Friday, October 31, 2008

Nepal Video!

I compressed and uploaded the short Nepal video I made for DVD. I crammed 18 days down into 7 minutes, so if you want the short & sweet version of the trip, along with a taste of the sights and sounds we experienced, this is for you!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ghorepani 10/11/08

The hike to Ghorepani ("horse water") was grueling. We pretty much gained back all the altitude we lost from Jomsom. We started off very slowly at 7am with Thakur and Joseph, but after climbing to the first pass, we went ahead on our own. It was still very cloudy out with absolutely no views of the mountains, but the valley we traversed from the pas was quiet scenic, helping assuage some of our disappointment with the weather so far. We were traveling solely on foot trail now, with no donkeys or jeeps, only the occasional cow. There were beautiful stone steps built into the trail to aid all the steep sections. Around noon we reached the Serendipity lodge in the village of Sikha, and had lunch. While we were eating we chatted with a couple from Amsterdam, and then it started raining.

Joseph & Thakur caught up to us as we finished lunch. We headed up in the rain with our Goretex on, but got way too hot, so we shedded the rain layer and just hiked up in our t-shirts. Aside from a dog that followed us for half an hour, we were by ourselves most of the way up. The trail was really steep, and after slowly slogging up, we made it to Ghorepani at 3:30.

Thakur told us to stay at a lodge called the Snow Land, but when we got into the village we were confused by a place we found called the Snow View and checked in there. We were a little surprised he recommended it because it was pretty grungy, but we shrugged our shoulders and wandered into the village. While in the village we found a board with a map of all the hotels and noticed another place called Snow Land up the hill. We went up and checked it out and concluded this must have been the correct lodge because it was a fair bit nicer, so we booked two rooms -- one with a bathroom and one without. We decided to take the room without the bathroom because it was at the end of the hall we figured it would be quieter. We went back to the Snow View and gathered up our backpacks and returned the key for our room. They gave us a bit of the stink eye, but did not seem surprised. It seemed apparent that people make that mistake often.

The sun was peeking through the clouds a bit, so we sat on the steps in town and shard a cinnamon roll and waited for Thakur & Joseph. The air started to get chilly again, so we went up to the lodge and had tea and waited. Around 5 it started to rain again, and then just a few minutes later they showed up. They were very relieved to finally be there and grateful that we had a room ready for them. Almost as soon as they walked through the door it started to absolutely dump outside. We ordered up a large pot of masala tea for Joseph (his favorite). While we were waiting for them, the Belgian couple that we met at Kagbeni showed up for tea, and we had a pleasant chat with them while they waited out the squall.

After dinner, we made plans to head up to Poon Hill at 4:45 in the morning if the sky was clear. Poon Hill is a popular viewing point just up from Ghorepani, with views of two 8,000 meter peaks, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. We were not optimistic at all, however, having been short-changed on the weather the entire trip since we left Muktinath. We hit the sack at 8 that evening, completely knackered from the long day.

At 4:30 we woke up and skeptically peeked out our window, but to our amazement we saw stars! We scrambled out of bed and got ready and set out at 4:45. Joseph and Thakur had already left, but we passed them about halfway up. We reached the top of Poon Hill at 5:30, just as the sun was sending it's first rays of dim light over the horizon. Our minds were absolutely blown by the view as light slowly began to illuminate them. Dhaulagiri, Annapurna 1 and Annapurna 2, Hiunchuli and Machapachre were perfectly clear, massive frozen peaks so close and vivid you could see the snow flutings and massive rock faces in vivid detail.

Not coincidentally, the folks from the Snow View had set up a coffee stand on top of the hill. While we were admiring the view, sipping over-sugared, over-creamed, and watered-down coffee, Aliza and Asaf showed up! We had not seen them since Kagbeni, but it took them two days to go from Tatopani to Ghorepani, so we caught up to them.

Friday, October 10, 2008

10/10 Tatopani

The environment is really changing now. We have dropped about 8,000 feet from our high point at Muktinath, and gone from very dry, arid highlands to humid jungle. The hike yesterday was all on road, but today we got off the road and onto some real, live trail for a few hours. In the morning, we come to an intersection in the road, where the old trail crosses a stream on a footbridge, while a new section of road stays on the west side of the river. A local at the village situated at the intersection told Thakur that the new road was washed out badly and passage was very dangerous. Thakur suggested that we cross the footbridge and take the old trail. It was very slow going up and down the old, decaying path through dense forest, past depressed villages that no longer get trekker traffic. We learned later that a pilgrim had been killed on the new road, and that some people were having to crawl through the washouts, so despite the extra effort and time the old trail took, we felt Thakur made a good choice. A few things that stand out vividly about taking the old trail was the deafening racket of the crickets or cicadas, and the contrasting, and much more pleasant, sound of donkey bells.

