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Bye bye mountains, bye bye sightseeing

Whitefish Lake State Park, Glacier National Park

sunny 18 °C
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The first couple of miles back in the US looked just like Canada before the forest subsided and fields took over. We did not feel like driving much longer and eventually turned into Whitefish Lake State Park. It seemed like a nice location right next to the lake – perfectly suited to stay overnight not too far away from Glacier National Park.

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While in principle the above reasoning was right, there’s one major factor we overlooked in our decision taking: the state park was squeezed in between the lake and the railroad tracks. And the railroad tracks were unfortunately more than busy with lots and lots of freight trains all through the night. Still, the lake was nice, we saw a woodpecker, and there were some deer grazing in the park. And Max found enough building materials to build a house for his cars.

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From there it was just a short distance to reach the west entrance to Glacier National Park. We were planning to take the Going-to-the-Sun Road which is famed to be one of the most scenic drives through the Rockies.
It was a nice day to take the drive with a good share of sunshine. Even though it was the shoulder season and a weekday, the road was still very busy. In retrospect we were very happy that we had not gone there on our way from Yellowstone towards Washington, where we would have ended up on a weekend during vacation period. The road started as a nice and easy drive along some lakes and rivers.

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Eventually the road indeed went to the sun: it turned into a narrow and windy road taking us all the way up to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. The further we got up, the more impressive were the views of the valleys and mountains below and around us.

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At our lunch location just below Logans Pass we were really impressed: we met a very nice couple and got to talk. Eventually we found out that they were the parents of 13 kids (of which two are adopted) between 32 and 9 years of age. We were thunderstruck. That is just too much to even imagine…

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Eventually we headed up all the way across the Logans Pass and hiked to Hidden Lake Overlook. It was a nice hike and brought us one last time up to the continental divide before we headed down towards St. Mary’s Lake.

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Down at the lake we were extremely lucky and got the last available campsite at the National Park campground. Lucky us! And even more lucky that on our walks through the campground we only encountered fairly fresh bear poo and not the bear that belonged to it.

Glacier National Park had been worthwhile seeing and we’re glad we took the detour vs. having continued straight east within Canada. And it marked a nice end point to our travels to date. Our trip down to St. Mary was the last stretch of road in the mountains, as we’d now be hitting the great plains. And it marks also the end of our sightseeing, as we’ll now try to simply get to the Great Lakes in as little time as possible in order to enjoy two weeks with friends and family.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:27 Archived in USA Tagged mountains lake road sightseeing hike railroad pass whitefish divide Comments (0)

In sandfly habitat

Manapouri, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Wanaka

semi-overcast 18 °C
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After two weeks of touring the South Island we started turning Northwards. Our first stop was at Lake Manapouri. After a pleasant lunch in the sunshine, sheltered from the wind, we took a hike along the lake shore. The lake is beautifully set surrounded by mountains. We considered ourselves lucky to see it in sunshine. With the wind the lake was white capped.

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While the lake in Te Anau did look very similar, the town is certainly much more developed and more touristy. After a couple of days of staying at rather basic campgrounds, it was time for luxurious campground again. We enjoyed all amenities: the jumping pillow, wifi, hot showers, a large kitchen and a very comfortable cozy TV lounge.
Most likely all of those luxuries were the cause for our late start heading off to the Milford Sound. But maybe we were just a bit lazy that day. We did not get far before being stopped by the police – just like every other vehicle leaving towards the Sound. We’re not absolutely sure what the reason for the controls were. At least in our case, the officer exclusively checked if Max was restrained in an approved child seat (thanks again, Carol!) and if I was buckled in in my middle seat as well. We were all ok and allowed to continue without further ado – contrary to the busload of Asians in the other lane.
The landscape we passed through, reminded us a lot of the Alps – but without all the villages you’d have every couple of kilometers in Austria or Switzerland. It might have looked like that maybe some 100 years in the past.

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The Mirror Lakes were beautiful indeed. It was just important to make sure that the ducks are not in the way of creating the perfect reflection with their ripples on the water.

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We had planned to hike to Key Summit along the first kilometers of the Routeburn Track. For the first part through the wonderful native forest it was still cloudy. Once we reached the treeline, we were greeted by sunshine and enjoyed beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.

