Birtamod, Ilam & Hile Mon 18 - Fri 29 October 2010
The border town of Kakarbhitta was very small and fairly nondescript and we drove on a short distance -around 18km - to the equally nondescript but larger town of Birtamod. Whilst waiting to be cleared by customs we'd got talking to a lady who had arrived to work for the UN. When her UN vehicle arrived to pick her up we gave her a hand (she had a lot of heavy luggage) and Andrew took the opportunity to pick her driver's brains as to where we could park and he suggested the Hotel Heaven in Birtamod.
It turned out to be very fortuitous as it was dark by the time we got to Birtamod - a dusty town set on the highway with little of real interest- as without a name to ask for we'd never have found it. It was a great little spot - a real (pink!) oasis with a decent restaurant, a lovely garden area and a good large car park where we camped underneath a shady tree. We had no money for food that night as we'd spent all our Indian money and the ATMs (which all have armed security guards) were all shut by the time we crossed the border so we had to dig into the cheese and crackers we'd bought in Kalimpong for dinner that night - a veritable feast!
Birtamod is a real one night stand sort of a place, tour groups and travelling Nepalese families using it as a staging post on the way between the hills and Kathmandu but no one staying long. We were the exception. Life is different for overland travelers and if you a good camp spot (especially one like this which is free!) you tend to take your time. We'd packed a lot into our last few days in India and Andrew still had a bad neck after our prang so we were pleased to have a day or so of r & r. The only issue was that Birtamod (like so much else in Nepal) had shut down for the holiday (Dasain) so everyone had piled on to buses and headed back to the hills to see families. And my God how they pack them on - in the one in our picture incredibly all the guys helping to push also jumped on as the poor vehicle finally spluttered into life - you wouldn't want to be claustrophobic! You also wouldn't want to be crammed inside next to someone who had a (common in Nepal) propensity for travel sickness!
Anyway the chef at the Hotel heaven was absent and it wasn't clear quite when he'd be back so tracking down somewhere to eat breakfast next morning was a bit tricky and we wondered up and down a bit but found something in the end. Daniel's Hotel was a steep climb up 6 flights of stairs to the restaurant but had a fantastic view of the town and distant mountains.
We enjoyed breakfast but when we went back for dinner the chef had once more disappeared into the hills to some festival celebrations so back to the emergency rations of tuna and crackers …it was a bit like this for the next few days of the festivities! Not a lot to do here - just a VERY slow internet service, a freedom fighters statue and a few busy markets. There were loads of decorated cyclo rickshaw - which reminded us of Bangladesh.
Once we'd had a rest our next move was to leave the sticky plains (it was hot again after Sikkim- good showering weather but bad for sleeping!) and head once more for the hills. Our LP was fairly brief on this region, as being over 5 years old, at the time it went to press this whole area was a hotbed of Maoism and it wasn't considered safe to go there. Now though all is (hopefully) well so we headed first for the hill station of Ilam. It was a very pretty drive, if a bit hairy at times especially given all the heavily laden speeding holiday traffic -we both kept a very keen eye out for unmarked holes!
We got there safely just as darkness fell and headed for the only guest house mentioned in the LP -the Green View. They were actually full so it was just as well we didn't need a room. There was a great wide driveway next door but they said it belonged to the local landowner not them. By luck he (or one of his relatives) passed by and came to see what all the fuss we generally generate by arriving anywhere was about and said we were most welcome to park in the driveway as long as we left enough room to get their motorbikes in and out and so quickly we were sorted! We set up the tent and had a shower (before our amazed audience!) very quickly whilst the motor was still warm - climbing up over 2.000 metres had really caused the temperature to drop - pretty chilly here at night!
The next morning we saw that the view was indeed green as we looked out across the tea estates. Really lovely. We were directly opposite Darjeeling staring at the mountains we'd driven over to get here and at the Kanchenjunga Mountain from the opposite side. It was a nice little town -much less touristy than those on the "other side" in India though Sikkim /Darjeeling aren't like the rest of India really. I think I mentioned this last time we crossed over but one thing that really hits you is how much more openly and frequently alcohol -numerous beers and locally brewed spirits - are available here. Must be the cold!
