday's hot sun so we stripped down and pushed through the next stair climb. The rest of the way was pleasant, Nepali flat trail, through farmers' field terraces as they were working away and little villages. We got to Chhromrong at 2:45pm. It was a nice easy relaxed day of trekking where we stopped a lot to take in the scenery and experience the nature around us. We stayed at Panoramic Point Hotel and bargained down the price from 400 to 200 rupees because our “friend” Rajan recommended this place to us. Hopefully this works in our favour every time. Tonight will be all about body recovery - hot shower, stretch, tiger bomb massage and rest. We ended up meeting Ting, who was a solo female trekker from Tiwan, who we kept running into and staying at the same lodges as us the past couple days. We talked with her all night and learned about the volatile history between Tiwan and China. Ting was one of our favourite travellers we met thus far, such a nice girl. She has inspired us to one day visit her in Taiwan!
All of us had our first dhal bhat dinner which was delicious and unlimited, so Carter and I had second and third helpings. The Nepali have a saying “dhal bhat, power 24 hour” and the guides eat it for lunch and dinner every single day. It consists of dhal (lentil soup) and bhat (rice), sautéed spinach, pickled spices, and fried potatoes. I loved each and every portion of it. After dinner we talked routes with Ting's guide who was very friendly and helpful and then quickly got ready for bed (read: dhal bhat food coma).
The view from Panasonic Point (and me pointing to our room):
We had a nice sleep in today because it was so quiet in our hotel; only us and Ting were staying at Panasonic Point Lodge. We woke up again to beautiful views from our window of Annapurna South and fishtail mountain, without even leaving our beds. We also decided we were going to take an easy approach at ABC and take two nights to get up to the Basecamp as oppose to the one that Ting was following with her guide. We only had a 5 hour trek today to Dovan which sits at 2600metres.
We ended up having some cell service on Carter's phone which has a SIM card so we sent our first “we are still alive” text's and FaceTimed Jen (Carter's sister) and James (our good friend) to try and show them the mountains.
We had our breakfast, packed and made our way to the famous and very old 'German bakery' on the other side of the village that serves a great cup of coffee (which is a rarity among the instant coffee we have been drinking). We enjoyed an americano on the porch of the bakery, roasting in the morning's sun before we were off for the days trek at 9:30am.
Chhomrong and the following villages were so quaint and quintessential it was SO beautiful. As we approached Bamboo, our lunch spot, about 4 hours after we left, it began to hail and rain. It was a wet hike the last hour to Dovan, our final resting place for the evening. To help my running shoes slipperiness, Carter cut down and whittled a bamboo shoot and I used it as a hiking stick.
We arrived in Dovan at Tip-Top Hotel and Lodge at 2:30pm in the rain. We bargained down our accommodation price to 300NPR and settled in, got a hot drink and started our “chores”; me, writing this entry, and Carter sewing on patches to his backpack. Apparently we had the Philippines flag upside down and the red on top means war, so a man called us out on it and he’s now resewing it on properly. Note to self: check the position of the flag before sewing!
There’s a nice older couple lodging beside us who are from Burlington, Ontario and we swear a dog has been following us all through the mountains from day 2!
So many of the porters are doing this trek in flip flops; we’ve heard it’s snowing up at abc and I am worried about my running shoes but knowing that they’re doing it in sandals gives me faith I can get away without the proper footwear as well. A lot of the terrain, smells and foliage remind us of Muskoka and/or walking the Bruce trails back at home, it’s a nice reminder and help for any home sickness I may have.
Dovan to Deurali - the last stop before making it to ABC. Deurali sits at 3200M, so if we were to take altitude sickness pills, it would be here that we should have started. However, we were trying to go without because there are some side affects of the medication we didn't want to deal with.
The trek today was quite "lax"; it was only a push of 500M and took a short 3 hours. We reached Deurali quite early because of this and had the opportunity to thaw out all afternoon and dry all of our clothing completely.
As we were having lunch, we witnessed our first avalanche way in the distance. We heard a huge crack, quickly looked up and very close to the peak of the mountain opposite of us, saw snow rapidly falling down the mountain side. Luckily, they were all happening so high above us that none of the snow ever made it even close to any of the villages. By the end of the day, we saw three separate avalanches which was pretty surreal! This also was a clear giveaway that getting to MBC and ABC may be a bit more challenging than we were expecting. Many trekkers coming back from basecamp were telling us that it had snowed 2 feet over night, the conditions of the trail was awful, etc etc. The owners of the hotel were also warning us about which trail to take up; they urged us to ask guides along the way if we should cross the river or continue on the path on this side of trail because it was more succeptable to avalanches. Sorry mothers... we're glad we didn't have access to the internet so you are both just learning about this now.