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After that highlight of our day, we continued the drive to Milford Sound. Luckily, we were heading there so late in the day, that we were not bothered too much by the traffic. At the traffic light before Homer Tunnel there was not even a line in front of us. Luckily the tunnel is one-way only. Despite the missing traffic on a second lane, it is still quite an adventure, considering how narrow, steep and badly lit it is with water dripping down all along.
The tunnel delivered us right to the lower end of the Cleddau Valley headwall and from there the road twisted and turned losing altitude quickly and eventually opening up to the Milford Sound. By then the initial sunshine had disappeared and we wandered beneath heavy rain clouds along the foreshore of the Sound (which actually is not a sound, but a fjord). Our guidebook specified three typical views of Mitre Peak. I'm afraid we missed the 'best' scenario in bright sunshine. But at least we even got to observe the 'mystic' Milford turning into the 'rainy' Milford.

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By the time, we reached the boat terminal, it started drizzling, so we opted against a cruise. We decided to head back in the rain to our home for the night, at the Cascade Creek campground. At the wait for the traffic light at Homer Tunnel to turn green, we even got to see some keas, the famous mountain parrots.

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We parked in the spot we had reserved earlier in the day, but were not too impressed to realize that some other campers must have exchanged our anyhow dilapidated camp chairs against their even worse ones. The friendly round-the-world travelers from UK and USA that parked close to us claimed not to know anything about the chairs, so we decided to believe them and to rather join them in lighting a fire in the rain.
The next morning, the changeable weather was fine again and after a hike to Gunn Lake through an ancient gnarly forest, we enjoyed the nice drive back to Te Anau.

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From there we continued our journey to Queenstown. The drive was nice and there were only few other cars on the road.

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In contrast to the drive, Queenstown itself greeted us with a major traffic jam – probably the worst we’ve had since Yellowstone. At first, we assumed that there was a festival or something special going on, but the cashier at the supermarket confirmed to us that this is just what Queenstown is like. Passing through town, we noticed hordes of people forming long queues outside the restaurants and were happy that we had opted for a campground outside of town at Twelve Mile Delta.
Twelve Mile Delta is located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu along the road that leads to Glenorchy. That is also where the Routeburn Track ends, part of which we had hiked a couple of days earlier. We had driven 258 km to get to the campground from our last base at Cascade Creek – even though the direct distance is merely 44km.
The campground there is not only a good base to explore Queenstown, but is also nicely set along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. In addition, it features one of the filming locations of Lord of the Rings just a few minutes of hiking away. The Ithilien camp, where Frodo, Sam and Gollum watch a battle with Oliphants, was turned here. We tried to find it, but quite frankly it did require some imagination. For sure it is another good reason to watch the trilogy again at some stage.

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Despite the fact that we’re simply no city people, we do like to wander in towns from time to time. E.g. we had really enjoyed the couple of days we spent in Perth or Sydney. But a crowded town, full of tourists is definitively not at all what we enjoy. Consequently, we passed through Queenstown without further stops (except those caused by the heavy traffic).
After a quick stop at the Shotover River to see one of the jetboats pass by, we headed to the Kawarau Bridge. This is where AJ Hackett started the first commercial bungy jump in 1988 from the then 108-year-old bridge. We enjoyed watching not only the people jumping, but also those cheering from the viewpoint next to the bridge. Sam was tempted to give it a go. After seeing that this would lighten his wallet by 195 NZD, he decided that for that money he’d be able to rent a motor bike for a couple of hours which seems a much better value vs. the thrill of a couple of moments.

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On our way towards Wanaka, we got to drive along a nice river gorge, see some of the Lord of the Rings scenery, passed by the remains of former goldfields and orchards and vineyards.

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We immediately liked Wanaka. We found a parking spot right next to the lake. As it was very windy, we were happy that the skatepark was set back a bit vs. the lake. While Max worked off his energy, we took advantage of having a fairly good network connection to upload some pictures and another blog entry.

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Eventually we headed off along the shores of beautiful Lake Hawea. The 6km gravel road to the Kidd’s Bush Campsite was definitively worth the effort. We were rewarded with a beautiful spot, got to do some people watching and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the lake.

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Talking with the camp host, we realized that there were so many locals around, as they enjoyed a long weekend. On Monday, February 6th New Zealand is celebrating Waitangi Day, their national holiday commemorating the Treaty.
Many people had arrived with their boats in tow and they were taking them out onto the lake. Some just for fun, others trying to catch some trout or salmon and others pulling their kids or friends behind on waterskis, couches or inner tubes. And despite the campground being full, there was a really nice atmosphere - especially as the sun started setting.