We reached Tatopani, which means "hot water," late in the afternoon and managed to get a room with a bathroom at the Trekkers Lodge. It was unbelievably humid there -- we were well and truly in the jungle now. And accordingly, we took our very first showers of the trek! We forgot that this place is called Tatopani because it has natural hot springs, though, and missed our chance to get a nice, warm soak in. At dinner, I had a nice big place of dal bhat to fuel up for the big climb up to Ghorepani tomorrow. We were amused by a praying mantis landing on my back, but Thakur also broke some sobering news to us: he heard a plane crashed during a landing attempt up at Lukla, which is the entrance to the Everest trek, and all 16 passengers were killed. Made us feel justified for being terrified on the air approach to Jomsom, and awfully relieved that nothing bad happened.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

10/9 Kalopani

The hike the next day to Kalopani, which means "black water," was relaxed and short relative to the prior two days. The highlight was coming across a ceremonial slaughtering of sheep in the middle of a village. We watched as they brought out sheep, sprinkled with an orange powder -- saffron I think. One villager would hold the sheep's head down by a rope tied around it's neck while another villager used a machete-looking blade to chop off its head. Thakur explained that it is a big honor to be the one chosen to do the slaughter, and it is considered good luck to behead the sheep with one strike. He also explained that eating meat was a very rare treat for the villagers, and the whole village would share the meat from the slaughtered sheep during a big feast.

We ate lunch at Larjung, which was the village we had planned to stop at for this night in our original plan, but it would have been a very short day, and it was a pretty run down village, so Thakur suggested we continue to Kalopani. We reached Kalopani at 2 o'clock and were amazed at how nice it was, especially our hotel, the Kalopani Guest House. I would be happy to live in a house as nice as this place, especially with the tiled bathroom. We had dinner in the hotel (Q = fried rice, me = thupka, or noodle soup), then took a walk through town where we ran across another guy from California. He had recently graduated from Univ. of Washington, and was planning to move to Colorado to be a ski instructor.

It was pretty cloudy and drizzly for most of the day, but in the evening it started to clear up a bit and we got our first cloud-veiled glimpses of Annapurna. I didn't sleep well that night because my cold was getting worse, while Kirsten's seemed to be getting a little better. I woke up in a feverish sweat and took off the comforter, but of course then I was cold the rest of the night. In the morning I woke up feeling pretty cruddy and took a Sudafed, which didn't seem to help much, and now we only have one left so hopefully we're both better soon! After a nice, hearty oat porridge with milk and honey breakfast, we set out for Tatopani.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Muktinath, Marpha 10/5 - 10/6

The landscape of the Lower Mustang is incredible — arid brown hills divided up by glacier fed rivers lined with crops and old settlements and surrounded by steep, snow-capped peaks. We took it slow on the hike up to Muktinath because we were ascending from 9,000 feet to 12,500 feet after being at a mere 2,500 feet 24 hours earlier. Thakur set a particularly slow pace, and Kirsten and I found it a little too slow compared to what we’re used to, but we enjoyed the casual pace and soaked in the scenery as we walked past farms and stopped occasionally to look out at old ruins across the valley or watch women make Tibetan scarves on their looms.

With about 500 feet to go, Kirsten and I decided to go on ahead, so we asked Thakur what lodge he wanted to stay at. Kirsten was still fighting her cold, so it was particularly rough on her, so we went at a brisk but not uncomfortable pace and made it to Muktinath about half an hour ahead of Joseph & Thakur. However, the extra effort we expended took its toll, and while Thakur felt fine when he arrived, we both were pretty exhausted. Our room in Muktinath at the North Pole was a little rougher than in Kagbeni. Muktinath is the first village below Thorung La, the 17,000 foot pass that trekkers doing the complete Annapurna Circuit most cross. Apparently we didn’t beat all the traffic coming down from Thorung La because we ended up in a room right next to the smelly common bathroom.

