Tag Archives: nepal

How to Really Help Nepal

Annapurna Nepal River

With the endless images of collapsed buildings, reports of lost heritage sites and the varying statistics and numbers of lives lost, injured or missing, it can be difficult to compute, and easy to feel unable to help those in Nepal from thousands of miles away. And with the various aftershocks hitting the country, it looks like things are only going to get worse before they get better. Continue reading

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Garden of Dreams – Kathmandu, Nepal

 

After the tranquillity and crisp air of the Himalayas, returning to Kathmandu can be a shock to the system. The constant noise, traffic and smoggy air can feel overwhelming, making one search for an area of reprieve. Enter through the red brick walls of the rather appropriately named Garden of Dreams, and you can find a temporary solace from Kathmandu’s metropolitan excesses.

 

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Originally built as the private residential gardens for Field Marshal Kaiser Sumsher Rana in early 1920, and designed by the famous architect Kishore Narshingh, in what was then a modern Edwardian theme. Despite gardens of similar style cropping up around Nepal and India, Rana’s collection of pavilions, fountains, exotic plants and walkways quickly became renowned throughout the region as one of the finest examples of its kind.

 

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After Rana’s death however, the Garden of Dreams closed, and for six decades the grounds were left unkempt. The structures that were once called the finest of gardens in the country and the subtropical plants and ponds that inhabited the garden became overgrown from vines and weeds, and the once-constant stream of important visitors disappeared.

 

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In an effort to restore one of Kathmandu’s most unique destinations, the Ministry of Education in Nepal, with support from the Austrian Development Aid,  completely renovated and restored the largest and arguably most impressive section of Rana’s Garden of Dreams for the public to enjoy in 2000. In 2007 renovations were finished, and the Garden of Dreams was opened, and has been growing in visitors ever since.

 

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Today people flock here for peace and solitude away from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s hectic walkways and traffic. On any given day, you’ll find many young Nepalese couples taking romantic strolls and afternoon breaks here in the many nooks and hidden corners of the garden’s pavilions and gazebos.

To find a unique piece of Nepal’s heritage and culture, away, from the shrines and representations of Buddhism and Hinduism often recommended to tourists, the Garden of Dreams is well worth a visit to rest and revive.

 

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For more information about the Garden of Dreams, including visiting hours and admission fee, please see their website here.

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Mini-Guide to Pokhara, Nepal: Making the Most of your Time There

 

Commonly known as the gateway to the Himalayas, the lakeside town of Pokhara is brimming with outdoor stores for any last minute items for hikers, and massage centres for aching muscles from hikers coming back from their trek. However the town is more than just an outpost; it has several sites to explore ni the day, and several stores, cafes and bars to while an evening away. Here’s a quick guide to make the most of your stay in Pokhara.

 

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Nearby Sites:

Devi Falls: Named after a Swedish woman who fell to her death after attempting to bathe in the waters close-by, today the waterfall is cordoned off, but it is still one of Pokhara’s scenic spots. The site also contains a traditional Nepalese house for visitors to wander around, and a Buddha wishing well.

Phewa Lake: Arguably Pokhara’s biggest attraction, visitors can take a row boat, or doonga, out to the island in the middle of lake, where the Taal Barahi temple is situated. The highlight of the boat ride however, is the swarm of butterflies that inhabit the edges of the lake, resting on the abundant white flowers that dot the shore.

 

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Further afield:

Mahendra Cave: A taxi is required to reach these caves, but microbuses also travel to this tourist site. As one of the few caves in Nepal that contains both stalagmites and stalactites, it is a popular destination for tourists, although this may be due to the claim that the stone formations are in the different shapes of Hindu gods and goddesses.

Bat Cave: Located only a few kilometres from Mahendra Cave, this destination is famed for its pint-sized inhabitants. Emergency lights are strategically placed around the area, but it would be equally useful to bring your own torch.

World Peace Pagoda: If you are somehow not feeling sore from your Himalayan trek or training schedule, take the afternoon to climb up the hill to the World Peace Pagoda. This Buddhist stupa was built to inspire unity between all races and creeds in their search for world peace. Even if you are not Buddhist, the story of its creator, Japanese Buddhist Nichidatsu Fujii, is inspiring in itself, and the views the pagoda affords of Phewa Lake against the backdrop of green paddy fields and the Himalayas is worth the hard slog to the top.

Tibetan Villages: Nepal has been a popular choice for Tibetans fleeing the political turmoil of China, and Pokhara is centrally located between two villages; Tashiling in the south, and Tashi Palkhiel to the north. Tashiling originally consisted of 600 Tibetan refugees fleeing the Chinese occupation in 1964; since then the village has grown and taken an enterprising step towards making itself a centre of Tibetan craftsmanship, allowing tourists to watch yarn and carpets being made and buy some of the crafts. Tashi Palkhiel, on the other hand, is home to the Jangchub Choeling monastery for Buddhist monks.

Restaurants

As one of the major tourist cities of Nepal, Pokhara has an abundance of restaurants and cafes that can cater for every hankering. For a restaurant that will suit all tastes, including the health conscious, head to Black & White restaurant on Lakeside Road. Labelled as an ‘organic’ restaurant (staff state they try to make it as organic as possible), this place is particularly good for curries such as dhal makhani, saag paneer and dhal baat. Plus, they make a mean latte.

Speaking of coffee, if you find you’re missing your daily cup of whatever fancy-named caffeinated beverage you normally drink, then head to the cafes on  Baidam Road, which serve a myriad of iced coffees, teas and other concoctions for your caffeine hit.

If you had your fill of mo-mos and lentils on your trek and are looking for Western food, then La Pizzeria provides excellent value for money, and prime views of the Phewa Lake.  Head there for lunch and enjoy their

On the other hand, if you can’t get enough of those vegetable-stuffed doughy balls of heaven, then head to the imaginatively-named Holy Momo! to eat your fill.

