You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2010.

I’ve never lived in a place that had so many Signs.

These are from the “Think Again” campaign to prevent the spread of HIV.   I’m still laughing.

[note: I felt too scandalous having these images on the front page, so click this link and scroll down to the Think Again campaign.]

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Kathmandu.  The name alone conjures up images of some exotic, faraway Shangri La.

I wanted to like it.   I tried to like it.  Really, I did.  You know, all cultures are created equal, travel with an open-mind, yada yada yada.

Futile.  I’m not sure whether it was Kathmandu that made me so miserable or my achy muscles, but I had never felt so filthy or exhausted in my life.  The city reeked of feces, the dust from the streets blows everywhere, and I spent the evening blowing black snot out of my nose from all of the car exhaust.  Mix that with heady temple incense, ripe body odor, rotting vegetables in the market place (complete with swarming flies), persistent hawkers and a whirlwind of bright saris on speeding motorcycles, and you’ve got a recipe for a headache.

To some, a city like this translates to “bustling with life! adventure! excitement!”  To me this spelled:  “I’m ready to get go home.”  The fresh mountain air was far more enjoyable.

Remind me never to visit to New Delhi.

The gateway to virtually any trek in the Annapurna region is Pokhara.  A smaller, quainter version of Kathmandu’s Thamel district, Pokhara is a lovely lakeside town that caters to tourists – evident in the sheer number of North Face trekking gear stores, German bakeries and pashmina hawkers that line the dusty streets.

I spent an entire day here post-trek doing nothing more than buying a few postcards and prayer flags, sipping tea in a garden next to the lake and reading Into Thin Air amongst the pink hibiscus flowers on the veranda of my hotel.  It was a welcome day of respite and relaxation for my limbs and lower back!

As usual Tim snapped some amazing pictures with his trained eye and Nikon SLR, and he’s been gracious enough to let me post them on my blog.  Thanks, Tim!

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Admittedly, the 3 day trek back to civilization was not as exciting as the trek up. We faced some brutally steep climbs, flies swarming around piles of cow & horse  poop every few feet, very hazy days, and a lot of plastic garbage around the more populated villages.

But alas we did run into some familiar friends, Julia and Hanna, in Chomrong and had a little chocolate party to compensate for all of those calories we burned.  At least that was what I told myself to feel better about eating chocolate bars (plural).  AND I was able to take a hot shower.  And use a Western toilet.  And sleep in only one pair of socks.  Okay, so maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  It’s amazing how quickly your priorities can change!

In Chomrong we met a retired American man from Michigan named Jon Stewart who was trekking the foothills on his own.   While he was not the infamous Jon Stewart of Daily Show fame, he was a local celebrity in a small Indian town that he had visited several weeks before coming to Nepal.  Because he was a white foreigner, the local politicians asked him to be the guest speaker at a conference on environmental sustainability (Jon is a computer programmer) and he became the headline news in the local Urdu newspaper.  This would probably be funnier to you, dear readers, had you actually met Jon.  In any case, I’ve decided that I too want to become famous in a random Indian town someday.

We were all headed in the same direction so the five of us set out the next day for Ghandruk – the second largest Gurung settlement in Nepal.  The town looked like something straight out of medieval Europe – rustic houses, barns, animal pens, and wheat & barley fields.

On the final day of the journey we bumped into Elena and Remco again for lunch, and made our way to Naya Pul.  It felt totally counter-intuitive to ride in a taxi after 9 days of intense hiking, but it was a welcome luxury nonetheless.  I was looking forward for a day of complete relaxation in Pokhara…
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And beyond me just one more mountain
where they say a deity lives
guarding a tiny turquoise lake.
And thereafter nothing but
 realm of melting snows
 where the souls of the gods live. 
     - Yuyutsu RD Sharma

Okay, I think Light was technically Day 1.  But on trek day 6 I arose and there was light.  And the light was good.

Watching the sunrise was absolutely incredible.  You can see the sun struggling to rise above Machhapuchhre in the east, and each ray is like a laser beam, drenching Annapurna South and Annapurna I in gold.  Like the sky bends down to the mountain peaks with a Midas Kiss!

