Top Facebook Posts of 2014 – An Amazing Year of Travel

It’s a beautiful frosty morning. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky and I’m reminiscing. Another year is drawing to a close and as I think about what the new year will hold for me and Asad, I’m also thinking about what an amazing year of travel we’ve had. It’s got me thinking of how I can sum it all up in one post without boring the pants off everyone! Then I thought of Facebook.

When I look back at my travel Facebook posts, it’s a virtual timeline. A diary. A reminder of all the places we visited, the sights we saw, the people we met and how we felt. It jogs my memory of events that six months later are fading but that are never truly forgotten.  It’s written in the moment without the heavy thought process involved when writing a full post. Not all the pictures are perfect but that doesn’t matter. It’s a spontaneous insight into all the places we went to that are not yet written about on this blog. All those empty drop down menu’s that I’ve yet still to fill with inspiring posts of our adventures around South East Asia.

It’s a taste of what’s to come.

So here are just a fraction of our top Facebook posts of 2014 that highlight the best of our travels.

In the meantime…

I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. May all your travel dreams come true!

May 25th 2013 – Poon Hill, Nepal – So after 4 days of trekking to Poon Hill, up and down 10,000ft, the best we could get of the Annapurna range was….

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View from the top of Poon Hill

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June 25th 2013 – Fun, fun, fun! Just got in from the Full moon party! Crazy fire ropes, a few fights, plenty of booze buckets, boogying and well some other dodgy stuff going on! – Koh Phangan

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June 27th, 2013 – What a lovely day! Zipped around the island discovering best beaches and hidden coves. Som Tam and watermelon for lunch followed by a mad dash through dirt track and jungle to finally see a perfect sunset — Had Salad, Koh Phangan

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Haad Salad Beach – Koh Phangan

July 1st, 2013 – Exhausted! Woke at 3.00am, took taxi at 4.00, a ferry at 5.00, hopped in a transit van at 8.00, bundled into a bus at 9.00, train at 10.30, 9 hrs later we took another train to finally reach our hotel!! The saga will start again tomorrow at 4.30am when a flight to Blighty is on the cards!! I need sleep and some more mossie spray!! – Bangkok.

October 24th, 2013
So, back at Heathrow airport again! We started our travels in May but had to take a slight detour back to Blighty in July to help the folks at home. 4 months later, a little older, a little wiser, we are back on track! Here’s to an amazing journey and adventure!!! Ready for take off! First stop Bangkok! Woo hoo!
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November 3rd, 2013 – Great to see how Diwali is celebrated around the world! Today Kathmandu is alive with people getting ready for tonight’s celebrations. Happy Diwali to all our friends, may you always be blessed with health and happiness!

Mandalas and candles decorate the streets during Deepawali
Mandalas and candles decorate the streets during Deepawali

November 21st, 2013 – Wow! We completed the Annapurna Circuit, culminating in a very quirky and death-defying last-minute ascent on a mountain pony (Asad got altitude sickness) to the highest point Thorong La pass. At an altitude of 18,000 feet this was a real achievement for us lazy city folk! So proud of ourselves! A massive thanks to Amrit our very creative and entertaining guide and our very strong, singing porter Rajendra. Without your humour and faith we couldn’t have endured the acclimatisation exercises up hundreds of meters a day, the freezing cold temperatures, the endless dal bhat, freezing cold showers (or no shower) and the squat toilets! But it was all worth it to see the jaw dropping scenery of the Himalayas!

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Humde airport in the distance
Humde airport in the distance
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On the way to Muktinath

December 3rd, 2013 – My favourite pic on our travels so far ! – Chitwan, Nepal

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Goofing around on the bus – Chitwan to Kathmandu
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Chitwan National Park
A glimpse of the Annapurna as seen from Lake Phewa
A glimpse of the Annapurna Range as seen from Lake Phewa – Pokhara

December 25th 2013 – Wow! What a journey on the Yangon to Mandalay Express! Ironic it’s called the express, it took 15 hours!! Anyway, it was shall I say, a memorable experience. Why? Because the train thundered through some of the most beautiful rural scenery we’ve seen. It was so bumpy we were often catapulted off our seats, even airborne for a second! The train rolled from side to side, creaked and swayed and groaned all the way! Let’s see what Mandalay has to offer. Today’s travel tip? Maintain sense of humour whilst travelling!

This is fun!
This is fun!

December 27th, 2013 – What a fun day! After yesterday’s escapade trying to get back to the hotel, we bravely decided to rent a motorbike and explore Mandalay the easy way. Well not that easy! We had no mirrors, no clutch, helmets that didn’t fit and the bike kept on stalling much to the amusement of everyone around us! On the agenda was the heavily guarded Mandalay Palace and U Bein Bridge – the longest and oldest bridge in the world. Somehow we got back alive after dicing with death a few times, weaving in and out of crazy traffic and nearly coming off! A totally hair-raising experience! Today’s travel tip: When in Myanmar DONT get a bike!!

