Golden cities & camel trekking


Jaisalmer (pronounced like Haselmere) is known as the golden city thanks to its honey coloured sandstone streets that emerge from the dust and heat of the desert. The city lies on the edge of the Thar desert, a parched land in the far northwest of India 100km from the border with Pakistan. We’re closer to Karachi than Delhi, and the furthest west we’ll be during the Asian part of our travels.

I don’t think any description of a desert land is complete without some mention of the temperature and an unscientific reference to egg cooking time. So for the record: it’s very hot and dry here, albeit only touching 37C on the forecast, and the midday sun is scorching – certainly hot enough to fry an egg on a car bonnet in 30 seconds or so – although with all the dust I’m not sure we’d eat the egg if we did cook it! Actually, it’s hot enough that for the first time we’ve had to seek shelter during the middle of the day and explore during the cooler hours.

The city holds one of the world’s oldest living forts, with 2000 people still inhabiting the houses of the hilltop fort at its centre. While not as vast and dominating as that at Jodhpur, the fort itself is nonetheless impressive – a golden spectacle rising 100m from the town below, with the usual twists and turns on its entry road to prevent invaders from building up enough speed to batter down the defences. It was never successfully taken by force, with the three times it was overcome only after sieges lasting many months forcing those inside to admit defeat and ceremonially surrender in a desperate act – the women by throwing themselves on a ritual fire dressed in all their finery to the beat of a drum, and the men in one final fatal battle charge knowing they were outnumbered and hoping to take as many of the enemy with them as they could.

Despite its impressive past, this is now a citadel in crisis – the modern day development of having water on tap has outstripped improvements to the fort’s old sewer system, and as a consequence a large proportion of the water used in the fort seeps into the foundations beneath, causing collapses and in a few recent occasions catastrophe. Tourism has a large part to blame, and the advice is to stay outside the fort (as we did), or only use one of the older, eco guesthouses within.

The fort plays host to a number of temples, including an ornate Jain complex from the 16th century, as well as a palace. All are decorated in fantastically detailed stone panels, carved with such precision and deftness that you’d think it was wood. Set against the dazzling blue sky, these golden monuments really look stunning, and all the more so for remaining so detailed after hundreds of years facing off to the abrasive desert winds. In addition to human inhabitants, the buildings of the fort also accommodate an impressive range of bats – almost every indoor corridor had its ceiling dotted with them, sleeping and occasionally stretching and yawning just above our heads.

Earlier today we went down to the lake which used to be the town’s only water source. We hired a pedallo and were able to admire the reflections of town and fort upon the water – and at the same time reflect for ourselves what an importance this site must have been before the days of taps and pumps, when the womenfolk of the fort would walk the two kilometres downhill to collect water each day, and when various architectural features of the palaces were first designed to retain every last drop for recycling such a precious resource. It’s just such a pity that today’s throwaway world has seen this quite literally undermined through careless and thoughtless wastage, or to look at it another way, through unbalanced, short-termist development – improvement in water in without matched improvement in the sewerage system to get it out.

The highlight of our time in Jaisalmer was undoubtedly a camel trek we took into the desert, over two days with a night under the stars in between. We set off early one morning by jeep to our starting point an hour’s drive out of town, where we met our camels and guides. We were fortunate to be just four in total, having been joined by a German and a Cuban girl from our hotel, who made up for in enthusiasm what she lacked in English!

Camels (or in our case, single-humped dromedaries) are strange animals, a true dinosaur of the desert which seem to have few present day equals. To look at them and hear them groaning, chewing away at the bushes, and scratching on branches to destruction, you could well think you were watching a scene from Jurassic Park. They stand at easily over two metres high, with impressively long giraffe-like necks that let them crane to reach the juiciest greenery from up on high. And then there’s the legs which are double-jointed and fold concertina-like to let the animal kneel and sit. It’s a strange multi-stage manoeuvre to go from on the ground to up in the air, but it works, and we fortunately managed to stay on! It brought back memories of our brief jaunt on camels in the Tunisian desert – we missed you Steve!

