With a one-year-old child and a second baby on the way, a lifetime of beach holidays and visits to the grandparents was looming large for my family. That was until midway through a discussion about Christmas holiday plans when my wife said, “How about Nepal?”
Seeing the look of concern on my face, she added: “It’ll be fine. It’s good to do lots of exercise during pregnancy. And it will be great for your fitness.”
The last point was undeniably true.
Before we knew it, we were on a plane to Kathmandu (five hours), followed by an onward flight (35 minutes) to Nepal’s third-largest city, Pokhara.
When I was last in Pokhara sixteen years ago, it was a small, dusty, lakeside strip of backpacker hostels. Bob Marley would have been making a fortune in royalties if only he could have collected them. These days, life is rather different, with lakeside sprawl ironically obscuring most lake views. And rather than being encouraged not to worry (reggae style), the dulcet tones of chanting Buddhist monks are piped out of bookstores to the same effect. I think I quite liked the old Pokhara.
Adventure activities have also become big in this Chamonix of the East. No longer just a jumping-off point for Annapurna treks, you can now jump off mountains, swim through canyons or paddle down rapids. There is even a microlite flight to take you across the face of the most dramatic mountains you could ever hope to see. To anyone who might think that hurtling through the sky at 100 km/h in an open-sided go-kart with a Russian pilot with dubious English might be the thing for them, I hugely recommend it.
Tiger Mountain Lodge
Before and after each trek, we stayed in Tiger Mountain Lodge, about a half-hour drive up into the hills outside Pokhara. The lodge commands magnificent views over the Annapurna mountain range and offers a magnificent experience to go with it.
In terms of cost, it is a splurge, but this place has something unbelievably special. Imagine paying luxury hotel prices for intermittent electricity, limited use of a smoky kerosene heater to warm your simple cottage, hot water rationed to certain hours, meal times and menus that are set and tables that are often shared. There is no spa, no gym, no crèche. And yet it is wonderful.
In the simplicity, the beauty of the setting, the way that all the guests come together to share their time and their interesting conversation, and above all the stunning service, you realise that you have all you need. If you want to be active, there are walks to be taken with or without guides. If you want to relax, you can find delightful corners in which to read, or open fires around which to make conversation. The place has a personality and something distinctively local about it. When you wake up, you know that you’re in a wonderful hotel in Nepal, not just another room in, err, where are we again?
For an example of outstanding service, picture this: on Christmas morning our usual flasks of hot chocolate and coffee and a plate of morning biscuits were brought to our room accompanied by unsolicited Christmas stockings packed full of beautifully wrapped gifts for the family – and two bottles of wine. No surplus was charged for these “Christmas extras”. Rare to find anywhere such amazing thoughtfulness and attention to detail.
Our first trek was a short five-day loop in the valleys near Pokhara at the start of the famous Annapurna Sanctuary trek. We stayed below 2,300 metres, using the lower levels for test runs of our stamina and the backpack baby-carrier we had brought to carry our son. The terrain was predominantly “Nepali flat”, though you shouldn’t confuse this term with the English version. There is plenty of uphill and plenty of downhill on Nepali flat!
For those short of fitness, fear not. Porters take most of the strain by carrying your backpack – even your children if you so wish. Naturally, this is of limited help for pregnant trekkers who require large quantities of self-sourced determination. However, the villages are only short distances apart and each hamlet is a tired hiker’s heaven. You will always find drinks and chocolate, not to mention pasta, pizza and Mexican available alongside local fare. The dishes are tasty, if relatively distant cousins of their original namesakes. Moreover, each village will normally have a “teahouse” in which you can stay. With such flexibility in accommodation, there’s no need to walk further than you really want to. We walked five to eight hours each day but you could easily do just three or four and have a great day’s trekking.
Our second trek was a 10-day hike up from Pokhara to Muktinath and then to Jomson for the flight back to Pokhara. It’s roughly a third of a route called the Annapurna Circuit, which maxes out at 5,415 metres just above Muktinath. This was out of reach for our party, but the Jomson trek still gives you a wonderful sense of journey. The trail progresses from Swiss-Alps-meets-Bali, through Scotland-meets-New-Zealand, until finally you enter the magical landscapes of Tibet. Villages become more and more isolated, prayer flags and prayer wheels start to outnumber people, and everywhere the landscape becomes progressively harsher and more barren, and more beautiful.
We were also inspired by other trekkers we met, in particular a family of four with two boys aged three years and six months respectively. With no signs of stress, they were up and out early, belting along the trail at an impressive speed and happily playing games at the teahouse when we staggered in. And after the kids were asleep, while I contemplated whether changing out of my hiking boots was going to be just the final straw of effort, the father sat down to revise for his MBA exams. Clearly, trekking works with expanded families too.
The highlights of our treks are too numerous to mention or do merit to. From the dawn views from Poon Hill to finding YakDonald’s in a small village near Muktinath, from the hot springs to the hot chocolate, from the two-mile wide riverbeds to the five-mile high mountains. All of it was truly wonderful, and to be able to share it with your family makes it even more so. If you ever thought that your adventurous days were on hold after junior arrived, think again.
Like most advice relating to pregnancy, the view on the maximum altitude for pregnant mothers varies. Some medical associations suggest anything up to 2,700 metres is acceptable, other professional advice suggests anything up to 4,000 metres is fine. As for any non-pregnant trekker, the key is to follow the normal procedure of acclimatising through ascending gradually.
Children are believed to be affected by altitude sickness exactly as adults are. The issue is that they aren’t always able to explain how they are feeling. We were advised to watch our son carefully, and to descend if he showed any signs of unusual behaviour.
For excellent, supportive and no-nonsense advice on travelling with children, Dr Belinda at her eponymous clinic at Mount Elizabeth is tough to beat.
It is warm during the day but a winter night in Pokhara is chilly, and at 4,000 metres it can hit minus-10˚C. You can hire good down sleeping bags and down jackets from your trekking agency for US$1 per day. At night, our son slept in a lightweight Little Life travel cot. Each teahouse has ample supplies of heavy blankets and with one of these under the cot and one thrown over the top you have a ready-made insulated igloo.
For other items, we recommend OutdoorLife at Velocity where the manager Kang Tian Tzer (himself a father and avid trekker) offers outstanding advice. In Kathmandu there are hundreds of stores where you can pick up warm gear for yourself and your kids, and Shona’s in the Thamel area comes highly recommended.
For outdoor clothing for young children, there are a number of excellent international websites: www.raindrops.co.uk and www.littlecompleteoutdoors.co.uk post internationally.
Silk Air flies to Kathmandu five times a week for around $1,200 return. Visas are required but can be processed on arrival and the forms can be downloaded in advance. The time difference is two hours plus – oddly – fifteen minutes earlier than Singapore.
Our trekking agency was called Three Sisters. Wonderful people, they were incredibly helpful in planning. Plus, they were reasonably priced, and they are founders of an NGO called Empowering Women of Nepal. Your money buys you a great service and supports a good cause.
For overall logistics management, research, reservations and reservoirs of positivity, consider investing in an amazing wife.