Now that the conflict with the Maoists seems - hopefully forever- resolved there is a real push on here to build up tourism in the region there being lots of potential, which would bring funds into one of the country's poorest regions and with it much needed employment opportunities for the area's young people. In this context we met a local guide -an ex-Gurkha (as so many of them seem to be!) Darshan who organizes treks in this region. Darshan was very helpful to us and we're sure he runs a good trek - contact him on 027 521306 on his mobiles 9842721288 or 9742635500 or via his website www.pashupatidarshantravel.com if you're keen on exploring this beautiful area. Next year is Nepal's year of tourism and we met the local government official Mr. Ahasma Gautam who is a sort of unofficial government tourist information officer for the area and is very happy to be contacted with any queries on 9742600489. We really hope 2011 brings lots of tourist interest (and funds) to this area.
So, as it's been a bit "off limits" in recent years this whole area isn't really on the tourist circuit so we were grateful to Darshan for giving us some advice as to where to go, and in the afternoon we set off for Mai Pokhari or Mai Lake. We had been warned a few times that the road here was very very bad and they weren't exaggerating!
To give you a feel it took us over 3 hours to travel a distance of 16km! The road was basically a mud track which had not fared well in the recent heavy rains and it was heavy going in parts - though we managed suspension-less though we were. A lot of the other jeeps (no big lorries here - thank god!) were crazily overloaded and had bad tyres a scary combination as we slipped and slid past them. It was a bit of a "knock on" thing -if one vehicle got into trouble it created a tailback as it was hard for others to pass it. Despite the odd scary bit though it was a lovely drive through tea gardens and past little villages with smiley waving people -a gorgeous area. It had started to get dark and the mountain fog had rolled in by the time we got there. We were expecting to turn a corner and see the Lake there but it wasn't actually visible from the road so it was just as well we asked as the little village next to the track where you walk in to the lake was very understated so no doubt we'd have sailed (or bumped!) straight past if we'd not been told better.
Like so many guest houses in the region the one where we ate (and where they let us park out the front) the Pemu Hotel and Lodge - was run by a Sherpa family. The father was away leading a trek and the extended family ran the restaurant and guest house in his absence. Close genetically and culturally to the Tibetans they are very shy but lovely people. We were glad to get inside and have a warming plate of noodles! The food in this region is quite stodgy -lots of noodle based dishes -understandably really! We crawled into bed under all the duvets - no showers that night!
The next morning we took a walk to Mai Pokhari a pleasant tranquil lake sacred to some (Hindus/Buddhists - we're not sure which there's quite a crossover out here!) The Lake stands at 2164 metres above sea level and was surrounded by lovely views of the hills. We met a nice man (another ex-Gurkha!) who took us with him to visit his wife's relative who was 97 years old.
She spoke no English but was a very sprightly old lady, living as the people do out here very simply with a dirt floor and no power. She asked how many sons I had (girls don't count!) and was HORRIFIED that we had none! She proudly told me she had 9 sons and now 67 grandchildren. We get this reaction a lot here as in India. In a country as poor as Nepal is with no social security your sons are effectively your pension. Daughters have to be dowried off and leave your house when they marry -so sons are the only ones who look after you financially in your old age. Our lack of family and globetrotting lifestyle often causes a mixture of amazement and horror!
Anyway I braced myself for a bouncy 16km back first to Ilam and then on to Birtamod. We actually got stuck here another day as the ATM wouldn't work (the connection with our bank in Oz was down) so we couldn't get money out. It has really struck us back here in Nepal how poor the infrastructure is cf India. The internet either doesn't work or is so slow it might as well not bother, and facilities like power and phone networks seem to be off as often as they're on - obviously it's worse in the remote rural areas.
