geniet mee van onze avonturen Een jaar lang op wereldreis : ikzelf (Katlijn) ben een Vlaamse Belg. Mijn vriend Andrew (een Canadees) is de schrijver van dit blog ... daardoor zal de hele blog in het Engels zijn
Culture shock in Varanasi
Sunrise on the Ganges. The Ganges is possibly the holiest place in all of India if not the whole world. Ironically, it is also the most poluted. Five hundred faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water is considered safe enough for bathing. Samples from the river indicate more than 1.5 million bacteria per 100 mL of Ganges water.
We took off through the thick fog of Kathmandu's outdated airport with Air India- an airline which tops the black list on travel advisory websites. We flew this company using the same dubious logic of most Air India customers: "hell, it's got to be safer than the bus !"
Perhaps because Nepal is India's smaller and less famous neighbour, or perhaps because most people visit Nepal after India, Nepal is forever compared with respect to India. They always say the same thing: "Nepal is like India, but different". We, of course, went to Nepal first and will forever see India with respect to Nepal. Here is our first impression:
India looks a bit like Nepal- there are cars, goats, and cows bustling about to the sound of honking horns in a kind of street havoc. BUT, India's is a paved havoc. That, and the cows are bigger. They're huge ! Cows in Nepal are poor, emaciated, mangy little beasts. Cows in India are rich, fat, robust bovines with massive horns often seen chasing naked children off the road. Otherwise, India looks like Nepal. In time, this first impression will be proven wrong. Nepal and India are utterly different, and don't believe anyone who tells you this "same but different" nonsense. The Nepali people, of course, know that they are not Indian and, to avoid any possible confusion, they actually invented their own distinct time-zone exactly 15 minutes ahead of India's.
After landing in India and setting our watches straight, we caught a pre-paid taxi service which navigated us successfully through the chaos to drop us off near Varanasi's old town. From here, we spent a long time haggling with a shabby rickshaw tout and came to an agreement which neither of us understood completely. This is the first among many similar experiences we will encounter throughout our India travels. Prior to coming to India, I had never met an Indian without a fluent, Abu-accented, command of my language. Furthermore, language was never a significant barrier in Nepal. Thus, we were a bit surprised to find that the majority of Indians on the budget-travel circuit do not, in fact, speak much English.
After getting about halfway to our desired destination we had a heated altercation with our rickshaw tout over something neither party understood and had to elbow our way out of the gathering crowd of curious on-lookers. We then wound through the impossibly old and narrow streets of Varanasi, our massive backpacks scraping a layer of grime off the crumbling plaster walls, desperately looking for the Ganges. We couldn't find it. Worse still, we made the mistake of asking one of the locals for directions. Attempting to capitalize on the commission racket, our new friend tries taking us to several guest houses before finally dropping us off near the river and demanding five rupees baksheesh for his service. After refusing, we are chased out of the old city and stumble inadvertently onto a dark and smoky ghat full of dead bodies burning in the night. Apprehensively, we approach the fiery pyres and are surprised to find ourselves so close we can see a leg, a foot, toes. An arm burns off and falls to the ground. A man in a dirty white turban is attempting to to put it back on the pyre. He can't manage it- instead, he chases the severed limb around the ground with two sticks, trying unsuccessfully to pick it up.
Katlijn begins to feel a little queasy at this sight, so we head straight for our desired guest house, chosen because it is perched strategically above one of the Ganges' famous ghats. Within minutes we are already haggling over the inflated price of a room barely big enough to fit the bed, with one tiny screen window too dirty to let in any light but still having enough holes to leak in a steady stream of mosquitoes and the ashy smoke emanating from the corpses below. It's late and we are too tired to explore other options, so we roll out our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep.
In Varanasi, the monkeys come out at night.
When I was in Nepal, I used to think the monkeys were cute, funny, fuzzy little creatures providing hours of entertainment and plenty of atmosphere. Now I hate the little monsters. They begin by performing what sounds like a late-night tap dance on the corrugated roof of our budget accommodation. As the show reaches its climax, things get out of hand and, from the subsequent screeching, clawing, and scampering, I gather that a giant monkey fight breaks out. As more and more monkeys pile on each other above us, the whole roof shakes and rattles.
Then the dogs start.
Egged on by the brawling, roof-top, monkeys. First one. Then two. Then a hundred. All the dogs in Varanasi are barking at the monkeys, and then at each other, and then just for the sake of barking. Varanasi turns into a nighttime zoo of canines and apes all trying to out-bark each other. The barking induces aggression and I find myself imagining poking a small rifle through the holes in the screen window of our strategically located sniper position, gunning down the unsuspecting mutts. For Katlijn, the situation is worse. The constant yapping becomes so irksome it seeps into her sub-conscious so that when she finally falls asleep, she actually dreams of violently bludgeoning helpless puppies with a blunt object.
Then the bongos start.
Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. At first, the holy man's drums are barely audible above the symphony of animal noises outside. But once you notice it, you can't stop listening. Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump, made more obtrusive by its irritating childlike simplicity, it consumes my very being until the incessant thumping becomes a roar above the howling monkeys and yelping dogs, driving me slowly madder, until I want to throw open the shutters of the dirt-stained windows onto the choking Ganges, inhale a lung full of ashes mixed with dead body smoke, and bellow out over the flaming corpses,
"Oi, Bongo man ! Shut up ! We're trying to sleep !"
But I don't do this. Instead, I lie awake in my bed listening, unable to stop myself, to the ceaseless thumping, imagining myself taking one of those Tibetan horns, big as a python, positioning it right next to the bongo-playing sadhu, and exhaling with all my might into its sonorous chamber generating a massive, deafening, horn blast. I would then casually glance over at the sadhu's frail frame, like I never noticed him before, and say politely,
"Oh, I'm sorry about that, Mister Bongo Dude. It's my religion"
And with only that explanation, I proceed to let loose another thunderous honk. HA ! Let's see you bongo over that, bongo boy !
Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep. Dreary-eyed, we clamber down to the dingy cellar of our low-budget accommodation for breakfast. The grumpy chef emerges from his dark kitchen: a fat, balding Varanasi resident with a perpetually tired look on his face and huge bags under his eyes, the product of whole generations of screeching primates. He slowly fumbles around on the table looking for the menus, then throws them at us across the room so they land on the table with the pages fluttering open. After disappearing into his kitchen for ten minutes, he re-emerges and we tell him our order. The cook doesn't speak a word of English, not even the words "pancake" or "banana", so he motions us to write it down on a notepad before returning back to his kitchen. After some time, he re-emerges and studies our hand-written order disapprovingly, scanning it for errors, until finally, he finds one. Thrusting his stubby finger up and down on our notepad he says, "room number", and disappears again.
Naturally, it was quite a while before we received our breakfast and left the confines of our tiny stifling room to emerge onto Varanasi's hazy river-side ghats. We are immediately approached by touts, trying to take me for a boat ride, trying to get me into their shop, trying to stick a long thin medieval-looking implement into my ear to get the "best ear cleaning, no problem, I give you good price !" By the time we reach the main ghat, touts are coming at us from all sides with their hands outstretched,
"Hi ! Hello ! Where are you from ?", one grabs my hand, "Canada ? Good country. My brother is from Canada. Lot's of Indians in Canada", but rather than shake my hand, he is squeezing it about painfully.
I try to pull away, he holds on.
"No problem, I give best massage, good price", I watch helplessly as he manipulates my fingers into obscene gymnastics. Finally, with Katlijn's help and using my other hand, I manage to wrench free from his iron grip, but it's too late:
"Five rupees," he demands.
Trying to escape this tout, we walk briskly away towards an aged sadhu sitting cross-legged on the stairs beckoning us toward him. Surely no tout will bother us around this respected holy man. He is wearing a tray full of variegated colours into which he dips his finger and places a saffron tikka on my forehead. At first, I naively thought this was a kind blessing, but then he demands five rupees baksheesh- our would-be saviour turns out to be just another tout in sadhu's clothing.
View of Varanasi's ghats in the haze. The turqoise boats on the right can be used for transportation between the various "ghats", or steps leading down to the river for bathing.
Even the children are in on it. A young boy and his brother picked us up for a boat ride to watch a nightly dance festival from the water. When he dropped us off again, he tried to double our originally agreed upon price based on a fabricated misunderstanding. When we walk off his boat and refuse to pay him anything extra, he yells at us "bad karma !" This is initially laughable until I stop to think about it, and it occurs to me that an eight year old kid just told me the Hindu equivalent of "go to hell !"
This rickshaw driver, shown with his tree-wheel rickshaw and my backpack, offered me a ride to the station in his helicopter.
Main street Varanasi. You should see this place at rush hour !
By nightfall, I needed to get back to our guest house so I ask the nearest rickshaw driver to take me to the main ghat. Like all cycle-rickshaw drivers, mine is thin, dressed in rags, and destitute. Happy to get my business, he smiles revealing a row of sickly red teeth, rotting away from a life of chewing paan. Paan is a popular Indian digestive made from betel nut wrapped in a leaf. Unfortunately, betel nut is both cancerous and mildly narcotic so that many Indians consume it like chain smokers leading to ruddy, rotting teeth- an affliction which has reached epidemic proportions in Varanasi. Betel nut is illegal in most parts of the world outside of India.
Being peddled around Varanasi on a rickshaw by day is scary enough. Riding one at night is downright terrifying. The cars and trucks have only dim, often mal-functioning, headlights. It's hard to tell them apart from the motorcycles careening madly through the chaos. Cows don't have headlights. Monkeys don't have headlights. Everything you can possibly imagine is a potentially lethal obstacle. Nevertheless, my poor rickshaw driver, sweat dripping through his tattered rags, pedals as fast as he can. Periodically, he swerves violently to avoid a flock of chickens, a pothole, or a pedestrian seen just in time, and I have to hold on tightly as our rickshaw tilts on two wheels, the third spinning wildly in the air.
After a good half hour, we still don't arrive at the main ghat and I start wondering where we are, quickly coming to the conclusion that, wherever we are, it is not where I want to be. I tap my ragged, panting driver on the shoulder, and ask him "how much longer until we get to the main ghat ?"
He replies by trying to repeat what I said with a confused look on his face. He pedals to the side of the dark, busy road and stops the rickshaw. I ask again and he repeats again. After a few more of these exchanges, it quickly becomes apparent that his understanding of the English language can be summarized by only two phrases: "30 rupees" and "no problem"- enough to land him a client, but not quite enough to get him to where he needs to go.