Like a fool I kept trying to take pictures, but every time I looked up from the images on my camera screen, I realized the pictures would never do it justice.  An attempt at a movie was just as futile.

But alas we could not stay too long, because during the night Tim developed minor symptoms of altitude sickness (intense headache, upset stomach, etc.).  So we resolved to descend from Base Camp as soon and as far as possible.   I’m actually really surprised I didn’t have any symptoms myself.  We were sleeping at 4130 m – only a few hundred meters shorter than summits of Mt. Whitney and Mont Blanc.

Descending from the Sanctuary was no easier than going up.   Well, it’s easier cardio work but incredibly tiring on your quads and knees.  But in 5 hours we had traversed what originally took a day and a half, and settled down in Himalaya Hotel (the name of the village – there’s no “hotel”) at 2920m.

There I met a hilarious middle-aged woman from Hong Kong who was trekking the circuit on her own and had done the Everest Base Camp trek the year before.  She taught me my new favorite word, Kokojai, which is supposedly a polite way to say “hey you, guy” in Cantonese.  Come on – say it out loud with your best Chinese accent – it’s fun!

Hey! Kokojai!

***

More pics from Kiersten and Tim below:

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Into the gates of the sanctuary

Beyond Deorali, the rocky trail climbs through sparse birch and bamboo forests.  There had been a hail storm the previous afternoon (while we were cozily playing cards) so the path was slippery and we had to take our time.  I’ve never been as “sure-footed” as my peers, so the ice probably tacked on an hour to our journey.  Fortunately we convinced a man to cut us some pretty rockin’ Bamboo poles to help with stability!

As we climbed a final hill through the “gates” of the Sanctuary, the Annapurna mountains became visible – and took my breath away.  The mountain views are absolutely awesome (as in “awe-inspiring” not “gnarly dude”).  Imagine marching north for 4 days, surrounded by villages, forests, and green hills, and then suddenly – and it really feels quite sudden – climbing into an amphitheater of the tallest, most impressive mountains you’ve ever seen.

To the east is Machhapuchhre (6997m), which means fishtail in the local language.  Hiunchile (6434m) is to the immediate west, and the panorama also includes Annapurna South (7219m), Annapurna I (8091m – world’s 10th highest peak), Annapurna III (7555m), and Gangapurna (7454m).

Macchapuchare (6997m)

Tim and I were both dragging at this point (thin air) so we decided to stop at Macchapuchare Base Camp for a second breakfast.  Though there are several lodges here, “base camp” is a misnomer, as it is forbidden to climb Macchapuchre.  Again we bumped into our friends Elena and Remco, who had woken up early to see the sunrise from Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and were on their way back down.

The climb from MBC to ABC is only a gradual 430m, but given the altitude and the fresh snow on the ground (and the fact that we both turned into paparazzi), it took us a good 2 1/2 hours.  But it was 2 and a half hours of spectacular views!

When we climbed the final steps to our destination, Lydia and Jan were already at the camp and pointed out the lodge with the warmest dining room.  (Hey, when it’s minus 10 Celsius, your priorities shift!).  So I hunkered down next to the kerosene heater with my bowl of potato soup, which was more like garlic soup, a jug of hot tea, and a second hot jug of tea.  I spent the afternoon and the evening relaxing in the luxurious comfort of the heated dining room, listening to Lydia and Jan entertain us with tales of their year-long trip around the world and teaching the Nepali guides and porters how to play “BS.”

Hiunchile foreground, Macchapuchare background

I had never been at such a high altitude in my entire life.  I was grateful that we spent some time acclimatizing, and the only effects of the altitude I felt were a runny nose and a suppressed appetite.  I fell fast asleep with two heavy blankets and nearly every layer of clothing I had.  At some point I remember waking up and needing to use the bathroom, but I knew it would be so cold outside that I held it until the morning!  (Really – getting out of my warm covers to use a squat toilet in the dark in -10 degrees was the most depressing thought in the world).

Besides, I was planning on waking up early anyways to see the sunrise over the mountains…

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On day 4 we marched from Bamboo to Deurali (3200m/10,500 ft).  We probably could have gone further under normal circumstances, but given that you run the risk of altitude sickness if you ascend too quickly over 3000m, we decided to take it slow and steady and soak up the surroundings.