U Bein bridge - sublime at sunset
U Bein bridge – sublime at sunset

December 30th, 2013 – Today we experienced the sun rising over the Bagan temples! Walking up the steep steps of the Shwe San Daw Pagoda barefoot at 5.00am, we were excited and full of anticipation! When dawn broke revealing hundreds of mist covered temples we were tickled. When the sun came up in all it’s glory we were wowed by the beauty and tranquility of it all. Finally, when the hot air balloons went up one by one and covered the sky, it was the icing on an already delicious cake!

On the flip side, we spent 9 hrs zipping from one pagoda to another, when suddenly the bike finally gave up and came to a grinding halt. Asad decided to try some chivalry out and pushed me on the bike back to the hotel. (I opted to walk of course) but he wasn’t having any of it)! Guess what? Yes, the locals once again found it hilarious! Mmm I think there seems be a recurring theme here!!

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Bagan

February 3rd, 2014 – Well it’s goodbye Thailand! We’ve had an awesome time. Bangkok was exciting with its bustling streets, great food and fabulous shopping. Chiang Mai was a perfect meeting point for friends we’d picked up along way with the odd ladyboy thrown in for a bit of fun. From cookery classes to Ethical Elephant tours and a bit of Muay Thai and markets galore – Chiang Mai was to our relief cheap and definitely cheerful. Fast forward and we hit the very touristy beaches of Ao Nang only to shout oh no!! So we ran away and found our little piece of heaven in Klong Muang. Here we met some great people and had an amazing time! So Selamat Datang Langkawi! Malaysia here we come!!!

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Siam Rice Cookery School – Chiang Mai
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Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai
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Catching up with friends at a Muay Thai Boxing Match
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Klong Muang Beach -Krabi
Koh Pha Nang
Koh Pha Nang

March 4th, 2014 – Kota Kinabalu

So it’s almost the end of our time in Malaysia! It’s been real fusion of culture, people and food. Langkawi was a beautiful island, very laid back. Kuala Lumpur was fantastic – uber modern. The Cameron Highlands were a nostalgic throw back to British colonial times where walking amongst tea plantations and lychen forests lifted our spirits. We then moved on to Borneo; From Kuching – Kota Kinabulu – Sandakan, we travelled. Jungles, Orangutans, floating down the Kinabatangan river, watching Probiscus monkeys, flying bats, snake birds and the beautiful Kingfisher – all in their natural environment. Amazing! Tomorrow we fly to Singapore!

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Kuala Lumpur at Night
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Jalan Alor – Food Street, Kuala Lumpur
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Checking out the tea – Cameron Highlands
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LaZat Cookery School – KL

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Langkawi Sunset

March 6th, 2014 – Just a fleeting visit to Singapore!

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Singapore Skyline

March 19th 2014 – So it’s that’s time again, we are leaving Sydney. Tomorrow we go to New Zealand for a 3 week fly drive tour of the beautiful South Islands. Australia was unfortunately just a pit stop and not really in our plans to visit. But a stupidly cheap flight from KL came up and we thought let’s go!!  We had visions of travelling around but the cost has been enormous and hey we still have other countries to budget for! Shame, we would have loved to have experienced the outback, aboriginal culture and of course Ayers Rock! Alas it was not meant to be this time. So apart from seeing the usual sites of Sydney and a trip to the fabulous Blue Mountains, we have to say that the highlights were meeting our friends. Firstly, staying with Craig and Lorena in Canberra, then meeting Matt who used to work with us in London and Samma and co who we met in Nepal and who treated us to some home-made Momos! Thanks guys, you made Sydney memorable!

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At Craig and Lorena’s House – Canberra
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Bondi Beach – Australia
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Matt and Asad during a night out in Sydney
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We meet again – Friends from Nepal
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The Blue Mountains

March 22nd 2014 – So today we started our 3 week drive around the south islands. Checked out of our prison lodging – no seriously it was a converted prison, very novel! (Bit concerned at the picture of Asad as he took to being an inmate too easily)!

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Well it’s time to say goodbye to New Zealand! In 3 weeks we’ve had a taste of what makes this country awesome – it’s landscape! We’ve travelled over 3300 km from Christchurch to Kaikoura and experienced so much in between. We’ve been so spoilt – stared at the Milky Way on most nights, seen whales, seals, penguins and some amazing bird life! Every corner you turn, you simply can’t believe how stunningly beautiful this land is especially at this time of year. So tomorrow we head off to Bali to relax for a while before we explore Indonesia. Farewell New Zealand it’s been a blast!

A day’s hike in the Hooker Valley is a perfect way to appreciate the beauty of Mount Cook
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Beautiful Sunrise, Mount Cook
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Mount Cook
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Asad Sky Diving – Queens town
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Meeting Tim and Jenny, friends from London

April 17th 2014 – Great night catching up with Federica and Sal again! – Ubud, Bali

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April 22nd 2014 – Third day of funeral ceremony and we well and truly got what we expected! A mass slaughter of 8 buffalo! It was terrifying, shocking and insane! The will to live pervades through everything that lives and breathes and to see such a large beast still trying to get up after an almost decapitation is beyond words!! Still – we managed to get through it surprisingly well! It was still worth going and a privilege to be part of a tribal tradition that spans hundreds of years. Tomorrow the family of the deceased will bury the person in a cave high in the hills with an effigy that bears a resemblance. We’ve learned so much about these mysterious people – it’s an anthropologists dream! Plan for tomorrow? No more funerals – just mountain hikes and serene village walks here we come! – Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi.