By now, a large crowd of Indians gathers around me and my frail, betel nut addict- most of them just staring at me in awe, many engaging me in inane conversation "Hello ! Where are you from ? Canada ! Good country. My son lives in Toronto. Lot's of Indians there", but none having the requisite map reading skills I wanted.
After several futile minutes, trying to say the words "main" and "ghat" in as many ways as I know how, while each Indian individually puzzles over my map, some sort of group consensus is reached and everyone confidently points my rickshaw driver in a seemingly random direction, sending us peddling furiously, once more, through the night. My driver turns around, flashes me his rotting teeth and yells back "no problem", giving me absolutely no confidence whatsoever we are pointed in the right way.
After a long time, I can hear the cadence of my driver's peddling growing slower, his breathing growing heavier. I don't blame him- it's late and we've been travelling a long time. At some point, he points to a dark hole in the wall and asks, "hashish ? Marijuana ?" and I say, "No thanks". Nevertheless, he stops the cart anyhow and disappears into the hole leaving me sitting on his little rickshaw wondering if he understood my answer properly.
It isn't long before I'm approached by a nearby Indian (there is always a nearby Indian). "Hello ! Where you from ? Canada !? Great country. My cousin works in Calgary. etc." Fortunately, this one miraculously turns out to be a student at the University with perfect, Abu-accented English. We chat for some time before my driver finally emerges out of the dark hole in the wall with a joint hanging out of his mouth and a bong tucked into his loin cloth. I ask the Indian student whether he thinks my rickshaw driver will be able to get me to the main ghat.
The student assures me, "He's no good, but the ghats are just a few blocks from here so no problem." And with that, we are off once again, the scent of marijuana trailing behind my driver's smoldering weed as I wave back at the student thanking him for his help.
Indeed, it wasn't long before we finally arrived at the main ghat. Of course, my driver asked me for twice our originally agreed upon rate. However, I was too tired and happy to be back to give up much of a fight. I just paid him his money and waved goodbye to my stoned rickshaw wallah. He flashed me one last betel nut smile before finally pedaling out of my life and into the night.
I could already sense the presence of the hand massage touts nearby and was preparing myself for the inevitable gauntlet when, without warning, the power goes out and my surroundings descend into pitch blackness. Instinctively, I stick my hands deep in my pocket for protection, hoping to fool the masses of touts I know to be coming at me now from all direction with outstretched hands, desperate to give mine a good squishing. But it does no good, instead, my guard down, I feel a cold spot of paint dripping between my eyes which, slowly adjusting to the dark, can barely discern an old man's withered hand moving away from my forehead. "Fiver rupees", the tout in sadhu's clothing demands for his blessing.
I quickly learn that Varanasi's famous ghats are a death trap in the dark with no lights to illuminate the many holes, steps, and river side drop-offs. Slowly and carefully, I walk back towards my guest house. I can already hear the scampering monkeys preparing to begin their late-night corrugated rooftop tap-dance extravaganza which will begin the unstoppable chain events leading to a thousand barking dogs- another sleepless night. I begin to wonder:
Since when did I become afraid to ask people for directions on the street ?
When did I begin walking around in fear that somebody might try to shake my hand ?
Why are there twelve light switches in my room, and only one light bulb ?
What the hell is wrong with this place ?
On the way home, I pass by a real sadhu dressed in yellow and orange rags with a small sac containing a few coins. I give him a ten rupee note. "Thank you so much, and bless you" he says to me, and somehow I feel instantly better. A bit further, a young western woman wrapped in a warm pashmina waits for me by the river-side. When I approach she tells me she feels uncomfortable walking alone in the dark and asks me if I can walk her to the hotel. I don't blame her. As we walk along the Ganges together, I tell her about my rickshaw ordeal.
"Did he really not understand me ? Was he stoned ? Or was he just trying to scam me into paying more money ?" One never knows, we agree.
Back at my hotel, I over-hear some recently arriving tourists ruthlessly grilling the staff like suspected criminals, completely certain that they would somehow be scammed unless they spell out in great details every aspect of their agreement beforehand and write it down on paper, their misplaced anger giving them away as recent victims of Varanasi's shakedown.
That night, the monkeys took their show elsewhere, the dogs didn't start their chain-reaction barking, and even bongo man, god bless him, provided us with one night of blissful sleep. By morning, we had our order ready for the grumpy chef in neat block-letters with our hotel number clearly written on the top. When he emerged from his dungeon kitchen, he put both hands on the table, bent over our notebook, and studied the papers carefully for a long time while we waited anxiously. Finally, he made a low grunt of reluctant approval, eyed me suspiciously for a moment, and returned to his dark kitchen which soon emanated the sweet smell of banana pancakes. I discovered a new respect for this chef's grumpiness- I'd be grumpy too if all the tourists I baked pancakes for talked to me like a common thief. Whatever is wrong with this place, it is cyclic leading both visitors and locals alike to badger each other.
Varansi at morning time in gorgeous pastels.
Less tired, our stomachs full of banana pancakes, we set off to explore Varanasi again. Over the initial shock of so many people treating us like walking money bags, we focus our attention instead on the vast majority of people bathing and bustling about the ghats. There are rich people, poor people, old people, young people, holy men, hippies, body builders, kite flyers, cricket players, and any other sort of person you can imagine doing anything you can imagine: bathing, swimming, playing, rowing, eating, cremating, dancing, defecating, laughing, crying, singing, praying, meditating, and more.
Colourful ghat-side characters. After cremating their deceased, Hindus will shave their heads and dress in white. Unlike in the west, white, rather than black, represents mourning.
As the days go on and we become use to life on the Ghats, the touts grow less and less prominent in the kaleidoscopic hubbub until they, too, are just another type of person, like any other, going about their business. In fact, we don't even notice the tourists. We know they must be somewhere, having chatted with them at our guest house and dealt with the touts that cater to them; India's tourist business is booming like never before. It is just that the tourists are a minority. Overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of local people, they disappear completely into the crowd, replaced instead by a feeling of authenticity like no other place we have visited.
Varanasi is, of course, the final earthly destination for Hindu souls. Though many Hindus will not see Varanasi in their lifetime, it is most likely where they will come to die. It is, at very least, the most auspicious place to have your body cremated. Hindus believe that if your life expires in Varanasi, you will be immediately offered moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Not everyone can afford to burn their loved-ones near the Ganges: the priests, ceremony, and wood cost considerable sums of money. The wood is particularly expensive, and three different types are provided to accommodate a range of budgets. Those who can't afford wood can use a nearby electric crematorium, which is also significantly more environmentally friendly. However few people are willing to do this since wood is integral to Hindu cremation rites, providing a symbolic connection between the body and the earth.
Given the high cost of wood, it is weighed carefully and sold by the kilogram. These people are experts in knowing exactly how much wood is needed to burn a given corpse.
The dead burn along the Ganges' ghats twenty-four hours a day. The Indian concept of a funeral is exactly opposite that of the West. Instead of a solemn and private affair around a body made artificially to look alive, the Hindu funeral is an entirely public spectacle set around a raw burning corpse. It is a place to contemplate death. While bodies are burning around you, there is a constant sound of ceremonies, drumming, and music filling the air which, combined with the many colours and varieties of people, creates a special mystical and spiritual atmosphere completely unique in the world.
Looking back on Varanasi, it was the highlight of our visit to the sub-continent: India at its most vibrant and irritating. It is simultaneously busy and peaceful, colourful and dark, magical and raw: exploding with life.
Nepal is home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. Of these, we only managed to see two of them during our trek through the Annapurna Circuit: Daulagiri (Number seven at a height of 8167 meters), and Annapurna I (Number ten at a height of 8091 meters). While we won't have time to trek up to the other mountains until our next visit, there are alternatives.
Nepal offers perhaps the most scenic mountain flights in the world. Unfortunately, Kathmandu's dubious airport is strategically located in a part of the valley nearly always covered in a thick blanket of early morning fog. It took me three trips to the airport before there was barely enough visibility to allow planes to take off. However, once you do manage to catch a plane, it will get you your shot of nearly all the great Himalayan peaks with almost no physical effort. It isn't quite the same as walking up there- the sterile cabin environment just can't reproduce the experience of actually earning the view. On the other hand, this is the only way you can enjoy gazing upon the world's highest point with a gin and tonic in your hand.
Mount Everest. Elevation 8848 meters. Highest point on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, in an over-priced Indian budget hotel room in Jaipur, something attracted my attention: barely visible through the snowy static of the television screen was a a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary: most likely the first person, together with Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Edmund Hillary had just died. The only photograph taken on Everst's peak commemorating the successful joint Nepali-Indian-British expedition, is of Tenzing taken by Hillary. It has become a very famous image since appearing on Nepal's own "Everest" beer label.
Interestingly, in 1999, they found the body of George Mallory and his partner frozen just beneath the summit fueling speculation that they had reached the summit many years earlier in a 1924 expedition. It is still not clear whether they froze to death on the way up or on the way down. While, Tenzing and Hillary are still credited with the first successful Everest conquest, George Mallory is more famous for his stoic reply to a journalist questioning the purpose of climbing Everest: "because it's there".
These days, you need to meet three necessary requirements to conquer Everest: you must be an experienced mountaineer, totally nuts, and filthy rich (not necessarily in that order). It costs 60,000 Euros just to be given permission to climb Everest. Nevertheless, though many die each year "because it's there", wealthy people continue to pay the exorbitant fee for their chance. In Nepal, you can hear many of their stories. Some of these stories are gripping, such as the definitive adventure book written about the tragic 1996 expedition, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (also a film). However, my favorite story is that of Briton Maurice Wilson, who enacted his cunning plan to crash a private plane halfway up the mountain and then simply walk from there to the top. He was found frozen to death in a light sweater a few hundred meters from the crash sight, proving that harboring only two of the necessary three requirements for conquering Everest is not sufficient.
Katlijn and I will have to leave our definitive shot at Everest for our next visit- though on our budget, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the view near the base camp. We were sad to leave behind Nepal- one of the poorest and most admirable places on earth. From their office in Kathmandu, our guide, Mahesh, our porter, Vishnu, together with our initial Nepali contact, Ram, waved us one last goodbye as we crammed ourselves and our backpacks into a tiny white car and risked one last harrowing taxi ride to the foggy airport en route to India.
