From both Mary and me, many thanks again to Liam Kirkham, a British friend, who put this trip together for everyone, and the staff at GRG’s Kayaking Adventures for making our trip down the Sun Kosi River another outstanding and rewarding river adventure. The following blog update was, once again, prepared and written by Mary. Yea…
Below is a short video that I put together that illustrates some of what it’s like to kayak and raft down the Sun Kosi River in Nepal. It can be best viewed if you change the YouTube setting to 720p or 1080p HD quality. Enjoy!
Filled with excitement about our adventure and a bit of dread anticipating two very long flights, we boarded the Turkish Airlines direct to Istanbul on the night of October 11th. Eleven hours, two meals, three movies, and several stretch and restroom breaks later, we arrived at the Istanbul airport about 4:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. EST). After exploring the airport, we found a row of chairs to stretch out on and catnapped until it was time to head to the gate for our flight to Kathmandu. After approximately 7 more hours of flying time, our pilot announced, “Ladies, gentlemen, and dear children we have arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal.” It was now about 6:30 a.m. October 13th (4:15 p.m. EST October 12th).
We purchased our visas, passed through customs and met the friendly driver of our hotel van outside. After a suspenseful drive through the streets of Kathmandu, where cars drive on the left side of the road with no lanes, stop lights, passing laws, yield signs with many buses, vans, small cars and motorcycles honking horns and zipping around each other, we arrived at the International Guest House in Thamel. The hotel is surrounded by a tall brick wall with a beautiful garden in the center filled with fruit trees, tropical flowering plants, and intricate carvings: a peaceful, green oasis in the midst of a loud, dusty city. We checked in and followed a strong Nepali gentleman who carried all 3 of our very large bags up 6 flights of stairs to our room. We settled in, had breakfast in the garden dining area, and ventured out to explore Thamel.
Needless to say, it was a unique experience. The streets were quite narrow and bustling with traffic: mostly motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws and pedestrians. We passed shops of all kinds from raw poultry and fish, hemp backpacks, yak wool creations, cotton clothing, and “fake” North Face and other outdoor gear. There were restaurants tucked back in alleys with gardens and trees, hotels with gates and guards, stray dogs, and people of all ages and races walking through town. After wandering around soaking in the culture for a while, exchanging some US dollars for Nepalese rupees, we climbed the stairs up to Alchemy Pizza where we sat on the balcony and enjoyed lunch, a few Nepali Ice beers and people watching on the street below. Later, we returned to our hotel for a nap, dinner, and early bedtime.
Our second day in Kathmandu was Saturday which is the Hindu/Buddhist holy day, so the streets were quieter, and many shops were closed. We did a little shopping and then took a rickshaw ride with a kind Nepali gentleman to the Rum Doodle Bar, keeping our promise to our friend, Bob Sarratt, that we would visit there if at all possible. The book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle (written by W.E. Bowman and published in the UK in 1956) is a parody about a group of mountaineers who set out to climb the world’s highest peak “Rum Doodle” (elevation 40,000 1/2 feet), in the snowy Himalayan mountains. Rum Doodle Bar is a meeting place for Himalayan climbers who used to come and autograph the walls. Later they created large cardboard footprints for climbers to sign with details of their expeditions.
It was only about 10:30 a.m. so the bar was not open yet. While we hesitated outside for a few minutes deciding what to do, a young man approached and invited us in. He greeted us warmly and told us we were welcome to stay until 1:00 pm when they had a private party coming in. Another English-speaking young man gave us a tour, told us how the original bar had been destroyed in the earthquake of 2015, but they managed to save many of the famous signatures on the wall. We sat outside under streamers of Nepali prayer flags surrounded by tropical plants and trees and enjoyed an early lunch of homemade tortilla chips and delicious salsa, fish fingers and Everest beer. Another cool oasis in dusty Kathmandu. Our easy-going rickshaw driver waited and returned us to our hotel by a much quicker route than we possibly could have found by ourselves.
After another nap to recover from jet lag, we met our river adventure group, led by Liam Kirkham (a kayaking guide we met on our trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in 2013), and Maila, the owner of GRG’s Adventure Guides. After a brief orientation, we all walked down the Thamel streets to Electric Pagoda, a trendy restaurant that served Asian, Nepali, and International food. After a few introductions, we discovered that our group consisted of 2 Americans (us), Aris from Hong Kong, and 10 others (including Liam) all from the UK.