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Cliff Burials, Tana Toraja
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Enrekang, South Sulawesi

May 13th 2014 – What a hectic day! Last day in lovely Ubud which called for some last-minute sightseeing and a bike ride to see Mount Batur. Got fleeced on the way up by the local police who fined us IDR 250,000 for not having an international driving licence! We’ve driven everywhere in South East Asia and get fleeced here! Left Ubud, drove an hour and now in Seminyak. Asad had another craving for something bland – aka BURGER so ended up in Wacko Burger. Nice! Ended up having a drink in some random place called Frankensteins. Random photo included!

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Thriller Night at Frankensteins Bar!
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Rice Terraces – Ubud, Bali
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Ornate doorways to Temples in Ubud

May 18th 2014 – 12 years ago was the last time we saw Ranjan in the UK. Now he’s living in Hong Kong with his lovely wife and family. Had a great evening catching up! – Discovery Bay, Lantau Island, Hong Kong

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May 26th 2014 – Tomorrow we start another adventure – we are off to China! We’re excited and slightly apprehensive as we have the challenges of language, culture and of course politics to contend with. But it will be totally worth it as we have an awesome bucket list!

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May 31st, 2014 – Supposed to leave the delightful Hutongs of Lijiang and saw-toothed mountains of Tiger Leaping Gorge a few hours ago to discover Beijing. But what do you know – the flight’s delayed! After zero communication from anyone we have found ourselves still here 3.5 hours later! I wouldn’t mind but the info board still says boarding! Anyway, they gave noodles away! Here’s some pictures of what we left behind!

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Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan

June 2nd 2014 – We had a great day today visiting the lovely Forbidden Palace and the Soviet inspired, centre of Communist China – Tiananmen Square. Asad seems to have turned out to be a bit of celebrity. Wherever we go the Chinese want their picture taken with him! No luck for me I’m afraid Don’t you just love the outfits!

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The Forbidden Palace – Beijing

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June 6th 2014 – Been in Datong two days now! A coal mining town with a socialist feel that has had the history kicked out of it and rebuilt again. Why do the Chinese do that?! No English spoken here and the menus are well dodgy! (Erm can’t even read them)! Pictures of Bullfrog, lamb spine, brain and here’s a new one – Donkey! Our dietary restrictions of no pork and no beef are stopping us eating well and I think it’s beginning to show. We’re existing on one meal a day now! Anyway took a couple of buses to the Yungang caves today – Buddhist statues dating back 1500 years. Laughed with the locals, had a few more pictures taken of us and went back to the hotel for our one meal of the day. Yeah you guessed it – noodles! – At Datong County, Shanxi

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Yungang Caves

June 12th 2014 – Had a fabulous time in Pingyao walking through the historical streets of the old town. Met Sebastion, a fellow traveller who entertained us with his adventures through Mongolia and China. Arrived in Xian after a very long train journey of 10 hrs and what do you know we met up with another friend from London! Had a fabulous two days catching up with him and his friends over drinks and seeing the amazing Terracotta Army!

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Terracotta Museum
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Random meeting with our friend Toni from London!

June 15th 2014 – Wonderful day at the rainbow mountains! The next three weeks are going to be tough but awesome. Bring on Tibet! A dream about to become reality!

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Danxia Landform Geological Park, Zhangye

June 17th 2014 – Finally arrived after an epic 38 hour journey on board the Qinghai to Tibet Railway in a non-smoking pressurised train with everyone smoking!

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Making friends on the Qinghai – Tibet Train
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The Tibetan Plateau – View from the Qinghai to Tibet Train

June 24th 2014 – Back where we started our journey, after an epic trek across Tibet via Everest! Off to Pokhara and Kathmandu for a few days to meet up with friends.

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Mount Everest – Tibet

July 1st 2014 – So the day has come when we have to post our final travel Facebook status. We are going home tomorrow. We’ve travelled across 10 countries by foot, plane, train, taxi, songthaew, rickshaw and boat. From the majestic Himalayas in Nepal to the mysterious death practices of Sulawesi. From the awesome landscapes of China to the Tibetan plateau and finally Everest Base camp! We’ve lived, breathed it all. It’s been an amazing experience. We’d like to thank you all for your support and for taking the time to read our posts – it means a lot to us. To the new and old friends we met along the way especially Federica and Sal, Ariela, Pemba, Amrit, Rajendra, Tim and Jenny, Toni and friends, Alan, Ranjan, Craig, Matt, Samma, Shally and Musi. We will never forget you. You will all remain in our hearts forever for the laughter and experiences we all shared! For those of you who wish to travel the world – do it! Do it as soon as you can. Don’t wait for the promise of tomorrow – it may never come. It will give you a sense of freedom never experienced before – that of your heart and your mind!