As a wise man once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child ?". With this thought in mind, we returned to Kathmandu in search of a western-style Christmas dinner. Let's be honest, the best thing about Nepal is not the local food, it is the fact that there are enough decent foreign restaurants that you can avoid eating it entirely. A new brand of swanky foreign run restaurants have popped up all over Kathmandu, one of the best being "Kilroys" owned and operated by an Irish chef. We had to reserve early for Christmas dinner as it is perhaps the only place serving up a decent meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hot buns, and a large selection of tasteful wines. One can only wonder where in Nepal they managed to find a turkey, but it tasted incredible so we didn't ask too many questions and spent the entire evening gorging ourselves on Christmas goodness.
Over the next several days, we explored Kathmandu and its surroundings. Kathmandu is an awkward blend of the most exotic ancient and the most uninspired kind of modern. The streets are tiny, crowded, and pot-holed. They wind haphazardly around crumbling structures, home to a rats nest of rickshaws, touts, and dog pooh. One can't help but wonder how on earth it will ever be possible to modernize a place like this. They'd basically just have to bulldoze the whole lot and start over again, and come to think of it, this probably wouldn't be such a bad idea. Many parts of town are destitute and falling into decay. Much of this is not the kind of graceful decay of ancient civilizations, the buildings brooding over a time forgotten. Kathmandu's is a poor, humiliating, concrete modern decay.
We met up again with our Himalaya guide, Mahesh, to get his advice on where to buy some electronics- a card reader for our digital camera and some headphones for our ipod. He leads us to a hole in the wall full of dusty 80s era audio technology- the kind of devices used in local buses where the pounding rhythms of Nepali pop music can barely be heard above a low fidelity crackle. The shop is run by two old ladies who show us their stock of audio headphones. For a moment, I stop to admire the superior craftsmanship of the imitation Sony boxes. It's amazing- you could swear it's the real thing until you open the box revealing a shoddy product on which no respected electronics giant would dare gamble away its trusted brand name.
We ask the shop keepers a few simple questions about their goods to help us decide what to buy. Their response is to shake their head from one shoulder to the other- an irritating Nepali gesture that means neither "yes" nor "no". In fact, as far as I can tell, it means nothing at all- a gesticulation of such utter meaninglessness that it can't possibly be translated or understood. It is the non-answer given to such vital queries as "Do you have anything other than Daal Bhaat on the menu ?", "Are those ice-cubes made from tap water ?", and "Is that milk pasteurized ?". In the face of such total absence of information, there is nothing one can do but acquiesce, defeated, and buy whatever junk they are trying to sell you.
However, while it must be said that modern Kathmandu is a stumbling junk heap of a city, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting its prouder and more dignified past in the old city and the surrounding Kathmandu valley. In fact, you can pretty much avoid seeing Kathmandu itself except as a kind of wasteland between the tourist sanctuary of the Thamel district, full of backpackers buying last minute North Fakes from the multitude of trekking shops, and the ancient exotic of the Kathmandu valley.
Christmas day turns out to fall on Kathmandu's laundry day.
Some of the most interesting places to visit are the Buddhist temples and Tibetan refugee villages which dot the entire Kathmandu valley. We visited the most important stupas, Swayambunath and Bodnath, where the monks allowed us to sit with them during their ceremonies. One of the monks begins with the low, ethereal, Tibetan chant. Over top of this barely audible rumble, an entire room full of at least 50 monks begin to chant, rhythmically and in unison, the syllables of a verse. Suddenly, a cymbal crashes, winds cry, and horns blast in an ear-splitting cacophony to break this contemplative rhythm. According to an Irish student of Buddhism I met later, the Tibetan verses simply describe a scene which the monks attempt to imagine in great detail as they repeat the verse over and over. The banging of the percussion and the harsh horn blasts are intended to represent the grand entrance of the Buddha, or one of his incarnations, into this scene.
Tibetan Prayer flags fluttering over Swayambunath Stupa. The watchful eyes of Buddha gazing in all four direction over the Kathmandu valley. The nose-like sign below the eyes is the Nepali number one; it is a symbol of unity.
In Nepal, both Buddhists and Hindus have worshiped peacefully together at the same temples for years. Both Buddhist and Hindu shrines are juxtaposed in the same compound. Furthermore, Swayambunath stupa is over-run by monkeys who are considered sacred animals by Hindus. Thus, Swayambunath is affectionately known as "The Monkey Temple" by the locals.
Tibetan horns and cymbals.
Nepal is the lesser known home to its legendary people: the birthplace of Buddha and refuge to many of his modern spiritual followers, the Sherpa people who are still paramount in the ascent and exploration of the world's highest mountains, and the fierce Gurkha warriors many of whom still serve as the Dalai Lama's personal guard and are employed by the British military. The traditions of these and Nepal's other people have remained intact over the years. Unlike India, Nepal was never significantly influenced by the British who decided early that the rugged hill side terrain would be too difficult to colonize. In fact, after initial conflicts with the west in the early 1800s, Nepal shut themselves off completely and the country was almost entirely unseen by foreigners until 1951.
The most important residents of the Kathmandu valley are the Newari. They are the inventors of the pagoda and therefore their architectural heritage, disproportionate to their fame, can be seen throughout Asia. Furthermore, the painfully spicy Newari meat dishes serve as a delicious caveat to the bland and soupy lentils otherwise dominating Nepali food. While reading an entertaining and informative book by a Nepali girl once worshiped as a living goddess, called From Godess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Roayal Kumari by Rashmila Shakya, we became most interested in these people and visited their ancient and once-glorious cities at Patan and Bhaktapur.
Patan's Durbar square provides the largest density of Newari architecture in the world.
Examples of Newari architecture.
.Bhaktapur in graceful decay. At first glance, many of the old buildings appear dilapidated. Closer inspection reveals elegant Newari touches.
And what do you think the sport of choice is in Shangri-La ? Hacky-sac, of course. Children all over Nepal can almost always be seen enjoying a good hack. Too poor for our decadent western style cloth bags, children forge their makeshift hack-sacs out of a tangled ball of elastic bands rummaged from the garbage !
"Honking car horns is prohibited". Like most Nepali road signs, this one is entirely ignored.
All the Annapurna backpackers end up in Pokhara. Thus, it isn't long before we bump into a few of our trail friends and arrange a celebratory dinner- no daal bhaat allowed. After researching the most expensive restaurants in Pokhara, we come across a French bistro with an impressive wine list. You can always count on the Nepali for a solid effort at foreign cuisine, and while you could get a better "steak au poivre" in Normandy, what other French restaurant in the world has waiters serving you in North Fake jackets and hiking boots ?
Pokhara use to be a major destination on the Himalayan hippy pilgrimage in search of a free-love, free-pot, Shangri-la, but it now caters primarily to fat German tourists. Still, we had a lot of fun here and enjoyed some pretty tasty food before finally deciding to move on.
Inspired by the Korean Himalaya Woman, Andrew, Kimchi held convincingly between his metal chopsticks, enjoys a Korean pork barbecue in Pokhara with Katlijn. Koreans are avid hikers and some very authentic and tasty Korean restaurants have opened in Pokhara to cater to this demographic. In fact, we both decided that this was the best Korean food we had tasted since visiting Seoul a few years ago.
With a bit more time on our hands, we did some research on the bus situation in Nepal. It turns out they have something called "Tourist buses" which, for about 50 rupees extra (about 50 cents), provide you with marginally more comfort and safety. We take one to a small turnoff in the middle of nowhere and ride on the roof of a connecting bus going up to the small medieval town of Bandipur. The trip up to Bandipur is perfect for a little roof-riding as we climb above the clouds and are offered fantastic views of the Himalaya in the distance. Bandipur itself is a picturesque Newari town full of friendly people and some nice day hikes. We enjoy one relaxing day exploring the surrounding hills before continuing on to Chitwan.
Main street Bandipur, a perfectly preserved Newari village.
There is no way to catch a tourist bus from Bandipur to Chitwan so we are crammed into a small jeep so full of people that arms and legs spill out of the windows- there is simply no place left to put all those limbs. We can hear the creaking and groaning of the rooftop buckling under the weight of so many passengers sitting above us. We take this for a half hour before being herded onto a public bus by a skillful tout, and pushed towards two seats at the very back with malfunctioning seat backs which, to the general amusement of the bus staff, force us to stare blankly at the ceiling for several hours before finally arriving at the city of Sauraha near Chitwan National Park.
Chitwan is a long way from the cold Himalaya mountains. It is located in the Central Terai region of Nepal. The park together with the neighbouring reserves and conservation areas encompasses almost 1500 square kilometers- mainly sal forests and grasslands. It is host to 450 species of birds and 50 different species of mammals. It is also one of the only safari parks of this type where you are actually allowed to walk through the park, though you must at all times be accompanied by knowledgeable guides for safety. We decide this is the best way to see Chitwan, despite some small risk of wildlife attacks.
We get up early in the morning and enjoy a peaceful paddle down the Rapti River in the mist. Along the way, we see marsh mugger crocodiles, and a bizarre looking creature called a "gardial" which is a kind of prehistoric crocodile with jagged teeth and a long snout- they have not evolved at all in the last 150 million years. We also get a very close look at a one-horned rhino above the river bank.
View of the misty moody Rapti River from our dugout canoe as we hunt for crocodiles.
A marsh mugger sunning itself in the late morning. We owe the term "mugger" to British soldiers who watched these creatures emerge camouflaged from the reeds and drag local villagers to their watery death.
Before entering the sal forest, we are given instructions on what to do in the event of an attack by the various animals living in the park, except a Bengal Tiger. When I asked about this, he suggested the chances are pretty low, but I imagine there isn't much we can do about it anyhow. According to our guide, tigers hunt mostly at night and are not very active during the day. However, there are some incidents every year due to tigresses protecting their cubs or older tigers which discover that humans are relatively easy prey. A reassuring thought, for sure !
An endangered one-horned rhino. If you are ever charged by a rhino, the correct reaction is to run in a zig-zag pattern and drop articles of clothing behind you. This is often enough to throw off rhinos which have notoriously poor eye-sight and rely mostly on smell. If you are lucky, you will survive, intact, with your underpants still on.
Entering the Sal forest.
Claw marks of a Bengal Tiger. These markings together with its pungent urine demarcate its territory.
Our first morning is our most successful. It feels like walking through a fence-less zoo. We encounter spotted deer, barking deer, sambha deer, wild boars, rhinos, langur monkeys, red-face macaques, several gardials, and countless exotic birds. Katlijn and I march between our two guides who are armed with small staffs.