The next morning our group boarded a van and traveled through town to the top of a hill in Kathmandu Valley to the ancient Buddhist temple, Swayambhunath (also known as the Monkey Temple). As soon as we walked up the steps, there were monkeys running around all over the place. The reason that all the monkeys live there is that they are considered holy. The legend is that when Manjushri, the Buddhist god of wisdom and learning, was raising the hill which the stupa stands, he made his hair grow long, then head lice grew in it and later transformed into these monkeys. The stupa is the large white dome at the top of the temple which represents the entire world. The gold structure above the dome is painted with the eyes looking in all four directions representing the wisdom and compassion of Buddha as he awakened from the bonds of the world and reached enlightenment. The temple area was crowded with tourists, Hindu and Buddhist worshippers, and vendors selling all kinds of local trinkets. It was a fascinating place, but also very disheartening to see so much trash scattered around. It was difficult to understand why cleaning up daily trash and debris from the earthquake isn’t a priority in a religious temple and a popular tourist attraction.
Later that day, David and I took a long walk through the narrow streets to Durbar Square, a complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples, shrines, and palaces. Many of the ancient buildings there had suffered damage from the 2015 earthquake and were very slowly being rebuilt. Our English-speaking guide told us that the British and Americans had generously donated money for the rebuilding, but corrupt politicians had confiscated much of it. It was formerly the residence of the Nepali king, but is now a museum, the home of the “Kumari”, the young living goddess, and the sight of many festivals. On the way back to the International Guest House, we took accidentally took a wrong fork in the road and ended up taking the “scenic route” back. We were relieved and happy to finally see familiar streets and return to our hotel.
Our river adventure began the next morning as our gear and some spare kayaks were loaded onto a small truck while we walked a short distance to the GRG headquarters. GRG leads 8 multi day trips down the Sun Kosi each year, 4 in the late spring and 4 in October and early November. They also provide some 5 day trips down the other Nepali rivers during monsoon season. The kayaks were tied on top of one bus with the supplies, gear, and guides inside. We were all loaded onto another bus with our head guide, Ram, and after waiting in a rather long traffic jam in the Kathmandu, we headed out of town up into the hills for our three hour trek to the Sun Kosi River. After about an hour and a half traveling on windy, dirt and gravel roads, we stopped at a roadside restaurant/home for local Dal Bhat (lentil soup & rice), the traditional Nepali dish.
After our stop, we continued up and around beautiful hillsides and through small villages across a bridge and on to the wide beach of the Sun Kosi River. The local children came down to watch as we unloaded the kayaks, blew up 3 large rubber rafts, organized many plastic barrels full of food and supplies, and finally loaded and tied all the gear onto the rafts. By the time we left the beach, it had become cloudy and began to rain a little. We traveled a short distance down river and set up camp on a beach just as it was getting dark.
Each day of river life was full of beauty, fun, and adventure. According to Wikipedia, “The Sun Kosi’s headwaters are located in the Zhangzangbo Glacier in Tibet. Its upper course, the Bhote Koshi is known as Poiqu in Tibet. Both river courses together form one basin that covers an area of about 3,394 km2 (1,310 sq mi).” The beautiful grayish green Sun Kosi was cool and refreshing fed from far away glaciers, but not freezing cold. It’s long and windy course was surrounded at first by high hills, then flowed into a tropical jungle terrain, and finally ended in a wide floodplain.
Our daily routine was to rise early with the sunlight, locate the hot water thermos and instant tea or coffee, and warm up near the campfire that was restored from the previous evening. Soon mueslix and or porridge would appear followed by toast, eggs, sausages roasted with peppers and onions and baked beans (a British staple). After eating, we would break camp, load up the rafts, and dress in our river gear for the day. Our group consisted of 10 kayakers led by Uttar, Sagar, and Alex, 4 rafters guided by Akash on the blue raft, and 2 supply rafts oared by Ram and Shambu. The rafters included Joann and Rob from Australia, Sally from England, and me. The group of kayakers included David, Aries from Hong Kong, Liam, Ryan, Peter, Jo, Matt, Adam, Hannah, and John all from the UK.