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The Famous Hong Kong Skyline
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The Great Wall Of China – Mutianyu
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Chinese Tourists love taking photo’s with foreigners!
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Potala Palace – Lhasa
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Grabbing a sneaky photo with a Buddhist Monk
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Travelling across Tibet, in a bus, taking silly photo’s!
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Mount Everest

So there you have it. Tell us about your travel highlights of 2014…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pashupatinath Temple – A Journey Through life

“Come in, come in! Don’t be afraid, he won’t hurt you”, beckoned the kind looking priest. I was standing in front of Pashupatinath Temple nervously trying to navigate my way around an enormous bull that had decided to block the gates of the entrance. Perhaps it was a physical manifestation of the golden bull that sat in the inner sanctum of the temple, facing Lord Pashupatinath in devotion. The carrier of Lord Shiva. I had read that only the destined would reach these footsteps without any resistance, yet here I was with this huge obstacle in front of me. The locals were amused of course. My attempts to hop, skip and jump past the beast had made them point and laugh raucously. “The path to God is not easy” they had said chuckling.

“This way, this way. Quick”! The priest was now waving his arms at me. The bull had finally shifted position allowing a small space for me to squeeze through. I felt the colossal power of its muscular, meaty presence as I rushed past it – my heart racing with fear. I had never seen anything so big!  “Thanks”! I breathed at the priest. “No problem, no problem”! he said, his eyes laughing.

I quickened my pace as I left the priest standing there mid-sentence. His puny frame was enveloped by a white dhoti and on his forehead he had the typical Shaivite tilak of three horizontal lines of ash. “Where do you come…”? he called after me. I did not reply. I had read about these so called “priests” targeting tourists with the promise of sacred prayers – for a tidy sum of money of course! Everything had a price. Even here in such a revered site a prayer had a price. I wasn’t going to fall victim. I just wanted to come to see one of the most sacred Hindu temples of Shiva. A place where life and death stood together. Where the living would watch the open air cremations of the dead take place along the many ghats that lined the banks of the Bagmati River. Perhaps it was my own fascination with how cultures perceived death that drew me here or was it just blatant curiosity. Either way, I felt compelled to come here.

Nothing prepared me for the experience of entering Pashupatinath Temple. The air was heavy, almost solid with the smell of cow dung. The source of which I discovered came from an area full of cows, all being fed continuously by worshippers.  I looked around to get some sense of the place. Sadhus sat cross legged, half naked. Ash smeared over there bodies giving them a zombie like look. Hair in dreadlocks, long and matted. Animals roamed freely everywhere. Cows, monkeys, goats and dogs. They seemed strangely at home as if they too belonged here. There was no sense of urgency from them to leave or be driven away. Well Lord Pashupatinath was after all the incarnation of Lord Shiva – Lord of the animals.

“Where are you from? You foreigner, not Indian, you pay”! I turned only to be suddenly confronted by the guy from the ticket office I had been avoiding. I replied in Hindi that I was Indian. He looked confused, suspicious, his eyes searching my features for a glimpse of familiarity that may prove my origins. I cracked a joke saying everyone thought I was European due to my fair skin and non-Indian nose. His eyes softened as he decided my Hindi was authentic and he grinned broadly showing me a set of impressive large white teeth. “No problem, put your shoes over there and you go in”!

Great! I had escaped the bull, the priest and avoided being swindled out of entrance fees. Plus, I was able to enter the actual temple complex itself reserved only for Hindus to enter. Being of both Sikh and Hindu origins I wasn’t going to quibble over the minor complexities of the religions and whether I was worthy of going in or not. After all animals wandered freely around the areas restricted to humans so I rest my case.

Entering the main courtyard of the temple itself, I was greeted by the back of the huge gold covered Nandi (bull). It sat on all fours on a raised platform facing the two tiered pagoda that housed the one metre high linga that represented Pashupati.  I stood still and breathed in the feeling of the place. It felt surreal, it had a sense of reserved urgency, chaos and calm all at once. I watched as men and women lit incense as they circumambulated the pagoda, richly decorated with silver plated gilt doors on its four sides.

Meandering through the maze of endless statues, I marvelled at the ornate buildings. Pillars painted in bold reds and greens, ancient carvings depicting stories of good overcoming evil. I was beginning to get lost in my own thoughts when the priest appeared out of the blue. “Namaste” he said casually. “Where are you from”? There was that question again. Amused I laughed and said my parents were Indian, Punjabi in fact. He eyed me suspiciously. “This is the Mecca of the Hindus you know. Only Hindus are allowed here”. I replied that I was fully aware of it. He was still looking at me in a strange way. “Come I’ll show you around”, he said. Alarm bells rang. He was going in for the kill which meant I needed to make a fast exit. “Thank you but I don’t need a guide – I want to look around by myself”. I was getting slightly irritated by all this questioning. Surely, I didn’t look that European! I was wearing native clothes and had my head covered with a scarf out of respect. “No, I will show you around. You can’t do pooja, it must be done by priest or it means nothing. You pay me five thousand rupee and I do pooja for you”. There it was. My spiritual experience was being hacked away by someone who wanted to make some quick money. “Look! I don’t need a guide” I hissed. “You’re not getting any money, so leave me alone. On that note, I turned and hot footed it in the direction of the ghats, cutting short my actual visit to the inner sanctum of the temple.