A Bengal Tiger sighting is the ultimate prize of any Chitwan safari and both Katlijn and I want to see this more than anything, until we hear a cat-like growl emerging unseen between the Sal trees and watch our guides turn pale. They motion us to stay still and position themselves in front, fingering their staffs. It occurs to me that our guides are shorter than me and a shade too spindly to take on a tiger with a couple of bamboo sticks. As they eye each other apprehensively, I can see them thinking the same thing. We slowly move away from the forest and further up the path where we are told to crouch down and wait. "It's a tiger !" one our guides whispers. We wait a long time, not quite certain anymore that we actually want to see a tiger, but nothing emerges from the forest.
Afterwards, our guides agreed they heard two sounds: a rhino and a tiger. I only heard a tiger. In fact, a bit shaken from this experience, I pretty much only hear tigers in the forest for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the afternoon is relatively uneventful. A wildlife safari is actually a more relaxing experience than I had imagined- it tends to involve a lot of waiting around in a wooden safety tower hoping for something to happen while, in fact, nothing does. After several rounds of "hammer, paper, scissor" I fall asleep for a few hours before our guides wake us up and tell us our safari was over for the day.
As it turns out, we had inadvertently timed our safari for the one day in the year that the villagers are allowed to go out to the grasslands and pick grass for use in their houses. They were singing loudly and deliberately make a lot of noise to avoid wildlife encounters, in direct contrast to what were were trying to do. Consequently, we met a lot of villagers, but hardly any wildlife in the afternoon.
Chitwan National Park was originally a plot of land used for royal hunting expeditions. Since it was reserved only for this purpose, it was spared the worst of habitat poaching and most of its animal species survived. However, the People's War resulted in deteriorated security in the area and both animal and habitat poaching resumed over the last ten years. The rhino population was reduced significantly and only a handful of tigers remain today. With improving security, police stations can now be seen throughout the park patrolling the area. If the political situation continues to improve, the park will be saved.
The nearby villagers have grown accustom to gathering wood from the forest which is of a superior quality to the wood they are allowed to use in their conservation area. In fact, it appears they are using the grass gathering day to smuggle it out. In most cases, the locals bundle the grass on their back and herd it to their village. There are so many of them doing this that, from the observation tower, it looks like the meadows are alive and the grass itself has decided to move into town. Our guide uses his staff to poke at one of the grass bundles revealing that many of them are decoys used to hide blocks of wood inside. It is such as simple ruse that the police are probably more or less aware of this and allow it to go on to some extant.
Villagers loading a dugout canoe with grass bundles. Interestingly, the original people living in the Chitwan area evolved a natural resistance to malaria.
We stay at a a gorgeous village in the middle of the jungle hosted by a friendly young Nepali woman. We decide to order the barbecue chicken, not having ever seen that on a Nepali menu before. This turns out to be an enormous evening-filling production involving catching a chicken, killing it, making a fire, and roasting it cave-man style. Sometime in the middle of the night, we finally get to eat our chicken. The overall gastronomic experience is always one part taste and one part atmosphere. This chicken was among the best we had ever tasted and even the best restaurant in the world could never fully realize the experience of eating it around an open fire with the Chitwan locals celebrating a successful day of gathering and smuggling.
Unfortunately, this inspiring dinner will forever be tainted in my mind by the fact that I spent much of the next day throwing it up all over the forest floor. At one point, I found myself retching next to the bloody chicken feathers- perhaps its ghost exacting revenge on me from its poultry after-life. Katlijn, however, was unaffected and enjoyed a full day safari while I recovered.
By the following morning, I was well enough again to walk back to Sauraha. We went briskly through the forest, barely stopping to watch the wildlife, so we could get to the Rapti River in time to help bathe the elephants.
On the way back to Sauraha, Andrew stops at the elephant breeding center to feed a baby elephant the last of his digestive cookies.
Giving an elephant a bath is sure to capture the youthful soul in anybody. As we desperately try to climb up on the elephant's back, the trainer shouts commands causing the elephant to try to shake us off. It rolls around, shakes about, and sprays us with its nose. Meanwhile, children again, lost in the fun, we all forget how old we are and splash about together with the giant beasts.
I think one can safely say that it is a lot more fun to have a bath with an elephant than to actually ride on one. We decide we need to try an elephant safari that evening just to see what it is all about it. It turns out that an elephant safari involves being squeezed into a small box full of fat German tourists, and rocked about uncomfortably as the elephant waddles slowly through the forest. On the bright side, it is amazing how close you can get to the wildlife on an elephant. Deer are perfectly comfortable with elephants around, even when they are loaded with obnoxious tourists squeezing their camera triggers. Even the rhinos seem to barely notice us, sitting around lazily barely noticing us hovering over them.
Mule trains carrying supplies between the Annapurna villages. Mahesh says that once the roads are completed on either side of Thorung La pass, most of the mules and porters will no longer be needed.
While it is an easy hike into Pokhara from Tatopani, we make a detour to Ghorapani, meaning “horse water”, and a place of no particular interest. The main purpose of heading up to Ghorapani is to make a side trip to “Poon Hill” which is considered one of the most spectacular lookouts in the Himalaya. We are very sorry to leave the comforts of Tatopani, especially considering Mahesh estimates a steep, uphill, eight hour climb to get to Ghorapani. This also means that by the end of the day we are again at a reasonably high elevation guaranteeing us another cold night.
Katlijn in the lead, we storm to the top in under six hours, two hours under the estimated time. I put my bag down in our room, rest my legs and shoulders a few moments, grab my towel, then head off to a room optimistically titled “hot shower”. We spend the rest of the evening huddled around a log fire while I experiment with the local take on a European pouss-cafe called "Mustang Coffee" which is basically coffee with mixed with millet wine. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't do this to a decent cup of coffee, but its an improvement on pure instant coffee.
Andrew recovering from his shower in front of the fire system.
Ghorapani to Tikedungha (Elevation 1525 meters)
Mount Dhaulagiri (Elevation 8167 meters) from Poon Hill. Seventh highest mountain in the world.
In song, we hear Mahesh approaching shortly after five AM the next morning. Watching my breath swirling in the air before me, it is hard to convince myself to exit my cozy sleeping bag into the cold dark. Fortunately, I had cleverly anticipated this problem the night before and slept fully dressed with my headlamp and trusty North Fake tucked away deep inside of my sleeping bag, already warm and ready for the ascent.
It takes us a half hour to get to the top of Poon Hill, guided by Mahesh, our headlamps, and the stars. According to Mahesh, Poon Hill “must” be seen at sunrise to fully appreciate the experience. Sunrise, it turns out, happens quite a bit later up here owing to the mountains blocking the horizon- something, for whatever reason, I had not cleverly anticipated. This leaves us standing around in the cold for a good hour before the sun peeks mercifully over the front of Machupuchre immediately melting away our cold spirits and coating the Annapurna and Dhawalagiri ranges in a breathtaking orange and pink light. Katlijn was well on her way down before sunrise, too cold to linger, enjoying gorgeous views of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri on the way between a forest of Rhododendrons. I spend some time on the top taking photos and absorbing the views while sipping some quality Masala tea offered to trekkers at the top. In high season, Mahesh says that over 600 backpackers are crammed up here in one morning. Fortunately, we are here much later in the year and have traded away these crowds for somewhat colder weather. There are only a handful of other people around me chattering quietly in various languages and accents.
After breakfast, we descend steeply down a green valley for several hours- an experience for which my knees won’t fully forgive me for another three days. Mahesh informs us that along the way, we will encounter Maoist rebels which control a large percentage of the rural parts of the country including passage to our destination at Tikedungha. The Maoists are a militant communist party that have been waging a ten year "People's War" to overhaul the existing system with a communist classless, and caste-less, system more conducive to improving the plight of rural peasants. As a part of these activities, the Maoists have been extorting money from foreign tourists on occupied trekking routes for years.
The way this works is that you are asked to make a "voluntary donation"- "voluntary" being Maoist for "the last person who refused to give money is still recovering in the hospital". George Bush labeled the Maoists a terrorist organization so Americans are most likely "asked" to give a bit extra. Being from Canada and Belgium, we are welcomed by the Maoists with a smile and given a short lecture about how they plan to use the money to help rural communities followed by long and more animated tirade about the evils of American imperialism and how they fund a corrupt government to drop bombs against them. As we are not Americans, he gives us a two hundred rupee discount and a receipt that reads "voluntary donation" which we have to keep with us: the Maoists are civil enough to only ask that we donate money one time so if we are ever stopped by Maoists again we can just show them your slip. Of course, we wouldn't need this slip if our donations were really voluntary, but this logic eludes them entirely.
Mahish (right) negotiating our payment with the Maoists.
Let's face it, the Maoist's really are a terrorist organization and their People's war has not only worsened the plight of rural farmers, it has cost about 15,000 Nepali lives and resulted in irreparable damage to the ecology due to habitat and wildlife poaching during the weakened security. It's not exactly the kind of organization you want your tourist dollars going to. Thus, ripping the Maoists off is a kind of tourist sport and is even fervently encouraged by the guides and porters who will aid you in this endeavour. In our case, we give all our papers to Vishnu who goes on ahead knowing that Nepali people are never stopped by the Maoists. Katlijn, Mahesh, and I follow behind. Mahesh tells the officer that we flew in to Jomsom and are hiking down in seven days. When asked for our papers, we tell them our porter has them. Not willing to make much of a fuss, they believe our story. At two hundred rupees a day plus our two hundred rupee discount for not being American, we feel like we have done our part. Other tourists often band together around somebody who already has a "voluntary donation" slip from some other part of the country. Interestingly, I read later in one of the local papers that the Maoists have pledged to stop this extortion. However, I can tell you this is definitely not the case and there was even a recent incident where a Swiss trekker was badly beaten by the Maoists for refusing to pay.
When we got into Tikedungha, I chatted with an American at the lodge curious about his Maoist encounter- he got the 200 rupee discount too by posing as a Canadian tourist ! We spend our last evening reading and relaxing with Mahesh and Vishnu.
Andrew, whose game has steadily been improving, fails yet again to beat Vishnu at a round of Carom. Carom is best described as a cross between snooker and crokenol. It involves sinking small wooden disks into one of the four corner pockets. It is a thoroughly addictive game played all over Nepal.
Tikedeungha to Pokhara (Elevation 884 meters)
The four of us after completing the Annapurna Circuit.
It’s an easy and pleasant three hour walk through shaded trees down to a nondescript village called Naya Pul where all four of us, together with our bags, cram into a tiny taxi which could comfortably fit about two. Our pubescent chauffeur confidently lurches around goats and potholes for an hour before we arrive, a bit shaken, at a mid-range hotel room in Pokhara. After basking in showers with that elusive combination of both hot water and high pressure, we take the entire contents of our backpacks to a shop where we are able to haggle a good per kilo price for laundry.