Each day on the Sun Kosi brought a variety of experiences. We would paddle lazily through wide, calm stretches only to round a bend in the river and encounter giant haystack waves, huge holes, and crazy whirlpools. The water was a mild temperature and the air was mostly warm, but sometimes in the cooler early morning and late afternoon hours, those of us on the raft preferred to dodge some of the bigger waves to stay dry. On the wide expanses of river as it wound its way through the deep canyons, the kayakers looked like little toy boats in their bright orange, yellow, red and green boats paddling up, over, and through the varying wave and currents, catching the crazy eddies and surfing the many varied sizes of play holes.
At the beginning of the trip, we were surrounded by high, green hills covered with lush trees and terraced rice patties, boulders of all sizes, shapes, and colors and wide sandy beaches. Some days we would hear rustling in the trees only to look over and see hundred of monkeys running up and down trees and along the shore. One day the kayakers passed by a deep cave in the rock and disturbed a giant group of sleeping bats who then flew out over the river all around them. Often in the late afternoon, we’d see a figure on the riverbank with a long stick gently urging a small herd of goats and a couple of cows down to the riverbank for an afternoon drink. They were often accompanied by a couple dogs running around the shore and sometimes a pig or two.
We’d stop on a sandy bank around mid day for a lunch break. Often, as we approached, the local children would show up on the bank, jumping in the water to chase and grab onto the kayaks and play with the paddles. As our guides prepared lunch, we would dry out on the rocks, watch the children laughing and playing, and compare our morning experiences and grab a few cookies (or “biscuits” as the Brits would say) from the plate that Alex brought around. Lunch usually consisted of pasta salad, coleslaw, cut fruit- watermelon, apples, oranges, grapefruit, salami, yak cheese, and bread for sandwiches. After a while, we’d load back up and head on down the river for the afternoon. On the riverbank there were always people fishing, washing clothes, bathing, paddling dugout canoes and happy children playing. They called out to us enthusiastically waving and yelling. Some of the teens had Ipads or cameras and were snapping pictures of us as we were photographing them. Each time we passed under the many steel bridges spanning the river, villagers of all ages would be standing over the river watching and waving as we paddled by. I started to wonder why the children never seemed to be in school.
After questioning our guide, I learned that it was festival time in Nepal. Dashain is the most important festival and is the celebration of good prevailing over evil. During this festival, families return to their home villages and spend a couple of weeks with their families offering male ducks, goats, chickens, eggs, and coconuts to the goddess Durga. The elders give Tika (a red mark of the forehead made from vermillion, rice, and yogurt) and large swings made of bamboo poles are set up for the children. The next most important festival in Nepal is Tihar. According to Inside Himalyas magazine, “ In each of the three days, a different deity is worshipped: on the first day the crow, the messenger of Yama (the bringer of death); on the second, dogs, which are believed to be Yama’s custodian; and on the third, the goddess Lakshmi is worshipped, the bringer of wealth. Lakshmi is worshipped by lighting houses with oil lamps, candles and colorful lights.” We were intrigued by the bamboo swings and the many twinkling lights from glowing from the villages at night.
One evening, our head guide, Ram, paddled across the river to purchase some vegetables and fresh eggs and returned with several flower necklaces from the local village celebration.
These bright flowers were tied to the back of the rafts for the remainder of the trip. Late that night, we all were woken up by music and celebration from the village across river which lasted until the early hours of the morning. Akash, my raft guide shared the tradition of Bhai-Tika (Brother-Sister Day) . From this time on, he referred to the women on the trip as Didi (sister) and we in return called him Bhai (brother).