Another half hour of trying to find the cremation site bought more questions from various people. Firstly from a guard and then from an elderly man who sat stroking a goat. All this was getting on my nerves. I was beginning to feel unwelcome, a foreigner, an imposter.  It was bemusing that all I had done from the moment I had arrived was to justify my origins. This wasn’t the enlightening experience I had imagined. I thought back to bull at the entrance and the words spoken to me “the path to God is not easy”. Luckily, a group of young boys kindly showed me the way to the ghats and tipped me off about areas to avoid where I was sure to be asked for money. Again they were curious about where I was from and amused at my attempt at Hindi at which point I switched to telling a few Punjabi jokes. They all laughed throwing their heads back and slapping each other on the back at the punchlines. Finally Lord Shiva had put helpers in my path.

The site of the open air cremations was sobering and not as ghastly as I thought they would be. I sat quietly on the steps looking across at a cremation that was about to begin. Hoards of tourists with long lenses lined up for the close up shot and as I fidgeted with my camera, I felt like I was imposing on a private moment. But this was not a private place, it was open and truthful. There was no disguise, no convenient curtain or room that hid the act of fire. It was not clinical or sterile – just honest, uncomplicated and practical.

I watched as a body wrapped in white and orange cloth symbolising purity and peace was placed on a pyre of sandalwood. I guessed the deceased to be a man as what must have been his eldest son, placed a burning ember in his mouth. The mouth. The place where life began as the first breath was taken. Where laughter, sadness, truths and lies would be told. Watching the flames take hold and strengthen, a respectful silence took over the crowd. The cloth burned quickly and easily allowing the flames to devour the body. Slowly the smell of sandalwood wafted up into the air. Like incense, strong and heady. Watching the presence and physical being of a man turn to ashes forced me to think about how fragile and short life was. Once this man walked the earth. He had a family, a history, a job and a place in this world. He had been a child, perhaps a brother to someone, a father and now all traces of his body were slowly fading. All that would be left of him would be ashes, swept into the Bagmati river to make their journey to the holy Ganges. His soul would start its own new journey either to be reincarnated into another physical presence or hopefully free from the cycle of attachment, birth and death to finally reach enlightenment, Nirvana.

The moment I had stepped into this place, my own origins had been questioned. Who was I? Where did I come from? What was the basis of my existence. Now I asked the same questions in my mind of this man who was slowly melting away in front of my eyes. I thought about life and all its contradictions. It was all here. From the priest who used religion as the tool to make a dishonest living to the many characters who used the history and name of Pashupatinath to make their way in the world no matter how.

Now as I sat on the hill that overlooked the temple grounds, for the first time in a long time, a sense of calm washed over me. As the pyres burned sending swirls of sandalwood smoke high above the aged spires of Pashupatinath, I could almost feel the souls of the departed rise into the heavens. Prayers like kites fluttering after them. They were free from the illusion and chaos of life below. Free from Maya. There was a sense of clarity and truth in this temple. It forced you to crash land and question your own mortality, your own life – whether you wanted to or not. The characters I had come across were from life itself. Where chaos, obstructions, hindrances and death were personified. Like life, It was up to you how you dealt with it. Amidst all of the overwhelming madness of the place, there was a sense of beauty, honesty and peace.  I left with a feeling of gratitude to Pashupatinath. Thankful that there was no veil to conceal the truth that when you looked into the flames, you saw how precious life was. In the end, we would all suffer the same fate. We were all in it together, no matter who you were or where you came from.

The eldest son performing cremation rituals
The eldest son performing cremation rituals
A sadhu
A sadhu
A Shaivite Sadhu
A Shaivite Sadhu
Ancient shrines
Ancient shrines
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Sacred words
Cremation site
Cremation site
View across the complex
View across the complex
The Bagmati river that runs through the temple
The Bagmati river that runs through the temple
One of the many monkeys that reside at Pashupatinath
One of the many monkeys that reside at Pashupatinath

What’s the most spiritual place you’ve visited? Share your experience with us and tell us what inspired you

Nepal – Mountains, Momo’s and Mantras

Nestled amongst China and India, Nepal is a landlocked gem. Though small, it offers rich pickings for adventure lovers and those wanting to experience culture in abundance.

The first destination on our trip around South – East Asia, Nepal is an enchanting place full of mystery and legend, mesmerising mountains and breathtaking landscapes. Starting our month-long trip in Kathmandu, we spent several days getting lost in the labyrinth of bazaars in Thamel whilst we prepared for our two-week trek around the Annapurna Circuit. The trek ended in Pokhara where we spent a few days celebrating the ascent to Throng La pass in the many bars frequented by trekkers and where we rested our weary feet amidst the serenity of Lake Phewa. Finally we took a trip to Chitwan National Park to experience a bit of nature ending the trip back in Kathmandu for a further few days before we moved on to our next destination – Thailand.

For us Nepal was a special place. It threw everything at us with no apologies! It was the kind of place where just being there was an experience. The people both fascinating in their religious and ethnic diversity, stole our hearts with their humour and generosity leaving us heartbroken the moment we left. (Yes there were a few tears from me)! From Stupas to Sherpas, trekkers to temples and myths to mantras, Nepal was everything we imagined it to be and more. It was both awe-inspiring and magical.

Here are the highlights of our journey through Nepal with the most memorable being of course the Annapurna Circuit.

