Location: Tansen, Nepal
We woke early for our flight up to Jomson but as it turned out we neednt have bothered the early morning mist sitting in the valley was preventing any flights from leaving but after a few hours delay we were finally on our way. It was Sarans first ever flight in an aeroplane so he was understandably a little nervous, particularly since the plane we were flying in was only a 19 seater, but he didnt show it.
The flight itself, only 45 minutes, was really spectacular, flying along the valley with mountains rising up either side of us. It was a bizarre experience to be flying along the valley and looking up at some of the scenery! It was also really nice for me having trekked along much of the terrain when I completed the Annapurna circuit four years before.
We landed in Jomson, a tiny concrete airstrip with mountains towering over it in the background. The plan from that point was to trek up to Jarkhot or Muktinath, only 13Km but with 1000 metres of ascent, across rough terrain. We started out for Jomson and walked the opposite way to what I trekked on the Annapurna circuit, heading Northwards. There is a wide and barren valley with a wide, mostly dry riverbed, which heads up to Muktinath and this is what we walked along. The riverbed is made of large pebbles and rocks and does not make for particularly easy or pleasant walking but the terrain is so spectacular we were perfectly happy. After only about half an hour of walking we came across a stretch of the river we needed to cross but which had no bridge and we were just contemplating getting our boots off and paddling across when a tractor appeared behind us and we asked them if they would give us a lift across the river and they were more than happy to do. They then said told Saran they were heading to Kagbeni and said they were happy to take us. From my experience of walking this section of the trek, four years ago, I was not going to complain and laid back in the open trailer, surrounded by scaffolding pipes, not the most comfortable way to travel but it was also a bit of a time saver after having been delayed in getting there. The Nepali man who accompanying me in the trailer, whilst the others clung on for dear life in the tractor, was absolutely fascinated with my camera and by the time we reached Kagbeni I had a lot of photos to sort through. We were dropped off in Kagbeni whilst the two Nepalese men carried on up the Mustang valley which leads up to Tibet.
During lunch in Kagbeni I had a quick look through the guide to the Annapurna region I had brought and read the section on altitude sickness, fully aware of the precautions we had had to take when I was last out here. It is important not to climb too much in one day after we had reached 2,500 3000 metres and also sensible to climb a little higher after reaching your lodgings so that you sleep at a lower altitude than you have actually been, since when you are sleeping is the most hazardous time. Altitude sickness can be really serious and lead to death if ignored. It is really important that everyone is honest with each other if they start to feel bad headaches or a number of other symptoms (it is fairly normal to feel some headiness), however people are often reluctant to say as no-one wants to be the one to hold others back from continuing. As I read this I felt rather uneasy about carrying on, knowing that we had already rapidly gained almost 2000 metres in taking our flight from Pokhara up to Jomson. We did set out briefly after lunch but Barbara was struggling and I could feel the altitude I suggested that instead of climbing to Muktinath that day we instead just do a short acclimatisation walk up but then sleep the night in Kagbeni. Saran was keen to push on and I felt physically fine, but I knew that he didnt know about the effects of altitude and that it would be foolish to climb higher, the recommended amount of altitude gain in one day was 400 metres and we were looking at doing over twice that having just flown up to altitude.
We decided in the end that Saran and I would wake early in the morning and walk up and Barbara would follow up later in a jeep and meet us there although we would be climbing more than we really should it would only be for a short period of time as we would be going back down to Jomson or Marpha for the night.
The change of plan also gave us a chance to explore Kagbeni which is a fascinating place. It is like stepping back in time walking through the streets which had a distinctly medieval feel to them with narrow, stone paved alleyways and small courtyards with hay scattered on the floor and chickens, goats and yaks roaming freely around. The contrast to this was that inside the hotels, which although very basic, with hard beds and fairly bare rooms, had Wi-Fi!! Nepal as a whole is far more connected to the internet than 4 years ago, though this is only really where tourists venture and not in the villages where we have been teaching.
In the evening we tried some of the Marpha apple brandy which I think would be far more suited to being used for petrol in the tractor we had arrived in, rather than for a pleasant evening drink! I had a Yak steak for dinner though, and that was utterly delicious!