It's amazing how the temperature climbs as you descend -better showering weather but worse sleeping! Whilst stuck in the Hotel Heaven we were lucky enough to meet a really interesting lady from Yorkshire, Linda. Previously married to a Sherpa Linda now splits her time between Kathmandu and the Pennines UK.
In Nepal she helps run a business (Hamro Ghar Mountain Guide Team) which organizes eco-treks -helping to bring some income into remote area. More about the work she does is detailed on www.hamrogharteam.com Linda and her friend had just completed a trek and it was really interesting to meet them and chat.
As a committed socialist Linda pulled me up when I blamed the Maoists for something or another which seems to happen a lot here! I have now read a bit more about all this and of course there are 2 sides to each story. The true Maoist movement seems to have been a needed and logical reaction to the autocracy and corruption of the monarchy and government. Just (as ever!) it lost a lot in translation and often ended up hurting those who it set out to protect. It's all very complicated -all that's really certain is too many people on both sides died - hopefully the new peace will remain. Linda also runs a dog (and pig!) shelter of big interest to me - so we'll definitely pay her a visit when we hit Kathmandu!
Our fridge is still not playing the game we're not sure what the problems is but we need to get somewhere with more expertise than where we've been for a while! For this reason we often find an ice factory, cut a block and operate a DIY fridge.
We set out to find one in Birtamod before we finally left - very hard due to language problems and we drove round in circles. Luckily we finally found it -they were in fact a company which made ice cream cones and icy poles (ice lollies). The owner Raj was very proud of all his new (Indian) equipment (though there was still quite a bit of hands on in the process) and we got the guided tour. We'll never have one of these again without picturing this place!
Again we left the plains behind and started to climb. That night we stayed at Bhedetar on the road towards Hile our next destination. This area has a tourist industry based purely on the view, over the mountain roads and the Himalayas.
Once a no-go area it is now quite safe though a large army presence remains. We found our next camp spot at the Hotel Himalaya on the basis that it advertised "vehicle parking" and most places -perched on the ridge as this town is - didn't! They kindly let us park and we'd have had a great night's sleep if not for the resident dog -one of those little white fluffy things that are so popular up here -can't imagine why! It kept up a "yap yap yap" all night which drove us crazy -not sure if it was us upsetting it or that was the norm but it drove us mad! Andrew threatened to turn it into a pair of slippers but I think it'd only make one! Hairy mosquito! Thanks anyway guys for letting us stay -we're sure it's a lovely dog when you get to know it!
We had had a good night on the tongba before this. This is a form of hot millet beer very popular here and in Sikkim and we'd kept meaning to try it but finally did so here. It comes in a container which you keep topping with hot water so it isn't too strong.
It's more like rice wine than beer to taste - and we weren't that keen. It warmed up the insides nicely though!
They had a great wooden swing in the garden (these are part of the festivities and we see them everywhere) and I had a go though it was a bit narrow for me across the backside!
Bhedetar is 1420 metres above sea level and we went up another 20 metres at 6am the next morning when we climbed up the viewing tower. We were the only people there and the ticket stall wasn't manned so we enjoyed amazing views over Everest and nearby Makalu to ourselves. Really scenic country this.
The next day Tuesday 26 October we drove on up the winding hills to the town of Hile. This was a lovely bustly little village. The same story as Ilam it is apparently a Maoist area so was off the agenda for tourists until a short while ago but is now perfectly safe, though there was a large army presence in town.
We quickly found camping at the Kanjirow Hotel -which had a large parking area and great views over (the tip!) of Everest, and they agreed we could stay. As an aside as I type we've been in Nepal 12 days and never had to pay for parking -easier than India in this regard!
Anyway we were just sitting admiring the view with a pot of tea when a Swiss guy came and asked us how we'd got there and if we'd had trouble. From conversations which followed it transpired that a local indigenous group the Limbus (who want their own state within Nepal-fat chance really!) had called a Bandh or strike in the local area and so no vehicles should be on the road! We had noticed it was quiet but thought that was as (for once!) we'd got away really early. We'd stopped to ask directions at army checkpoints several times on the way and followed a UN vehicle for quite a while yet no one had thought to mention this! Ignorance is bliss!