Cows and motorcycles.
We spend a few hours wandering around the streets of Pokhara which line the picturesque waters of lake Phewa Tal. Pokhara is shamelessly touristy which is exactly what you want after 17 days in the mountains. Everything from authentic Italian pizzas and gelato to a decent cup of joe are widely available.
A professional is needed to shave away Andrew's three week old mountain growth.
In the evening, Mahesh and Vishnu take us out for a “special” dinner, which turns out to be Daal Bhaat again. “Daal” means “lentils” and “Bhaat” means rice. The combination of “Daal Bhaat” basically summarizes the entire Nepali cuisine. Vishnu likes to refer to this combination as “Nepali Pizza” perhaps referring to its ubiquitous presence- there must be some sort of law requiring it to show up on all restaurant menus.`
To eat Daal Bhaat properly, you take your soupy lentils, pour them on your rice, and shovel it into your mouth with your fingers. It’s not that I’m putting Daal Bhaat down, I love lentils as much as the next guy. The first time I tried Daal Bhaat I thought it was great. In fact, and I realize this isn't a huge compliment, it really is the best thing on the menu. But seriously, every meal !? I spent three weeks with Mahesh and Vishnu and never saw them eat anything else. Actually, without exaggerating, I have never seen a Nepali person eat anything at all besides Daal Bhaat. Mahesh tells me that when baby turns six months old, there is a huge celebration where all the villagers turn out to acknowledge the auspicious occasion of the infant’s “first Daal Bhaat” and the beginning of a long and happy life of lentils.`
As it turns out, this particular Daal Bhaat really is special as it comes with mutton. From what I understand, most families can't afford meat and only eat it on very special occasions about once or twice a year. I can honestly say that this is too bad because the non-vegetarian version of Daal Bhaat is seriously tasty stuff and we thank Mahesh and Vishnu for restoring our faith in Nepali cuisine.`
I have received a lot of e-mails about this blog, mostly to the effect of "why didn't you just go to a Thai beach ?" so I feel I need to defend Himalayan trekking. "Yes", it was cold. "Yes", the high altitude caused some minor headaches. And "yes", we ate a hell of a lot of daal bhaat. But Katlijn and I both enjoyed the amazing scenery, people, and diversity immensely and highly recommend this to anyone of all ages. Get a porter if you need to. Try a lower elevation trek if you need to. Nepal is a hiker's paradise. We are seriously considering coming back again next year for a trek up to the Everest base camp. I can't wait !
Clouds blocking out the sun over the Trans Himalaya high dessert
We had been convincing ourselves for days that things could only get progressively warmer after the pass and we have very high hopes. Soon we could take our wool hats off, don T-shirts, and lose those crusty pairs of thermal underwear we had been wearing for the last week. Alas, last night was still cold and today no better. Clouds hang over the whole Mustang valley blocking our view and the sun leaving us once again with unusually cold weather. Mahesh tells us that it is snowing up at the pass right now blocking safe passage- a remark which was later confirmed to me by a Scotsman who attempted to make the pass despite the bad weather. It seems as though I defended my PhD just in time- a day or two later and we wouldn't have made it !
Our plan today is to start early and make it to Marpha before noon. Later than this and we get caught in the heavy winds that regularly blow through the valley. Our plan, of course, is foiled by the cold weather which causes the winds to pick up earlier in the day. We are caught with the full force of it. It makes for some pretty unpleasant walking but we manage to make it to the town of Jomsom where we stop to have lunch.
Nepali school girls in uniform
The villages on this side of the pass, and Jomsom in particular, are very luxurious compared with where we had come from. Furthermore, there are many more trekkers here owing to the airport in Jomsom and its proximity to the city of Pokhara. Many people simply fly in from Pokhara and walk back down to avoid the exertion of high altitude climbs while enjoying some spectacular scenery. Both for the large number of apples and American tourists, this portion of our trek is often called the "apple pie trail" referring to the tasty desert catered at most lodges. At Jomsom, Katlijn and I are both able to order a chicken schnitzel with fries as a reward for walking through the wind.
We arrive in Marpha later in the day, still cold, still wearing that crusty thermal underwear. The power is out and there is no hot water. The hotel owner puts some coals underneath the dining table and we all sit around it roasting our legs and drinking some delicious local apple brandy to stay warm (there is a distillery just outside of town). With this cozy arrangement, we play cards with Mahesh and Vishnu. They teach us some Nepali card games while we teach them both the game and the word "bullshit" which they begin to use with regularly from now on. Mahesh would start by saying to Vishnu mockingly, "There warm showers at Lower Pisang." Vishnu would pause for dramatic effect and then reply slowly, "Booool-sheeeeet" to which they would both laugh uproariously. Katlijn looked a bit uneasy.
Andrew demonstrating the bucket system.
Day 13 Marpha to Ghasa (Elevation 2010)
The small business caste of the Thakali people living here line their roof tops with stacks of firewood. According to our guide, these stacks are a demonstration of wealth.
We are disappointed again the next morning when we look outside: icicles hanging off the ledge and a thick layer of clouds. The morning begins with a soft, gentle romantic snow but naturally this culminates into a full blown snow storm by the time we are halfway through the day's hike. It is like yesterday's winds, but colder, stronger, and mixed with a dense snowy precipitation making it impossible to even look up. Sunglasses are needed, not to block the sun's UV rays which I thought I would never see again, but as a kind of eye protection against bits of ice and snow. Safety pins are needed to keep that damn North Fake jacket closed.
Not only is it cold and unpleasant, but it is disconcertingly quiet and lonely. Nobody in their right mind is still walking through this- we are the only trekkers out there. At some point, I see a lone jeep coming towards us silently off in the distance. When it arrives, the British guy we met back in Muktinath opens the window and gives me two big thumbs up. As they pass by us, I see the beady eyes of the Korean Himalaya Woman, wrapped in her Eskimo outfit and fluffy ear muffs, peering at me behind her thick scarf out the back window, her arms raised as far as her snow suit allows waving a kind of "goodbye". Then the jeep vanishes and we are by ourselves again with only the snow and the sound of it blowing past us.
We trudge slowly onwards against the frigid wind for several hours and I can't stop thinking of those Tibetans up at the High Camp probably sitting there right now, cross-legged around a smoky piece of yak shit thinking, gosh, it's not quite as cozy as a log fire but I'm sure as hell glad I'm not walking out in that ! At times like these, it seems only natural that I have to go to the bathroom and I spend a long and uncomfortable period of time considering the various desperate possibilities available to me. Eventually, we come across a town where I ask Mahesh to enquire the owners of a small home if I can use their bathroom. A chilling sense of deja vu washes over me.
The old crone leads me to her barn. We navigate our way around the chickens. She makes a path through the goats and beckons me to go with her. She motions at me to step over her buffalo to a small wooden shack with a hole in the ground. As I crouch down, I feel instantly relieved. I'm not sick. There is nobody cooking dhal baat outside the door. I didn't even get attacked by an alpha rooster on the way in. I think I made it, so I get up and push on the door. It's locked.
"Excuse me !" I cry out, "Excuse me ?", hoping my faint voice will carry through several layers of down, fleece, and wool- a faint echo above the howling winds.
After 10 minutes I start to get seriously cold and begin thinking about Mahesh' comments regarding people dying over night due to exposure to the cold. I wonder just how many tourists they find every year, frozen to death and forgotten, locked in the back of some Tibetan's bathroom. Is this how it is going to be then ? Freezing to death over a crouch toilet in the back of this barn ? It somehow seemed like a fitting conclusion to my Annapurna experience.
Just before I am about to enact a daring getaway that involves dangerously scaling the outhouse walls and walking out on their rooftops, Mahesh comes to my rescue. Within a few hours, the weather improves and we arrive safely at a small lodge in Ghasa.
Andrew turning Tibetan prayer wheels shortly after the snow storm and his embarrassing brush with death.
Ghasa to Tatopani (Elevation 1190)
View of the Kali Gandaki valley we follow down to Tatopani. Nestled between mountains higher than 8000 meters, it is the world's deepest valley- nearly 6 km deep and 36 km wide.
Nepali people love to take a crack at foreign foods and I was impressed to see Japanese Okonomiyaki on the breakfast menu this morning. It's actually a pretty good imitation, though it lacks Okonomiyaki sauce which sort of defeats the purpose.
It's an easy walk down the valley to a place called "Tatopani". "Tato" means "hot" and "pani" means "water", and the name refers to a nearby hot spring. A hot spring, I might add, that is about the best thing that has happened to us in the last two weeks. Forget the pine forests, the barren alpine scenery, the cold high dessert, this place looks like a club-med tropical paradise. There are bananas and oranges which you can literally pick off the trees for free from the lodge gardens.
Katlijn nicks a few oranges off the tree.
In short, Tatopani turns out to be a small miracle. How can it possibly be that we were slogging through a snow storm yesterday ? Here we have warm weather, fresh fruit juice, and some kick-ass banana milkshakes, not to mention the amazing healing properties of natural hot springs on two weeks worth of sore muscles. Finally, we are able get rid of those crusty thermal underwear.
To avoid altitude sickness, we need to spend a day acclimatizing at Manang. This also allows us the possibility to do a little laundry, access the internet, and stock up on Snickers bars before the final push over the Thorung La pass waiting for us 2000 meters higher. Mahesh tells us that we should enjoy the luxuries of Manang now since the higher elevation lodges are pretty basic. He adds that we will need to use the bucket “system” after today. It is unclear at this point whether he is referring to the shower or the toilet facilities.
The nighttime temperature in Manang regularly dips below 20 degrees Celsius. Mahesh tells us that people caught exposed in the night will freeze to death. Bundled in my thermal underwear, a wool hat, a heavy down sleeping bag geared for extreme cold, together with a fleece lining, I can say that I would be moderately comfortable if not for the inadequate foam mattress which causing me to periodically turn over taking turns numbing different sides of my body. Unfortunately, all-weather sleeping bags do not take into account night-time toilet runs- something my body seems to need frequently at this altitude given the vast quantities of dhal baat I am consuming. Dhal baat, in my personal experience, is a natural night-time laxative. Every night I am forced to ask myself the same vexing question: do I really need to go to the bathroom badly enough to get out of this sleeping bag, spend several frantic minute fumbling around the room in a desperate search for the toilet paper, dash outside and across the field to the nearest toilet, and then crouch down and expose my bare bottom to the freezing elements ? Unfortunately, after long and uncomfortable deliberation, the answer is always affirmative.