The following morning Saran and I set off up towards Jarkhot and Muktinath. The scenery was rugged but spectacular. Four years ago when I had trekked this part we had not thought too much of it in comparison to other parts but this was partly down to the nasty weather we had at the time. This time we had glorious blue sky and bright sunshine and the terrain although very rugged was spectacular. On the other side of the valley as I walked up were caves and ruins of buildings which I have no idea how anyone ever lived in since they were half way up a huge cliff face.
A few hours later we reached Jarkhot and stopped there for a cup of tea and a mars bar we had brought with us. Saran at this point told me he was feeling a bit headachy but was ok to continue and I told him that as long as his headache was not too bad we would be ok to continue as it was only a short 45 minute climb up to Muktinath.
Muktinath was better than I had remembered but then last time I was here we had been tired after making our ascent and rapid descent over the Thorung La pass in snow and later rain. This time it was bathed in sunshine and we spent a few of hours there playing with some of the children there and having a good look round. Later on, after a long wait, we were able to get a jeep down to Jomson where we spent the night.
The following morning we woke early and started out on a very rickety and fully packed (Nepali style) bus down to Tatopani. The scenery in this stretch was breath taking and when we reached Ghasa a short way down the stunning Khali Gandaki valley, I got off, as I wanted to do some more trekking and this was a beautiful area in which to do it. Barbara and Saran continued on the bus and had their own adventure trying to get back to Pokhara, whilst I started on my three day trek back to Naya Pul. The first day was mostly downhill walking on small paths perched on steep rising sides of the valley. There is a claim that this is the deepest valley in the world given that the river splits Dahlaguiri (8,167m) and Annapurna I (8,091m), though deepest or not it is a simply stunning walk down, criss-crossing over spectacular bridges along the way, moving from one side of the valley to the other. It took me around 5 hours to reach Tatopani a large settlement towards the bottom of the valley. I stopped the night there as the next section of the trek was a steep 1,560 metre climb up to Ghorepani.
Early in the morning I enjoyed a quick bathe in the hot springs (Tatopani means hot water). It was later than I hoped that I set out for Ghorepani and made later by the fact that I didnt have the correct permit for trekking on my own. The way up to Ghorepani, in hot sun, was steep and hard work, though the views never failed to impress. I made it harder on myself by having the wrong time on my camera and was under the impression that it was 2 hours later than it really was I was really pushing myself and carrying a heavy pack. I stopped very briefly for some lunch but only an omelette as I thought that would be quickest. An hour or so later I caught up with an Irish couple who commented that I was pushing hard and I should slow down. I explained that I needed to be in Ghorepani and didnt want to be caught in the dark in the last section through woodland where there has reportedly been muggings in the past. I couldnt believe it when they told me the actual time and told me I had plenty of time! From then on I walked slower but by the time I approached Ghorepani I was so shattered I was almost crawling up the last few steps!
That night I slept like a log but was up at 4:30am for the early morning walk up to Poon Hill where there is a spectacular view of some of the tallest mountains in the world. I had also been here four years previously for sunrise but it never loses its magic as the sun slowly rises and the mountains light up first red, then pink and finally bright white in the sunshine.
After descending back down to Ghorepani I had some breakfast and walked my final day with a Scottish guy, Pharoah, who I had met on the previous evening and walked up to Poon Hill with. Almost entirely downhill this day was no easier than the last, one section with over 3000 steps in the period of an hour leaves knees feeling pretty wrecked and still with another 3 hours or so of walking to go!
It was a nice day walking through but I think we were both relieved to get back to Naya Pul, take a taxi back to Pokhara and after a blissful hot shower go out for a Yak steak and beer!!
I spent the next day resting my aching body before returning the next day to Tansen. It turned out to be a long journey back as protestors to the forthcoming elections were causing problems along the main road in one section and we had to have a police escort through with a number of other buses that said our battered old bus was left far behind so not sure there was a great deal of protection, though as it happens we saw no sign of trouble. I did find though that there was no possibility of getting a jeep up to Tansen from the main road because of the protests and so after an 8 hour bus journey I had an hour walk up to Tansen, heavily laden with all my kit and my resources and present shopping I had done in Pokhara. I did at least have the company of an English couple, Ian and Caroline, whom I had met on the bus and may well be interested in doing some volunteering next year (a teacher and a nurse so very useful people!).
The next few days we spent busily making more resources and getting prepared for our first school visits which have seemed a long time coming. It has been frustrating to be out here to help in schools but to find them shut down due to their extended festival holiday.
