Day 197, Fri, Nov. 17, 2000 – The flight yesterday was only an hour, ending with the highest and most beautiful mountain scenery in the world. We had wide views of the Himalayas as we banked and turned to line up the plane to descend through the Kathmandu valley. The hills were very green and incredibly terraced for thousands of feet. We had been looking forward to experiencing the proverbial (and clichéd) “land that time forgot” for years. The country was virtually closed to the West while dozens of warring kingdoms fought it out. While the rest of the world was being colonized by Europeans, Nepal remained independent – even battling the British over the border with India. After the peace treaty of 1816, the Brits were happy that Nepal sided with them during the Indian War of Independence (although their neighbors were quite upset). In time, the British were so impressed with the Nepali fighting abilities; they employed mercenaries called “Gurkhas” – a tradition that continues today. As a result of being fed up with outside influence, Nepal was virtually closed to the outside world from 1816 to 1951. Its isolation and mystique was the inspiration for James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (Shangri-la is a distortion of “Shambala” meaning Buddhist utopia-. And we just thought it was an old Three Dog Night song).
finally started to allow foreigners in the 1950's, travelers reported an
extreme medieval “backwardness” and mystique with no modern amenities, thousands of gurus and mystics rubbing shoulders with butchers
spilling blood in the streets, and rabid dogs chasing strangers.
That was just enough information to make Kathmandu the ultimate
destination on the infamous “hippie trail” from West to East in the 1960’s.
Not surprisingly, after certain drugs were criminalized and visa
procedures relaxed, the kingdom lost a bit of its cache and started to rely
more on traditional tourist pulls, like having the most beautiful scenery and
some of the kindest people in the world. Now
the West dominates some areas, public butchering has subsided and dogs are still
about, but somewhat less rabid. At
the airport we got a prepaid taxi to the Kathmandu Guesthouse.
The hotel is an institution – it was one of the first in the city and has
catered to every succeeding wave of travelers from the stoned hippies to the
yuppie hikers. It is in the very
heart of the Thamel tourist area as if the neighborhood grew around the
guesthouse. We had no illusions
that the mystique of Kathmandu would have survived the modern world intact, but
we were not at all prepared for this. Thamel is like a college town/ski resort on Asian steroids.
It is noisy and crowded, overrun with Alpine-dressed 20-somethings and
commerce is everywhere – the signs overlapping and crawling up the buildings
4-5 floors like Hong Kong – except everything is in English. There are guesthouses on top of restaurants on top of yoga
centers on top of t-shirt shops – and an internet café on each floor.
90% of the people walking
the streets are Western and 90% of the people standing to the side are Nepalis.
Thamel started life as one of the famous “tourist ghettos”, but has
since become the home away from home for the yuppie trekking crowd paying top
tourist dollar. Every other shop has some kind of tour on offer – trekking,
rafting, horses, etc. and you can’t take three steps without someone offering
you something. They whisper in your
ear as you pass by – they even whisper “tiger balm” as if it was an
illicit drug or something. It’s
so bad that t-shirt shops do good business with embroidery that says: “no
hashish, no change money, no rickshaw, no
tiger balm, no one rupee, no problem”. For some reason, Naomi gets all the
pashmina offers and I get all the hashish offers.
The bad side is it’s not really Asia, but the good side is we can get
some home-type food, a hot bath and a non-drop toilet for a few days.
That is basically what we did yesterday and today – got our bearings,
comforted ourselves with Western food and Rock n’ Roll and planned the rest of
our stay in Nepal. We decided to
use the guesthouse as a base and take side trips for sightseeing the Valley,
trekking the Himalayas and Rafting.
On the news front, the India we just left is in festival mode since the kidnappers have released Rajkumar and our home is in hot-blooded debate mode over our essentially “tied” election. In many other countries, they would have either recounted everything automatically since it was so close or scheduled a run-off election between the top two candidates to eliminate the spoilers like Nader and Buchanon. Apparently, thousands of Floridian retirees accidentally voted for Buchanan because they were confused by the ballot layout.