As we inched our way higher into the Himalayas, I noticed marked temperature drops, changes in the vegetation, and the disappearance of all those pesky mosquitoes and flies that hang out in the lowlands.  In addition, because of the thin air, you need more energy to do the walking and climbing you did just 1000m below.  Most people need more sleep, find their appetites decreasing, and have a runny nose (check, check and check!).  On treks going to the Everest Base Camp, people stop trekking for days at a time in order to acclimatize (Everest Base Camp is at 5360 m/17590 ft).

But in the end we had a relatively easy day, slowly moving upwards through the lush green forest to our goal, and in the evening we met some really cool, sweet girls – Hanna from Finland and Julia from Australia.  One Swiss Rosti, several intense card games, 200 pages of reading, and one afternoon hailstorm later, I was drifting off into a peaceful sleep with excitement brewing about the summit day ahead..

***

More pictures below!

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Upwards!

Lydia and Jan warned us the night before that each village after Chomrong had no more than 4 lodges with no more than 6 rooms each.  It’s common that these lodges fill up quickly during the high tourist seasons, and Tim and I didn’t want to be sleeping in the lodge kitchen.  So we did the math and resolved to start out early to secure premium shelter space.

Well, it turns out we weren’t the only ones with that idea, because at 6:30am there was a mass-exodus of white people from Chomrong down into the river valley and back up a second mountain into the village of Sinuwa.

This was not the pleasant, easy-going trekking I had experienced the days before.  I felt consumed by a competitive monster, intent on beating out the enemy teams.  Each person we passed became subject to my censorship.  “Okay, the Ukranian family has porters – no way I’m catching up to them,” or “I’ve got 40 years on that Australian guy – see ya, Old Man!”  You get the idea.

Base Camp this way

We caught up with Lydia and Jan, who had stopped for a mid-morning meal in Sinuwa.  Though I was feeling a little hungry myself, I decided to snack on a granola bar and keep on truckin’ — secretly happy that we had the chance to pass by all of the other diners.

By the time we emerged from the bamboo and rhododendron forests, I was famished and glad to find a nice lodge with a bed and hot meal.  It gave me a little satisfaction to watch the other trekkers catch-up, but I decided that I hated this form of “race-trekking.”  I had been so stressed that I barely took time to enjoy the scenery and I enjoyed the hike far less than the previous two days.  I resolved to chill out for the remainder of the journey (which proved to be a good idea – we found ample accommodation everywhere).

Clear, sunny day

At the lodge we ran into our friends Elena and Remco, and met a whole host of other interesting people, including one highly entertaining Greek Man, a very nice American-Israeli guy, and a group of trekkers from Spain – one of whom was reading the Spanish translation of the book that I was reading (Pillars of the Earth – good read, I recommend it).

This was the first night that I felt how cold the high-altitude mountain air could be, and also the night that I developed a head cold that would stay with me until I descended from Base Camp.  But I considered myself lucky that I hadn’t developed any stomach viruses or traveler’s “ailments.”  Can you imagine trekking in the wilderness for 10 days with Montezuma’s revenge?  The thought makes me shudder!

***

Tim took some really amazing pictures, so I’ve combined the best of our Day 3 shots into a slide show.  It’s a relatively new feature on wordpress.com, so let me know if you have any difficulties viewing.  Enjoy!

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Kiersten the trekker

This was the most physically challenging day of the trek.

Chapati, breakfast of champions

With little time to recover from the previous day of exertion, the journey from Tolka to Chomrong really only left us a few hundred meters higher than where we started.  In the interim, every time we climbed 500 meters we could look out across the valley and see our next destination.  Frustratingly, we would have to go all the way down into the valley and right back up again before arriving at the next town.

Just when I felt like opening my mouth to complain about the heavy backpack weighing on my back and shoulders, we passed a group of local village people hauling 10 times my load up and down the paths.  At twice my speed.  With the load strapped only to their foreheads.  Smoking cigarettes!

Bearing the load

The porters, known locally as bhaarias, carry loads for trekkers and bring supplies to remote villages.  It was not uncommon throughout the trek to see a porter carrying a giant canister of kerosene or dozens of glass soda bottles up the mountains.