Deurali to ABC; the final stretch. This stretch was only to take 4 hours - 2 hours to Machhapuchre Basecamp (MBC) and another 2 to ABC. I consciously took this day super slow to give my body time to acclimatize as much as possible and as slowly as possible, as we were trying to do this trek without taking our altitude sickness pills. We started early in the morning, just after 7am and layered on everything we brought for the cold. Without the sun, the valley was frigid with wind blowing through and snow on the ground. Between the running nose, snot rockets, and taking in the breathtaking scenery, we stopped a lot. However, leaving early and while it was still cold made it less likely to run into avalanche issues, as the peaks wouldn't be warmed enough yet for the snow to melt and slide. Since you're reading this... you know we made it across to the other side of the valley safely.
Finally around 8:30am the sun came through and over top of the mountain into the valley and we started to dethaw. We approached MBC, the first of the two base camps, around 9am. We ran into our friend Ting from Taiwan who was on her way down. We were told by Rajan to stay at MBC for an extra long lunch or break to ensure we were listening to our bodies and how we were reacting to the altitude. MBC sits at 3900 metres. So that’s exactly what we did, we took a seat in the sun, ordered natures altitude medicine of ginger tea and garlic soup and waited on our body’s to give us the thumbs up or down before moving onto ABC.
After two hours neither of us were feeling any negative effects of the altitude so we decided to go on to our final destination, Annapurna Base Camp at 4130metres. This walk was incredibly surreal - walking through snow covered valley as 9 peaks towered above us. Everywhere we looked and turned there was a massive mountain. It was incredible and a sight/feeling/ experience neither of us have ever had in our lifetime.
Although beautiful, this walk was a biatch. Because the sun had been doing its job warming us... it was also warming the snow and ground beneath us making the trail extremely slippery and wet for a girl in runners. Also because of the elevation, every step up seemed like 5 extremely steep steps and I had to stop many more times than normal to catch my breath. The last hour was the worst because you could see ABC in the distance and it seemed like eternity before reaching it. After two hours, we finally walked up to the “Namaste, welcome to ABC” sign!! It was magic, relief and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment all at once.
Wow. Waking up at ABC for sunrise... wow. Is all I can get out. We emerged, hesitantly, from the warmth of our sleeping bags and 2 blankets on top of us to go outside for sunrise. We didn’t even have to get changed because we were both already wearing our fleeces and down jackets. We headed to the temple on top of base camp, where hundreds of prayer flags are flapping in the wind, to be surrounded by Annapurna mountain range every where we turned. The sun coming up over fishtail mountain was shining an orange hue of light on the other mountain tops. It was right out of a painting, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
We decided to go in early and beat the rush for breakfast and wait for the sun to be fully out before taking more pictures. We went into the warm dining hall, had a hot cup of tea and omelette sandwich and by the time we headed back out to the temple the sun was jussssst reaching the peak of the mountains to fill the valley with sun. This is also when the helicopters started coming in, one every 15 minutes, dropping off rich tourists, others to pick up people from Basecamp, and also to take tourists heli skiing. It was absolutely incredible to see how nimble the helicopters flew through the air and so close to the edges of the mountains.
When we started our descent it was still cold enough we could walk across the snow without falling in - this was one of the best experiences because we went off the main trail and walked by ourselves in the middle of the Annapurna valley with mountains towering over us on either side, the sun warming our faces and the helis flying over top of us.
By the time we got to MBC, the valley and the snow had heated up enough that we had to stick to the main trails again. Everything became slush and muck on the trails from the heat and foot traffic going to and from basecamps. Everyone had on clamp ons, spikes, or proper hiking boots... I had on my Nike frees and a hand made bamboo walking stick; the fact I did this entire trek in *unideal* shoe wear without getting soaked shoes and freezing feet, is something to be proud of!
It should have taken us 2 hours or less to get down to the next village of Duerali but we were stopping so much to watch the heli skiers come down the mountain or taking in the scenes, that it took us 3 hours. So after that, our camera was dead and we really started to make up our time getting down the mountain. Going down for us was much worse than going uphill, our knees couldn’t take the constant impact but nonetheless our goal was to make it to Chhomrong, the town that took us 3 days from ABC, while going up the mountain.