Day 198, Sat, Nov. 18, 2000 – We spent the day getting away from Thamel and into the historic areas of the city. The action Saturday is a big shopping day so the crowds were heavy as we waded through a bustling vegetable market reminiscent of India or Turkey. Some men (particularly older) wore conical hats like a Turkish fez, scarves around their necks, cotton leggings tight at the calf but loose above and a baggy Kurta shirt. Women wore saris or colorful dresses with shawls, but in general there was much more Western dress than in India. The city was also cleaner, with less visible sewage and fewer cows - so consequently not nearly as much cow shit in the streets. Most of the action (local and tourist) centers around Durbar square, a huge collection of temples, monuments, places, and houses that was the center of royal and spiritual life. Nepal has all the Hinduism and Buddhism of India, and then some – the curious cohabitation of these and local traditions for centuries has created a unique creative atmosphere where artists influenced each other and Hindu temples sit next to Buddhist stupas and some temples have served both religions at one time or another. The temples are multi-tiered with incredible carved wood struts to support the roofs and the requisite statues of Vishnu, Shiva, Hanuman, et. al.
There are numerous erotic carvings on the temple struts – some of which are even more explicit than the temples at Khajaraho (although not as artistic). Theories abound as to the significance – from tantric Buddhist influences, to Kama Sutra, to protection from the shy virgin goddess of lightening. Regardless of the historic significance, they do become the object of much pointing and photography. One building in Durbar Square is the fascinating home of Kumari Devi, a girl chosen to be a living goddess from about 5 until puberty, and then lives on a pension for the rest of her life. The tradition was started hundreds of years ago when a king had sex with a young virgin and she died. Now kings and ministers have to bow down to her to be accepted by the people. Of course she has never rejected a head of state. We asked what would happen if she did, but people just smiled. The selection process is very rigorous, including 32 physical characteristics, a test of bravery and other tests with objects belonging to preceding goddesses (similar to the Dalai Lama). Westerns are allowed to take photos of the elaborately carved windows and interior courtyard of her house, but never the Kumari herself (although postcards of her are all over the city). Durbar contains some of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, including the Kasthamandap (house of wood) that gave the city its name and Hanuman Dhoka, the old royal palace. We hung out in the square for hours. We particularly liked sitting on the steps of the temples and watching the scenes unfold below – fruit and vegetable vendors, guides with tourists, pilgrims, kids, and sadhus in all kinds of dramatic outfits. As we had heard in India, someone here told us that many sadhus are just professional beggars trying to get tourists to take their picture so they can demand money. Apparently, a “real” sadhu on a bona fide spiritual journey would rather denounce Shiva himself than ask for money from strangers. Some outfits worked wonders, as tourists gathered around. We even saw the guy featured in Lonely Planet photos on the steps of one temple.
On the way back to Thamel, we took a long detoured walk through various marketplaces with woodcarvings, masks, puppets, pottery, and thangka paintings. On every street and corner was some statue or temple that would be a highlight in any other country, but is being used to dry clothes or lay out vegetables for sale. Some were hidden in innocuous side streets and courtyards, like a monument to a child-eating demon. The day was a fascinating look at the ancient monuments, but we enjoyed the people most of all – smiling children, old women weaving cloth, men carrying huge loads. In a country with 75% illiteracy, per capita GDP of under US$300 and life expectancy of about 57 years it is incredible how people with so little can love life so much and keep smiling. Many writers put it down to the influence of the Eastern religions that focus on, karmic justice, reincarnation and the illusion of this life. Whatever the reason, we met few people who would not return our “namaste” with a “namaste” of their own – invariable in a cheerier tone. This is one of our favorite greetings we have come across, meaning not just “hello” but roughly “I greet the god in you, I meet you in peace”.
Day 199, Sun, Nov. 19, 2000 – An incredible day of
euphoric success today as we finally found a place that allowed us to connect to
their network and upload the website! The
good folks at Cybermatha were our heroes for the day- we spent 5 hours
connected to their network. We
celebrated with a nice dinner and some drinks.
Day 200, Mon, Nov. 20, 2000 –
We took a bone-rattling rickshaw ride to the outskirts of the city to
visit the most important Hindu shrine in Nepal at Pashupatinath.
Unfortunately, we had to make the same trip 4 times after forgetting the
camera battery. The temple is on
the banks of a river with ghats similar to, but smaller than, those at Varanasi.