So in the end I shut up about my measly back pack and marched on in awe of the superior will power and strength of the porters.

Hillside village - a la Lord of the Rings?

The last haul of the day was a long, nearly vertical climb to the village of Chomrong (2210m).  At the top of the ridge I flung myself onto a large slab of rock.  Two other trekkers had the same idea, for it was there that we met Elena, a Spanish doctor working in England, and her companion, Remco, a very nice Dutch man.  They had met treking to Everest Base Camp and were also winded from the long climb.

Child in the field

This was the first of many encounters we would have with Elena and Remco.  I was surprised to find that teahouse trekking is a fairly social event.  Tim and I ran into the same people over and over again – at lodges, on the trail, at lunch or over tea, even later in the big cities.  In this way I met fascinating people from all over the world, and hopefully I’ll be able to stay in touch with some of them!

When the sun began to set we realized we had been talking (stalling) for nearly an hour, and the four of us decided to keep walking in search of a place to sleep.  We settled on the Excellent View Lodge (which did in fact have an excellent view), and there we met Jan and Lydia, two more Dutch travelers on their way to Base Camp.

After being schooled in a game of Go Fish by a Swiss man who had never played in his life (I’m skeptical), I decided to head to bed, hopeful that the soreness of the past two days would abate by morning.

Excellent View

Wobbly bridge

I had just finished crossing a small river over a rather precarious suspension bridge when I saw a tall, heavy-set man approaching with a big stick, a long stride and a broad smile.

“Well hello there!”  He bellowed in a deep drawl, instantly revealing his Southern American origins.  “Where y’all headed?”

“We’re on our way to the Annapurna Sanctuary,” I answered, slowly regaining my land legs.  “And you?”

“On my way back!”

“How was it?”

“Well, you’re gonna get snowed on, rained on, hailed on, and you’ll probably think you’re gonna die a couple times but it’s all gon’ be worth it when you get up there.”

Modi Khola Valley

As this strange Teddy Roosevelt-esq man marched off in his safari outfit, I turned skeptically to my friend and travel-buddy Tim, who was grinning from ear-to-ear.  “Awesome!  I can’t wait!”

I on the other hand was not quite as optimistic.  We had just made 3 or 4 rather steep climbs up and down long, snaking stone staircases with 35 pound backpacks in the sticky Nepali heat.  “I don’t know, Tim.  We have no sleeping bags, no climbing poles, no guide, no porter, and no idea where we’re sleeping tonight.  Yeah, okay.  You’re right.  This is gonna be awesome!  Soldier on!”

Prayer Flags

Tim and I had been teahouse trekking for approximately 6 hours at this point.  A teahouse trek essentially involves hiking anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a day and spending the night at a trekking lodge, or a teahouse as they’re known in this region of Nepal.  In this way, trekkers are able to function with limited equipment and rely on local lodges for food, shelter, refreshment, and a host of other small luxuries like running water to wash your clothes, the occasional hot shower, and heavy blankets to keep you warm during the cold mountain nights.

Wheat fields

We had begun our journey late that morning in Phedi (1130m), a non-descript town on the side of a dusty road, and climbed steeply up a rocky hill to Dhampus.  From here we continued to ascend through Gurung farming villages and Rhododendron forests to Pothana and then further into the Modi Khola valley.  Each bend in the trail brought about a new and stunning view: faded prayer flags flapping high in the wind above the deep gorge, golden wheat fields terraced into the mountain landscape and one fairy-tale-like forest after another.

Comfy Lodge

Our goal was to make it to the Annapurna Base Camp, a trek that would take us from the Gurung villages to the Annapurna Sanctuary, 4200m into the amphitheater of the gigantic Himalayan mountains.  The route was to take approximately 10 days, and although we wouldn’t have the serious acclimatization problems that the Everest Base Camp trek entailed, we knew we were in for some of the steepest ascents and descents that the region had to offer.

By the time we reached Tolka (1790m), our destination for the evening, the sun had already begun to set and I was in desperate need of a shower and a meal.  Later, as I laid in bed, my legs throbbing, my stomach satisfied with a large serving of Dal Bhat, and my lungs filled with clean, fresh mountain air, I thought to myself, “this must be the best feeling on earth!”

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