Barbara and I did visit Sarans village of Bhalebas and spent Tihar (known more commonly as Diwali). We had a lovely time there, playing cricket and throwing my rugby ball around with the children from the village (the rugby ball has been a huge hit thank you Bredon U 10s!). The food also was incredible the sheer volume that was presented to us was mind-blowing and we were treated as part of the family and given a special Tikka ceremony, normally just for the brothers and sisters of the family. Once again the hospitality and generosity of the Nepali people never fails to astound. The part of my meal which I really enjoyed were the fried insects (much to Barbaras horror!!), waspish sort of creatures which although sounds disgusting were really rather tasty!! Apparently the process of obtaining them can be very dangerous and involves holding a flaming stick under their nest at night whilst they are sleeping and hoping they drop off before they wake up!
After Tihar we were reunited with Alan and Elaine, who had been on their own exciting trekking adventure, and after another busy day making resources we were ready to finally go into schools and do some teaching!! A special mention must go here to our youngest helper Abhi, the boy whom we live in at homestay, who has proved to be a great help in making resources he particularly enjoys the laminating machine!
The first school we visited was Bagnas, a tiny village school, with only 5 small classrooms. They do have a nice library, courtesy of the Room to Read charity, but the classrooms are bare and very basic. On the plus side they do have whiteboards which is excellent to see since the chalk boards which most schools use are both difficult to read and create a lot of dust which can be harmful to both teachers and pupils.
The day we went in was really rather disorganised half of the children were not in attendance as there was only a day and a half until the weekend. The playground was covered in building materials which we needed to clear before anything was done as they posed a significant hazard and blocked the doorways to the classrooms. The staff then had a meeting to plan what they were going to do this is after school started with the children left to play in the playground ( we did keep them entertained for some time with heads, shoulders, knees and toes and my personal favourite, the hokey cokey!)!
About an hour late, lessons finally started. The teachers there wanted to watch us teach and they did come and watch which was good to see. With so few children (only one boy turned up in class 3!) we decided to split the school in two with Alan and Barbara (secondary specialists) taking the older children for some grammar work and Elaine and I taking the younger ones for some basic number work on odds and evens, using the number cards we made and some number mats on the floor and marbles for the children to count with.
The idea is for us to demonstrate how lessons can be made interactive and to try and encourage teachers to use a variety of learning styles. In our short time at each school we will not necessarily have a huge impact on childrens progress but hopefully we are demonstrating to the teachers how they can make the learning a more enjoyable and inclusive experience. Hopefully the teachers can then replicate this in future lessons and use their own creativity to improve the learning experience and move away from the rote learning through very poor and limited textbooks.
In the afternoon Elaine and I taught the children body parts with the aid of a puzzle and got the children standing up and moving around and also sung more renditions of heads, shoulders, knees and toes (I can do it pretty quickly now, or Chito chito as the Nepalese say!).
Barbara and I walked home that evening whilst Alan and Elaine stayed in Bagnas for the night as they were supposed to be teaching there in the morning. That evening however we were informed that the president had called for a national holiday for the next day (coming after schools had been back for only one day!
This meant Alan and Elaine could not teach at Bagnas but I believe they were still surrounded by children in the village and so managed to read them stories and play some games with them!
Barbara and I had been due to visit the Montessori school, Hopes and Dreams school, in Tansen and thankfully the teachers kept it open for us. I knew the school would be better equipped than others that we had seen and from having seen the teacher who came to teacher training I knew they would have a better understanding of interactive teaching and the importance of a stimulating learning environment. The school though surpassed all my expectations. The walls were brightly painted, the children were fed regularly and there were lots of brightly coloured resources and toys (it is for much younger children) a fantastic learning environment. There are regular health checks on the children and they are given interesting and stimulating tasks. I was surprised that they graded some of the work, giving a B+ for example for a 3 year olds drawing (though I was assured this is only for the teachers eyes and to track their progress)!
It was a really lovely visit and is something which, whilst a long way off for our schools, is something to aim for and I have built a good relationship with their head of governors who is happy for us to use their ideas and provide us with details of some of their suppliers.
The following day Barbara and I headed off to Okhaldunga, one of our more remote schools. It was a two and a half hour jeep ride, mostly on precarious, dirt tracks and an hour long walk down a narrow cliff path before we neared Okhaldunga. Walking along a small path, with thick undergrowth either side, we were met by a cacophony of sound and as we emerged into a clearing we were greeted by a band of drummers and pipers and lots of excitable children and villagers. They played for us all the way to our lodgings, a beautiful old Mugal style building.
