A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek Costs

The entire two week trek cost $1156 for the two of us. This covered our daily expenses, tea houses, food, equipment rental, equipment purchases, porter daily fee (including a tip), permit fees and extras such as rum, chocolate, and even a massage halfway through the trek. Also including all the trek necessities: tiger balm, bandaids, mole skin, knee wraps, and a ton of ibuprofen.

Agencies charge on average $1k per person for the same trek but that only covers the guide and porter, transportation, hotel, food, and permit fees. So really it would have cost us about $2500 through an agency, because of all the equipment and other stuff we brought. Independent trekking is a much better deal and doesn’t require very much legwork at all.

For anyone considering an independent trek, I would highly recommend Krishna as your Porter/Guide. He has started a trekking company called Touch Paradise that can also provide a range of other services in and around Nepal.

Krishna Dhakal - Touch Paradise

Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
website: www.enepaltrek.com
email: paradise@enepaltrek.com
phone: +977 1 4255406

Why is Krishna so fantastic? First and foremost, he speaks excellent English for a native Nepali which is a must given all the communication that takes place all day long. You don’t want to have to sign language with your porter basics like when you are leaving, which route to take, when to stop and why you are stopping, where to stay, etc. He has experience trekking all over the region for several years, so there are no surprises. And he’s friendly, a real doll in fact, so you actually enjoy spending all the hours you inevitably will spend together.

Often times I don’t know if I could have made it without Krishna. Not just for carrying weight that I certainly couldn’t have carried myself. But for leading us each and everyday, in good times and bad, inspiring us to keep going. And always with a warm smile on his face. Thanks Krishna, you are the best!!

However, once we tried to carry him around, we realized he was a bit heavier than he looks…


Last Day of the Trek

The original plan from this point involved a two day trek back up and down a valley to Phedi. On the other hand, Yoav and Michal were going to follow a route that was one day on relatively flat grade back to Nayapul. We wanted to hang tough until the end but it wasn’t a difficult decision to follow our new friends. First we descended down stone staircases from Jhinu to the eloquently named “New Bridge”. It was one of at least a dozen scary river crossings. I’m not necessarily afraid of heights (like Ron) but I have a severe phobia of walking on anything vaguely transparent. Glass floors and loosely grated bridges give me vertigo and heart palpitations. I would have to remind myself repeatedly (and sometimes out loud) not to look down to the roaring river below.

This last day of our trek was easily one of my favorite. We followed dirt trails winding and rolling over the stepped farmlands, rice fields, and charming villages of slate roofed houses on lush green slopes.

The women dry and beat their millet harvest under the warm sun.

The men expertly weave baskets that will later be filled with all the necessities from the city for their remote lives in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The children watch you pass by with a pure and open inquisitiveness in their eyes. You are their real-life Dora the explorer.

Its hard not to romanticize the pastoral ideal of this existence, but it’s a tough and unrelenting life. The work is never done, there is always more to do. This struggle is etched into the wrinkled lines of the porters faces straining under their burdens. But they smile still. Bright and easy. Like the sun shining on them all day long.

I walked softly on my blistered feet, taking in the last hours of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ron captures it all on film, racking up over a thousand photos. I’m not exaggerating! We stopped for lunch in Sayil Bazar and I tried something called Chips Chilly which I probably should have guessed was french fries with a spicy red sauce. Hmmm. The 500ml of Fanta that accompanied it was like drinking nectar of the gods. Although probably not the healthiest of choices, eating in general on the trek has reminded me how much food is fuel. In modern day life you can forget that quite easily and just eat out of habit, out of boredom, and of course out of gastronomic pleasure. But food here has a purpose. It keeps you going, it gets you up in the morning, and then up the mountain that afternoon.

If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have changed much. The only thing that would have made the trek far more enjoyable would have been to train on some inclines for a month or so prior. We are definitely case in point that you don’t have to be in top form to do this trek and still have fun (and still come back alive).