Kathmandu – A Hidden Treasure 

Nepal’s sprawling capital Kathmandu drags you kicking and screaming into its black hole of chaos, raw charm and edgy unpredictability. Before you know it you are sucked into a world of noise so incessant that within a few days you wonder how long it will take before the chaos starts to grate you. Cars, motorbikes and people play “chicken” – narrowly avoiding collisions every second. Swerving and dodging, in and out – brushing past death. Enthusiastic street hawkers sell you anything from fruit to marijuana and as you squeeze through narrow dimly lit streets, you hear the faint whisper of “you want something”? Whilst you figure out what that something is, your senses are being attacked from all sides. Wafts of air perfumed by incense mingle with the aromas of street food – savoury, spicy and fragrant. Smells that evoke memories – a feeling of deja vu. Then suddenly, you are awakened from your reverie by a passing truck that belches out toxic black smoke. As days pass your lungs will seriously object to the pollution and dust that constantly hangs in the air! As you stand still for a moment amidst the swarm of people, trying to silence your mind – you know you have arrived at a place that will challenge you at every level.

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The busy streets of Kathmandu

In total we spent just over a ten days in Kathmandu. Too long you may say – but it gave us time to peel back the layers of this city and uncover a treasure trove of undiscovered experiences. November was a particularly interesting time as Nepal braced itself for a general election. We witnessed people take to the streets to voice their opinions and watched as regular bandhs (strikes) disrupted public transport. We listened as the locals shared their stories of how life really was in a country that suffers so much political unrest. We learned about the cultural and social differences of the people, as individuals and as distinct races. We learned about what brought them together. We were invited to homes and inspired by those who gave their time and compassion to help the many homeless street children in Kathmandu. Our time was spent catching up with friends over plates of steaming Momo’s (Nepalese dumplings), sharing stories with fellow trekkers over beers at Sam’s Bar and just soaking up the atmosphere in the maze of streets and alleyways.

Our favourite place - Sam's bar! Celebrating the end of the trek!
Our favourite place – Sam’s bar! Celebrating the end of the trek!
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This picture makes me laugh out loud! – Credit to Ariela for taking this epic shot!
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New friends from left to right – Charlie, me, Samma, Shally & Pemba
Street hawkers selling fruit
Street hawkers selling fruit

Tihar – the Festival of Light

This five-day festival – also known as Deepawali or Diwali, signifies the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. It’s celebrated all over Nepal. Kathmandu was transformed into a dazzling city of colour and celebration, temporarily distracting everyone from the political atmosphere that had dominated conversations. We saw reverence shown not only to the Gods but also to animals – namely the crow, cow and dog.  We’ll never forget walking the streets of Thamel seeing dogs with garlands around their necks and tikas on their heads! Tihar ended on the fifth day when sisters blessed their brothers with tika and in return received gifts or money.  Homes and shops were decorated with fresh marigolds, whilst candlelit pathways allowed Laxshmi the Goddess of Wealth to enter – blessing those within for the coming year. Colourful rangoli’s (decorative bright coloured designs) and diyas (oil lamps) adorned paths and all around young boys and girls danced in the street and sang Deusi and Bhailo – traditional songs sung at this time in return for blessings and food.

Rangolis and diyas decorate the streets during Deepawali
Rangolis and diyas decorate the streets during Deepawali
Happy New Year
Happy New Year – Artists decorate the streets with coloured rice and pulses

Discovering the spiritual side of Kathmandu

One way we escaped the craziness of Kathmandu was to visit the many sacred temples, pagodas and stupas. Stepping into a world of peaceful courtyards, ancient architecture and hidden history was a welcome respite. We visited the Boudhanath Stupa (the holiest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet), spending a few hours – under the gaze of the Buddha, to spin prayer wheels, watch Tibetan Monks go about their duties and admire the Stupas symbolic  construction. We also visited Swayambunath Temple (Monkey temple) – perched atop a hill that allowed us a great view of Kathmandu. One of Nepals’ oldest Buddhist temples, founded around 2000 years ago.

Symbolic in architecture the Stupa represents enlightenment through the Buddha's teachings
Symbolic in architecture the Stupa represents enlightenment through the Buddha’s teachings
Some of the many shrines at Swayambunath Temple
Some of the many shrines at Swayambunath Temple

A glimpse into the past – the ancient town of Bhaktapur

Once the capital of Nepal, this ancient Newari town is the third largest in the Kathmandu valley. The home of traditional art and numerous historical monuments, it houses Durbar Square – a complex of temples grouped around a palace of fifty-five windows. Here you can see Nepalese architecture at its best with its distinctive pagodas and intricate carvings. We walked for hours discovering hidden worlds that lay below the surface, – veiled by the ornate temples. Snaking through the maze of narrow alleyways, we would come across a treasure trove of religious sculptures surrounded by homes hidden behind carved ancient doorways. We meandered through temples stopping for a cool drink in the many snack shops where the calm and warmth of the locals was a welcome break from the frantic activity of Thamel.