It is off limits to non-Hindus, so we walked across a bridge and watched
from across the river where we could see the ancient caves used by hermits and
sadhus and see the 11 small chaityas, each housing a symbolic shiva lingham in
stone. Worshippers bathed in the river, made offerings, and washed some
things as monkeys and dogs wandered about.
The complex is also one of the most important Shiva temples in the world,
drawing pilgrims from all over – particularly the Sadhus who gather amongst
the chaityas across the river from the temple.
Some were sleeping and others smoked chillums as big as Miles Davis’
trumpet (obviously on the way to sleeping). We hung out with them for a while,
but noticed that not all were genuine when they demanded money from a blonde
Norwegian tourist. Across the river a cremation was taking place on a pyre of
wood in front of a sign for the “cornea excision center”.
The scene was very sad as one woman continually broke down until
one of the men led her away. We
were surprised it was such a public ceremony, but there was a whole gallery of
strangers looking on from the wall above the ghat and some taking pictures.
Pashupatinath we walked a few kilos through some very poor neighborhoods with
dirt roads and little kids who curiously always had shirts but often no pants
were headed for the Buddhist stupa at Bodhnath.
It is the largest in Nepal and one of the largest in the world.
The current structure was built in the 14th century after the
original 6th century stupa was damaged by invading Mughals.
The stupa is said to house a “true relic” of Buddha himself and is
full of symbolism including
a mandala base (earth), rounded dome (water), spire (fire), umbrella (air) and
pinnacle (ether). Buddha’s
watchful eyes look from each of four directions and his curly nose is actually
the Nepali number one, symbolizing the unity of all life.
We walked around the stupa,
said a small prayer for peace, then spun some of the hundreds of little prayer
wheels. Circling the stupa, the
robust Tibetan community has shops and restaurants.
We ate at the immodestly (but accurately)
named Stupendous View Café as the sun was setting in the distance. Afterward, a band of monks was playing around a mound of food offering.
They included, tambourines, drums, flutes, and even a huge conch shell.
After the band finished, people lined up with bags to receive some of the
rice, fruit and candy.
Day 201, Tues, Nov. 21, 2000 – We spent the
morning on errands, shopping, emails and walks around town – the place is
growing on us. In the afternoon we
took a taxi to the Swayambunath Buddhist temple.
The complex is on a huge hill West of the city up 365 steps.
Along the way you can admire the statues of the various “vehicles”
used by the different ideal Buddhas – garudas,
horses, lions, elephants and peacocks. The
ideal (Dhyani) Buddhas and their vehicles are similar to the various aspects of
Hindu gods used to show different aspects of their personality.
If you need a break on the way up the hill, you can always watch the
playful and rambunctious monkeys playing in the trees and bounding around
statues, walls, and fences. One encounter with these critters and it’s obvious why the
temple is called “monkey temple”. One
tourist was so surprised when they walked up behind her that she dropped her
sandwich – which was probably the plan all along. The monkeys are accorded a
great deal of respect not just because of the Hindu god Hanuman, but because
they are a living creature like any other in the Buddhist worldview prevailing
on the hill. There apparently has
been a stupa on the hill for centuries. The
stupa, some 700 years old, is full of symbolism just as Bodhnath is, but painted
a brilliant gold that reflects light all over the valley below.
It also has the ever-present sacred mantra of “om mani padme hum” on
prayer wheels and flags -each spin of the wheel or wave of the flag carrying the
prayer up to the heavens. We’ve
heard several interpretations of the prayer from the obvious (“never end peace
and love”) to the obscure (“there is a jewel in the lotus”).
We wandered into the attached monastery to observe the monks during
afternoon chants and prayers. They
sat around a long low table and used just their voices and percussion
instruments. We felt odd watching
from behind, but they let tourists in to observe and be entertained.
It was very interesting to see the interaction
of the monks and hear the chanting and music, but not the easiest sound on the
ears, as melody in a Western sense is not their primary objective. Afterward, we
met some of the younger monks outside and we talked for a while. They wanted to practice English and we wanted to learn more
about their monastic life. They
were mostly from Tibet, as many Buddhists in Nepal are.
Back at the hotel, we called Mom and Dad for thanksgiving. It was great just to hear their voices, not to mention talk about news and people back home. We went to bed early in anticipation of the next phase in our Nepal adventure – a trip to Pokara to start a trek in the Himalayan range.