As we started out in our rolling rhythm, there was one surprise about the desert – it was a lot greener than we’d imagined! No, we hadn’t been conned (we did check our GPS to be sure!), but we’d instead visited at one of the few times when the desert is briefly green, after the rains of the monsoon. It will now not rain again here until next July, when another 30cm or so will fall. On a bed of yellow sand, there was a matting of slowly withering grass, in shades of light green and yellow, interspaced with darker green shrubbery – a low stringy dark green plant with small leaves that clung to the ground that our camels seemed to love, and occasional bushes one or two metres high, with glossy bright green leaves. The camels were blighted by flies and in an effort to rid themselves of the irritation, they would crash into these larger bushes, creating a fantastic ripping and tearing sound as the branches and leaves were torn off, and we as riders clung on. However, as Laura found to her peril, the most dangerous obstacles were the spiney, prickly thorn trees that were apparently perfect to scratch that camel itch that apparently no other bush could reach. Unaware of the plight of their human rider, the camels occasionally plunged sidewards into one of these, at one point scratching Laura’s hand and arm
in the process. Fortunately we’re both generally still intact from the experience!

We stopped at a village along the way, where bizarrely Laura got her nails painted in what must be the strangest cultural exchange of the trip so far! After being shown around the simple thatched hut the family lived in and taking the customary photos of the kids posing in our sunglases, the woman pulled out a container of sparkling red nail varnish, and kindly, if not that accurately, decorated Laura’s fingernails. There was a slight moment of horror when she apparently reached to also paint Laura’s nose the same way, but we were relieved to find she just left a small bindi-like spot of red on the end of her nose instead. Even as I write this, I can see Laura’s nails sparkling as a testament to our cultural interaction – still there despite the very best efforts of nail varnish remover last night!

Food in the desert was cooked by our guides over an open fire, delicious and fresh. Each meal was accompanied by handmade (in one case by Laura) chapattis, along with a tasty veg curry and green – but apparently ripe – oranges.

The creatures of the desert were interesting not for what we saw of
them – thankfully very little – but more for the evidence of their presence and survival amid the hostile sands. Holes of varying sizes dotted the sand, some just a few millimetres across, some a couple of centimetres, and others more a warren of tunnels for desert foxes or rats. We didn’t really want to dwell on the creatures of the smaller holes – beatles, certainly (and we saw some rolling dung back with them), but spiders? Scorpions? Fortunately we didn’t need to find out!

As you can imagine, in this context, it was with slight trepidation that we lay down to sleep after a beautiful desert sunset. Our guides had made wonderful beds of clean white sheets and blankets right on the sand, and Laura and I had the privilege of a whole dune to ourselves, with only the starry night sky above and nobody else in sight. The full moon slightly undermined our ability to see the stars but it was a brilliantly beautiful way to sleep, and I was relieved in the morning to find the only close visitors we’d had were beatles, whose tracks decorated all the surrounding sand. Slightly further away was the small wavey track of a small snake that had been past, but we were assured there was nothing hazardous to us.

I never cease to be amazed by dawn, and sunrise in the desert did not disappoint. The gift of day is carefully packaged, and witnessing nature unwrap it is a methodical but wonderfully gradual process.

Before it all begins, there’s a change in the music – a gentle dimming of the night humming of crickets, and an almost imperceptibly slow crescendo of tweets and chirps and caw-caw bird calls, which will build into a fanfare. Then the unwrapping begins. The first layers offer the prize of contrast and shape – the ability to distinguish between the curves of the dune we’re lying on and those of the next; the texture of the sand and its many animal prints from the night; and the first hints of silhouetted trees against the lightening sky.

Then comes colour. The dull colour wash of the moonlight is repainted with ever more vivid highlights – the sky taking on streaks of pink and light blue, giving way to oranges and turquoise, while the sand around us becomes ever more golden and the shrubbery take on their daytime palette of glossy greens and yellows, over rough browns and blacks. It’s almost like discovering sight all over again – as you look around you’re convinced that sunrise must now follow as all the colours of the day have arrived, only for another to emerge from its slumber – a deeper hue of green in the trees, a stronger pink in the sky, an even brighter white in the sheets of our beds.

Finally, the sun emerges, bringing with it incredible blinding brightness, and with that, shadows and the absolutes of black and white – the crisp outline of the distant trees against the glowing sky, and the full shape of the mounds of sand around us as the shadows work their magic and depth comes into play.

Less than a minute later the unwrapping is complete and the day is on full show, the whole glowing sun providing a reminder that we’re in the desert with its lasting final sensation – that of heat, and the need for us to pack up our beds for the night and find shelter in the cool shade of the trees before continuing our journey for the day.