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A beautiful spot indeed... And while it would have been very inviting to stay there for another night, we wanted to take advantage of the excellent weather forecast for the next day to get over the Haast Pass and to reach the West Coast.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:52 Archived in New Zealand Tagged lake cruise bungy waterfall tourists sound pass jetboat hole fjord sandfly Comments (0)

Westland or should we rather say Wetland?

Haast Pass, Jacobs River, Fox Glacier, Hokitika, Greymouth

rain 20 °C
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From the northern end of Lake Hawea where we had stayed for the night, it was only a short drive over to Lake Wanaka. After a nice drive along its shore, we started heading up towards the mountains.

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After having talked to an English traveler the night before, Sam had all of our excursions for the day planned out. The first stop was at the Blue Pools. We hiked 15 minutes through pristine forest to reach a swingbridge. After hiking along a bit further, we got to a second swingbridge spanning the Blue Pools. Their color was amazingly blue and the water crystal clear. Still, the main attraction proved to be something else: we got to watch a whole group of youngsters jumping from the swingbridge into the water underneath. It was not nearly as high of a jump as the bungy jump we had observed the day before, but this time without a rope. And surprisingly enough, there seemed to be much more hesitation and thrill involved in doing the jump into the holes. Quite a crowd had gathered around the swing bridge to applaud and it was great fun.

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Hiking up towards the car park, we came across a busload of German tourists. Looking at the age group and their immaculate trekking outfits, I told Sam that I’d take a bet that up in the carpark there’d be a Rotel bus (the German travel company that is famous for having their travelers stay overnight in rather small sleeping compartments in the back of the bus or in a bus trailer). Up at the carpark, I was disappointed to see only a ‘normal’ bus, but Sam pointed out the ‘Rotel’ sign to me quickly enough. And later that day in Haast we saw the sleeper unit of the group: a full-size truck trailer converted into the usual sleeping setup. We were happy to travel independently!
Eventually we reached the Haast pass. It’s named after Austrian explorer Julius von Haast who made the crossing back in 1863. Up there we were greeted by the sign ‘Welcome to Westland’. Sam rightfully pointed out that it might as well be more suitably named ‘Wetland’, given its infamous amounts of rain of about 5m annually.
Thanks to the rain in the last couple of days, we were rewarded with waterfalls showing off the full force. After a first stop at the Thunder Creek Falls, the valley started opening up and the narrow valley with its steep sheer-sided walls gave way to a rather wide valley with the road gently snaking along the riverside.

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The Roaring Billy Falls were our next excursion. While the falls were nice, the actual highlight was the walk there. We passed through a wonderful forest of large fern trees and felt like dinosaurs might be lurking just behind the next curve. Down at the river we spent some time skipping the perfect flat stones on the river. It had been a good decision to do this part of the journey on a nice day!

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All along the road we saw lots of vintage cars. After wondering for quite a bit what was going on, we talked to a couple and found out that it was the Timaru vintage car club having an outing doing a tour of the South Island for a week. It looked like a lot of fun. Probably it would be not nearly as much fun when it’s raining – after all many of the cars had no real rain cover!

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In Haast we were lucky to fill our tank before the next stretch of almost 170km without a gas station, but were surprised to find out that there was no mobile reception. For the first time in years I did buy a phone card and used it to call our campground for the night to reserve the last powered site. Sam was so surprised. He checked twice why I had bought a new SIM card, before realizing that this was a really old fashioned phone card like the ones I used when I was still studying in Munich.
Having our campsite secured for the night, we could take a leisurely stroll at Ship Creek. We got to see and touch our first Westcoast beach with its round pebbles and rough sea. We did both walks, starting with the Dune Lake Walk which led us through sand dunes and stunted forest to a nice viewpoint of the beach. The Swamp Forest Walk was as swampy as expected and featured enormous trees. Once more, a great stop on our way.

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At Knights Point we appreciated the nice view of the coast before the road headed inland for a bit. Still, we continued to make only slow progress, as the road continued to feature more curves than straight stretches. Heading north, we did get glimpses of Aoraki / Mt. Cook and it felt much longer than just those two weeks when we stayed just on the other side of it.

