Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why Makalu Base Camp and Why MAST

In this post I will try address why I chose MAST as the company to organize my trek and what you should expect before you get to Nepal.
I had been wanting to visit Nepal for many years and figured it was a trip worthy of my 40th birthday. It actually took me a couple of extra years to get my act together and actually organize the trip. I had a romantic notion that Nepal would be similar to the Ireland of my youth. Ireland back before we were part of the EU and when the country survived on agriculture and tourism. Ireland back in the time when there was a real sense of community and people really looked out for each other.
 Originally the Annapurna circuit was top of my list. It is often cited as one of the top 5 hikes in the world and features in many popular hiking magazines. When I investigated a little more I found that you may have a few hundred people start the Annapurna trek on any given day. The region now has road access and villages have really changed to meet the needs of western tourists. You can find bakeries and coffee shops along the route. This didn’t sound like the Nepal I was looking for.
Everest base camp was a similar story. Base camp itself now has a bakery and internet access. One guide told me there are beds for 1,000 people at Everest base camp and there’s no guarantee you’ll find one empty when you get there. Again this sounded more like a dog and pony show rather than the true Nepal I wanted to see.
A friend found a description of the Makalu Base Camp trek in a trekking guide. There wasn’t much information as not many people visit the region. This sounded much more like the experience we were looking for.
I started researching the Makalu region and found there were really two options for this trek. The first was to do a camping trek with one of the established trekking companies. I found many such companies but their offerings and prices were pretty similar. The second option was to go with Makalu Arun Social Trek (MAST) and do the route as a teahouse trek. Teahouse trekking has only been possible in the last year or two and most people don’t even realize it’s an option. When I realized that going with MAST was a cheaper option than the traditional trekking companies and that about $600 per person was going to fund a local orphanage the decision was easy. I contacted Tejanath and started organizing the trip.
The biggest problem I had with pre-trip preparations was that I really wasn’t sure whether MAST was real or whether I was being duped by a clever internet scam. The communications I received didn’t have the polished look you expect from a tourist serving organization. The same day I booked international tickets and told MAST we were committed to trekking with them I received a mail asking me to send an orphanage fundraiser link to all my friends. I really wasn’t sure whether it was wise to send money to an organization that I honestly had doubts about. I figured it was worth the risk and if it was genuine we would have the trip of a lifetime. If it wasn’t real we could hire guides locally and somehow make the trip happen anyway.
A couple of months before my trip, I was lucky to discover that one of my work colleagues was from Kathmandu. He put me in touch with a family friend who runs a tourism company in Kathmandu. The contact he gave me was Devraj Bajracharya and his company is Mountain Tawache (tawache@mail.com.np). Devraj was able to organize airport pickup and dropoff in Kathmandu, book hotels and take care of foreign exchange. He also organized our TIMS card. I also asked Devraj (via my work colleague) to verify MAST was a genuine organization. As it turns out Devraj comes from Khandbari and knew Tejanath.
If you are interested in trekking with MAST feel free to contact me. I can give you a US number to contact me personally and address and concerns.
One more thing I should address here is the need for evacuation insurance. The Makalu region is very remote with no roads beyond Num (2nd day of trekking). Trails are not built to western standards and the word ‘contouring’ has no meaning in Nepal. This trek is really appropriate for the experienced trekker with a spirit of adventure. It is not uncommon for helicopter evacuations in the region and you really want to protect yourself from the cost of same. I found the insurance on the lonely planet website to be good value (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance/).

Organization of Blog

I will give a day by day description of the trek with each day in a separate blog post.
I will try give useful information about food, accommodation and terrain.

For the accommodation I will rate each teahouse. My rating scale will be as follows:

One Cup - Poor

  Two Cups - Fair

Three Cups - Good

The rating will be based on a combination of facilities and experience.
In some locations the teahouse may not have been the most comfortable or bathroom may not have been up to par but the fun we had with locals outweighed the physical surroundings.
Similarly in other locations the facilities were excellent but the experience was a bit sterile.

I will also rate the weather.
During the trek we found some locations to be colder than what we were really prepared for.
One of our guides wore the same clothes throughout the journey but added more hats as it got colder.
The rating scheme for temperature will therefore be based on the number of hats longman is wearing.