Day 202, Wed, Nov. 22, 2000 – We sleepily boarded the bus at 6:00 AM. Although we were not adequately caffeinated, the incredible scenery of mountains, rice fields, rivers and whitewater rafters brought us to attention. Unfortunately, an obnoxious American sat behind us and couldn’t stop talking about how backward everything was as if we all loved to hear his voice as much as he did. At various stops, a group of people would crowd around selling things or getting on and off the bus. At our tea break, a lamb was led by a rope across the road where its head was lopped off with a sword. Some of the Western tourists looked on and stopped drinking their tea (vegetarians maybe?). As we approached Pokara, we could barely make out the Himalayan tops of the Annapurna range as they poked through and over the clouds as if playing hide-and-seek. When we stopped, we got off the bus with our guide, Dorje Sherpa, and porter, Babu, who we had arranged with Trekking Team in Kathmandu. Dorje looks just like Naomi’s cousin Roy. As in India (“are you from Goa?”), Naomi has been suspected of being from Nepal ("face same same"). We had compared Trekking Team to a couple other outfits, and they were not only the most professional looking, but also the cheapest (which is also good). We had selected the absolute shortest trek available – five days to the scenic sunrise on Pune Hill – since our fitness was sadly a bit suspect at this point. We thought if that weenie Prince Charles can do it, than we would have no problem. We all took a taxi to the Snow Hill Lodge, where we read in the garden for a while before having a pasta dinner with Dorje. He explained that all Sherpas have that name, even the most famous sherpa– Tenzin Norgay – who may have been the first person to set foot atop Mt. Everest (with New Zealander Edmund Hillary).
Day 203, Thur, Nov. 23, 2000 – We wake at 6:30 as planned, but Naomi is deathly ill. She had been feeling a bit off for a few days, but now she can’t get out of bed. We are forced to change plans for the trek and thankfully Dorje and Babu are flexible in a wonderfully Nepali way – accepting what comes, even in a work situation. If we were doing this trip in the US Rockies, the guides would have a coronary and sue us for inflicting mental anguish. We go back to sleep until 11:00. Naomi is still groggy, so I walk into town to the pharmacy and buy three different medicines based on recommendations from the pharmacist, Lonely Planet and Dorje. I ignored the advise of the American guy who strolled up and asked for everything you can’t get over the counter in the States (“you know, man, Valium – it’s the blue one with a big V on it”). I think he was more successful than I was because he knew what to ask for. I just had a list of Naomi’s symptoms (nausea, body aches, fever, sleeplessness). Of course Naomi was concentrating on the most severe illnesses listed in Lonely Planet – malaria, dengue fever, parasites, hepatitis, etc. After playing (inept) doctor, I walked around Pokara town. It is perfectly situated on a lake with a wonderful mountain backdrop. It has hundreds of shops, all with the same stuff, like a miniature Thamel but a lot more mellow. One exception is books. In Thamel there were dozens of bookstores specializing in two things: the hundreds of huge coffee-table books about the region with amazing photography of the mountains and locals; and the plethora of adventure hiking stories that have come out since the success of Into Thin Air, the sad but true story about what happens when rich guys with egos hang out in low-oxygen places. In Pokara, I couldn’t find a decent book, so I was stuck with Conversations With God, A Season in Heaven (a collection of first hand accounts of the 60s hippie trail) and Karma Cola, a hilarious look at the history of West meets East from an Indian author’s comic perspective. These will have to get us through those cold nights in the tea houses during the trek.
By nightfall, Naomi was feeling good enough to eat a little in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday. We tried to approximate some traditional home cooking, but the Le Bistro restaurant just couldn’t match the Immel household’s homemade noodles or the Shibuya household’s gravy over rice. Ah, the comforts of home can never be forgotten (especially if they have to do with food)
Day 204, Fri, Nov. 24, 2000 – Naomi had recovered somewhat, although not anywhere near 100%, so after some discussion we decided to carry on with the original trekking plan. It started easy enough with a 7:15 taxi van ride to the nearby village of Phedi. We joined a dozen other vans disgorging trekkers at the foot of hundreds of steps cut into the misty hillside. After just half and hour we were sweating and shedding the layers of our carefully planned layers of clothes. The views of the rice terraces and hills were soon truly awesome as we could look down at where we had started many meters below. The ranks of hikers started thinning out and we were passed by numerous impossibly-burdened porters. We went through farms, fields and tiny villages, some with school-age kids working or milling around, all of who seemed to have learned from previous travelers to yell “schoolpencandymoney” to anyone looking foreign. Dorje was kind of disappointed too, as he knows we’d rather talk and play with the kids than just give treats. We stopped for lunch at Dhampas. Naomi was still sick and the hike was not helping matters. Thankfully, it was only 90 minutes more to Pothana, where we stop for the night at Gurung Guest House. The town was obviously dependent on passing trekkers, as it was no more than guesthouses, shops and vendors with their wares on tables along the route. We bought a small knife as a letter opener and a medallion for luck and interviewed one of the owners of a guesthouse:
Puna: Health, money and culture. People
in the West should be more aware of poor people.
