Trekking World




In the Himalaya with Angels

BBC radio presenter Steve Carver has recently established the ethical holiday company Angel Holidays, that takes people on an adventure around Nepal and donates money to fund an orphanage. Visiting ancient cities, walking in the Himalaya, staying in the heart of the jungle and flying around the summit of Mount Everest are all offered on this two week break. So, is this the perfect Nepalese experience for altruistic travellers? It certainly was different. Holiday maker Paul Jennals has been to find out.

We were met in Kathmandu airport by Steve and his team and whisked away to the 5 Star Everest Hotel, a nice hotel, to be followed by dinner on the lawns of an old summer palace - not a bad start to the holiday! Driving through the streets of the dusty Capital with its old Hindu shrines, colourful prayer flags, monks riding pillion on motorbikes, and throngs of traditionally dressed market shoppers, certainly was an experience.

Being with Steve was nice too. He presents for the BBC on a variety of subjects: he recently scoured the Himalaya in search of evidence of Yetis (which, he tells me, he found) and has worked across the globe from India to Egypt. Don’t expect a serious commentator, Steve’s main forte is comedy – he’s recently recorded a ‘tongue and cheek’ documentary for Radio Four about what it’s like to be a courier in Torquay (to be broadcast 17th July) and writes comedy dramas.

From the word go, although this tour was finely organised, it would prove to be a little different.  We arrived a couple of days early before the official start of the tour (you book your own flights to join the trip) and Steve asked if we would like to witness a Buddhist funeral.  Not the usual thing on a beginning of a holiday, but that’s what you get when you travel with this amenable and very relaxed man, you feel like you’re being taken around by a friend.

So off we went, to an ancient hall in old Kathmandu and were greeted by a Buddhist Lama named Losan, who took us in to witness an extraordinary event. Ceremonial horns, thunderous drums, offerings of white silk scarves made over a huge alter and surprisingly a party atmosphere with lots of eating and a celebration of the deceased’s life – it was a rare and uplifting experience; we were made so welcome.

When the tour officially started, there were over twenty of us in the group –  a really nice mix of people and ages; from  doctors, housewives, teachers, retirees, factory and social workers, to office staff, some people from the BBC and even two scientist – we all got along so well. The first two days, we were taken round the extraordinary sites of Kathmandu, the ancient city of Patan and the sacred cremation grounds of Pashuptinath – featured on Himalaya with Michael Palin. It was a fascinating and provoking introduction to Nepalese culture.

Angel Holidays really do go out of their way to provide you with an authentic experience. Losan - our own jovial Buddhist monk - was part of the team and took us to areas normally out of bounds to tourists. We went inside Buddhist shrines and he explained with great gusto the meaning of things to the Buddhist; we took part in a Buddhist ceremony; burning incense and went inside monasteries to witness the lives of the monks, their sleeping quarters, the routines of their day, what it is to meditate: things that ordinary travellers did not see, perhaps it is those kinds of insights that you get with the BBC.

The next day, we took a flight over the Himalaya and around Mount Everest. We boarded Buddha Air – a 16 seater – and took off into the clear, blue, early morning sky. If you have never been in a light aircraft  before, I must tell you, it really was exciting. Passengers stared out of their little windows, mesmerised.  When we circled the tip of Everest, we were allowed into the cockpit – and all this, before breakfast! 

What’s nice about Angel Holidays is that you do something positive for the host country you visit. We were helping a local orphanage by donating money for food and educational supplies, a great idea that added a completely new dimension to the holiday. The other good thing is that they take you to visit the orphanage you are helping. I must admit, as we walked towards the home, I was expecting a sombre affair. Instead the doors burst open and we were greeted by happy, excited children and their teachers. They presented us with garlands of marigolds and sang songs they had prepared specially. It’s times like this that ethical travel comes into its own. This moment was one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Tearing ourselves away from the children, we were taken by our private coach to the ancient city of Bhaktapur where we would stay overnight in an ancient guest house. The city was used for the film, Little Buddha – with it’s smoking pagoda temples, cobbled streets and medieval traditions - it was like stepping back in time. Around every corner there were people carrying out their daily chores, children playing; goats, chickens and buffalos wandering the streets, old men and women walking in daily processions with prayer wheels or ringing ceremonial bells – and no traffic. 