One Hat - Warm Weather

Two Hats - Chilly Weather

Three Hats - Brass Monkeys

Day 1 - Arriving in Kathmandu

Before departing for Kathmandu a Nepali friend put me in touch with Devraj Bajracharya. Devraj runs a company that caters to tourists, arranging lights, hotels, treks etc. The name of his company is Mountain Tawache Travels & Tours. Devraj's email address is tawache@mail.com.np

I arranged that Devraj would pick us up at the airport and bring us to a hotel that he had arranged.
The airport transfer was $5 per person and well worth the money if it is your first time arriving in Kathmandu.
It is possible to leave the airport compound on foot and get cheaper taxis but for the comfort of having somebody waiting and avoiding the preying taxi men it is well worth it.

This is Devraj with Mark and Elaine (my travel companions) at the airport in Kathmandu. He greeted us with marigold leis which seem very popular throughout Nepal.

The trip from the airport to the hotel was a bit of an eye opener.

The road was mostly unpaved and we passed many semi-derelict looking buildings like this one. I think what was happening was road expansion and houses and other buildings that stood in the way would simply be chopped an necessary to make way for the road.

The noise level was unbelievable with cars constantly honking as they jockied for position on the road.

As well as organizing hotels and transfers Devraj also too care of converting our money from dollars to Nepali Rupees. You can not buy Nepali currency outside the country so you need to take care of this when you arrive. There are ATMs in Kathmandu and even in Khandbari but with unreliable electricity you can not be sure one will be available when you need it. On the trek to Makalu there is no chance to get money beyond Khandbari.

Between the three of us we converted about $2,000. We wanted small bills as we would be paying teahouses directly and in the remote regions they do not like larger notes. We overdid it a bit on the 100 NPR notes (worth roughly a dollar) but some of the teahouse owners were very happy when they saw our money and asked to exchange for larger notes as they had trouble making change for tourists.
At the time we arrived the exchange rate was 83.50 NPR per dollar for big bills ($50/$100 notes) and 82.50 NPR per dollar for $20 notes. I had brought all $20 bills as I was worried about larger notes being accepted - wont make that mistake again. Another thing to note is that any bills with rips or other deformations will not be accepted. The Nepali notes you receive may be in very bad shape (the bundles Devraj brought were nailed together) but they are very picky about foreign notes being in perfect condition.

Yet another item Devraj took care of was to organize our TIMS trekking cards. I had send photos and passport copies by email and he got the pictures printed and cards organized for $10 each.

We spent our first evening exploring the Thamel area of Kathmandu. It is the tourist region of the city and not really my favourite place in Nepal. We ate mediocre food in a touristy restaurant. We were at the time being very cautious about what we ate as we feared picking up any tummy trouble before starting our trek. We also went for drinks at the Rum Doodle bar. It was a quiet night there and we found the place to be a bit of a let down. Apparently it moved premises a number of years back and lost a lot of its charm in the process.

We spent the night at the Harati hotel which Devraj had booked for us. The cost was $30 for the night including breakfast - significantly cheaper than what is offered on their website. The hotel was a little rough around the edges but perfectly adequate.

I got a spacious room on the top floor. It was in a convenient location just a short walk from Thamel.

Day 2 - Kathmandu to Khandbari

We started the day with a good breakfast at the Harati hotel. They had a buffet breakfast with bacon and eggs on offer. Devraj collected us from the hotel and dropped us to the Kathmandu domestic terminal. First time in the domestic terminal was interesting. There's not much concept of queuing in Nepal but the skill honed in Irish bars over t he years made getting to the checking counter easy enough. You do have to pay a departure tax before you go to the airline counter. There is a bank counter in the far right corner of the terminal where you pay this fee - a couple of hunder rupees per person.

The flight to Tumlingtar was 40 minutes with broken views of the himalaya and Everest on the way. We soon landed at Tumlingtar airport.

The airport building was a gentle reminder that you are in one of the poorer countries in the world. I suspect the redbrick add-on is a result of the maoist uprising.

We were the only western tourists on the plane. It was quite obvious that we were getting off the usual tourist circuit. When we arrived Elaine was keen to get to get a picture of the nice local dress this lady was wearing. She was trying to sneak a picture with the lady in it when the lady came and asked could she have a picture with the nice western lady, I guess another reminder that we were off the usual tourist routes.