After checking into our room, we took a walk up to Muktinath Temple, and passed several souvenir stands where the women proprietors had learned a funny phrase: “Look, look. No buy, just look. Very cheap. Evening prices!” We came back from the temple, and met up again with Joseph & Thakur and checked out the new Tibetan Buddhist temple behind our lodge. We hung out there for a while and admired the colorful structure. The sky was a deep blue all around with the exception of a solitary dark cloud right behind the temple.

There is power all the way up here, indeed we walked next to power lines most of the way to Muktinath, but there was a typical blackout at dinner time even up here. We had a nice dinner and chatted with the server who was very friendly and hard-working. Kirsten had her favorite meal so far, a delicious fried rice dish. The next morning we started the long walk down to Marpha. On the way through Jarkot we bought a bunch of scarves for souvenirs. Interestingly, the lower we got the mroe expensive they got. They were offering them for NR 100 near Muktinath Temple last night (the “evening price”), but we got them for 200 at one stand, and had to bargain hard to get them down to 225 at the next one. Still, at about $3, that’s still quite a deal.

The trail down deviated from the road for a short stretch and wound through some rocky cliffs, before descending back down to the road between Kagbeni and Jomsom. It was pretty cold, so we wore the new scarves. We reached Eckle-Bhat between Jomsom and Kagbeni around noon and had lunch. While we waited for them to cook our dal bat, a small boy came up to the table and started playing with our cameras. I flipped out the view-finder on my camera so he could watch his face in the monitor as he took the pictures. He figured out how to use the camera pretty quickly, which was kind of amazing. While we were eating, the wind picked up considerably and the tea hosue was a comfy refuge. When at last we headed back out, it was really howling, blowing plumes of dust and sand across the river bed.

The weather looked like it was deteriorating with menacing clouds blowing through the valley, so Kirsten and I decided to sprint ahead to get to Marpha before the weather broke, and to secure good lodging. We got our instructions from Thakur and headed off. At one point we rounded a corner above the river and were almost knocked backwards by the wind. We wrapped our faces in our scarves to keep the dust out of our mouths. After finding our way through Jomsom and rejoining the trail on the other side, we reached Marpha at 4 o’clock after about 7 hours and 16 miles of hiking and got two rooms at the Paradise. The rooms were pretty grungy and did not have attached bathrooms, a bit of a surprise because L.P. said Marpha is supposed to have some of the best lodging on the trek.

We went down the street to check out the next lodge that Thakur recommended, the Mount Villa, and they had just one double with a bathroom. We decided to take it, even though it was just okay. It was nice to have an attached bathroom, but the toilet seat was broken and you had to turn on the leaky water supply to fill the tank every time you flushed. They also had a triple room, which we thought Joseph & Thakur could take if they wanted to stay at the same lodge as us. We took back one of the keys to the Paradise and kept the other set so Joseph was sure to have a room. We left a note for them, then walked around the village. Marpha is another village with a quaint medieval feel like Kagbeni. It had narrow flagstone streets. Under the flagstones water was running through the town.Joseph and Thakur showed up about an hour after we did, but Joseph decided to find another place with a private bathroom. Thakur didn’t want to stay in the triple room at our lodge because guides get reduced rates on food and lodging if they stay in the guides’ room instead of a tourist room. We had to eat separately from them because the lodges charge really low rates on the room but make all their money on the food, so they expect you to eat your meals there if you stay there.

At dinner, we met a “trustafarian,” as Kirsten referred to him, from Santa Monica who is living in India teaching enlightenment or something. He was pretty amusing — at one point he talking about how little he brought for the trek, just a few clothes and his guitar, and how it’s so amazing how simply you can live if you just let go, then five minutes later he was talking about how great it was to have movies on his Ipod to keep him entertained during downtime on the trek. Earlier, at Joseph and Thakur’s lodge, we met another interesting person – a woman from New York who lives in Bangkok who was heading into the Mustang and seemed a little ill-prepared, but made up for it with her abundantly cynical view of world politics.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Flight to Jomsom; Kagbeni 10/4

We’re in Muktinath, at 3800 meters (12,500 feet) in the Himalayas! That of course means we survived the flight to Jomsom, although at times that was in doubt. The flight yesterday finally left a little after noon — about 4 hours behind schedule. We boarded the plane with Joseph, a Sri-Lankan Brit, and Thakur, his Nepali friend & guide, and Aliza and Asaf, a couple from Israel (Aliza is actually from New York but moved to Israel), who we met in the airport. They told us to sit on the right side of the plane to get the mountain views. The airplane was a small twin-prop plane with about 8 rows of two seats. I sat behind Kirsten on the right side, and as the pilots cranked up the engines the flight attendant performed her sole task for the flight: to pass out a piece of candy (for the pressure change) and cotton (to stuff in our ears for the noise).