 If you fancy treating yourself to a nice meal after all that trekking, the nicest place in town is Cafe Concerto. Part jazz bar, part Italian restaurant, the staff are attentive and unlike many other restaurants, they have a pretty good, extensive wine menu!

 

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Souvenirs

Soon after visiting four or five stores in Pokhara, it will become apparent that they sell much of the same stock; hippie trousers, faux silver jewellery and prayer flags. However this does not mean that treasures can’t be found, or that the stock is necessarily all that bad; it just means you need to be a little more careful that you are getting some value for your money. You can read about some common souvenir scams here, otherwise, a good place to go for authentic Nepalese crafts is the Woman’s Initiative just off of Lakeside, neighbouring Mike’s Restaurant. Here shelves of handbags, rucksacks and purses in a variety of colours and designs have been handmade on looms by the women’s cooperative, the Nepalese Women Skills Development Project. For £12 I got a medium-sized turquoise handbag. Sure, it might be more expensive than most Nepalese souvenirs, but you’re helping women gain some financial independence and working skills.

Undoubtedly one of the most popular souvenirs in Nepal is a shirt; forget about the tacky ones you normally see on beach holidays, Nepal’s shops are overflowing with so many styles and choices, they can cater for any taste. The average rate for a shirt in Pokhara is between 400-600 rupees, depending on the level of detailing, and whether you want an personalised embroidery done to the shirt. Many of these stores also sell the infamous patches for bags or jackets, depicting which mountains or cities travellers visited.

Felt handicrafts and prayer flags are popular items, and can be bought from most stores in Nepal. After any trek in the Himalayas, it is likely you will come back craving the tea and coffee; many of Pokhara shops sell tea leaves, but one of the speciality stores to head to is High Tea Shop, which has a large selection of teas and coffees.

Top Tip: Almost every hotel will offer yoga lessons, or help you find a teacher in the city. Any hesitation about early morning starts will be erased when you see the tranquil views of the Himalayas.

 

Do you have any recommendations for Pokhara?

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Annapurna Conservation Area: Some Thoughts on Tourism, Resources and the People

 

For a country roughly 1/67th the size of the US, Nepal packs a big punch, in natural resources at least. It has one of the largest water resources in the world, second only to Brazil, and the water runoff from the Himalayas flows down for miles as rivers and waterfalls, eventually turning into a water source for rivers in India, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. For Nepal this extensive natural resource provides them with what would be perceived to many as an obvious source of renewable energy. And for the most part this is true; however Nepal’s strategic location as the faucet for South Asia means it must balance its diplomatic interests by ensuring they do not dry up their neighbour’s riverbeds with the creation of energy plants while ensuring the country can provide enough energy to meet the growing demand of its population. Moreover, it must balance its response to the country’s energy demand while ensuring its modernisation does not drive away one of Nepal’s largest incomes: tourism.

 

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A quick look at Nepal and it is easy to see why travellers flock to the country. It’s capital, Kathmandu, has the densest collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites with seven large monuments packed within a 15km radius. Large tracks of the Himalayas are protected as conservation areas, wildlife or hunting reserves, or national parks, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars it makes just in mountaineers attempting to summit Everest each year is a sizeable bolster to its economy and workforce. In addition to this, thousands of trekkers, rafters and climbers use Nepal’s mountains as an expansive playground for extreme sports (myself included). On top of all of this, it also boasts Chitwan National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage site, the only place in the world where visitors can have the chance of spotting a Bengal tiger as well as a rhinoceros.

 

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One of the most popular treks in Nepal is to Poon Hill, in the Annapurna Conservation Area. My group and I walked for five days from Laxmi to Ghudruk, and it was apparent even within that short space of time there was an abundance of life wherever we went. Electric blue butterflies the size of your hand fluttered on oversized blooming hibiscus flowers, rocks resembling blocks of silver sparkled in the light of water run-off from the proliferate amount of waterfalls in the area; and the villages, each unique to their particular mountainous region, with cultures and religions pre-dating Buddhism, appeared as though they had been preserved to an extent from the mass development and encroachment of modern life that was pervasive in Kathmandu.

 

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However it is just these people that the balance of development of renewable energy resources, conservation and tourism affect most. For many of these villages that reside in the Himalayas, electricity is offered for only limited hours a day. Alternative natural resources like timber or other wood for burning in stoves is limited due to conservation restrictions, meaning that the restricted allowance they are given is mostly used for tourists. Other amenities such as hot showers cost extra or are simply unavailable.

 

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For people that constantly invite tourists into their homes and spend their available resources on them, do they not deserve some of the basic amenities that people worldwide expect to use on a daily basis? But on the other hand, would visitors still flock to this region if it was kitted out with extensive hot shower units, tumble dryers and stoves, at the sacrifice of the Annapurna Conservation Area’s natural beauty?

Obviously the answer lies in between utilising the natural renewable energy resources in the area in a way that doesn’t detract or harm the local ecosystem of the region, but exactly how feasible is this? Should Nepal wait until innovations in renewable energy make it possible to do this, or will the waiting cause the country to miss its opportunity to take advantage of its status as an emerging market and grow into a world power others can take as an example? More importantly, how long will the Nepalese people be excluded from the basic amenities that other countries take for granted on a daily basis, and how will this affect their future?

What are your thoughts and ideas?

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Trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area: from Chomorong to Syaulibazaar to Nayapul and Pokhara

Wearily I rose, with my joints offering stiff resistance to my concerted efforts. With last night being the penultimate day of trekking, Narendra, the porters and our group all celebrated late into the night with dancing, drinks and cake. What had seemed like a good idea at the time I was severely paying for that morning.

Settling bleary-eyed at the long dining table, our breakfasts arrived just on time. Another thing most people forget to tell you about in Nepal, is that the higher up into the mountains you go, the more adventurous the breakfast choices become. Today’s menu consisted of boiled potatoes in a BBQ sauce, toast that tasted more like sweet pastry, eggs and porridge.