We were very happy to meet Tejanath waiting at Tumlingtar airport. For the first time we knew that MAST was a real organization and our trek would be a success. Tejanath (in the centre) was waiting with the two guides who would accompany us on the trek. The guides names were Madden (2nd from right) and Bardur (far right) but I soon named them longman and strongman. I think they liked their new names as they addressed each other as longman and strongman for the rest of the trip.

We stopped for a quick beer in Tumlingtar and then caught a jeep to Khandbari. The trip was only about 6 miles but the roads were unpaved and washed out. It was quite a rough journey.

When  we arrived in Khandbari we went to Tejanath's house where we would be staying. His wife, Tulasa, prepared a lunchtime snack of omelette's, beaten rice and potato - really a full meal.

This is the street just outside Tejanath's house. The original water main ran down the centre of the road bud didn't survive the introduction of cars to the region about 7 years ago. The new water main is just laid down the side of the road. 

Walking around the town was the first time meeting Nepali kids. They were always keen to pose when they saw the big camera I was carrying.

This is the main square in Khandbari.

When we returned to Tejanath's house Tulasa prepared the evening Dal Bhat.

This is the meal that nearly all Nepali people eat twice a day, though this is a very good Dal Bhat with more variety than what we often saw.          The Dal is the lentil soup. This is the primary source of protein in the Nepali Diet. Consistency of the soup varied greatly ranging from watery soup to a bowl of beans. Dal was always accompanied by Bhat - a heaping pile of rice. At least one other vegetable, usually Alu (potatoe) was served with the Dal Bhat.
After eating twice already on this day I really struggled to eat my dinner. It didn't help that Tulasa was always ready to top up your plate as you ate.

Weather - One Hat Day

Was very warm in Khandbari when we arrived.

3 Cups for Sure
Tulasa looked after us so well.

Day 3 - Khandbari to Bhangkharka

The day started with Tulasa and her niece preparing morning Dal Bhat. The Nepali traditional knife is interesting. It sits on the floor and is held in place by a foot.

It is traditional for Nepali to eat with their hands. We were fortunately provided with utensils though I carried a spork with me just in case.

 After morning Dal Bhat we went to visit the orphanage for the first time. I was amazed by the children there. They were happy and friendly.

I brought a couple of Rubik's cubes to use an an ice breaker when we visited the orphanage. I don't think you need an ice breaker but the kids certainly enjoyed the cubes.

I sat to show them how the Rubik's cube works and I was straight away surrounded by all 12 children. Having just arrived in the country and wearing fresh clothes it was a little close for comfort. 12 children that wash and do their own laundry once a week don't exactly smell like roses. I did get my revenge by trekking for three weeks before I would go visit them again. The reason MAST exists is to raise funds for the orphanage. Please see my first post for more information.

We started our trek with a short day. The destination was Bhangkharka, a small village where we would be welcomed by the community.
We had decided to walk with just two guide porters. We would give them our sleeping bags and some clothes to carry and we would carry all other items ourselves.
Longman was pretty slow on this first day, so slow that we gave him less to carry on future days. In hindsight we think we were played a little.

Everywhere we went people were busy cleaning and painting their houses and shops. The most popular colour was blue as in this picture.
It turns out we had arrived the week before Dashain, the biggest festival of the year in Nepal.
It is traditional to clean and paint before the festival.

It was common to see local people ply their trades at the side of the road. These guys were stuffing and sewing bedding. The stringed object that looks like a musical instrument is used to prepare the fill for the bedding.
Another thing that was obvious on the walk is that children do not have fancy toys like western children. It was very common to see them play with toys they made from discarded objects. It was also amazing just how happy and friendly children were everywhere we went.

We stopped for a break at this monastery. No monks were present on the day but the building was pretty cool with it's all seeing eyes.

When we arrived in Bhangkharka we we brought to the local community centre where we were given prayer scarves, flower leis and tikas. We went straight from the trail to the community centre so we were quite sweaty for this little ritual.
Part of the premise of MAST is that you use local guides and experience local culture.
The community homestay in Bhangkharka is part of this. We found the welcoming ceremony a bit laboured and wasn't really blowing our hair back.