At about 8.30 in the morning, we can hear Mahesh coming to wake us up. Mahesh always gives us plenty of warning by singing a gentle melody. His voice grows gradually stronger as he approach until there is a sudden silence followed by a softly spoken, “Excuse me ?“ which is my cue to get up and return circulation to whatever side of my body I was lying on. Even on the trail, Mahesh normally carries a barely audible hum. When rounding a bend, he gives a soft whistle on the off chance we might startle somebody unseen around the corner. We like his gentle and unassuming nature.
Andrew marvelling at his frozen laundry.
The sun is very powerful at this altitude making a palpable temperature difference every time you walk into the shadow. Since there is no heating in Manang, a row of shopkeepers along the street can be seen each morning sitting outside their stores in the sun because it is too cold to sit underneath the shadow inside. We quickly adapt to the local customs, apply some sunscreen, and enjoy a hardy fried eggs and hash brown breakfast while soaking in the powerful rays.
Gunga Purna Glacier spilling down the mountain side. Evidence of glacier erosion can be seen throughout the xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Himalaya in large displaced boulders and smoothed rock surfaces.
Following the old climbers adage of “climb high, sleep low” to aid the acclimatization process, we hike up a few hundred meters above Manang to an excellent view point of the gorgeous Gunga Purna Glacier cascading down between Annapurna IV and Gunga Purna peak feeding a small turquoise lake below. Over night, the surface of the lake freezes over and we can hear it cracking in the sun as we march to the top.
Along the way, we catch a rare glimpse of a small dear near the lookout point which, judging by the elevation and the description in my book, is likely an endangered musk deer. Perhaps more impressive, we catch our first glimpses of the legendary Korean Himalaya Woman and her entourage:
- 10 porters literally carrying buckets of kimchi on their backs - 1 Korean Chef - 1 Korean/Nepali guide - 2 young Nepali boys holding her hand whose actual function we often speculate over while gossiping around the fire.
At least she is doing her part to keep the mountain economy going. We have never actually seen or heard her, but only barely discern two beady eyes peering from behind a scarf, an enormous Eskimo jacket, and big fluffy ear muffs. She looks a bit like Kenny from SouthPark.
The district capital of Manang camouflaged against its harsh environment.
We get back in the early afternoon and I spend the day taking pictures of the Tibetan people and architecture around the village while Katlijn relaxes with a book. Being low-season, we enjoy the entire hotel to ourselves.
Manang to Letdar (Elevation 4250 meters)
The human body needs time to develop physiological mechanisms to cope with the decreased oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. This process of acclimatisation is still not fully understood. AcuteMountain Sickness is a potentially fatal condition.
Mahesh gets us up early the next morning for the day's hike forcing us to bid a fond farewell to the comforts of Manang. The pine vegetation grows gradually thinner and finally disappears as we climb above the tree line leaving only small shrubs that can survive in the high dry climate here. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of rare mountain Ghorels grazing near the path.
To avoid altitude sickness, it is important not to gain too much altitude in one day so we have only a short four hour walk and gain about 700 more meters. Nevertheless, this doesn't prevent me from developing a painful headache. To make matters worse, Mahesh doesn't want me to sleep it off because he says I'll have more trouble falling asleep at night- another physiological effect of the body's acclimatization process. Instead, he suggests I eat some garlic soup which is the local remedy for altitude sickness.
Tibetans planting garlic, one of the few crops that grows at this altitude easily, and also a prominent ingredient in the local cuisine.
Regardless of its medicinal properties, garlic appears to be the ingredient of choice among the Tibetans living here. In general, it is chopped, grated, and roasted into all sorts of foods in such copious amounts as to render it utterly inedible. The fact that my soup was actually dubbed "garlic" by the Tibetan people should have been a clear warning for travellers to stay away, but I decide to give it a try. I slowly spoon down the whole bowl like a bad medicine. While my headache does indeed disappear, the soup's odor could still be sensed lingering on my breath for days.
While I recover from my headache, Katlijn talks with the Dutch couple. The older mother is afraid she won't make the Thorung La pass and so rented a horse from Manang allowing her to go faster. Rose, her physically fit daughter, has no signs of altitude sickness and wants to make the pass in one day- a feat normally accomplished in two days. According to our guide, making the pass from Letdar is not possible, but this does not deter them whatsoever. Later, our guide reveals that their porter and the horse trainer are aware of this and have planned from the beginning to take them to a shabby, ice-cold tea house just below the pass as soon as they realize they can't make it before daybreak. Naturally, this tea house is owned by the horse trainer and the porter will take part of the profits.
Today was my first introduction to the Tibetans' very own variation on the fire system. You may have wondered how the Tibetans can possibly stay warm at night above the tree line with the complete absence of fire wood. Their solution is to pack a large storage closet full of sacks of perfectly round yak turds. Two or three of these yak paddies are placed in a small oven and set on fire giving off a surprising amount of heat while filling the cabin full of a choking yak dung haze. It is definitely as effective as a log fire, though it certainly lacks the cozy ambiance.
It is so cold at night that the bathroom water bucket is frozen solid sending me to their backup toilet- a tiny outhouse of unspeakable filth. I come back and nestle my way between the Himalaya Woman and her large entourage of porters, chefs, and translators all huddled, shoulder to shoulder, around three chunks of smouldering yak feces. It occurs to me that maybe a Thai beach wouldn't be so bad after all.
Letdar to High Camp (Elevation 4900 meters)
We wake up early the next morning and I am pleasantly surprised to find that my headache is gone and I'm able to climb higher. We see the Dutch couple leave at about which is much too late to make the pass- Rose tells us the horse trainer took a very long time to prepare the horse causing their delay.
We are in very high spirits today as we enjoy another gorgeous hike in beautiful weather. While the temperature is bitterly cold at night, it is surprisingly comfortable to walk in during the day as long as we are in the sunshine. Along the way, we see a few forlorn travellers returning, pale faced and sick, to lower elevation. They had to go back down to Manang and recover from altitude sickness. Perhaps they will be able to try again in a few days if the weather holds. We stop at a village called Phedi and have lunch with Evan, the Canadian biologist from Nelson. We discuss what luxuries we miss most. For Katlijn, it is a bag of green hula-hoops and a pack of Fruitella. I want a good dark Belgian beer which would be the perfect Himalayan fire side companion. Nepali beer, by the way, is always of the lager variety and actually pretty good. The best brand is Everest which is quite a satisfying ice beer. Beer and whisky are available at all lodges even at higher elevations. However, like everything else, it all has to be brought up on the back of some poor porter making it unaffordable on our budget. In general, the price of all food and water inflates with altitude making tonight's destination the most expensive lodge in the Annapurna.
After lunch, neither of us are showing any signs of altitude sickness so Mahesh suggests we continue further up to the High Camp at an elevation of 4900 meters. This entails a steep 1 hour climb which will shorten tomorrow's final scramble over Thorong La. This is the first time during our trip where we start to really feel the lack of oxygen in the air. We have to make frequent stops to catch our breath and walk at a frustratingly slow pace. At this rate, it seems like we are making absolutely no progress at all, so it is surprising to see Phedi growing gradually smaller as the High Camp comes within view. Finally, we arrive. The sky is perfectly clear, I only have a mild headache, and we are confident we will make the pass. The Korean Himalaya Woman is with us too and she shares a little Nakchi with me to celebrate.
Seven ways to use a yak
Forget what you have read about Tibetan spiritualism and the Dalai Lama. In fact, Tibetans are actually avid yak herders ! Yaks are considered one of the most useful animals in the the world and are one of the only bovines that can live easily at high altitudes. Here are seven practical ways you can use a yak:
Yak butter, milk and especially yak cheese which is surprisingly tasty (actually should be called "Nak" cheese).
Yak fur is commonly used in clothing and in shelters.
Yak dung is a fuel forheating and cooking.
Yak dung is also a fertilizer.
Yaks are powerful beasts of burden.
Yak spinal cords are an effective contraceptive.
High Camp over Thorung La (Elevation 5416 meters) to Muktinath (Elevation 3710 meters)
Katlijn and I spend the entire night tossing and turning- contorting our bodies, sleeping bags, and pillows in search of that one mythical arrangement which might actually make us comfortable enough to sleep. There isn't one. At about , Mahesh' song can be heard mercifully ending what must have been one of the longest nights in my life. I talked to several people who stayed at the High Camp and they all had the same experience. I only know of one Frenchman who managed to fall asleep only to wake up and run out in the freezing cold hyperventilating as a result of a nightmare he had where he couldn't breath properly. A physician we met on the trail told us that both lack of sleep and bizarre dreams are common side-effects at high altitudes.
It is pitch black outside and freezing cold. I can't touch my breakfast and give the whole thing to Vishnu. To make matters worse, I have a splitting headache and need to take some aspirin. It is the worst I felt the whole trip. Determined to make the pass, I dawn several layers of clothing, switch my headlamp on, and do up all three remaining buttons on that North Fake down jacket.
We have to leave very early to be sure we make the pass in the morning. Otherwise, the winds typically picks up resulting in a high wind chill factor and a potential for frostbite. As we march through the darkness, my headache slowly dissolves. Gazing at the multitude of stars in the clear night sky and the moon's glow illuminating some of the highest peaks in the world is almost a religious experience. At dawn, we pass a small tea house occupied by the two Dutch women, shivering and stomping, just as Mahish had predicted. They told us it was so cold that icicles were hanging off their frozen blankets in the night.
The Himalayan sky behind mountains.
It's very slow going up to Thorung La, the largest mountain pass in the world and also one of the highest trekking routes. Behind us can be seen a few interspersed trekkers at various stages of the ascent. Most of them are stopped waiting to catch their breaths while admiring the surrounding alpine scenery. Others can be seen concentrating on putting one foot slowly in front of the other, each leg like a lead weight, steadily moving forward. Our porter is the slowest with his heavy bag. Then, Mahish and I walking at our pace. Far ahead is Katlijn who seems to be less affected by the altitude. She is waiting for us at the top.
We are all happy to reach the pass and have a quick celebratory photo. However, it is too cold for us to linger long and, within minutes, we begin our long steep descent. The cold weather ensures us some tricky icy passages, but we manage all right and it isn't long before we start to take our heavy jackets and sweaters off. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of the dry Mustang valley and the Dhawalagiri range separating Nepal from Tibet.
Mahesh and Andrew managing the icy slopes just below Thorung La
A view of the MustangValley which is in a dry high dessert climate. This region most resembles Tibet, located just beyond those mountains, and is referred to as the Trans-Himalaya.