We all began the slow trek back towards Nayapul,  looking wistfully at the scenery that we would soon be leaving that day. The rainfall that had fallen for the past several nights caused an abundance of small waterfalls to drip onto our walkway, and on the heaps of silvery sheen rocks that littered the path and created a natural sort of sparkling fountain. The mountains were as green as we’d seen them, only now a rainbow arched across a smaller hill below.

Annapurna Nepal Rainbow

Suddenly, a large shape up ahead brought us to a standstill. Sprawled on the middle of our narrow path sat a cow, sunning herself on a bare patch of earth. One of our group attempted to shoo her away, but all he received in return was a flick of her ears and the back of her head.

Annapurna Nepal cow

“ She looks pretty comfortable there, “ I said, “it doesn’t look like she’s planning on leaving anytime soon.”

The cow continued to gaze off into the distance, unperturbed by the clicks of our cameras or the pleas and entreats to move aside. Accepting defeat, we tiptoed around her, careful not to give reason to provoke her. She remained impassive, and it wasn’t until we all had bypassed her and continued on the trail that we heard a loud “mooooo!” behind us in farewell.

The path narrowed along the ledge, until everyone was required to walk in single file. Up ahead we could hear a jumble of bleating sounds, and soon a herd of goats confronted us on the path, eager to cross without waiting. Well, all but one.

As we clutched at the rock face and trees to steady ourselves as the goats moved past, one small brown goat in the middle of the queue abruptly stopped, and turned towards us. With bleats of excitement he plunged his head into one of our member’s trouser pockets, eagerly anticipating whatever food he believed lay hidden. Laughter mixed with the angry sounds of the goats still in front of us, and our group member fumbled with his handkerchief as the goat tried to make a meal out of it. Victorious, he waved it  in front of the goat’s face, and, seeing an opportunity in their momentary delay, we all  quickly crossed it before the goat decided to investigate everyone’s pockets. Heads down, with a dejected look, the goats continued their walk across.

“Seriously, what is with these Nepalese animals?!” one from our group cried out between fits of laughter, “you’d think they’d have known how to share these paths by now!”

Nearing the stopping point of our trek, we came across a small, makeshift barn, and there stood quite possibly the most adorable animal we had seen on the trek. A baby kid, barely a few weeks old it seemed, stood feebly on its slim limbs, bleating pitifully at us. With caramel and white fur with a soft, downy texture, the kid nuzzled its head into each of our hands or chests each time someone went to pet it. Every time we made a move to depart, it would look up with large, tear-filled brown eyes, and let out such a small, pathetic cry that it melted even the sternest of hearts.

Nepal Goat trekking

“I think I know why the Nepalese animals are so accustomed to getting their own way now, “ I thought to myself, stroking the kid’s head lightly.

After a long interval we were finally forced to leave, and the kid’s morose bleats were mixed with the outraged chirps of chicks that had received no attention from us. Finally making our way to the Jeeps that would take us back to Pokhara, we threw our bags on the roof, and after everything was strapped down, began making our way along the bumpy road.

About a mile down the road, we approached a rocky bump in the road at a moderate speed, and amid the tired sighs and calls of “bye Annapurna” a sickening crunch could be heard. The car slowed to a stop, but not before another clunking and rattling sound was heard. Getting out and ducking our heads under the car, a part was dragging on the floor. Gazing uneasily at each other, we asked the driver what options there were to remedy the situation.

“Wait for my friend to arrive, he’ll drop you off at the bus site. Meanwhile, let’s move this car off the road so others can get by,” our driver replied.

A feat that was easier said than done, considering the road was in an inclined position, with a sheer drop on one side. Time flew by as we struggled to push the jeep up the hill towards a small space in the

Looking nervously behind us at the distance below, we continued to strain against the Jeep as it crawled up the dirt path. Our trepidation grew as a queue of cars and a bus began to line up on both sides of the Jeep. “This couldn’t get any worse,” I thought to myself. Just then, a small boy jumped from the steps of the bus and designated himself as traffic warden. Shouting words of encouragement while telling the bus driver where to turn as well as sternly telling the cars opposite us to wait, our fears of the small boy being crushed by the Jeep gave us all renewed strength. We hurriedly pushed the dilapidated car into the small space while the boy zigzagged between us, and heaved big sighs of relief that he had narrowly avoided being crushed by the car.

Looking around and satisfied that his job was done, the little boy clambered back up the side of the bus and began ordering the driver to continue. We all stood and watched the boy in astonishment waving his arms and hollering orders as the bus peeled down the road and to the rest of the villages. Shaking our heads and giggling in disbelief at the boy’s audacity, we were rescued from our stranded state by the arrival of our driver’s friend.

Dragging our bags onto the new vehicle and realising that it was much smaller than the previous one, we all squeezed in together and anxiously hoped this car would prove more resilient than the last. Looking around us, I thought to myself that there were possibly worse places to be stranded, and as a the vehicle grumbled to life we all wished, that despite the afternoon’s troubles, we had a little more time to spend in Annapurna.

Annapurna Nepal River

 

 

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I spent 12 days on Earthbound Expeditions’ Nepal Mountain and Tiger Tour, with our guide Narendra Timalsina, whom I would highly recommend. For more information about the tour, please click here.

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Day 4: Trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area from Tadapani to Chomorong and Jhihu Springs

Darkness enclosed the surrounding landscape, with only the muted outline of shapes discernible to the eye. A hazy orange glow, the size of a  appeared to the side of the teahouse, casting a pale light on the craggy outcrops on the side of Macchupuchare. The clouds transformed into a ghostly mist, hovering just below the mountain peaks. The light edged forwards, casting a dazzling shine on the snow capped peaks and rivers of sliver from the waterfalls that crashed down its side. The gloomy pall of night began to retreat, until the entire village of Tadapani was cast with the warming light of dawn. Sitting down  on the edge of the hill, I stopped taking photos momentarily and studied how different the mountains and village looked in the sunshine, when a small guffaw behind me distracted my attention.