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Later than expected we arrived in Jacob’s River at the Pine Grove Motel. Two weeks ago, we had stayed just on the other side of Aoraki / Mt. Cook.
There are two ways how we could get back there. By car the shortest route would lead us via the Haast Pass and would take 439 km. The direct route would be just around 40km by hiking up the Copland Valley Track to Welcome Flat Hut and from there crossing the flanks of Mt Cook an effort which should only be undertaken by serious mountaineers.
We only realized later that in fact the Copland Valley track was temporarily closed that day due to the projected heavy rains of up to 150mm. And we can confirm: indeed, it was raining heavily.
As we arrived in Fox Glacier, we did get a nice view of the top of glacier from the viewpoint south of the bridge before heading to the glacier itself.

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Despite the rain, we also hiked up to the viewpoint above the glacier to see its lower end. Despite the 450m distance to where the glacier currently ends, it still looked very impressive. And it is - together with its twin glacier Franz Josef a bit further north – the only glacier in these latitudes coming down so close to the ocean, surrounded by rainforest.

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When hiking down again, a ranger passed us and upon reaching the carpark we realized why: he had closed the hike due to the heavy rains and subsequent risk of flash floods.
A bit further on, after passing through Franz Josef Glacier we left the Westland Tai Poutini National Park and simultaneously also the Te Wahipounamu Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area which encompasses 2.6 million hectares of wilderness.
We drove to Hokitika in pouring rain. The rain was atrocious. Once we had reached the dry heaven of the camp kitchen, none of us was keen to run back to the camper van to get something. Max played with the toys he found in the camp kitchen while Sam and I took turns on the laptop and read. And we were also there just in time to watch the final part of the Superbowl. What an exciting game and an unbelievable catch up of the New England Patriots winning 34-28 after the Atlanta Falcons had been leading already 0-21.
It rained until we went to bed that night. Our weather app recorded 49mm of rain for the day. After all the wettest place in NZ and one of the top 10 in the world is just a couple of kilometers away from Hokitika. Cropp River – a tributary to the Hokitika River - gets over 11m rainfall in an average year, with records of 18m in a single year and over 1m within 48h. Just for reference: the wettest place in Austria gets 2,5m of rainfall per year.

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The next morning we could hardly believe our luck: it had stopped raining! So we could finally go into town. Hokitika is mainly known for its jade carvings and we checked out one of the local workshops and galleries. We did check out how comfortable one can sit on a jade bench costing 220,000 NZD, but decided against it. We rather opted for a nicely painted stone featuring a kiwi for 3 NZD. Chatting with the artist, we found out that the stone is actually called ‘Grauwacke’ and might similarly be found in the German Harz. We immediately suspected that we might be talking with an emigrated German, but in fact he was South African.
A couple of doors further, we visited a glass blowing workshop and got to watch how the cute penguins on sale are made. It was great fun to watch and we admired how quickly and nicely the artist was creating the penguins.
Down at the beach we got to admire lots of driftwood sculptures which had been created as part of the annual driftwood festival just a couple of days earlier. It was fun checking out the various sculptures and deciding which one of them we liked best (every one of us had another favorite).

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Even though Max had been interested in seeing the workshops and the beach, clearly this kind of sightseeing is not his favorite pastime. So we made sure to provide him with some sights that are sure to please him. We stopped at the skateparks of Hokitika and Greymouth. In the latter, he managed to his big delight to trade his bike for a skateboard (at least for a couple of minutes) and really enjoyed trying out the skateboard.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 01:54 Archived in New Zealand Tagged sea rain beach lake river glass waterfall pool swamp forest dune jump drive pass Comments (0)

Adventurous roads in the mountains

Namobuddha, Dhulikhel, Bhaktapur, Pokhara

sunny 25 °C
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Our drive to the Buddhist monastery of Namobuddha turned out to be much more adventurous than what we had imagined. We had not realized that the traffic and condition of Nepali roads can easily turn an outing to a place 25km away into four hours of driving.
While we had obviously known about the mountainous nature of Nepali topology, it turned out that the highway we used is the only major connection of Kathmandu towards the Eastern part of the country and towards Tibet.
A fascinating thought: continuing on the highway for not even 100 km and finding ourselves in Tibet… Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking only. For one thing, we don’t have visa for China or the Autonomous region of Tibet. And even if we had visa, we’d not be able to go there: since the earthquake of 2015, the road has been severely damaged and has still not reopened.
The road did not make the slightest impression of a highway – by German standards, it would have been rather a county road in terms of width and curves. We’ll skip the safety standards – which were mostly damaged or simply not existing. And the state of the pavement left much room for improvement. While there were some stretches without potholes, those with potholes clearly were in the majority. But even worse were those parts of the road which completely lacked pavement and had been worn out so badly that it took our driver Dhil lots of creativity to find a path that did not make our long Hiace bus scratch the ground.
Along the road we got to see some rice paddies and a gigantic statue of Shiva which even holds the title of being the largest of its kind in the world. It reminded us of a similar statue we had seen some years back in Mauritius (but which is only holding the third place in terms of size).