Most evenings, we’d pull up to a beach in the late afternoon, form a pack line to unload the supplies from the rafts, and as the guides began setting up their “kitchen”- a tarp surrounded by the barrels of food, supplies, and propane tanks for cooking, we would set up our tents, clean up, change into dry clothes, and spread out wet gear to dry. One of guides, usually Alex or Sagar, would be assigned to task of preparing the “groover” (river guide lingo for privy or outhouse). Their job consisted of finding a spot on the far end of camp and using a raft paddle to dig a rectangular hole about 8 inches wide, 15 inches long and around 3 feet deep. On each of the long sides, they would place 2 flat rocks which created a serviceable outdoor squat toilet. Then they would place 4 paddles around it and tie a plastic tarp to them create a privacy screen. Two clear plastic bags would then be tied to the paddles, one for fresh rolls of TP and the other for trash. After using this “toilet”, one would politely cover their deposit with sand and this practice kept the area basically scent free. Not exactly the Ritz, but it worked just fine. Speaking of sanitation, a hand washing station, complete with a large bucket of treated river water, a squirt bottle of soap, and a pitcher for rinsing was also part of the daily set up. Dish washing was a several step process, scraping, rinsing, washing with soap & a scrubber, rinsing 3 more times in treated water, and placing in the nylon rack supported by paddles to dry.
After set up was complete, we’d enjoy appetizers of popcorn, soup and light crunchy rice or corn crisps, beer, hot tea (the Brits love their tea time!), coffee, & sometimes Peter would concoct his own special drink which became known as “Peter Punch” and it would have to be recreated several times for other drinkers. Dinners took often many hours to prepare due to lots of vegetable chopping and possibly a bit of raksi (local moonshine) consumption. The evening meal mainly consisted of chopped vegetables, combined with a meat and sauce, fried in batter, or mixed in a slaw or pasta dish. Baked beans and bread were always included and one evening we had an unusual lasagna that included thick pasta noodles, olives, various veggies, and melted yak cheese. As David commented when we weren’t quite sure what we were about to eat, most meals were “actually good”. After dinner, we usually sat around talking and laughing and enjoying the ambiance of only lighting being the campfire and small luminaries placed around our camp.
On the second or third day, we visited a temple at lunch time and encountered a group of about 15 young boys ranging from around age 7 to about 13. Our guide spoke to them and learned that they had left their homes and were living at the temple for one year to study religion. Most of the boys were dressed in a gold colored wraps and they were as curious about us as we were about them. Another day we stopped for lunch near a gigantic waterfall that would was as powerful any pressure washer. It was a popular spot for a great outdoor shower!
The most exciting river experience was when we reached Hakapur, the biggest rapid on the river. The wide expanse of the river curved around and squeezed down into a section about a quarter of its original size between a tall rock wall and a house sized boulder. It was definitely a Class V+! After the guides and kayakers scouted it for quite a long time, they all decided to portage around this enormous rapid. It took a lot muscles and sweat equity to move all three rafts up and over the large boulders, but safety was the priority. Soon after, came the second part of Hakapur without the giant rocks, but with some exceptionally large dicey holes and massive waves. Several of the kayakers took a swim. A little further down river, our passenger raft flipped completely over in a set of gigantic waves. We were rescued quickly by the kayakers and Akash jumped up on the overturned raft and with a little help managed to flip it upright again. No one was hurt, all the gear remained tied in, and we had one more adventure to share.
Below Hakapur, the Dudh Kosi enters and the river narrows into a jungle corridor with several other exciting rapids known as Rhino Rock and Roller Coaster. The next day, I managed to take another unintentional dip as our raft rounded Rhino Rock. As I was being rescued by a Sagar in his kayak, the supply raft right behind us was flipped over with of the two kayaks tied to it. The kayakers and other supply raft quickly maneuvered it to the riverbank, but it took some unloading and a good bit and time and effort to set it up right again, but once again, we were impressed that all the gear and supplies were tied down well and nothing but a couple of eggs were lost.
On our last night we camped on the prettiest and cleanest beach we had encountered the whole trip. The trash was the hardest part of the whole experience. It is mind boggling to travel down such a gorgeous, wild river, surrounded by picturesque hills and beaches, and see plastic bottles and all kinds of trash washed up on the shore. Trash also covers the streets, walkways and back alleys of all the small villages. There are some campaigns and incentives in the schools and around the country to recycle plastic and collect waste, but it will likely take some time for the people to change their habits.