 

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“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Just got a great photo of the sunrise behind a marijuana-looking plant out back,” said one from my group, with a bemused expression on his face. We all had a little laugh, and as the sun began to cast its full rays on the mountains, we swiftly returned indoors to grab our gear and begin that day’s trek.

A few hours later, half of our group stood waiting ahead on a rocky platform in the middle of a muddy patch of ground. Narendra walked a little further ahead of us, approaching the group in long strides and calling out, “Don’t stand in one spot for too long, you’ve gotta keep moving!”

“But why? We’re on schedule to make it to the next place!” someone from the group called.

“No, not that, the leeches!” Narendra answered. At that point one of the ladies standing on the platform let out a shriek and began an erratic jig on the spot.

Leeches. The one thing many people seem to forget to tell you about when trekking in Nepal. When the mountains experience heavy rain showers, the leeches come to the surface and wait near waterways, muddy patches, or even on the edge of leaves, wait to tumble into a hiker’s shoe and feast. Unlike the leeches seen in films, Nepal’s leeches are small, thin and black, and possess the ability to stretch themselves needle thin to penetrate the seam of hiking boots, fabric and even rucksacks. Although they’re not dangerous, simply seeing one squiggling its way into the seam of your leather boot is enough to jerk anyone’s reflexes, which is exactly what was happening to our group now.

After calmly helping everyone inspect their boots for any sign of the leeches, Nerandra picked one of them up by his fingertips, as if to prove its harmlessness. With surprising agility and speed, the leech latched onto his finger and with a yelp Narendra furiously tugged him off his index finger. The porters and everyone suppressing a giggle, Narendra composed himself and turn back towards us all.

“They won’t hurt you,” he explained, “but they can be annoying, and can cause some unsightly blood stains after they’ve had their fill and drop off. They release a chemical that prevents your blood from clotting as readily as usual around the bite area, so just be prepared that the bite might look worse than it really is!

“Try to keep on stoned areas; they can’t camouflage themselves as well on that, and don’t stand in one place for too long! They can be fast and even leap small distances to enter your shoes. The best thing to do is forget about them and just enjoy your trek, you don’t want them to ruin it!”

With wary eyes keeping a watchful surveillance on the ground, we continued along the route in single file, this time careful to keep on the stone path.

 

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The trail eventually led to an open grassy field on the top of a large hill, where a large wooden teahouse sat perched atop. The rain from earlier that morning had been burned away by the sun’s rays, leaving the surrounding landscape in a harsh, clear haze of light. The hilltop afforded the best vantage point to view the surrounding hills, rivers and waterfalls. The hills were thickly covered in green forest, and the river running between two hills brightly reflected the sun. Pausing to enjoy the view, I laid my bag down and noticed another, more rudimentary bag next to mine. The main body constructed of wicker, with braided straps of twine forming two big loops, the basket was filled to the brim with plants and herbs. A small, stooped Nepalese woman came trudging over, and slipped one strap around her forehead, another her stomach, and began her precarious tottering down the side of the hill. Fearing she might fall at any minute, I kept a watchful eye until she disappeared under the cover of the trees.

“Well, I’m not gonna complain about my rucksack straps anymore,” I said aloud, “that lady can show me up any day, and that’s only using her head!”

Our group headed down the hill, with all the previous thoughts of leeches gone and instead replaced with discussions about the estimations of the extreme weights the sherpas and Nepalese people carry up the mountains.

 

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Arriving early at the teahouse where we were supposed to spend the night, we quickly found our rooms and dumped our luggage. Earlier Narendra had told everyone about visiting Jhihu Springs, a natural thermal hot springs next to the rapids where apparently monkeys also joined for a warm soak as well as humans. Following the slippery stone path downhill, narrowly dodging branches and tree roots, we eventually made it to the entrance. While we were sad to see the monkeys were not in their makeshift hot tub, on the bright side our group had a corner of the springs to ourselves. On the bad side, the leeches had made a return.

While they were repelled by the hot waters, the muddy warm areas by the entrance to the springs was perfect conditions for them. We watched as people hopped rapidly to the entrance of the springs, as if they were walking on hot coals, to avoid the jumping leeches, then took our turns rushing through the entrance. After four days of trekking, we all eased our tired legs and shoulders into the waters and immediately ‘ahhhh’ sounds were heard all round. A good hour was spent splashing water at one another, chatting and looking around at the surrounding trees and rapids, hoping that the odd monkey would make an appearance. As the day drew to a close and darkness began to dim the sky, we reluctantly dragged ourselves out of the hot springs and made the quick jig over the entrance and back along the path.

 

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I spent 12 days on Earthbound Expeditions’ Nepal Mountain and Tiger Tour, with our guide Narendra Timalsina, whom I would highly recommend. For more information about the tour, please click here.

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Day 3 of Trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area: Ghorepani, Poon Hill and Macchupuchare and Tadapani

 

Thunder crashed violently outside, causing the window to shake and jolt me out of my sleep. Checking the clock, 4:30am, I peered outside into the grey gloom as raindrops pelted the window like bullets and the trees swayed precariously in the wind. My hopes sank as I stared at the torrential storm outside, silently wishing it would die down soon. Determined not to let it get me down, I struggled in the dark to yank on my hiking clothes and boots and made my way downstairs, where a few others had also congregated.

“Unfortunately the weather is too bad for us to leave on time; we will need to wait awhile and hope it clears up. For now, I don’t know whether we will be able to make it to Poon Hill now, but the best thing to do for now is catch up on some sleep, and as soon as I think it’s safe to go outside I’ll let everyone know,” Narendra said.

My hopes sank a little lower as I resignedly trudged back to bed, praying to myself that the weather would clear up in a couple of hours as I snuggled under the sheets.

 

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Two hours later I stood outside, my prayers and wishes answered as I gazed up at the cloudy skyline of the Himalaya range. Although they were still partially shrouded in cloud, it was possible to discern the outline of the different mountains and their peaks. Although images of the Himalyan range of littered everywhere, from stores to street vendors and tourist agencies in Kathmandu, none of it prepares you for the actual enormity and expanse of the mountains. It wasn’t enough to simply look at them from a particular point; they stretched so far into the distance, that one had to walk  along in order just to catch a glimpse as the range continued to stretch further in the distance. My eyes scanned each and every ridge, in efforts to memorise it in my head, when a yelp on the ground below dragged my attention away.