Nature is important – we have a beautiful land.
After a wonderful bucket shower with water heated on the fire (just like Africa), we had a pretty hearty dinner of curry and rice. A huge moth was fluttering around Naomi, so she asked me to put it out of her misery. I did with the thump of my book, but unfortunately, the guys saw me and the lively conversation in the dining room fell silent. I had to explain that I believed in Karma to a certain extent except as it relates to dangerous critters and disease-bearing pests like mosquitoes. They didn’t seem to buy it, so I joked that I was probably doing the moth a favor by killing him so he’d be reincarnated quicker and possibly into a better life. They didn’t appreciate that joke either and we were stuck with the prospect of getting off on the wrong foot with our traveling team. After dinner Dorje and Babu played cards with the other guides and porters while their respective clients passed out dead in their rooms – this of course included us. Pick your analogy: we felt like we had just: a) ran a marathon, b) skied moguls 24 hours straight, or c) went 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. We think it’s all of the above. Unfortunately the hotel did not go along with our plan to pass out right away. You know your hotel has thin walls when you can hear your neighbor not only snore, but also scratch himself and pass gas
Day 205, Sat, Nov. 25, 2000 – The day that eventually will be dubbed “one of the most horrible days of my entire life” by Naomi. It started awfully since we got no sleep last night due to campfire parties, barking dogs and the thin plywood walls; we heard every sound within 100 meters (most of them loud). Not to mention the cold. Who would have thought the Himalayas would be cold in November? We had rented sleeping bags that were as tight as cocoons so they had to be used as blankets. Unfortunately they were as slippery as snot so the other grubby blanket they gave us kept slipping off onto the dirty floor. We consequently spent the night lying awake (due to the noise and cold) thinking of Edward Mallory’s bleached white body frozen on the slopes of Mt. Everest (in spite of being fully clothed in several layers and wearing our ski caps). Needless to say, we woke in a somewhat foul state and we were in no mood to start a day twice as long as yesterday- 7 hours of hiking! We had a great omelet, complained to Dorje about the room and headed out at 7:45. Naomi was still struggling with the flu and cursing us for deciding to come after all. We went up and down for two hours before we were stunned into silence by our first good look at Annapurna South. It rose huge in the middle distance as clouds parted when we came around a corner. We could only manage a “wow” and momentarily forgot Naomi’s aches, which not only included the flu, but also slipping on rocks and falling on her ass twice. We took some photos but the clouds quickly hid the mountains as they had done the past two days. As we climbed we were completely humbled by the dozens of porters bounding past us with enormous loads strapped to their backs and tied to their heads. The loads were unbelievable-everything from suitcases, backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, kitchen gear, pots and pans, kerosene lamps and even a generator. They handled their loads with the agility of a mountain goat and the grace of an Indian railway porter, but they did it over the roughest terrain wearing beach flip-flops. Dorje said the standard load was 25 kgs but some carry up to 50 kgs. We thought Babu had it tough with our one bag but we saw one trekking party with 11 porters for two tourists on an eight day camping trip.