The runaway ghost train

Our final day’s trekking brought us back down to our starting point, Shyaphru Besi, via a winding mountain path that would have given us superb views if it wasn’t for the clouds. The narrow wet trail overhanging the cliff edge wasn’t for the faint-hearted, particularly as we crossed (small) waterfalls, leaping from rock-to-rock. But this was a walk in the park (well, jungle) compared to our journey to and from Kathmandu…

Before I say any more, let me point out that I’m writing this from the comfort of a hotel bed safely back in Kathmandu. Our limbs are all still attached, and other than a cold, we’re both in good spirits.

A number of people have told us they recently saw a TV show about the worst roads in the world, and Nepal was featured. Deservedly so. The people at the shop we hired our sleeping bags from told us the roads have actually got worse rather than better in recent years – a huge rise in the number of trucks carrying goods across the country have torn the often untarmaced surface apart, with post-monsoon maintenance unable to keep up with the rate of destruction.

If the bumpy dirt road to Everest Base Camp was a rollercoaster, then this was (at times) a runaway ghost train.

Most of the ten hour journey was fine – surfaced roads, not that much overtaking on blind corners, even a break for a quick lunch. For something little more than a school bus, it was crowded (40 seated, 20 standing, 20 on the roof), but we had seats. And the cargo (a stack of TVs, sacks of rice, gas bottles, and a couple of live chickens perched in the head-height luggage rack for good measure) didn’t shift around too much.

The hair-raising bits were where there had been landslides, and road gave way to an undesirable combination of mud, boulders, waterfalls and sheer drops, and the bus company was diligently trying to ensure the full distance from start to finish was covered, in spite of the obstacles. Seeing the skeleton of a former bus lying on the hillside beneath us as we were leaving Kathmandu did not inspire confidence!

Anyway, the road was a challenge, and the driver was nothing short of amazing in his abilities to navigate the, well, seemingly unnavigable. A combination of momentum, lurching up to 30 degrees before hurtling back to the centre line, massive tires, and the sheer willpower of the (occasionally screaming) people on board seemed to get us through. We’re hoping the photos will do it justice.

We had to walk a bit where the road was actually entirely impassable, and for our return journey this had got worse, with us needing to hot-foot it over saturated mud that felt very much like another landslide waiting to happen. But we were triumphant!

For the way back, we decided for the first time to play our “I’m a wealthyish westerner, get me out here” trump card and take a jeep, which meant we got out and walked all the risky bits, and had the luxury of only 10 people in the vehicle for most of it. We met a lovely couple of honeymooning Australians, Mitch and Kirsty who offered us a ride – and we’ve been spending some time in Kathmandu chilling out (and celebrating the end of the journey) with them before they head off to the beaches of Thailand.

Our advice to anyone else going to Langtang – think seriously about taking a jeep, or going elsewhere! We won’t be repeating the experience – instead we will just cling to our memories (of clinging on for dear life) via the now oft-recited phrase “the bus would have done it!”


The cherry on top


Until a few minutes ago, I’d always thought those red shiny plastic faux-cherry balls of sugar were called glacier cherries. I was just saying how little there was in common between them and the white-grey mass of ice and rock we could see on the mountain above us when Laura broke the news. GlacĂ© apparently. Whatever next? We’re not in the Alps?!

Well, greetings from Kyanjin Gumba, 3870m, halfway through our trek in the Langtang National Park in the Nepalese Alps. Ok, the Himalayas.

We’ve had an eventful, energetic and mostly very enjoyable few days, working our way up the valley following the river to the glaciers that feed it.

Firstly, there’s something I’m not going to write about until we’re safely back in Kathmandu. It concerns the bus journey here, which at two points was probably the most terrifying moment of our lives so far. Suffice to say, we now have a new phrase for the most impenetrable of paths – “The bus would do it!” ‘lest I condemn us to fate, more on that another time.

Nepal is right at the end of monsoon season, but it’s not quite over yet. That means there’s a predictable rhythm to the day’s weather – and hence trekking. From mid afternoon and through the night, it pours with rain. This means that you really want to be tucked up in your next tea house (lodge) by then, so you set off early. Breakfast at six or six-thirty, just as the sun is rising, illuminating clear views of the amazing snow capped peaks around us. Within a few minutes of the sun hitting the rain-soaked mountainside, the evaporating water swirls into clouds and suddenly all disappears into an undulating mist of white and grey. After breakfast, we head off, trekking for 6 or 7 hours with a quick break for lunch, aiming to get to our tea house for the night by 3 just as the clouds have picked up enough moisture to pour it down again.

