Trekking Nepal: Get your boots on for charity in heaven on earth
Plan International charity challenge
From Kathmandu to snow-capped peaks, Mark Graham's eyes are opened on a trek with Plan International Ireland.
Time works differently in Nepal.
Coming in to land, I find it odd adjusting my clock by five hours and an unusual 45 minutes. Winding through the streets, lanes and squares of Kathmandu, however, this kink in the space-time continuum becomes palpable.
Century-worn cobbled alleys in the Thamel district are awash with exotic trinkets and tat. There is the ubiquitous Irish bar, and a gentle tug on the sleeve is accompanied by the whispered offer of Himalayan hashish.
The smallest of detours will take you into a pocket of mesmerising beauty and tranquility, where the bustle of the capital's streets fades into the background, shooed away by the flutter of multicoloured prayer flags. With each turn of the enormous prayer wheels, housed in Kathmandu's ancient temples, the gears of time seem to shift.
Naturally, any talk of Nepal summons up images of impossibly high snowy peaks and daring adventurers who return home having jettisoned important limbs or digits during their quests. More than half the foreign visitors who head for the hills in this part of the world don't actually go to the Himalayas, however.
They trek the Annapurna mountain range.
That's my destination, too. I'm in Nepal on a fundraising trek with child rights organisation, Plan International Ireland. What the Annapurna peaks lack in comparative height (some 757 metres below Mount Everest), they make up for in scenery and accessibility.
Our goal is to hike through the range to the top of Poon Hill. Don't let the term fool you - in Nepal, this 'hill' is 3,210 metres high.
Plan International provided emergency aid following the earthquakes of 2015, and has since been helping Nepalese communities rebuild. But the organisation has been working here since 1978, and we have an opportunity to visit some of its sustainable development projects before our climb.
We call into schools, medical centres, a drinking water project and after-school child-friendly spaces, but the project that makes the deepest impression on me is Shrijana Women's Saving and Credit Co-operative. This is a credit union for women, run by women. Traditionally, women in Nepal had no opportunity to run financial or business institutions, but this co-op now has almost 800 members and gives loans for housing, business education and medical purposes.
The credit co-op initially received help from Plan International in the form of training, funding and equipment. Now, it is self-sufficient. It makes yearly profits, has hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital, provides employment, has built its own offices and has even reached a point where it rents space in its building to Plan International. For me, visiting the projects dotted around the Nepalese countryside led to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the place in which I was pulling on my boots.
As we walk through the foothills of the Annapurna mountains, conversation soon turns to our surroundings. We make our way upwards through rhododendron forests, egged on by the chatter of hidden monkeys and the thunderous gush of sky-blue glacial waters cascading through the element-hewn rock.
Painfully picturesque mountain tea-houses offer simple accommodation, plates of nourishing and delicious dal bhat, and lots of smiling faces. As we venture higher, a seat by the wood-burning stoves became prime real-estate.
In the space of four days, we go from swimming in mountain streams to knocking snow off our boots. Once we hit 3,000 metres, the oxygen begins to thin, our blood begins to thicken and we begin to slow down. A surprising side effect of the altitude is swollen fingers. Every time I pull off a glove I am shocked to be confronted by a hand that resembles a half-pound of Denny sausages.
Our trek through the mountains isn't exactly easy going. The stone steps take their toll, especially on my knees, but the atmosphere and surroundings on the mountains of Nepal is as close to heaven as I may ever get. As each day progresses, my legs get stronger, and instead of getting tired, I become energised.
Plodding up the mountainside, I vow to return for the much longer trek to Annapurna base-camp. As if to congratulate me on my decision, a little girl leans over the wall of her mountainside home and gives me a huge smile and a bright petal, joining her hands as she nods a heart-melting Namaste (a Hindu greeting).
Less than 10 months after the devastating earthquakes that hit Nepal, the country has begun healing and rebuilding. Unfortunately, this has been hampered by a fuel crisis - caused by blockades set up by groups protesting the country's new constitution at key points along the border with India. The poverty and deprivation in some areas of Nepal is difficult to witness, but its greatest resource and attraction is still intact - the Nepalese people.
Hiking back from Poon Hill, reconciling the awesome Annapurna landscape with the reality of life in this country, a realisation dawns on me. The people of Nepal need tourist income now more than ever. There may never be a better time to visit this heaven on earth.
How to do it
Plan International Ireland's next Trek Nepal charity challenge (Oct 22-Nov 1) costs €3,750pp. This covers international flights and transfers, local accommodation and in-country travel, with remaining funds going towards its sustainable development programmes. Contact (01) 659-9601 or plan.ie for info.
Etihad (etihad.com/ie) flies to Kathmandu via Abu Dhabi. Buddha Air (buddhaair.com) operates internal flights. It is possible to get around internally by bus, but roads aren't great and the ride can be bumpy. The Greenline bus takes around seven hours to cover the 206km between Kathmandu and Pokhara.
What to pack
Double-layer socks can help avoid blisters. A good pair of broken-in, waterproof walking boots is essential. Bring a sleeping bag liner (in case bed bugs bite) and tried-and-trusted waterproofs, but you can get cheap fleece tops, base layers and rent walking poles in Thamel.
Before you go
Trekking in Nepal can involve hill walking for more than eight hours a day, so getting as many miles in as possible before you set off is advisable. The more your legs are prepared for the trip, the more you will enjoy it. Road testing your gear as much as possible is also a good idea. Preparation is key!
While you're there
Whether it's the Himalayas or tjhe Annapurnas, Nepal's mountains are a must. A leisurely stroll from Kathesimbhu Stupa in Thamel to Durbar Square and on to Swayambhunath (The Monkey Temple) will take less than two hours (one-way). It brings you past some of the finest sights in Kathmandu.