Since we stopped a bit earlier than usual that afternoon, we were fortunate to take a short walk to a small village close to our camp. We walked up to what appeared to be a someone’s home, but also a small restaurant with an open area containing several plastic tables and chairs. It overlooked the scenic Tamur River which intersected with the Sun Kosi just below our camp. After sharing a celebratory beer with our group, David and I walked through the tiny village down to the bridge over the Tamur. Just as we reached the middle of the narrow, shaky structure, several young teenage boys came running onto the bridge, jumping and bouncing it and laughing happily at our surprise. They passed by us and continued on across still giggling loudly at their joke on us. As we headed back to the village, we passed a young man, woman and teenage girl. The young man stopped and greeted us in very fluent English. We enjoyed a short conversation with him about his home and family. When we returned to the village, we were fascinated watching a gentleman plucking a chicken and roasting it over the fire, while the goats, cows and little chicks rummaged around the yard for scraps. Liam joked around & laughed with the precious little children who were quite happy to make silly face and pose for photos with him.
We were treated to a beautiful sunset and enjoyed our last campfire together joking around and playing silly games led by our fun-loving guides. They were always joking, laughing, singing and playing tricks on each other while they rafted, kayaked, cooked, and set up and took down camp. The local children spent hours watching us all at camp and helping them with the camp chores. They loved to play with the kayaks, paddles, and the soccer and bocce balls that Liam brought along. The beautiful smiles and easy laughter of the Nepali children added so much joy to our experience.
Our last morning on the river began with a few small rapids and waves before the river broke out of the valley into a vast wide plain which would eventually lead to the Bay of Bengal. We pulled up to a concrete embankment and worked together to unload all the gear and carry it up to the roadside at the top of the hill. Here we all changed into dry clothes, the guides deflated and packed up the rafts and we headed down the street to a family’s small home where our guides prepared our final lunch. As we waited for lunch, we watched many buses pass by on the road totally loaded with passengers inside and on the top. Also, passing by were tiny three wheeled taxis, and small cars packed full of families with children. Next to the home where we ate, we snapped photos of the largest black hog I’ve ever seen, played with several precious baby goats, fed a few stray dogs, and dodged chickens of varying sizes pecking around the outside of the building. As we went in to serve our lunch plates, we noticed a small area where their sleeping mats were placed, their toothbrushes stuck in the slats under the metal roof, a large ceramic pot on the fire pit for cooking, and strangest of all, a copy of a book about computer programming sitting on the shelf. Living in the Western world at such a fast pace and surrounded by so much stuff and so many modern conveniences, we were struck by the simplicity of their world.
After lunch, the GRG bus arrived. The kayaks were all loaded on top, the gear and supplies in the back, and then we all climbed in for the trip up the winding gravel road around the mountain and down the hill to a small, crowded village. Here we followed our guides into the dirt streets dodging trash, cows, people and dogs to a small restaurant/home where they took quick showers and were served Dal-Bhat and we enjoyed the shade, fans, and viewing photos of some of Nepal’s original British river guides from years past.
After leaving the village, we spent a couple of hot hours dozing on the bus ride continuing down the dusty roads until at last came to a small city with asphalt roads and reached the local airport. Here we said goodbye to our guides except Ram and proceeded to the airport cafe where we waited until Ram instructed us to check our gear and get boarding passes. After waiting good while longer, during which time the power went out a couple of times, we boarded a plane to return to Kathmandu. By the time, we reached the International Guest House in Thamel, it was close to 9 o’clock. We checked in, laid out our wet gear around our room to dry and walked down the road for pizza with most of our group. After a short night, David and I headed to the airport very early the next morning.
Our flight from Kathmandu was delayed so we missed our connection in Istanbul. After several hours trying to communicate with airport personnel who spoke English, but with a very heavy accent that neither of us could understand, we finally purchased visas, wound our way through the long customs line for the second time and at last found the Turkish Airlines hotel desk. Soon we were taken by van to a lovely hotel and given vouchers for dinner and breakfast. We really wanted to see more of Istanbul, but it was getting close to dark and since we’d been traveling since before sunrise that morning, we decided to just relax. The next morning, we were shuttled back to the airport, passed through at least five security and passport checks and at last boarded our plane for the 12-hour flight back to Atlanta. We were exhausted, but thankful for another amazing adventure and very grateful to arrive home to our beautiful Georgia mountains about 11 o’clock that night.
A Real Nat Geo Trip and Adventure! Thanks for following along!