The winds pick up heavily in the valley between 10 and 11, which is why they usually try and get all the flights in before then. We assumed the wind must not be too bad because they had not postponed our flight. Boy were we wrong. It was all smooth flying until the final terrifying few minutes when we turned up the valley between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. As soon as we rounded the corner, we could feel the plane getting pushed around, up & down, side-to-side; it even felt like it was fishtailing. After several minutes of this, and feeling a little gripped, we went into a steep descent toward Jomsom. I was looking out our window at the town going by when suddenly our noise is pitching up, I look forward because my stomach just sunk to my feet, and I see nothing but blue out the pilots’ window. As I’m pondering this, we start banking into a hard turn, and we can see the side of the mountains out the left (downward-facing) side of the plane! All while the plan is still getting bounced around by the wind. I was disoriented; my heart was pounding; legs are shakey; and Kirsten and I are gripping each other’s hands over the seat back. The only thing that gave me some encouragement was I could see the pilots hands working the controls in the cockpit, and he appeared completely unphased, and so I realized this must be the usual approach to the landing strip. After pulling out of this maneuver, which felt like a barrel roll, we leveled out and came in for a smooth, easy landing in Jomsom at 9,000 feet. We discussed it afterwords, and Kirsten had maintained her orientation better than me. She explained that we had basically flown past the airport and pulled a tight U-turn up against the side of the mountains in order to land in the opposite direction. She described that it seemed as though we could almost reach out and touch the mountains we were so close, and just one bad pocket of air away from slamming into them.

Well we staggered off the plane and as we stepped down on the tarmac we were greeted with a stunning view of Nilgiri North, our first real view of a Himalayan giant, and at 23,000 feet its summit was 14,000 feet above us, yet situated a mere 5 miles away! We were in the Himalayas, and this put a big ‘ol exclamation point on it. My legs were still shakey, and we all most have looked pretty funny, walking away from the plane, everyone’s heads cranked up gawking stupidly at the mountain as we wandered somewhat aimlessly in the general direction of the airplane’s propellers. Airport security had to direct us in a wide berth away from the propellers and toward the airport baggage pickup where we couldn’t do harm to ourselves.

After collecting our backpacks and checking in our ACAP permits with airport security, we stopped at a small gear store to try and find a headlamp for Kirsten. All they had were some uber cheap LED flashlights. They barely worked, but it was better than nothing, and Kirsten only paid NR 200 for it. We met the other four folks for lunch at Nil Giri View Hotel in Jomsom. Kirsten and I had dal bat for the first time on the trip. We had put it off as long as we could, figuring we would be eating a lot of it on the trek. Joseph and Thakur invited us to walk with them because they had the same trekking itinerary as us, for the first 7 days anyway. Then Aliza and Asaf tip-toed around the subject of having company on the way to Kagbeni because even though they had a porter (but no guide) their parents were terrified that they were doing the trek on their own, and they had promised them they would try to join up with other folks. Their parents actually rented a satellite phone for them to check in with! So after checking in at the ACAP checkpoint and again at the police checkpost, the six of us embarked on the trek. First stop: Kagbeni.