“Oomphf!” down below, a young man that had spent the night camped in a tent slipped in a puddle, half of his side covered in mud. An entire school group had spent the night camped through the storm; by morning, their neon orange triangular tents had been blown into misshapen, feeble positions that forced the students to drag themselves out by their elbows. Watching as a thin line of them stomped and trudged through the mud to the toilets, it was amusing to watch as them as they stopped suddenly, their angry mutterings over their misfortunes the night before momentarily subsided as they stopped to appreciate the panoramic views laid out before them. Following their gaze upwards, I resumed my long fixation at the mountains until Narendra’s voice called us to begin our trek up the mountains.

 

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Any morose I might have felt at not reaching Poon Hill vanished as we reached the hilltop; with the weather rapidly clearing, every crag and overhang on the mountains were  clearly visible. Earlier Narendra had broken the news to us that our late start due to the weather meant a detour up Poon Hill was impossible; but he promised to take us up another hill just along our path that had equally good views of the Himalaya range. True to his word, we scrambled to the top and exchanged excited words with one another, as well as other groups and out porters. Tangles of prayer flags billowed as the wind blew fiercely, and yellow, white and purple wildflowers dotted the hillside below. Undulating mounds of green were crowded against one another on one side of the hill, whilst on the opposite side snow-capped peaks pierced through the stubborn remains of clouds from last night’s storm.

For what felt like hours we sat and stared at the mountains, appreciating how varied the landscape was in such a small pocket of the world.

 

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Eventually, after much goading and promises of more stunning scenery below, Narendra managed to convince our group to head down the hill and once again through the dense layer of trees. Just before I entered the forest, I turned around quickly for one last glance at the Himalayas before they slipped from view.

Once again, Nerendra’s hype had lived up to his promise. Small waterfalls tumbled off the nearby cliffs, eventually diverting into small droplets that fell off the petals of purple wildflowers that were rooted into the side of the cliff. Rapids and small stacks of stones, offerings to the various spirits that dwelled there, skirted along our neighbouring path, and shafts of sunlight dazzled brilliantly against the fresh, invigorating backdrop of foliage as we climbed down the never-ending stairs. Every few metres we stopped, taking photos or simply admiring and appreciating the sunshine that had been absent from the morning and night before. Soon the path began to rise again as we left the forest and another flight of steep stone staircases led up the mountain.

 

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“Narendra!” someone from our group gasped in between breaths, “I thought you said earlier that the rest of the trail today would be flat!”

 

“But this is flat, it’s Nepali flat! A little bit up, a little bit down!” Narendra exclaimed, while making snaking movements with his hands. With laughter all round, we continued to huff and puff up the mountain, wondering and discussing what other alternative Nepalese definitions existed.

Entering a clearing at the top of the staircase we all shuffled into the centre and suddenly, the Himalayas reappeared into view. Nearby was our accommodation, which although very basic, provided us with the best views of Macchupuchare, or Fishtail Mountain.  It is believed this mountain to be particularly sacred to the god Shiva, and as a result it is forbidden for mountaineers to summit or climb it.

With the sun out full blaze, everyone quickly assembled onto the front yard, the porters playing a Nepalese board game, Narendra flitting about and chatting to everyone and the rest drinking beer, playing cards and taking photos., occasionally stopping to admire the towering backdrop of the Himalayas. As the day drew to a close and we moved inside, Narendra organised a group huddle and explained, “Tomorrow morning, you will get the best sunrise views of the mountains, so make sure you’re up early, say 4:30am, if you want to take photos. I’ll be up to knock on doors if you like!”

Excited at the prospect of sunrise views, we all made note to rise early, and then resumed our babble around the table over steaming portions of dinner as the sun slipped from view.

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I spent 12 days on Earthbound Expeditions’ Nepal Mountain and Tiger Tour, with our guide Narendra Timalsina, whom I would highly recommend. For more information about the tour, please click here.

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Monkeying Around in Harati Devi, Kathmandu, Nepal

 

It is not the stupa of the Buddha that alerts visitors they are approaching the entrance to the temple, but the trees. Limbs violently shake and leaves tremble as scores of monkeys leap from one to the other, following the cars at a speedy tempo as their babes cling to their back and stomach. The car halts to a stop at a banana stand in front of the entrance to Harati Devi, as do the monkeys, eagerly awaiting a treat from the visitors.

 

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Affectionately known as ‘Monkey Temple’ by Kathmandu locals and tourists alike, this destination is arguably one of Kathmandu’s most popular attractions. The monkeys that dwell here are regarded as holy monkeys, and by the way they behave, they know it too. Scores of them prowl the various chaityas and temple domes, looking for offerings of food to snatch or fights to pick with one another, providing hours of entertainment to visitors.

 

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One of these holy beings stared at me now, its head cocked to one side as it gnawed voraciously on a stub of fruit. It clung by its fingertips and toes to the head of a small deity in a chaitya, a small shrine, that was part of dozens situated in neat orderly rows across from the main stupa. Each shrine possessed subtle differences, noticeable only under a studious gaze, with the deities in various states of frozen movement. A shriek and blur of actual movement interrupted my inquisition as the monkey that had been staring at me only moments before attacked another for stealing his snack.

 

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The temple complex itself has been a centre for worship for the past 1,500 years, with various emperors and kings making pilgrimages to the site. In Buddhist tradition the large white dome at the bottom of the stupa represents the world. Surrounding the dome are enormous prayer wheels, where women and men push with their fingertips, chanting prayers slowly as their footsteps revolve around the complex. Gazing upwards, the sharp eyes of the Buddha stared in all directions, as brightly coloured as the prayer flags and the women’s saris that surrounded it. At the very top of the stupa sat 13 pinnacles, each representing the stage a person must go through to achieve enlightenment.