Durbar square
Durbar square

Pokhara – The Perfect Trekkers Retreat

Over the years Pokhara has established itself as an adventure playground, where backpackers mingle with trekkers celebrating their Himalayan ascents in the many bars that line the main strip in the town. Adrenaline junkies can get their fix from microlight flights to white water rafting, whilst the more chilled out amongst us can opt for a more sedate massage or yoga session. Nestled amongst this hive of activity is a calm oasis known as Phewa Tal – the second largest lake in Nepal. For us it was the Jewel in the Crown! A place of serenity to rest after our Annapurna trek and look up to the sky where on clear days we could see the Annapurna range once again – reflected in the emerald waters of the lake. Surrounded by the lush forests, the laid back atmosphere and many restaurants made for a perfect place to unwind.

A glimpse of the Annapurna as seen from Lake Phewa
A glimpse of the Annapurna as seen from Lake Phewa
Lake Phewa - Pokara
Lake Phewa – Pokara
Another celebration of the end of the trek in Busy Bee!
Another celebration of the end of the trek in Busy Bee!

Have you been to Nepal? What was your favourite

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The Annapurna Circuit

Besisahar – Syange – Tal – Timang – Chame – Upper Pisang – Manang – Yak Kharka – Thorong Phedi – Throng la Pass – Muktinath – Jomsom

For those of us who want to experience the wonder of the Himalayas, the Annapurna Circuit trek is still up there as one of the best treks in the world. Offering breathtaking mountain views of the Annapurna massif and a plethora of varying landscapes, this 160 km horseshoe trek takes you from tropical to sub-zero temperatures. Imagine picture perfect rice terraces, alpine forests, the raging rivers of the Marsyangdi, not to mention gushing waterfalls. It’s all here with a generous sprinkling of star filled skies just to make you gasp with pleasure!

We hired a very entertaining guide called  Amrit and our porter Rajendra, who pretty much sang all the way to Throng La Pass! We had met Amrit on a previous trip to Nepal where he had accompanied us on the relatively easy Poon Hill Trek over four days. Unfortunately, a couple of rainy days and high cloud had masked the view at the top of Poon Hill leaving us just a little disappointed. After that it had felt like we had unfinished business in Nepal. It was our dream to experience the Himalayas up close so we just had to come back again! I guess it felt like we were chasing the view!

Starting the trek in Besisahar – a sleepy town in the Lamjung District some six hours from Kathmandu, we ended the trek in Jomson – a town in the Mustang region that had a wild west feel to it. From there, our attempt to catch a flight to Pokhara failed due to weather conditions – the wind merely blew the wrong way! So instead we shared a jeep with a few other trekkers and happily took the scenic and very bumpy route to Pokhara passing through Nayapul. For non-trekkers such as us, the Annapurna circuit trek was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of our lives.

Mesmerising views that get better everyday

At the beginning of the trek, we climbed and zig zagged our way up hills covered in dense greenery. This slowly gave way to cascading rice terraces that plunged into endless valleys and ravines. A couple of days later and we were surrounded by alpine forests and all I could think of was Julie Andrews singing “the hills are alive…” Well enough of that but you catch my drift! We crossed suspension bridges that creaked and swayed over thunderous gorges and tip-toed precariously over slippery rock streams and past waterfalls that towered hundreds of feet high.

The mountains tantalisingly revealed themselves to us at the beginning of the trek, then rose magnificently in all their glory each time we took a step forward.  It almost felt like we weren’t quite ready to experience their presence! We saw a great deal of the Annapurna massif – Annapurna 1-1V, Dhaulagiri, Machhapuchhre, Manaslu, Gangapurna and Tilicho Peak. How spoiled we felt to be able to experience such beauty. By day under contrasting cerulean skies, the suns rays showcased the mountains. Pouring streams of reflective light into our eyes and blinding us simultaneously, we gazed wide-eyed in wonder at their sheer presence. The snow shimmered on the peaks like jewels, flawless and of such ice white crystal clarity. At night, silhouettes of mountains illuminated by moonlight dominated the star filled skies, cradling the teahouse towns where we rested our weary feet. We would stare with that full feeling in our chests of wonder, disbelief and sheer awe. I swear I could see distant galaxies in the sky. Was that a shooting star? Quick make a wish! Surely it must come true now!

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Stunning alpine scenery between Pisang and Manang
Us with Rajendra and Amrit
Us with Rajendra and Amrit
Humde airport in the distance
Humde airport in the distance
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Village life in Manang
Asad in Manang
Manang – Asad’s I’ve conquered “something” picture!

Most memorable moments

Our ascent to Throng La Pass was not quite the conventional hike it was meant to be! At Throng Phedi altitude sickness had unfortunately started taking its toll on Asad. This resulted in having to resort to two drastic measures;  we would either have to turn all the way back if Asad felt too unwell during the ascent or take the more creative option of getting on a mountain pony to speed us over the pass quickly and down the knee shattering 1600m towards Muktinath. Guess what we chose! The ascent in the dark early hours of the morning on two very moody ponies was both hilarious and terrifying! My pony named Nanny seemed hell-bent on taking her own shortcuts off the beaten path, sending shivers of fear in me as I would hang on for dear life whilst staring down at a sheer drop of thousands of feet. Asad just concentrated on not passing out!  Still, those ponies deposited us at the top in one piece and we were grateful to them and their owners. We made it to Throng La Pass “safely”, sealing our success by madly snapping away with our cameras for that famous photo!

Our mountain ponies!
Our mountain ponies!