Tejanath made some speeches, mostly in Nepali. We were just the second group to come through Bhangkharka and I think much of the ceremony was for their benefit rather than ours. Tejanath was explaining to them how tourism could be a revenue source and how it needs to be promoted etc.
After his speeches the locals played music and danced for us. Again it was all quite laboured and they didn't really look like they wanted to be dancing for an audience in the middle of the afternoon.

Fortunately the power went out and the dancing part of the program came to an abrupt end before they decided we should join in.

After dropping our gear at the home where we would stay they brought us on a tour of the village.

One of the sources of revenue for the village is making traditional rugs that would be sold at the market in Khandbari. They showed us how the separate the goat hair, spin yarn and then hand weave the rugs.
We had come across these rugs in Khandbari and truth be told they are quite itchy.

We were also brought to this swing. Apparently they are constructed in each village as part of the Dashain celebrations. I couldn't resist having a go but I think I entertained the locals rather than impressing them.

Back at the house where we were staying we were served Tongba, things were really starting to look up.

Tongba is the local version of beer.
Millet is fermented in a bucked for a couple of weeks.
Hot water is then poured over the fermented millet and you drink it through a perforated straw. As you drink you add more liquid. You refill with hot water about five times. Very tasty and not the last time we would find tongba on our travels.

Evening Dal Bhat was served at the house where we stayed. It was served with goat meat which was quite tasty.
We did find it odd that our guides and all the locals ate in another house and were were left alone.
I don't think they quite understand the notion of community homestay. I think it would be much better if they ditched the formal greeting at the community centre and instead sat and drank tongba with us.

These were my digs for the night.
It was perfectly comfortable though I did have longman sleeping on the floor.
Mark and Elaine were in another room upstairs in the house.

Weather - Definitely a One Hat Day

Accommodation Rating:
House was nice and had the nicest toilet in Nepal.
Docking a cup as we weren't overly impressed being left eating alone while the party was going on elsewhere.

Day 4 - Bhangkharka to Num

Breakfast in Bhangkharka was an omelet served with tea.

After breakfast we said our goodbyes to our hosts and to the village elders.

Our hosts insisted we were guests and shouldn't pay. After some negotiation with left them about 2500NR ($30). In hindsight we probably should have paid a little more.

We were again presented with prayer scarves as we left.

From Bhangkharka it was a steady (and hot) climb to the saddle which brought us over to the Arun valley.

Like everywhere we met friendly folk along the trail and the kids always stopped to say Namaste !

We were scheduled to stop in Chichila this night but we reached our destination after just a couple of hours of walking.

We elected to carry on till Num and just stop for morning Dal Bhat in Chichila.

It took them forever to prepare our meal (well over an hour) but it was tasty when it arrived. I guess we were still adjusting to Nepali time. The cost was 500 NR (about $6) for three of us.

We met some cars on the road to Num. The road currently ends in Num and this section has only been open a couple of years.

We were happy to be walking when we saw the cars. Occasionally they would stop so the passengers could empty their stomachs.

The road was dotted with small groupings of houses (shacks) with local folk industriously working.

We also came across some roadside gambling.

Strongman stopped to place a bet and even won some money.

As we arrived in Num we could see the road construction starting to make it's way down the valley.

The road is being funded by the Chinese to open up more trade routes.

It is a pity as the region changes a lot as the road progresses.

We arrived in Num and there was a bit of a debate between our two guides about where we would stay.

Strongman chose this basic teahouse on the main square.

He said it was run by his sister - we later found that terms brother and sister are used very loosely and this was probably just someone from his village.

This was the owner of the teahouse preparing us tea on arrival.

The square in Num was alive with kids playing. I liked the way no tyres and no pedals didn't stop them enjoying their bicycle.

This guy saw my camera and had me running around taking photos of family and friends.

He owned the shop next to the teahouse.

I have promised to send him pictures from the village.

Longman  was keen to jump in at any photo opportunity.
We grabbed a few beers and walked to the end of town.  Here we saw the first other group of trekkers we came across.
Four Germans and a gangload of porters.
We talked to some of the porters but the Germans stayed in their dinner tent.

Back at our teahouse evening Dal Bhat was served with some tasty pickles.

This was my bedroom in the teahouse.

It was comfortable but the open window was right above the blocked toilet..

Weather: Definitely a One Hat Day.  Num is at roughly 5,000 ft and in late October it was still very mild.
Accommodation: I'll say Two Cups - Had to dock some for the blocked toilet.