 

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More than the dome, more than the Buddha’s piercing glare, it was the combination of the colour and detail of Harati Devi held my attention. For more than a thousand years, artisans and monks devoted their lives to the most minuscule decoration of the shrines and statues at the site in the hopes of gaining enlightenment. Every single detail, from the tiny border design around a chaitya to the expansive size of the dome, represented the religious care and following the Buddhist and Hindu disciples showed. It seemed reminiscent of those tomes monks poured over in their Medieval abbeys, dedicating their lives to decorating every calligraphic letter with images that unfolded a story in their writing in the glorification of Christ. No matter the religion, or which part of the world you happened to be, people seemed to expressed their religious devotion in the same, yet equally unique, way.

 

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Descending the 365 steps from the stupa, I paused by the sprawling lion statues to look at the cloudy panoramic views of Kathmandu. Each morning hundreds of Buddhists and Hinduism followers ascend these steps to ambulate around the stupa and spin the prayer wheels, but by the afternoon the steps were filled with tourists and families feeding the monkeys and throwing coins into the wishing well for luck. Sensing I was leaving, one of the holy monkeys made a last ditch attempt to appeal to me for food, with squeals and a pitiful stare. It’s eyes hardened into a glare at mine as my hand brought forth no food, and after a short pause scampered off to find another visitor to try on its holy powers of charm and persuasion….

 

For more information about visiting Harati Devi Temple ( also known as Swayambhunath) check the Lonely Planet guide here.

Do you have any questions or experiences of Harati Devi? Leave a comment! 🙂

 

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Common Souvenir Scams in Nepal and How to Avoid Them

With its combination of bohemian jewellery, exotic spices, scents and trinkets, colourful clothing and cheap prices, Nepal is an ideal place to easily grab gifts from your travels for friends and family back home. As with any destination however, there are a myriad of tricks or scams around to encourage travellers to part with more of their cash than necessary. Take a look at a few of the most common souvenir scams in Nepal, and remember to take a second look before buying when you are next on your travels!

Bone – After spending only a few days in Nepal, chances are you will see anything and everything made out of yak bone, with jewellery and kitchen utensils being the most popular. However it is fairly obvious after awhile that if all the products sold to tourists in Nepal were real yak bone, then there would hardly be any yaks left in the country. In reality, much of the items purported as yak bone is cheap plastic. If you do wish to buy a souvenir made from yak bone, make sure you take a close look at its surface; bone tends to be more porous, and a texture similar to wood. Also, don’t be afraid to give it a light tap with your fingernail, which should tell you whether it is plastic or not.

Cheap branded outdoor gear – North Face for £10? Gore-tex mountaineering jackets for a quarter of the price they charge back home? If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Nepalese tourist companies will often advise visitors to purchase their trekking kit in Nepal, and for some items, like basic ventilation tops, water bottles, etc., it is a good idea. However it is best to be aware that much of the branded items the outdoors stores stock are either knock-offs or are used gear bought off of previous travellers. If you want to buy the real branded gear, several of the most popular outdoor brands like Mountain Hardware and Black Yak have their own flagship stores in Kathmandu, while The North Face also has a store in Pokhara. The prices will be closer to those charged in Western countries, but will still be a little cheaper than back home.

Semi-precious stones and metals – Jewellery is arguably one of the most popular souvenirs in Nepal, whether it is Buddhist prayer beads, pendants with Hindu or Buddhist symbols, or Bohemian-esque earrings, bangles and chunky rings made from semi-precious stones such as amber, turquoise or garnet. Like yak bone though, many of the items touted as ‘semi-precious’ stones are just as likely to be made from plastic, glass or cheap metals, rather than silver. If you are looking to purchase a particular type of stone, do some research beforehand for tell-tale signs or characteristics to look out for before heading off on your trip. Generally synthetic stones are heavier than semi-precious stones as they are more dense. Also, glass stones tend to have bubbles or small scratches in the stones, while synthetic stones will have imperfections inside the stone. If you plan on buying jewellery in the city, take a look at all their jewellery; if you notice a couple of items are fake, there is a good chance other goods will be too.

Pashminas – These scarves are ubiquitous with shopping in Nepal, with practically every store selling some version of a ‘pashmina’. However, many stores take advantage of the fact that very few travellers are knowledgeable about the material and craftsmanship involved in making one of these scarves, and instead the term ‘pashmina’ has given rise to a subversive product made from a combination of viscose, silk, wool or a small quantity of cheap cashmere and produced in bulk lots. In reality pashminas are made from very fine cashmere wool sourced from the extremely rare Pashmina goats in India, Nepal and Pakistan. They are renowned for being very soft and fine to the touch; in fact, they are so fine they can’t hold any embroidery thread. To find out more about the pashmina market in Nepal, check out this very helpful thread from Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum here.  Be aware however that a majority of pashminas in Nepal are fakes, and if you want to see the top quality a store offers, you will need to ask them outright and expect the quality to be reflected in the price tag.

Yak wool – There has been much attention to yak wool in the outdoor media recently, with people questioning whether it is better than merino wool. Many people have jumped on the media bandwagon, and now yak wool is another popular item traveller look for in Nepal. Do some research before buying however, as in some cases in Nepal items purported as ‘yak wool’ are simply brushed merino wool. As far as souvenir scams go, its probably the least annoying one yet and you are still receiving a good deal for an item that would cost a lot of money back home. When looking for yak wool however, keep in mind that some places will sell yak hair as yak wool. Although the two sound the same, yak hair sits on the top of the yak’s hide, while yak wool is the inner insulation layer that yaks grow during winter to keep them warm, and then shed in the spring. Yak hair feels coarse and itchy, while yak wool is soft, similar to that of cashmere.

Have you got any advice for travellers when it comes to buying souvenirs?