The hike to Kagbeni was pretty short, flat and straightforward. We followed right along the Gandaki Khola (River), sometimes short-cutting across the dry flood beds, and occasionally stepping off the trail to let a jeep or donkey go by. It wasn’t so much a trail as a dirt road, and we were surprised by this, but it was nice to finally be out in our familiar element – hiking in the mountains. The wind was pretty strong, but it was at our backs so it didn’t cause us much discomfort, however we noticed all the people passing us the other direction were covering their faces with scarves or bandanas. We reached Kagbeni around 5:30, just as the sun was starting to set. Kagbeni is a medieval Tibetan village, with cobblestone streets and stone buildings with firewood-stacked roofs. We got a room in the New Asian hotel with the other folks and met them shortly thereafter for dinner. Our room had its own bathroom and lights! A most pleasant surprise, especially the lights because Kirsten’s new flashlight was not a star performer. At dinner we had dal bat again with Tibetan flat bread. We stayed up ’til 8 chatting with everyone, including a nice couple from Belgium that were doing the entire circuit. We had a good night’s sleep, although Kirsten’s cold was getting worse, and after breakfast (Tsampa porridge for me and oat porridge for Kirsten), we bid farewell to Asaf and Aliza, then set out for the big hike to Muktinath at 8.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Kathmandu: Swayambhunath, Durbar Palace; Bus to Pokhara 10/2 – 10/3

We’re sitting at the Pokhara airport. Our flight is delayed for a couple hours because of clouds. The last two days have been as exhausting as the first two. Thursday in Kathmandu we got up and had a very nice breakfast on the roof of Helena’s, then did a little shopping. I bought an aluminum water bottle (the one thing I forgot to bring was my Nalgene bottle), and Kirsten got a neat shoulder bag for toting stuff around town so we didn’t have to carry a backpack. At the end of the morning, we walked down to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, where the city’s kings used to rule from (durbar means “palace”).

The walk through the streets of Kathmandu was madness because it was so crowded with people, but no one was trying to sell us anything, so in that sense it was a little more relaxing, and it was amazing to see the ancient Hindu and Buddhist shrines and stupas in various states of decay randomly located throughout the old neighborhoods. Durbar Square is very old and shows it. We weren’t compelled to stay long, a little turned off by the commercial sadhus (holy men) wandering around looking for tourists to charge for blessing them with tikas (a red paste spot marked on the forehead) or taking their picture. However, we did find a nice place to sit at a terraced temple where we watched life go by through the square and appreciated the Newari pagoda temple architecture. According to LP, it was a Nepali arcitecht who exported the pagoda design to Kublai Khan in the late 13th century that inspired the eastern Asian pagoda.

After Durbar Square we walked back to the hotel and inquired about a room for the night, but they are completely booked through October. They did make a reservation for us with their contact at Hotel Tradition, however. Suddenly keen to the problem of finding lodging when we return to Kathmandu in a couple weeks, we spent the next few hours going around to hotels. All of the really highly recommended ones in Lonely Planet (LP) were booked through October, but we got rooms for the 16th and 17th at Hotel Utse, which is a really nice Tibetan hotel a block or two down a side street in Thamel.

We also ran back and forth to the KGH to check on our permits etc about three or four times, stopping for a light lunch of nan and Sprite at Le Bistro’s rooftop cafe, where my watch thermometer read 95 degrees. Finally, around 3:30, the agency guy showed up with them. We had our permits and bus & plane tickets, so the path to Jomsom was all laid out for us. Now we just had to survive all the in-country travel with no equipment, logitistics, or weather problems. At 4 o’clock we had a little time left in the day so we grabbed a taxi and went to Swayambhunath, aka the Monkey Temple, one of two famous Buddhist temples in Kathmandu that we wanted to visit. We tried to negotiate a 200 Nepali Rupie (NR) fare with the driver, but he was stubbornly firm on 250. Then he “offered” to wait for us at the temple for an hour and drive us back for another NR 500. He tried to convince us that because of the festival it would be hard to get a taxi back. When we arrived at the temple, there were plenty of taxis there, so we declined the offer. After the long, steep stair climb, we spent about half an hour at the temple. We walked around the stupa and spun the prayer wheels. Took pictures of all the monkeys milling about, walked through a Buddhist shrine, and watched a monk scrape parasites off of a puppy. When we returned to the bottom of the temple, we instantly found a taxi fare back to Thamel for NR 200.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In Kathmandu! 9/29 – 10/1

First night in Kathmandu; our plans have already changed. We arrived in the middle of the Dasain festival, which is the biggest and most important Nepali festival of the year, and the city is extra crowded. The visa line at the airport took about an hour and a half to get through, then after taking a taxi to the Kathmandu Guest House, we walked to the place where the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) is supposed to be and found an empty office with a sign saying that it had moved, but with no indication of where to. It was now after 3 o’clock and we were fairly certain we could not get all the permits, bus and plan tickets before the end of the day, so we returned to the hotel and spoke with their travel agent about getting assistance.