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Eventually we arrived at the monastery of Namobuddha, located on the top of a hill with a view of the surrounding valleys. On a less hazy day, the view would probably be spectacular. But being here in April, we did not see too far into the distance and unfortunately none of the higher peaks of the Himalaya. The monastery is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The last 5km of the road were unpaved and probably better suited to be driven in an offroad vehicle vs. our Hiace.
We explored the grounds of the monastery with its prayer wheels, balconies, Buddha statues and pagodas. It was a quiet and peaceful atmosphere.

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But there was one thing that fascinated us: on a nearby hill we saw hundreds of prayer flags attached to a pole. I’m not sure why prayer flags are so attractive, but they definitively are.

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From the monastery, we got to hike a bit and it felt great to be moving again. It had been a while since we had gotten some exercise and we realized that we had missed it. And hiking pace had the obvious advantage of being able to observe more details of village life than by just driving by.

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Lunch was in a nice hotel in Dhulikhel which featured more flowers than what we had seen for a long time. The view of the Himalaya range from there is supposed to be spectacular – specifically at sunset. Hmmmmm - not for us. Hazy as it was, we got to see the hills surrounding us, but that was about it. A picture on the wall, explained which mountains we would have been able to see on a good day, but that was more depressing than anything else. We started wondering if we’d see any big mountains at all in our vacation or if we’d need to come back again to Nepal some other time.

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Maybe that glum outlook explained my rather bad mood at dinner. For once I did not have any energy to see the positive side of getting our desert of banana pancakes served simultaneously with the soups. While Sam just put it down as me having a bad day, I started wondering if it’s not eventually time to return back home. After all, it’s not the first time that blunders like that happen. It’s just that after so many times, I am eventually at the end of my patience with putting up with things like that.
The next day, we had more Nepali roads and traffic on our agenda: the drive from Bhaktapur to Pokhara led us through Kathmandu, over mountain passes and along some deep cut rivers.
Even though we were already accustomed to Nepali traffic, it still felt awful by far too often. When there was again one of those crazy trucks, busses, cars of motorcycles coming straight at us on our side of the road (mostly blowing the horn and / or flashing the headlights), I sometimes simply closed my eyes with the resolve of not opening them anymore until we’d get to Pokhara. As the landscape was very nice and there was much to be seen along the road, I did not follow through on that resolve though.

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It took us over two hours for the first 50km of our 220km journey – not a pleasant outlook. But given the conditions, there was no way to do that part faster.
Traffic was heavy with one truck after the next. The trucks were a sight in itself. The Indian brands of Tata, Mahindra or Eicher were not very familiar to us, but they dominated the scene. Most of them were brightly colored and featured some message on their back. They said things like 'road king', ‘see you’, ‘love star’, ‘blow horn’, ‘slow drive, long life’ or ‘speed control’. Some others were rather frightening such as ‘my life - my rules’. We were happy to have a very reasonable and defensive driver who tried to keep a good distance of all crazy drivers around us.

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Still, at times I recalled the words of my sister to go rating on the stretch between Kathmandu and Pokhara. And considering the atrocious traffic, it seemed like a heavenly alternative to move along on the rivers underneath us.

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Lunch break was a very welcome relaxation from our drive. But the bad news was that we still had some more distance to cover. At least traffic seemed to ease a bit and we were able to enjoy the sights of terraced rice fields along the road. Every once in a while we saw a wedding pavilion. Seemingly it was an auspicious day to have a wedding. And eventually we had made it: we reached Pokhara and about an hour later we had made it through town to the lake side where our hotel was located.

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For dinner we went to a nice restaurant with a view of the lake before retreating to our hotel room. We had to get ready for our trekking trip which would start the next day. We were really excited and looking forward to that – after all, that’s why we had come to Nepal for.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:37 Archived in Nepal Tagged traffic mountain rice road pass trucks crazy Comments (0)

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