They looked more like somebody heading to the Congo. We obviously were ashamed of our earlier complaints about the state of our hotel room. The trek we chose was much tougher than we imagined. It was one of the shortest and easiest listed in Lonely Planet so I readied ourselves with thoughts of hiking to the top of Yosemite’s half dome and Naomi thought about her 70 year old grandma hiking in the Mammoth mountains. The problem of course was that Yosemite and Mammoth are far from being the Himalayas. With two slipped lumbar discs, one broken foot, two bum knees, one twisted ankle, a serious flu and one pot belly (guess who?) between us we were asking for trouble. The trails are mostly made with stone steps added in the last 30 years over the trails the villagers and traders have been using for centuries. According to the fancy Casio altimeter watch I got for the trip (which I haven’t actually learned to use properly), today’s height profile was up and down like a saw tooth pattern unlike yesterday’s 45-degree angle straight up. The downs were almost as bad as the ups due to the jarring on our knees and ankles. In our condition we were really starting to think it was a mistake to continue but we were way beyond the point of no return on a five-day circular trek so we had to tough it out. We just kept pumping our legs forward one step at a time; we were bouncing too heavy to talk so our minds drifted to thoughts of Thanksgiving dinner at home (Jamie) and shopping (Naomi). After lunch we accepted the inevitable and switched our mindset from glass half empty to glass full. Then the power of positive thinking started filling up the other half of the glass. It was mostly due to the unbelievable scenery. Green, yellow and brown paddies of rice and millet; sparkling water from melted snow on glaciers cascading over our path and into the river below; fields of yellow, red, blue, purple and white wildflowers; blissful bucolic scenes of villagers cutting grass by hand, plowing fields with water buffalos, grinding flour with a stone wheel, sifting grains and playing with children; and the mighty Himalayan Annapurna range poking through the clouds just a few times to remind us they are there-as if you could forget the highest mountain range in the world. The hours added up as our bodies rebelled. By the time we had managed thousands of steps, boulders, mud holes and a handful of wobbly cable bridges we thought we had grown two more legs to join our mountain goat brethren. The problem was, the new legs were throbbing with pain as well as the old. The seventh hour was reserved for the 451 steps of death leading to the Tibet Guesthouse. Of course we didn’t know there were 451 at the time because if we did, we would have just surrendered to the hovering vultures then and there. Who would have imagined 45 flights of stairs at the end of our seven-hour hike. I literally had to push Naomi up some of them. We knew it was really bad when even Dorje was bent over his walking stick. When we got to our rooms in Jhinu, Naomi collapsed and didn’t (couldn’t) move a muscle for an hour. Fool that I am, I agreed to go down to the famous hot springs with Babu. Big mistake. Freed of his usual restrictive load, Babu bounded down the steps like he was in a steeplechase. Of course I couldn’t stay with him so I gave up trying. He gave up waiting too and beat me by 15 minutes on a 30-minute walk. There were two concrete pools filled with hot spring water and several grateful trekkers sprawled inside. It felt great but what really made the trip was the rubber pipe spewing hot water onto the rocks near the river. I just sat there in a lazy man’s lotus position letting the water pour over me. I got a lot closer to Nirvana than I thought I ever would after that hike. Unfortunately, I got so relaxed, it was a real struggle to put clothes back on and hike again to the guesthouse. By the time we got there, the benefits of the hot spring had dissipated and my legs were aching again. Naomi woke from a nap and felt the same way. Needless to say, nothing could keep us awake, which was a good thing.