We arrive at the town Muktinath in the early afternoon after about eight hours of walking, our knees sore from the long descent. We celebrate with a few special menu items for dinner: I have a "pepper steak" (read, "Chunk of Yak in brown sauce") while Katlijn has "pizza prosciutto" (Spam ham). Over dinner, we talk with Evan and a British couple about their experiences in India and get a few good travel tips. It was truly a memorable day. I peek down the hallway and watch expectantly as Katlijn dissapears into the shower room. After a few moments there are shouts of glee and steam leaking out the cracks. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Eco-friendly solar-powered water boilers can be found throughout the Himalaya. It takes about 20 minutes to boil water on a sunny day.
After countless trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, I wake up early the next morning to the uncomfortable realization that I need to walk six hours with both a heavy backpack and a serious case of the runs. It is at this point that I am happy Katlijn brought a porter who significantly lightens my load by taking my sleeping bag. Of course, Vishnu now carries all of Katlijn’s stuff, 10 snickers bars, the last installment of Harry Potter and TWO heavy arctic sleeping bags. In order to manage this, he uses a head strap in addition to the shoulder and waist harness. Mahish calls this Vishnu’s “magic” which makes it all possible. Regardless, Vishnu is my hero.
Having the runs in a foreign country is one of the unfortunate facts of life in traveling to Nepal and India. Since many small villages dot the entire Annapurna circuit, trekkers are discouraged from going in the wild. Naturally, I was able to take advantage of this excellent opportunity to tour of the gamut of Himalayan toilet facilities. Like the vast majority of the world, they are of the “squat over a hole in the ground” variety and come in a few predictable classes of materials and designs. My favorite was when, in sheer desperation, I had to ask one of the villagers to use the toilet in her home. A tiny, hunched, ancient woman led me into her barn where I had to navigate my way through several chickens, a flock of goats, and a buffalo to the smallest wooden bathroom I had ever seen. Just outside the bathroom was her kitchen stove of all things- a funny wood burning stove with a small iron chimney that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. I stepped over the buffalo and ducked into what must be the filthiest spider infested bathroom in Nepal, if not the entire Indian sub-continent. I had to simultaneously hold the door shut and assume the crouching position forcing me to hang monkey-style over the hole- an acrobatic feat that would require extreme coordination even without my bowel condition. I lost my balance several times causing the whole shack to tremble violently for the duration of this experience. When I emerged, I was horrified to find the old crone just outside my door cooking some Daal Bhaat on the Dr. Seuss stove. She looked at me with her mouth wide open, revealing all three of her teeth, giving me a look of simultaneous astonishment and disgust that said, “What is the matter with you man !? You are 32 years old and still not potty trained !?” With what remaining grace I could muster, I stepped over the buffalo, put my hands together, and muttered “namaste”. She watched me carefully as I moved her goats aside and was literally attacked by an aggressive rooster on my way out.
There are currently no roads in this part of the Annapurna so all supplies are carried between the villages by porters who bare all sorts of strange and bizarre Eastern and Western items and livestock, often in ridiculously over-sized and over-stuffed backpacks and cages. However, a new road is currently under construction which will connect Besi Sahar with Manang promising to change everything, for better and for worse. We have to take an enormous up-hill detour to avoid blasting of the mountain side necessary for this construction. Mahish says the road will be bad for porters and guides which currently form the backbone of the tourist and transportation culture. When I once asked him if they will control the nature and amount of traffic on the road, he muttered sadly, “like in Kathmandu” which basically means a cluttered mess of buses, cars, and backpackers where pounding the horn repeatedly takes the place of road rules.
This is my favorite porter who was very kind to let me take her picture. Note that she is carrying that weight on her head ! Himalayan women do much of the hard labor. I have seen similar old ladies wielding dangerous looking axes to chop fire wood.
By the end of the day, my condition starts to improve. Unfortunately, Katlijn seems to be developing sinusitis. The lodge owners give her some local inhalant which seems to work quite effectively at reducing her symptoms. Mahish then produced another local remedy for my stomach condition that looks suspiciously like guinea pig droppings- I decide not to chance it.
Katlijn taking full advantage of the Jagat's local anti-sinusitis inhalant underneath her jacket.
During the night, Katlijn hears some commotion in the village.
Day 4 Jagat to Tal (Elevation 1700 meters)
Mahish gets us out of bed early the next morning and we enjoy a tasty apple pancake breakfast. He explains that the commotion was due to a thief caught stealing from one of the lodges. He is currently held in the local Jagat kindergarten since the nearest police station is in Bahundanda, nearly six hours walk away.
Mahish tells us that only kindergarten and elementary schools are available in most of the small villages we pass. He had to walk two hours to get to his nearest high school [uphill both ways] and this is not unusual. Some kids stay with relatives or in boarding houses away from home while other students can be seen in their uniforms walking the same trails as us. Still others, especially the girls, won’t go to school at all and are needed to work the farm at home. Maybe that road really will come in handy.
As we leave the town, we see all the villagers gathered in a crowded circle: men, women, children, and babies. We have to ask them to move aside so we can get through. In the center of the circle stands the young thief who looks positively terrified. There is blood dripping out of his mouth. He had been beaten. One of the villagers passes me by and feels the needed to explain, “he stole money”.
Waterfalls carving the Himalaya from stone.
Katlijn is still not feeling well so we do only a short three-hour walk to a small town called “Tal”. The path is very beautiful with several waterfalls cascading down the valley side. The Himalayas are caused by the massive collision of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, encompassing both India and Australia, with the Eurasian continent. The resulting force is causing the bordering land to raise in elevation at a rate of a few centimeters each year. When we look at the Himalaya, we are not so much seeing mountains but the gaps between them carved by the rivers. It is interesting to consider that the river we are following through the valley is therefore older than the mountains themselves.
Day 5 Tal to Chame (Elevation 2700 meters)
Tibetan people live at these higher elevations. Chortens, such as this modern example at Tal, mark the entrance to Tibetan villages.
Katlijn spent a lot of time in bed and we are considering staying in Tal until she recovers. However, Mahish encourages us to continue on at least a bit further today. He is afraid that if we lose another day or two now we may have trouble making the high pass since we are attempting this trek so late in the year. The next storm could block our passage entirely and we would have to return home.
Amazingly, Katlijn’s condition seems to improve as we walk. After a long nine-hour slog, we manage to make it to Chame making up for the time we lost yesterday. Mahish told me later he never thought we'd make it ! Along the way, the diverse sub-tropical vegetation gives way to pine forests. There are no more terraces of rice fields. Rather, corn, wheat, and millet are grown at this altitude. In contrast to the Gurung people living at lower altitudes, the people here are mostly Tibetan- both newer refugees and older communities dating back to the ancient trade routes between India and China. The villages themselves look notably different with spiritual displays of prayer wheels, flags, and stupas.
As if marking this contrast to a new stage in our journey, the weather also begins to roll in- changing from this morning’s balmy, “why the hell are we lugging around these arctic sleeping bags ?”, to the evening’s bone chilling “why the hell won’t the zipper work on these cheapo Kathmandu North ‘Fake’ jackets we borrowed from our guide ?” Towards the end of our walk, it starts to snow and we experience our first night of serious cold weather.
Mist through the trees. The weather rolls down the hills at us.
Nepali people are very fond of the word “system”. Everything is a “system”, no matter how trivial. If you go to a restaurant in Kathmandu and ask them to wrap your tuna sandwich in foil, this is referred to as the take-home "system". Similarly, after Mahish finds Katlijn huddled on her bed refusing to come out of the room unless we cut out little leg holes from her sleeping bag, he invites us down to use the fire “system”. We decide to take his advice and follow him to a room where a few Tibetans sit around a fire.
Underneath a curtain of drying yak jerky, sipping from a piping hot cup of coco, roasting my feet in front of the cozy fire after a long day of hiking, reveling in my lack of bowel problems, I realize that this is my ideal vacation. Katlijn is not convinced, however, and argued vehemently in favor a cocktail on a Thai beach. Nevertheless, she had to admit that this particular moment was bliss. We spent the evening chatting with our guide and porter until, thoroughly exhausted, we retired to our room at about 8 PM- a late night by our mountain trekking standards.
Day 6 Chame to Lower Pisang (Elevation 3200 meters)
The sun burning snow off the impressive bulk of Annapurna II seen here towering above us to an elevation of 7937 meters.
The weather clears up and we enjoy spectacular views of the Annapurna range during an easy five-hour walk to the town of “Lower Pisang”. Upon arriving, two loud Korean girls tell us that there are “hot” showers in our lodge. Excited by this prospect, Katlijn and I grab our camp towels and head for our first winter high-altitude shower experience:
Imagine that you are naked in an enclosed wooden room completely shielded from the sun. Imagine, if you will, the temperature in this room is close to 0 degrees Celsius- sort of like sitting naked in your freezer. Now, think of a chest-high tap on the wall with one merciless knob dribbling luke-warm water onto the floor. Imagine how cold that water feels against the concrete in your bare feet. Now, imagine small holes in the wooden shack through which you can feel a cold draft blowing against your body. Imagine standing there for what seems like an eternity waiting for, no… hoping to god, that luke-warm dribble will eventually turn into a “hot” dribble like those damn obnoxious Korean girls promised. Finally, imagine it never gets “hot” at all. In fact, it gets slowly colder and colder as whatever “hot” water that might have been there to begin with is being used up.
We soon learn that it is actually better to be under the luke-warm water than getting splashed by it in the freezing cold. You still feel cold under the tap, but it is definitely better than not being under the tap. Thus, it is not only hard to get into the shower, but infinitely harder to get out of it. My approach is to plan carefully my actions before I reach up from my naked crouch position and shut the tap off. I then slowly and methodically dry each part of my body and, as soon as possible, cover that part of my body with clothing. Katlijn’s approach is to yell maniacally several expletives followed by the word “cold” at the top of her lungs to serve as a warning to any other trekkers within the next village.
After our shower, we proceed with haste to the fire “system” and I eat some of the lodge’s chowmein wondering how on earth it is possible to cook something with absolutely no taste at all. The Korean girls are kind enough to lend me their red chili sauce. They tell me they take this with them everywhere in Nepal to provide a little character to their meals. It doesn’t help.
Back in Kathmandu, they make tea by simultaneously boiling together the milk, the tea, the spices, and some water. It is a truly satisfying beverage which I highly recommend. Up here in the Himalayan mountains, you are lucky to get a small tea bag floating ineffectively in a glass of slightly-warm unpasteurized milk. I decide, instead, to try my luck with the local “Tibetan tea” which turns out to be a vile brew made from salt and warm yak butter. I couldn’t drink it. I couldn’t get anyone sitting around the fire to drink it either. In fact, I couldn’t even get any of the Nepali people to drink it. Instead, it turned into the evening's much needed entertainment as everyone took turns smelling it and then contorting their face into an image of disgust followed by guffaws of laughter.