As we’ve made our way up the valley, the scenery has changed from rocky canyon to lush damp jungle, and now to wide open mountain pasture, surrounded by peaks in snow white and rocky grey. The mountainsides are a mixture of forest in places and gorse and moss in others, punctuated with tiny bright flowers in yellow and blue – and occasionally berries, with low bushes teeming with fruit in cherry red and bright sea blue. From a distance, the gorse hillside looks like old dark green velvet, worn away in parts by the yak trails forming contour lines through the smooth surface.

The trail weaves its way alongside and over the river, crossing the torrent on steel pedestrian suspension bridges, some up to 50m long that bounce unnervingly as you walk. I try to avoid looking at the water rushing past a long way beneath. At times the track has given way to a landslide, and scrambling up and over the rock – and occasionally streams – is required, a fun challenge with our backpacks on!

When not trekking we’ve been enjoying the delights of eating masses of food, chilling out and playing cards. We nearly came a cropper the other night though. We were playing cards in our room late into the night (ok it was 8:30) electric light on, when we looked around and to our horror found a scene reminiscent of Hichcock’s The Birds. Even though the windows had been closed, sitting watching us from the curtains, ceiling, walls and bedspreads were bugs in their thousands. It seemed that while we were distracted by gin rummy an army had silently swept in and occupied. I swear that you could hear them sharpening their fangs in preparation! Even after a military counterattack involving bright light outside the door and lots of deodorant, we did not sleep soundly – and late night cards is now firmly off the menu. Well, at least until we pick up our mosquito nets from storage in Kathmandu*.

Before we set off on the trek, we dropped into the lovely KEEP, the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project which is aimed at ensuring that trekking has a positive (and not, as it sometimes is, negative) impact on the local area, both environmentally and for the people. One of the things they provide is support for porters, who eek out a meagre living carrying goods and trekkers’ bags through the mountains, often poorly equipped physically (flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt) – and educationally, with many not aware of the dangers of altitude sickness.

One of the other services KEEP provide are log books from other travellers’ recent expeditions, and so we took their advice in where to stay – which is how we ended up at the petite and lovely Moonlight Guest House here. A previous visitor described it as ‘small, cosy and hostile’. We think they meant hospitable! It was lovely last night warming up around the yak dung stove playing cards and eating delicious home-cooked food, including ‘Snickers Momo’, Nepal’s answer to the deep fried mars bar!

After arriving yesterday, we set off for an adventure to the Lirung Glacier. It soon became apparent that we were following a yak trail instead of one designed for humans, and we wound our way around rocks and over piles of dung, on an ever thinning path. Fortunately, a local old man appeared from a hilltop to guide us (for a fee, of course), taking us through the encroaching mist and rain and finally scrambling over gorse and rocks to the point when we could see the Glacier from (almost) up close. At one point we stopped for a break, and true to British rambler form were able to offer round shortbread, complete with tartan design. We just needed Kendal mint cake to complete the set!

Today we hiked up the 1000m or so to the summit of Kyanjin Ri, at 4773m. We now know why it takes two months for people to climb Everest – it’s exhausting! The altitude really hit us – by the end, for every 30m we walked, we had to stop and catch our breath. The view from the top was mainly familiar – dense white cloud surrounding us – and occasionally fabulous, as the mists parted to reveal yesterday’s glacier in full splendour, the set of peaks around, and the now playset-sized town 1km below.

Oh, one last thing. So far this blog has enumerated Laura’s addictions to chocolate, fountains, and bells. We have one more for the list: cheese! I’m pretty certain this particular trek was chosen because it culminated in the town we’re currently in, home to a cheese factory. Each day as we’ve surveyed the map of the day’s contours to climb, there’s been a yelp of delight from Laura as she points out the label. Today we visited it first hand, getting a tour around the factory (one room, two minutes), a visit to the cold store (lots of cheese, maturing in rounds on shelves), and our very own purchase of 200g of Langtang’s finest yak cheese. We’ve concluded that the Cheddar region has nothing to fear – it’s a bit like a slightly tougher Edam, and could definitely do with a bit more flavour. They make 6,000 kg of the stuff each year, half of which is consumed locally in the valley, and half of which is exported to Kathmandu – carried out by porter, down the same winding route we’ve just come up.

Cheese aside, the lovely thing today is the weather – the past few hours have brought glorious sunshine, so much so that we’re now both sunburnt. Now that I think about it, the red shiny glow we’re both displaying has more than a passing resemblance to the GlacĂ© cherry on the top of this mountain.


*You’ll be pleased to hear that a slavering of insect repellent saved us from being bitten.