Our accommodation was chosen as it overlooked one of the oldest and grandest squares, the rooms were charming and old beamed, very clean and en-suite. That evening we sat on its roof terrace, sipping beer and watching ancient life go by under the twinkling lights of the old city, it was just magical.  

The next morning we were off again. Down in altitude and into the exotic south of Nepal, to stay inside Chitwan National Reserve.  This in itself was quite rare, as there are only an handful of lodges inside the park. We stayed at a placed called Temple Tiger Reserve – quite deep in the jungle – a place Steve knew that was used by TV wildlife teams – all lodges were very comfortable with en-suite and tastefully decorated. However, on the way in, not all runs smoothly when you are on this kind of adventure. The final leg of our journey was to be made via little wooden boats – don’t worry, the rowing is done for you. However, the boatmen didn’t show up. Steve Carver smiled through all this. “Being held up in the jungle is part of the adventure,” he said. With profuse Nepalese apologies and wide smiles, the rowers eventually appeared and took us to the resort. 

Our pleasant little lodges were obscured by trees and surrounded by dense jungle. It was just magic.  At night time, under a full moon we’d watch the rhinos coming in nearby to feed. Despite the remote location and no power after 9pm, the owners had made the effort. There was a simple outdoor cocktail bar, with great views across the river and wonderful sunsets. An able canteen house fed us with three healthy meals a day. It was like being in Humphrey Bogart’s The African Queen.   At the lodge, you are allowed to participate in any activities you want – all included: elephant rides in the jungle, in the hope you’ll spot a tiger – rare but you do get close to many rhinoceros – bird watching, jungle walks, visits to neighbouring villages. The treks into the jungle were all led by expert local naturalists – it really felt like the real thing rather than something set up for tourists.

Our two days passed quickly and we were soon on the road again, driving to Pokhara – a beautiful place overlooked by the Himalaya and the start of our classic trek. We stayed in the Lake View Resort a lovely guest house with a large garden, overlooking the waters of Phewa Lake. The next morning, with boots, sticks, porters, guides, a Buddhist monk and our BBC man Steve in tow, we set off. I couldn’t help thinking it felt more like we were taking part in some strange adventure movie than a tour. The walks were suitable for beginners but you did need to be a little fit – some of our group were into their sixties but they still ably managed it. The first two days were the hardest but we stopped regularly for tea and food at the many quaint rest stops along the way – old trader’s tea houses.

We walked five days in lush green countryside, pink, red and purple rhododendron forests, sparkling clear Himalayan streams, open rolling valleys and the beautiful white mountains towering above us. Lodges, in all fairness, were very simple but clean. They were set in little villages, with a small choice of local eateries. All companies use the same ones so don’t expect any five stars. We met mountain people along the way: young girls carrying heavy loads on their backs for many miles, donkey trails, peaceful mountain hamlets with some wonderful old characters and unique customs. It was a rare privilege. In the evenings, we would just sit and relax or Losan, our Buddhist monk, offered free yoga or introduction to meditation classes, up in the Himalaya – it was just incredible.  The centre piece of the trek was Poon Hill. We made the steady walk up its shoulder before daybreak and sat at its peak to watch the sunrise over the Himalaya. Stupendous.

At the end of the trek we had one  more night to relax in Pokhara, before getting a morning flight to Kathmandu. This too, was truly exhilarating: flying by small propeller plane, just 15,000 feet above the whole country. We ended the tour with a farewell dinner in the centre of Kathmandu’s night bazaar.  

If you’re looking for an alternative to the typical regimented tour and want to do something positive, travelling with Angel Holidays is for you. It’s an experience I will never forget.  In October 09 (16th – 29th) Steve and his team will be doing it all again: a similar journey and this time I hear they plan to take visitors to see the unique Hindu Festival of Lights. For £899 too, they’re competitively priced. The motto on their website is journeys that change lives. I think they do.



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