They say the most challenging times are the most memorable. We would say this is true if you want to fully appreciate the Annapurna Circuit. It’s as if the times when we couldn’t shower for days, suffered grim squat toilets or just shivered constantly at night because we were so cold, were the best memories. We almost want to experience that again! It made you conscious of everything you did and how it connected you to the world.

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On the road to Throng Phedi
Throng Phedi
Throng Phedi
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Clear skies on the way to Throng La Pass
Feeling on top of the world!
Feeling on top of the world!
On the way to Muktinath
The knee shattering journey to Muktinath after Thorong la Pass

You feel connected to the earth and each other

Some of the most heartwarming memories for us were of sitting in the teahouses eating Dhal Bhat, playing cards and sharing stories with Rajendra and Amrit. Spending so much time with them meant we all grew very close. We would sit around the fire chatting with the porters and locals. Listening to their stories of where they were born and how they got to be guides or just listening to their dreams and hopes for the future. You felt you were part of something special. It was a global village of people who had a shared interest. Whether it was to achieve the goal of getting to the pass, or just enjoying the view on the way up or down – we were all happy and excited to be there. We made so many friends along the way including Sal and Federica, a couple from Philadelphia – who we first met in Chame. Six months later we’ve not only still kept in touch, but met up with these guys in Thailand and Bali! The trek brought us all together to share the elation of just being in such a visually stunning part of the world!

Sal and Federica
Sal and Federica

Just getting up extra early in the morning was wonderful. Surrounded by nature you would feel the Earth awaken with you. In the intense chill of the morning you would hear the faint sound of animals rising. That special tinkling sound of a yak bell, local herdsmen guiding their animals or the sounds of cows calling each other. It placed you in a moment, a feeling that would engrave itself as a memory forever.  All this followed by the welcoming aroma of hot steaming masala chai and it was good to be alive!

Nature at its best
Nature at its best

The Annapurna Circuit is a living trail in every sense of word. Trekking from town to town we would come across so many different ethnicities. Some from Mongolian, Chinese or Indian descent. All had fascinating, beautiful weather-beaten faces that told a story. Some towns had a wild west feel about them. Manang in particular, had us dreaming of gunslingers and whisky drinking cowboys bursting out of saloons ready for a showdown! Jomsom, reached by walking through the deepest ravine in the world – the Kali Gandaki, had a particularly windy geography to it. Walking through it was like a dream, only you didn’t know it was a dream until you were there.! The wind kicked up dust that swirled like mini tornadoes, glistening in the late afternoon sun. It felt like you were in a western, it had that whole tumbleweed feel about it!

All this excitement and activity had inevitably taken its toll on us. You would have thought we were tired but no we had never felt so healthy!  Walking for over six hours each day in fresh mountain air had rejuvenated our bodies and flushed out the polluted fume filled memories of Kathmandu from our lungs. Our fitness levels increased each day and our muscles felt reawakened. We ate endless thai’s of dhal bhat to nourish and prepare our bodies for each day of trekking, resulting in some serious weight loss. It was a low salt, low fat menu all the way and with no alcohol (except for a well deserved beer now and then), our bodies appreciated it. We felt light on our feet, refreshed on the inside and out and with a sense of well-being we had never before experienced. There was something about mountains that made you feel alive!

Now, whilst I sit here in my hotel writing this post amongst the chaos of Bangkok, Nepal feels like a different world. Coincidently we’re staying in a Nepalese hotel we stumbled across a few days before. It’s cheap, clean and homely. The owner plays “Om Mane Padme Om” everyday, sending waves of nostalgia through me and a yearning to be amongst the mountains once again. The trek left a mark on us that no other travel experience has to date, but then we are only about six weeks into our 11 month travel around south East Asia. I know there are more amazing experiences yet to come, but somehow I think Nepal’s edgy, raw and earthly experience will be hard to beat. No matter what, we will always remember how intoxicating it was to trek amongst such beauty and experience such peace amongst the silent embrace of the Himalayas. The generosity and warmth of Nepal and its people was heartbreaking to leave.

Above all we would like to thank Amrit and Rajendra who will always have a special place in our hearts. Without their humour and faith we could not have endured the acclimatisation exercises, freezing cold temperatures and endless dhal bhat. But it was all worth it just to be in the inspiring presence of the Himalayas!

Children playing in the rice fields
Children playing in the rice fields
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Children love having their picture taken!
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A sneaky shot taken from afar that worked out well for me and this happy local!

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One of my favourite pictures!
One of my favourite pictures!
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Descending from Throng La Pass to Muktinath
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Muktinath
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Lunar landscape between Muktinath and Jomson
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Arid landscape close to Jomson
Manang
Manang
Just about to watch "Into thin air" at one of the highest cinemas we've ever been to in Manang!
Just about to watch “Into thin air” at one of the highest cinemas we’ve ever been to in Manang!
Porters carrying supplies on the trail
Porters carrying supplies on the trail

Useful Information

The Annapurna Circuit trek was arranged through Black Diamond Expeditions in Thamel.

Contact: Rajendra Pandey

Black Diamond Expedition Private Limited

Thamel, 29,

Kathmandu, Nepal,

Tel: +977-1-4412922

Mob:+977-9841 483165

Email: info@blackdiamondexpedition.com

Share your trekking stories with us!