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Nepal Packing List for the Dry Season in September – November

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Possessing more UNESCO heritage sites than any other country and the infamous Himalaya range, it is obvious why Nepal is such a popular destination for backpackers. However its combination of various altitudes and seasonal weather makes deciding what to pack almost as difficult as deciding what sites to visit! Listed below is a packing guide for one of the most popular times to visit Nepal, its dry season, between September and November.

Luggage:

1 50-70-litre rucksack: If you plan on spending two weeks or more in Nepal, and plan on doing various activities like hiking, sightseeing, swimming, a safari, etc., then you will want an approximately 60-70 litre bag to comfortably contain everything, with extra space for souvenirs you want to take back home. If you are planning on staying for a shorter amount of time, or will be constricting yourself to city-based exploration or one sole activity, then you can get away with a smaller-sized bag.

1 20-30 litre day sack: Nearly all tour operators in Nepal hire porters for group treks, and even if you plan on trekking independently, Sherpas are available for hire as well. With tour groups the porters generally walk on ahead to deposit your luggage in your room before you arrive in the tea house, so pack your daily essentials like warm layers, snacks, camera, and water bottles in a day sack.

3-4 waterproof sacks: Nepal has the second largest water resources in the world; just spend one day in the mountains and you will see countless waterfalls, rivers, creeks…you get the idea. Not only are waterproof bags practical in that they protect your clothing and electronics, but they are helpful organisers too. Store your clothing, electronics, toiletries, etc. in separately coloured bags and it will reduce the amount of time you spend searching for items in your rucksack.

Rucksack raincover: It might be the dry season, but much like the fabled ‘Nepalese flat’ (a little bit up, little bit down), dry season actually means- little bit of sunshine, little bit (sometimes lots) of rain. If you don’t want your rucksack to be a soggy mess when you reach the teahouses, a raincover is a must!

Shoes and Socks:

1 pair of hiking boots: When choosing a pair of hiking boots, the most important factors to consider is whether they have waterproofing and ankle support. Even during the dry season Nepal experiences rainy weather, and in the mountains slippery rocks and crossing streams are just waiting to catch trekkers off-guard. If you are unsure of what hiking boots to choose, take a look at my tips for finding the right pair.

1 pair of sandals/relaxation shoes: After spending 6-8 hours hiking in stuffy boots, your feet need to breathe. A pair of sandals or breathable trainers are an ideal choice for relaxing in at the teahouse after a long day. When choosing sandals however, look for a pair that has a high sole for two reason; most toilets in Nepalese teahouses are located outside, and if nature calls at night the last thing you want is muddy feet. The proliferation of mule, donkey, and horse faeces around the mountains of Nepal is widespread, and additionally something else you probably don’t want stuck to your feet after hiking all day.

4-5 pairs of hiking socks: Look for hiking socks that provide thick cushioning around the toes, heel and ankle, but allows breathe-ability around the top and arch of your feet, which are prone to sweating more and don’t require as much cushioning. Look for socks made from merino wool or synthetic fibres, which wick the sweat away from your feet. Avoid cotton socks; these will just soak up the sweat and rub against your feet, causing blisters.

Clothing

2 pairs of walking trousers: Choose loose-fitting, lightweight trousers that pack down small and can dry quickly. It can be tempting to wear shorts, but just remember that leeches are drawn out after heavy rains in the mountains, and it is more difficult for them to penetrate loose trousers than none at all!

1 pair of relaxation trousers: Choose a pair that are rugged and, if you won’t have access to washing facilities, dark toned. If you plan on hiking up in high altitude in the mountains, choose something like jeans or thick trousers, as it can become very cold at higher altitude!

1 dress/skirt: For anyone on an organised trek, many tour operators at some point include a nice dinner or evening out for travellers. Having a lightweight, packable dress or skirt is an easy way to dress up without losing vital space in your rucksack. For inspiration, Patagonia and Royal Robbins do a nice selection of outdoorsy dresses and skirts.

5 tees: Choose approximately three tops in merino wool or synthetic fabric for hiking/outdoor pursuits,  and two in cotton for sightseeing days or relaxing in the evening. Although merino wool takes longer to dry than synthetic fabric, its anti-odour properties make it an ideal choice for multi-day hikes when you don’t plan on washing clothes.

2 fleeces: Trekkers in high altitude will find the weather grows cold and misty once you head up into the clouds! Wearing layers is key to comfort in Nepal, as the weather is so changeable on a daily basis.

1 down/synthetic insulated jacket: For mornings and evenings that are particularly cold, you will appreciate bringing a coat when you are feeling warm and cosy after a long day’s hike or while you’re getting ready for the day. Feeling cold and tired before the day’s begun is a big hit to morale when hiking, and with so many lightweight, packable jackets available nowadays, there’s no reason why you can’t bring a jacket with you. Rab manufacture down jackets that stuff into its own pocket, and several Haglofs and Mountain Equipment jackets include small stuff sacks for coats as well.

1 raincoat: Despite September-November being the dry season in Nepal, storms are still frequent, and when it rains, it pours. Make sure you invest in a breathable jacket with a well-structured hood to ensure comfort while hiking.

1 peaked hat: Even on cloudy days the sun can emit an intense glare, so make sure you wear a hat that provides adequate protection to your face. You can buy hats very cheaply in Kathmandu and Pokhara if you forget.

1 buff: This should probably be listed as an optional item, but its benefits are so many that it should be on every list. Keep it around your neck at lower altitude to protect the back of your neck from the sun, soak it in water and wear it to keep cool in the heat, or turn it into a hat to wear as a beanie at higher altitudes.

7 pairs of underwear: Even if you don’t have washing facilities on a trek, these can easily be washed in the sink. Many outdoor companies make merino wool and synthetic pants specifically for trekking as well, as long as you don’t mind forking over £10+.

3 bras: Pack 1-2 for hiking purposes, such as sports bras, and one for everyday use when sightseeing.

1 pair of long johns: Most teahouses do not have heating, or if they do, they turn it off at night.

1 swimsuit: Whether you’re bathing with elephants in Chitwan, relaxing in the hot springs, or wading in one of Nepal’s many streams, a swimsuit is a must.