Day 206, Sun, Nov. 26, 2000 – Well we are alive, although not as alive as we would like to be. Only 5 hours today - 2 less than yesterday-good thing because we couldn’t take another yesterday without a helicopter. The Tibet guesthouse had a comfy enough room and bed and actual stone walls, so we were set for a good night’s sleep last night. Unfortunately we didn’t count on monkeys. About ten minutes after we settled down so our aching bodies could relax, we heard a tremendous clanking on our corrugated tin roof. A cat on a hot tin roof is nothing compared to monkeys fighting, mating, eating or whatever the hell they were doing. They didn’t necessarily bang around all night-they had an uncanny ability to act up just minutes after we would nod off. In the morning, after great omelets and Tibetan fried bread we did more stretching out than we had done in weeks (a couple days too late of course) and headed off. It was a straight climb up again, watching rays of sunlight peek over the mountains and brighten the green terraces. After three hours we got to Chule for lunch. Our legs still ache - we’re just not used to it. It’s not like we never hike – I hike from the couch to the fridge all the time and Naomi is a world-class mall hiker- it’s just slightly different here. Conversation being too tiring, our minds drift-alternating happy thoughts and sad thoughts like Thanksgiving dinners with our families, the chain gang scene from Cool Hand Luke, playing with our nieces and nephews, having our wisdom teeth pulled, puppy dogs, vultures, hang gliding over clouds, and the jungle march scene in The Bridge over River Kwai. At lunch we played with kids who were already wrestling and doing push ups at 3 years in preparation of joining the legendary Gurkha soldiers who are from this region. The family also had an adorable baby strung up to rest the old fashioned way, with a blanket tied between two posts. He was waking up and groggily feeling his way through the blanket as we ate. After lunch the trek leveled out a bit along terraced yellow fields passing villagers sifting millet and weaving baskets as if it was the year 1000 instead of 2000. Soon the terrain changed to a forest-eerie and moss covered with mist rolling through the trees. We started descending again as steps were replaced by muddy tree roots and fallen branches. We had a creepy Blair Witch moment when monkeys surprised us in the trees. They were much bigger than the African vervet species with pitch black faces staring out from white furry wigs. Porters continue to pass us in droves-each one severely humbling us with their agility, strength and stamina-making us feel extremely guilty for whining so much especially considering that some people spend their lives dreaming of seeing the Himalayas. We finally made it to Grand View guesthouse in Tadapani and met up with some other trekkers we had been seeing on the trails. We developed a camaraderie that can only come from shared struggle and sacrifice-not to mention the shared thrill of seeing the mighty Annapurna range tower over us (hence the name of the guesthouse). We all sat around the dining room table hunkering for heat from the coal stoves underneath. We even hung some clothes under the table to dry. It was a veritable United Nations-Italy, Germany, Israel, Australia, Sweden, Nepal, Tibet and USA represented. We struggled together in a common cause as the real UN does, although our objective was much more modest: to stay warm. Outside the clouds played peek-a-boo with the mountains and after sunset the stars were brilliant; inside the food was the best we have had. It has been fun deciphering menus like “has born” (hash brown) potatoes and lassania (lasagne). After dinner, we got the cards out and played gin. We’ve noticed an interesting social pecking order on the treks. The porters don’t guide and the guides don’t carry – and they segregate somewhat at the end of the day. However, a game of cards is the great equalizer – cutting across all languages, nationalities and economic situations. Of course Babu, who couldn’t even read in Nepali was kicking our asses in an English card game.
Day 207, Mon, Nov. 27, 2000 – Today had different scenery – a veritable jungle trek with donkeys, monkeys, cows and chickens. We had lunch in another typical small trekking village, Deurali, before winding up in Ghorepani at the aptly named Hotel Snowland. As we reach higher and higher altitude, it is colder – especially at night. In the lodge, we all fight for spots in front of the heater, which is our new best friend (along wit our buddy the hot cup of tea). We even got a hot shower thrown in here, out back in a shed next to the scavenging wild ferrets. We had previously only seen ferrets in captivity – usually with someone that needs a bit of attention. The alleys outside were full of Tibetan refugees selling wares. We talked to a few while watching the sunset reflect on the peaks far overhead, but seemingly within reach.
Bempa: I lose country. I love my country, but we have no freedom. I hope some day, but China is a very big and strong country. But Dalai Lama has many friends, I hope some day we will be back.
Dawan:The main thing is my country. Maybe one day we can go home. Today many problems. We are actually eliminated.
We had a great chicken dinner for the first time in a while (with potatoes instead of rice!) and played cards again. There was a group of Kentuckians at the guesthouse and we had a fairly heated discussion about the election. We came to an agreement that we all have to make the proverbial choice between two evils – we just disagree on which evil is worse.