That evening we were entertained by music and dancing and more food than we could eat. The hospitality and kindness of Nepalese people is second to none and we were really well looked after by Manu, a teacher from the school. He was so kind and called us Barbara Madam and Andy Sir and would heartily request that we dance / have some more food so it was difficult to refuse!
Saran, who had accompanied us to make sure we got there safely, left the following morning leaving Barbara and I with Bzoo, a friend of Sarans who had agreed to translate for us. The first lesson we went into was a Year 8 English lesson with Manu and it was soon apparent that the children were not going to be doing any talking in this lesson so Barbara helped demonstrate how his lesson could be delivered in a more interactive and engaging manner. The children were very reluctant to speak initially and clearly they were not used to participating in classroom activities.
We also visited the nursery and did some songs with them and taught lessons on prepositions to another class, getting them moving round the class standing infront and behind each other, next to, over and under. We made it really interactive and again after initial reluctance the children happily joined in. The final lesson we taught was on colours with a year 6 class and got them singing I can sing a rainbow as well as asking them to point out different colours around the classroom. The following day I took class 6 and a mixture of year 5s and 8 (not quite sure why they were put together!) and got them using measuring tapes to measure their heights and arm span and to see if they were related. Again the children, after initial reluctance, loved the practical nature of the exercise and the chance to talk about what they were doing and what they found out. Bzoo, our translator was great and helped the children as well as explaining things which they couldnt understand in English.
It was a really lovely visit to Okhaldunga, a lovely school, though very poor in terms of resources (there is no library here and very few books, if any) and some, though certainly not all, of the buildings were awful the year 2 class looked like a cattle shed, dark, low ceilings and with children sat on the floor. There is a lot to do hear but then that is why we are here and the headteacher and staff seem very willing and clearly want to improve.
Getting back from Okhaldunga was a greater challenge the approaching elections are causing major problems and a nine day transport strike was announced. This is not the people striking, most of whom just want to get on with life, but a particular political group who enforce the ban on vehicles on the road. Consequently, and despite our remoteness, no-one was willing to drive us back the only option was to hike the 40km back to Tansen.
We started out the next morning and I really quite enjoyed it but Barbara, by her own admission, found it very tough going. Thankfully Manu and another teacher from the school helped with some of the bags and 6 hours later we arrived in Bhatase, the half way point, though having completed the hardest part. We were all set to stay there and walk the rest the next morning but Manu and his friends managed to arrange us a lift in the back of an army truck which took us back to Tansen whilst Manu and his friend still had to walk all the way back to Okhaldunga. We gave them some money but they were reluctant to take it saying it had been their honour as I said Nepalese people are just so generous.
Jasmine, from the Steve Sinnott foundation, a partner of Manisha UKs and the organisation that sources a large part of our funding came out for a few days but her visit was largely hampered by the ongoing strike action. Getting her here was difficult enough and it was sad that she was not able to see as much as we would have liked. However we were able to show her Bagnas school which we visited for another day and I took more lessons on Measurement and Shape with the year 4/5 children. I was supported by Deepa, the daughter of our homestay owner, and she was excellent with helping translate and supporting the children in their activities.
Jasmine also visited Pipal Danda school to discuss a building project and went to the school at Bhalebas.
Unfortunately with further problems expected from the elections Barbara, Alan, Elaine and Jasmine had to leave for Kathmandu as there is no guarantees on how easy it will be to travel in the coming days. I have enjoyed working with the team so much over the past 6/7 weeks. We have got on so well and worked very well as a team together. It has been sad that we have not been able to get into schools anything like as much as we would have hoped but we have kept busy and created some fantastic resources for the schools. Some we will give to the schools for the future use but others we have made to show how simple and easy some visual aids can be to make. The idea is that teachers in the schools, supported by us, can make their own resources. It was therefore important that we made resources which are sustainable and that the teachers can replicate.
Thank you to all the team you ave been fantastic and I will genuinely miss having you all around! I am lucky though to be surrounded by a lovely and caring family at my homestay and I have Saran who I will continue to work with as well as many other new friends I have met.
I look forward to telling you more about teaching in my next post, once the elections are over!
Once again if you would like to donate anything it would be most gratefully received however small a little can go a long, long way out here. Here is the link for donations: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charity-web/cha...
Hope everyone at home is well.