Hile was a really scenic little village affording incredible views over the Himalayas. There are many Tibetans living here and we visited the very interesting Urgay Namedo Choling Gompa (temple) in the middle of the village. This Tibetan style of Buddhism (of which the Dalai Lama is the spiritual head) is very different to that in other Buddhist countries. The bright coloured murals are very Chinese looking and the services are very energetic with the Lama (Priest) chanting and clashing symbols whilst offerings are given and incense sticks lit. All very full on! The gods get beer as an offering here we noted!
A short attractive walk from town was another temple quite unlike any we'd seen before. It was really just a pile of rocks, combining ancient animalism - animal carvings, with a Hindu shrine and Buddhist prayer flags. We were shown around by a friendly red coated lama but he had no English so we never found out any more about it. We asked how old it was and were told "2 months" it looked like the most ancient temple we've seen on our travels so definitely a breakdown in communication there! Really interesting and still a very living temple judging by the crowds who arrived for puja (offering or prayers) as we left.
Just round the corner from our parking spot was the Guranse Tea Estate and we wondered down to have a look. We were very lucky there to run into the manager Andrew Gardner -an Indian guy from Darjeeling. He took us on a full guided tour and explained the tea making process -followed up by a delicious cuppa. The estate produces organic handpicked tea using no pesticides and is an important employer of women in the area so doing a great job on many levels.
They also produce organic venison and turkey from a property elsewhere. We got invited up to the Manager's Bungalow which had stunning views over the area. Unfortunately Andrew had 2 of the aforementioned snappy little white dogs - they're everywhere here! They have been known to attack well meaning foreigners so they were kept safely locked up for our visit! Thanks so much Andrew for an interesting visit. To find out more see their site www.guransetea.com.au
The next morning -Thursday- was the weekly market day and so we hung around to have a look -lots of hill people descending to sell their animal (loved the pig baskets!) fruit and vegetable wares. Really interesting and everyone was very friendly.
Much of our time here has been spent searching for the perfect Himalayan view and Andrew had been speaking to everyone and doing research, which is why that afternoon we drove on 18km to a high ridge above the small town of Basantapur.
The special thing with this view was that due to the angle you could see both Everest and Makalu and then to the east Kanchenjunga - very impressive. It was amazing we were at 2700 metres above sea level, still a way below Everest but felt as if we were at eye level with it. Climbing up just those 700 metres made a huge difference temperature wise -especially with the "wind chill factor."
We found a little Tibetan guest house for dinner, and were there by 6pm as it was too chilly outside! The power in the whole town seemed to be out so we huddled with the family around the burning fire in their kitchen whilst we ate noodles!
A very early night that night -we were in bed by 7pm! We camped back at the windswept scenic lookout point so we'd catch the sun coming up.
It was very chilly especially with the wind that had sprung up so we buried ourselves under the duvet and the sleeping bags! We were glad we'd taken our showers that afternoon -you have to get them in before the sun goes down - way too cold for al fresco showers up here!
We were rewarded the next morning when we saw the sun come up, lighting up first Kanchenjunga and then Everest and Makalu.
This was the best view over the mountain ranges so far and very beautiful so we felt it had been worth the extra effort. In our (long) picture below we are looking north at Everest (8850m) to the west then Lhotse (8,516m) , Makalu (8,463m) and out of view to the far east was Kanchenjunga (8,598 m) showing the other side from when we viewed it form the Mount Pandim Hotel in Pelling, Sikkim. We were 98 km from Everest, 95km from Lhotse 84km from Makalu and 84 km to Kanchenjunga whereas in Pelling we'd only been 36km away!
Afterwards we headed to the warmer slopes of Hile - quite hot by the time the sun gets up- and enjoyed breakfast. As I type this (Friday 29tt October) we're sitting in our now familiar place in the sun at the Kanjirowa Hotel - gazing out at the hills. We plan to finally leave this beautiful area tomorrow and head on across the plains to our next destination - the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.