Day 208, Tues, Nov. 28, 2000 – Well, today was meant to be the highlight of our 5-day trek: the ultimate view of the dramatic postcard sunrise over the Himalayas as glimpsed from the top of Poon hill. We awoke at 4:30 freezing our asses off and started the long walk up stairs and steps. Everyone had flashlights, so we looked like a parade of lights snaking up the hill – whenever a light went out of line we knew someone had stumbled on the rocks. Of course, locals had beaten us to the top – including hearty entrepreneurs selling hot tea and chocolate from thermos jugs. Everyone huddled around in small groups to keep warm. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and the famous sunrise turned out to be a disappointment. The tourists groaned a bit and started back down the hill, where we were rewarded with a beautiful view of prayer flags fluttering in the wind. We had a quick breakfast back in Ghorepani before starting the longest downhill portion of the trek, dodging donkey caravans with tinkling bells and slipping on the combination of hail, mud and shit. We each fell a few times, but my tumbles where considerably more spectacular. After a few hours and thousands of stair steps, we struggled into Tirkhedhunga for lunch and got off our feet. By then Naomi blew her knee out and I lost a hamstring - we could hardly bend our knees and had to tell Dorje to go much slower after lunch. It was encouraging that this was the last leg of the trek, and we also gained strength from being shamed by the porters as usual. They were carrying chickens, aluminum siding, logs, 4 by 4s, and typically huge baskets – and they were all going up the hill! After lunch there were still 5 hours left, especially at our limping speed. Towards the end, we were passed by two kids with enormous bails of hay on their backs. They were laughing and joking the whole way - we continue to be amazed by these people. Eventually, we were within site of the last village, Birethanti. Groans gave way to broad smiles when we first glimpsed traffic on the road above. We felt sorry for the vendors at the end of the trek because all the tourists were too tired to shop there. On the road, Dorje negotiated with a driver for a ride back to Pokara. Back at the hotel, they somehow forgot we were returning, so we had to find another place to crash. By the time we got a room, we were exhausted and crashed out with a strange sense of accomplishment (or is that survival).
The last long and winding road.
Day 209, Wed, Nov. 29, 2000 – Crawled out of bed
like 90-year olds and pulled our clothes on to catch a 6:30 taxi.
We were pleasantly surprised that the weather had finally cleared so we
could see the white Annapurna range towering on the horizon for the first time.
We took plenty of photos from the bus parking lot. Halfway there, we got a flat tire, which required about 20
guys standing in a circle pointing an d gesticulating to repair.
The Kathmandu guesthouse welcomed us with open arms again, and we soaked
in hot baths after a reasonable cocktail of painkillers, rum, and tiger balm.
We finally realized why tourists received continuous offers of the
muscle-soothing rub. The return to
civilization gave us perspective about the trek.
As unfit tourists, we have the greatest respect for those who go much
further than us, especially to the three-week trek to the Everest base camp. But our greatest admiration is for the incredible scenery and
the wonderful people living and struggling in the region – especially the
porters and kids who earn a living hauling goods where no vehicle could ever go.
The journey provided us an insight into a slower, ancient, less stressful
way of life.
Day 210, Thur, Nov. 30, 2000 – A day of vegetative recovery: sleeping in, running errands, writing and watching TV to get caught up on the latest election comedies. Gore is still “fighting for what’s right for the American people” and Bush is still faking his way through, hoping to appear “presidential”. It's all very depressing.
Day 211, Fri, Dec, 1, 2000 – Today we visited another of the historical rival kingdoms within the Kathmandu Valley. Patan is sometimes called Lalitpur, “City of Beauty”. It had been a completely separate kingdom, but now with the sprawl of suburbs it is just over the river from Kathmandu. We took a taxi straight to Durbar Square, which is packed with temples – even more per square km than Kathmandu. The temples are amazing – combinations of Buddhist and Hindu iconography, with many worshippers, but not nearly as many sadhus as Kathmandu. The royal palace pre-dates the others in the valley and the museum is one of the finest of its kind in the world. It was used in some scenes of the film “Little Buddha”. The surrounding structures have some of the finest woodcarving we've seen. The palace museum contains wonderful exhibits and explanations of the confusing pantheon of Hindu gods and Buddhist aspects, but just as in India we were confused by a new twist when we thought we had a basic understanding. In the streets, kids played, men sat in the sun chatting and women worked the laundry in the public fountains.
We left Patan wishing we had more time to spend here, but
we had to go back to Kathmandu because we had a pre-arranged meeting with
another tour company. We had not even recovered from the trek, but already paid for
a rafting trip that according to what the trusty Lonely Planet said that was
“one of the best two-day rafting trips to be found anywhere in the world”.
The famous and mystical Bhote Kose is the steepest river rafted in Nepal,
with continuous class 4 rapids. I
couldn’t wait, but Naomi still has somewhat unhappy memories of being tossed
from a raft in Costa Rica. She
If you would like to follow our adventure in Nepal, please click here: Photojournal December 2 - 7, 2000.
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