Trekking Kit

2-litre hydration system or two 1-litre bottles: It is commonly advised to drink between three and four litres of water a day when trekking in Nepal. If you are the type of person that struggles to drink the recommended allowance of water each day, water bottles might be preferable as they allow you to see how much water you’re drinking, but make sure it is a ruggedised version, such as Sigg bottles.

1 trekking towel: These lightweight pieces of cloth soak up water like a sponge, and are quick-drying too.

Headlamp or torch: Not all teahouses will have outdoor lighting to the toilets, and if you don’t want to wander off the mountain late at night, a headlamp is a small, lightweight piece of kit that will prove essential to your trip.

Swiss Army knife: This is one of those items that you think to yourself, “When am I ever going to need this?” and then you find yourself using it for everything from slicing fruit to picking splinters out or opening bags.

First aid kit: blisters, infected bug bites, and small cuts are all minor injuries that are expected on a trek, but without proper care can turn worse, especially in humid, tropical climates where a hospital isn’t nearby and hygiene standards aren’t necessarily at the top of your priorities when trekking.

Sunglasses: When choosing a pair, look for at least a category three lens, and remember that even up in the mountains on a cloudy day, the glare can cause even the most resilient pair of eyes to squint furiously.

Sleeping bag liner: While most teahouses provide blankets, if you are more susceptible to coldness or are a little picky about sleeping on blankets that have dubious stains on them, a sleeping bag liner is recommended.

Sleeping bag: If you plan on trekking in Nepal at the end of October or in November, the weather takes a turn for wintry temperatures, meaning a sleeping bag is a must. There are loads of choices out there, and if choosing one is leaving you confused, take a look at my advice feature for Go! Girl Guides on finding the right sleeping bag.

Antibacterial hand gel: Keeping your hands clean when you eat is one of the easiest ways to prevent an upset stomach. However not all teahouses provide soap in the toilets, and if you are stopping in the middle of a trail for food, there might not be a toilet available. Bottles of antibacterial hand gel are lightweight, portable, and alot less hassle than constantly stopping on the trail to empty your stomach.

Water purification: Whether you choose tablets or a purification pen, you can save yourself a lot of time and money if you purchase these before arriving in Nepal. The higher up in the mountains you climb, the more expensive bottled water becomes; nearly all the bottled water in Nepal is treated with water purification tablets or purification pens anyway, and will state so on the label, so save your money for Everest beer and fill your bottles up at the tap. Confused about the technology and choices out there for water purification? Read my helpful guide to sourcing drinkable water.

Granola bars: If you find yourself flagging mid-hike, a quick energy boost with a granola bar or trail mix could be just the thing to keep you going.

Trekking poles: These are optional, but if you have had sports injuries in the past then it is worth investing in a pair.

Toiletries

1 roll of toilet paper: ESSENTIAL. YOU REALLY, REALLY NEED THIS. Most toilets in Nepali teahouses are what you would call squat toilets, and almost all of them do not provide toilet paper or bidets to clean off afterwards. Seriously, bring a roll of toilet paper and a plastic bag to stop it getting wet in your rucksack.

Shampoo bar/dry shampoo: Lush will be your best friend when it comes to Nepalese shower time; their shampoo bars come in lightweight small bars that are easy to pack and last a surprisingly long time. For days when you don’t feel like taking a cold shower early in the morning, dry shampoo should be close at hand to give you a quick refresh before hitting the trails.

Soap/bottled shower gel: Make sure you choose one that is eco-friendly, and leakproof.

Razor: This one is optional; some choose to embrace the arm and leg hair on their trek, others don’t feel clean without a good shave.

Toothbrush and toothpaste: This one goes without saying….

Deodorant: Be courteous to your trekmates and bring one along; it doesn’t weight much, it takes up minimal space in a bag, and it will prevent people from keeping a three-foot radius away from you.

Contraceptive pill / tampons / pads / mooncup: Some women choose to skip their period when trekking, but if you aren’t on the pill then the mooncup or plastic applicator tampons are your next best bet.

Sunscreen: Even on cloudy days, the sun’s glare can cause sunburn, so lather up!

Bug repellent spray: Nepal is a humid country, and its mountains are teeming with water: the ideal conditions for mosquitoes and midges to feast on people’s skin. The most effective forms of repellency are sprays containing DEET, but if you want alternative options take a look at my list.

Stomach medication: Your stomach might not have the enzymes needed to digest the Nepalese diet before arrival, so make sure you stock up on diarrhoea and indigestion pills to avoid sudden sprints to the toilet (or tree, if Mother Nature calls at a very inconvenient time).

Rehydration sachets: Stomach bugs and hiking can leave you feeling dehydrated, so make sure you bring a couple of these to mix with your water.

Technology

Mobile phone and charger: Many hotels in Kathmandu or major cities like Pokhara have free wifi for guests, and it is much easier sending a quick message home to family letting them know you’re okay on a phone than lugging a laptop around.

Plug adaptor: You will find a number of different plug sockets in Nepal; bring a universal adaptor to avoid any unnecessary hassle.

E-reader: Lighter than a library and more waterproof too, an e-reader is an ideal choice for relaxing in the evening or on the plane.

Camera (plus additional batteries for SLR versions) and charger: Your friends and family can’t be jealous of your travels if they can’t see where you went.

Documentation

Copy of passport: The more information you have on you, the easier it is for embassy officials to help you out of a scrape.

Travel insurance policy and contact details: Have the number and name of the first point of contact for your insurer, as some refuse to cover a policy if you do not notify them within a specific time limit of hospital admittance.

Details of next of kin: Not wanting to put a downer on the trip, but it is better they are properly notified than to find out through a passport shot on television news.

Details of any allergies or medical conditions: If for some reason you are unconscious and require medical treatment, having a list of any medication you are allergic to or any medical conditions you have will help the personnel properly treat you.

Details of flight and transportation: Keep track of your flight times and numbers so you don’t end up stranded at the airport!

 

Phew! Have I missed anything?

 

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