After this game grew tiresome, we spent the rest of the evening around the fire gossiping with the other travelers. One of the joys of doing the Annapurna Circuit is talking about the various eccentrics that are crazy enough to do this hike in the middle of winter. Since we are all walking the same trail, sitting around the same fires, and eating the same food, you get to know them pretty well. There is Evan, a Canadian Biologist from Nelson, BC, who actually decided to start the Annapurna Circuit immediately after he got back from a 20 day trek to the Everest Base Camp- otherwise he is entirely normal and we like him a lot. There are the Dutch girls, a 55 year old mother and her daughter who claim that Eindhoven has everything we need to be happy (at this point, a soft mattress, a hot shower, and sit-toilets). Our favourite, however, is the infamous “Korean Himalaya Woman”.
Everyone on the mountainside knows of the Korean Himalaya Woman; rumors travel fast between the villages. According to the two Korean girls, she has been sited recently on horse back at Lower Pisang and they claim she gave them a cup of instant noodle ramen. She visits the Himalaya twice a year with not one, not two, but TEN porters ! This is in addition to her guide and chef. Each porter is purported to carry several kilos of Kimchi, an octopus, and some dog meat which her chef turns into a giant Korean feast every night somewhere in the distant mountains. Reports indicate she is generous. We have not yet seen her but have only heard stories about- she is sort of the Asian culinary counterpart to the illusive yeti.
I looked down at my full cup of salty Tibetan tea in quiet contemplation. Could the legend be true ?
Day 7 Lower Pisang to Manang (Elevation 3540 meters)
We get up early the next morning and I have some buckwheat bread with jam. Tibetan buckwheat bread looks like a Frisbee and tastes a bit like one too. Anyone for a game of Ultimate ?
Katlijn and Vishnu checking the map en route to Manang.
We enjoy a flat and highly enjoyable walk to the Tibetan town of Manang, the district capital and a virtual metropolis compared to the villages we had been staying in. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of Annapurna II, III, and IV. The weather is gorgeous. We have recovered from our illnesses. Upon arriving, I turned the tap water on… hot water ! It is a perfect day.
You can do everything in Manang. You can check your e-mail, buy Pringles potato chips, and even watch a small selection of DVDs on a big screen (“Seven Years in Tibet”, “Kundun”, “Into thin air”, etc.). You can even spend an evening around a campfire with the local Tibetans listening to their classic rock CD collection.
In short, Manang is the best place on this side of the Himalayas and we are very happy to be here for the next couple of days.
A couple of locals hanging out on main street Manang in the early morning.
Machu means "fish", Puchre means "tail. It is the fishtail mountain.
As seen from Sarangkot in Pokhara at sundown.
Sorry for the long delay in updating this blog. Believe it or not, there really are solar powered internet cafes in the Himalaya. However, they cost a small fortune to use so we decided to wait until we got back from our trek before updating our blog and responding to e-mail.
We completed the entire Annapurna Circuit a few days ago. Since it was a very special experience, we will provide a detailed day-by-day account of this particular journey which we will post in installments over the next week or so (subject to Internet availability and power outages, of course). After that, we will try to update the blog more regularly to describe the places we have visited...
The xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Annapurna Circuit
Day 1 Bus ride from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar (Elevation 800 meters)
Before it started leaking uncontrollably all over our hotel room floor, Katlijn enjoyed one last civilized luxury in Kathmandu: a hot bath. I have to say, in retrospect, our Kathmandu hotel is comparatively not so stinky and actually downright comfortable compared to what we will experience in the next 17 days.
We met up with our guide, Mahish, and our porter, Vishnu, in the early morning, got in a dangerously dilapidated taxi, and weaved at top speed through honking motorcycles and countless bovines before arriving at a bus station somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Mahish sat us down for a breakfast of Nepali tea and biscuits before we got into a rickety old bus painted in psychedelic pastel colours and took off for the Himalayas. This was our first experience with Nepal's public transportation system.
It takes two to three people to navigate the Nepali infrastructure by bus. There is the driver- in our case, an old man wearing a wool hat with a marijuana badge sewn on the front. Then there are one or two helpers who serve several purposes including the following:
- Calling out for passengers - Looking out for the startling number and variety of highway obstacles - A substitute for malfunctioning signal lights. - Strapping baggage, furniture, and roosters to the rooftop - Yelling Nepali profanities at slow moving vehicles and bovines
Our helper was a sixteen year old boy wearing a black "Jack Daniel's" bandanna, bandit-style, and black low-rider jeans. This wouldn't have been so bad except for the glaring fact that he was going commando. There do not appear to be actual bus stops in Nepal. Instead, the helper is constantly vigilant for potential passengers waiting in the middle of nowhere. To signal the driver to stop the bus, he would pound the side of the bus one time. After throwing whatever bizarre items the passenger may have onto a towering rooftop pile, he would pound the bus two times to signal it to start moving again.
Whenever passing another vehicle, a terrifying event which occurred with distressing regularity, he would pound the bus several times signalling there was no visible traffic, potholes, or farm animals. Our bus driver would then push the horn repeatedly and gun it- sending everyone lurching backwards, perhaps losing a few roosters behind us, as our bus hurtled past at full speed, held together only by a few rusty bolts, some rope, and the collective blind faith of those of us inside. On the narrow mountain roads, I had to hold back the urge to cry out. "Mr. Bus driver ! Are our lives really so dispensable to you !?"
Nevertheless, as our bus tempts fate just a few inches from a cliff side rounding a blind curve on the wrong side of the road, the Nepali people do not seem to notice. It was astonishing. I want to explain to them, "Our lives are in the hands of a crusty ex-hippy and a boy who wears no underpants. WE ARE IN SERIOUS TROUBLE HERE !". But yet, as I stare behind me, there are, at best, a few looks of mild concern. Our porter is sound asleep.
You may call me paranoid, but consider the following facts and figures which are all true:
1) You are 20 times more likely to be killed or injured in a bus fatality in Nepal than you are in any developed country.
2) I can see burnt carcasses of psychedelic pastel coloured buses off the cliff side that look disturbingly like the one I am riding in.
3) Riding a bus is considered the most dangerous activity you can do in Nepal. It is more dangerous than white water rafting, more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest, even more dangerous than drinking the tap water.
I can see our helper bent over in front of the bus fiddling with the dash board and mooning the passengers while he's at it. Before long, I hear a crackling noise through bus speakers and then the booming sound of Indian pop music played at full volume through an 80s cassette player system: my nightmare is complete.
Resigned to my fate, I rest my head against the grungy bus window and stare at the havoc outside. I start to feel the motion sickness pills kicking in listening to the rhythm of the music. I begin to play a game with myself: closing my eyes and opening them again then mentally remarking the foreign images in front of me.
Nepali girls with tikas wearing British school boy uniforms.
A technicolour truck with the words "push horn" painted on the back in Hindu font.
Cows parked between motorcycles.
Day 2 Besi Sahar to Bahundada (Elevation 1310 meters)
Every inch of land used. Rice is grown in the Himalays up to about 2000 meters.
Damn. I shouldn't have eaten so much chicken with my Daal Bhaat last night. I am sensing the start of a serious case of Traveller's Diarrhea. However, Katlijn is in high spirits so I try not to let on too much. This is our first day of serious trekking.
We have a Nepali guide named "Mahish" who can tell us what we are looking at and show us the way. Actually, this isn't true. Mahish also tells us when to get up, where to sleep, where to eat, where to rest, and where to go to the bathroom. In fact, we are total lemmings completely under his command. We even ride the bus when he asks this of us. We do absolutely everything he says and pay him for this privilege. Still, he is polite enough to refer to me as "sir".
I carry my own backpack, but Katlijn hired a porter named "Vishnu". After noting that we were basically paying our porter for my vacation, we also loaded him with a few extra comforts. Vishnu is not as outgoing as Mahish, but we learn to admire his quiet determination lugging his load up the mountainside. He always carries, by far, the heaviest bag and the biggest smile.
Katlijn, Vishnu, and Mahish. Vishnu's bag is loaded with Katlijn's belongings, a heavy arctic sleeping bag, 10 snickers bars, and the last installment of Harry Potter.
So far, the Himalayas are not the bitter cold, white, icy, yeti-abode I had always imagined as a child. Instead, the vegetation is sub-tropical and the green hills are terraced with rice plantations plowed by oxes. During our easy hike through the country, we pass by many small villages stopping occasionally for tea, before arriving at our lodge; "lodge" being Nepali for "spartan shack with luke-warm showers". Nevertheless, it is cozy by candlelight and the views from the patio are gorgeous at dusk.
A big thanks to all those who came to our send-off party. We had a nice cross-section of people from our lives in Belgium, and a few from our lives abroad. It was great to see all one more time before we hit the road.
In true form, the subsequent events after our party consisted of eating chocolate coffee beans for breakfast on the floor of our empty apartment, hauling refrigerators down three flights of stairs, and submitting that last journal article sometime in the middle of the night. After some serious last minute banking arrangements early the next morning, we finally left Leuven to arrive 20 hours later in Kathmandu. A guy named Ram, who has arranged our 18 day trek through the Annapurna Circuit, picked us up at the airport. We had a short, but harrowing, car ride through the streets of Kathmandu to arrive safely, with all our gear, at a stinky hotel in the middle of the city. This was pretty much our plan.
We spent our first day being chased around by honking motorcycles in the narrow streets of xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Kathmandu. At night, the power went out which, according to the receptionist, is a common occurrence here. Thus, we used a few candles to find our way to the top of the hotel. We spent much of the evening together on the roof listening to the sounds of the city. Kathmandu sounds like people, honking horns, and dogs barking (it smells a bit like that too). Katlijn wants it to be known that she doesn't think our hotel stinks. But really, it is all relative, and I think she may have already been here too long. Here are a few images of Kathmandu:
Temple through the trees.
Beautiful Nepali woman with children
A square where the children play
The children who wanted me to take their picture.
It's late. I'm at an internet cafe. I fear the power may go out again, so I will sign off for now. Tomorrow, we leave early in the morning with our winter gear to start our trek through the Himalayas. I understand there are some solar power internet stations along our route; sounds more reliable than the Kathmandu power grid, anyways. Until then, namaste !