Fast forward to hour 8 of going down and I was in the most amount of pain EVER. My toes were squashed, my thighs were on fire, my knees about to give out. I was ready to give up and stop at the town before Chhomrong. God bless Carter's sweet, positive soul... he kept saying "you got this girl, keep going, you can do it". Finally, I snapped from the pain and "jokingly" said to Carter "I don't need your f*#$*ing cheerleading anymore! I need a Snickers and to get down this damn mountain!"
THANKFULLY we ran into a father and son duo and we ended up stopping and chatting with them for a decent amount of time - time enough to allow my legs to recover a bit and continue onto Chhromrong. Captain Carter, as I unaffectionately was calling him, wouldn't let us stop longer than 15 minutes in order to get to Chhromrong before sun down. We made it to our goal, and ultimately, I truly was happy he pushed to get me there. It also meant that the next morning we didn't have to go an hour down into a valley and another hour up stairs first thing in the morning.
We had a good “sleep in” that was much needed and deserved. We rolled out of bed at 8am and slowly packed our bags, eager to get to the German bakery and slurp down some americanos and freshly baked goods. As we walked up the last of the grueling steps of Chhomrong we ran into 3 Nepalis taking a break and asked the best way to get back to Pokhara if we were skipping the hot springs in Jinhu. One of the guys was Amrite, a guide who we had saw at ABC. The group he was guiding to ABC were too tired and decided to take a helicopter back to Pokhara for a whopping $450USD per person...WHAT!? What a casual decision, no big deal!! A 15 minute ride through the mountain range for $450USD - I wish that was in our budget! I could have used it yesterday.
Amrite took us under his wing and we were off to Sinwa together. But not before Carter stopped at the hotel we stayed at the first time in Chhromrong to collect his $0.50 socks he forgot the first time round. Amrite was only 22 years old and FAST like a mountain goat. It was hard to keep up with Carter's long legs, especially after how sore I was from the 10 hour climb down yesterday, but Amrite's speed up and down the mountain was exhausting. The weather didn't make this portion of the trek any easier either; it was all sun and no breeze so Carter and I sweat like pigs.
Amrite was a very nice guy though, he taught us even more information about Nepal, their government and the British Gurkhas and his own life. We took a break at a river crossing and in typical Carter fashion, jumped right in and went swimming. Once he saw Carter dive right in, Amrite took off his shoes and enjoyed the cold rejuvenating water on his feet. This is probably something he wouldn’t have done or enjoyed if he was with his real tour group, it was a nice experience for all of us to share!
After that we ran up one side of the mountain (almost quite literally) and took a lunch break at New Bridge, a small village on the side of the mountain. Here is one of the more interesting porter loads we saw while trekking:
Unfortunately it was here that we learned of a tourist's body being found not too far from where we were having lunch at the bottom of the river's edge. He was apparently an older gentleman, so it could have been exhaustion, dehydration or just an accidental misstep. Whatever the cause, we could definitely understand how something like that could happen based on how tired our bodies were and the fact that we didn't know the terrain all that well. This trek has been such a fun and exciting experience for us that it didn't really strike us as a dangerous adventure. After hearing this news, you sit and consider the risk involved and absolutely understand how something like that could happen. Very unfortunate.
We continued on through cute villages and farm terraces until we made it to Siwua and waited for the bus that heads to the bottom of the mountain. Right next to the “bus station” (aka the side of a dirt road) was a farm of baby goats - we went to play with them, they were SO small and cute but so freaking loud when they baaaaaaaa-ed.
Around 3pm we boarded the local bus that was blasting Nepali music videos (almost like Bollywood) and bounced and crashed around down the awfully bad constructed mountain road. The bus driver had extreme skills - there were times I would look down out of my window and just see what was at the bottom of the cliff, not even the edge of the road so we were teetering on the roads edge and the only thing between us and certain death was the “Nepali luck” of the driver, says Amrite. It took us about 4 hours between stopping for locals to get in and out, snail pacing through small towns and villages, and waiting to pass construction, to get to Pokhara. Once back in the city we went back to Trekkers Inn hotel to collect the bag we left behind and were too tired to source out a cheaper place so we ended up staying there again, in a cheaper room. We had the longest and hottest showers and finally had a incredible scrub to get clean from the mountains, then headed to feast - we ate SO much at an amazing place called Laxman, such great Greek salad, pizza and butter chicken.
After that, we caught up on some much needed wifi time and went to bed to wake up early the next day for the bus back to Kathmandu.
WE DID IT!
After this experience, we decided that instead of being those crazy adventurers wanting to tackle the "World's 7 Tallest Summits", we decided, why don't we just be those adventurers who make it to the "World's 7 Tallest Basecamps"!!!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!