We had suffered many hardships: unrelenting stairs, dizzying high altitudes, freezing cold weather, unpleasant neighbors, sour stomachs in squatty potties, busted knees, twisted ankles, and blisters to boot. But its funny when I think back, I don’t remember any of those things. Perhaps we have our rusty old memory to thank for editing out the lowlights so we can remember what made the trip so special. Hiking in the clean mountain air. Krishna, our fearless leader. Poon Hill all to ourselves. Hot lemon tea and rum in a warm dining room. The Chomrong Fresh-House. Climbing the last steps up to ABC. Cocooning snugly in a sleeping bag. Laughing until your belly hurts with new friends. Unimaginably picturesque vistas and views, winding up from the golden farmlands to the snowy peaks and back again.

What a trek!


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jhinu Danda Hot Springs

We met Yoav and Michal, a father and daughter duo from Yokne'am, Israel that we had seen on the trails a few times and had stopped for the night at the same guesthouse. We had one of those instantaneous connections, and enjoyed dinner together several times.

Yoav told us a story about his sister inviting him over for dinner and then confessing that she had cooked their fish in the dishwasher. Not only were the dishes clean but the fish came out perfectly steamed. This was funny in itself, but then I thought that we should rename dishwasher to “fishwasher” and we all laughed until we nearly cried.

As positively crazy as it sounds, steaming a fish in the dishwasher is a legitimate way to poach salmon. Try this recipe for some shock and awe and your next dinner party.

We had an equally you-had-to-have-been-there-moment when we misheard another porter saying the springs were so hot you could boil a chicken egg. We just heard “you could boil a chicken” and we imagined being in the springs with a flock of chickens, basically cooking up our dinner while we bathed. We could call the dish “hot spring chicken”. Since they drain and clean the tubs every night we laughed about how they would have to clean out the feathers lest they clog the drain. Later, when Krishna caught a chicken, we busted up again, like it wasn’t far fetched at all.

We heard the hot springs were “just down the hill” so we asked if we could wear our flip flops. Luckily, we ignored this advice and wore our hiking boots because it was a good thirty minutes down a wooded trail.

When we got to the bottom and turned the corner, who was in the hot spring? Ok, you know by now. I thought we shook them at the last guesthouse but there they were in all their glory, and in bathing suits. There were only three tubs carved out of rock, one was full, and one was occupied by a pudgy wrinkly naked guy who went pee in front of us before jumping in. We would have to swim with the enemy.

The tubs overlooked the aquamarine Modi Khola river, rushing madly and enticing you for a whitewater rafting trip (another popular adventure in Nepal). The water felt fantastic! It wasn’t especially hot but it eased our sore muscles. We soaked until our fingers and toes were prunes.

Later I was bored, having finished my book on Annapurna and was extorted by the teahouse owner into paying over four dollars for a cover-less and yellowing copy of Christine. I was that desperate, but as always entertained by Stephen King.

Also immeasurably entertaining, the owners son, Susan, was quite a little ham and requested prompt payment for his pranks in Pringles. The tennis-ball can was made a perfect size to hide his little arm straining for more chips. Unlike our adult sized limbs that don’t seem to fit anymore as we invariably find ourselves tipping the can upside down. We coaxed Susan into filtering a liter of water for us in return for a Snickers, and he shot off like a lightning bolt to devour it and came back smiling with telltale chocolate on his cheek. When you're a kid your life literally revolves around Pringles and Snickers, not so unlike two exhausted trekkers I know.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coming down the mountain

The next morning was crystal clear and the sunrise was spectacular, bathing the peaks in golden light. Everyone standing, mouths agape, in hushed reverence.

We walked a short distance past the volleyball court (who knew it was a thriving winter sport?) to a prayer flag strewn chorten to give our thanks before our departure.

The view on the way down was breathtaking, Fishtail looking high and mighty, a king lording over his village flock.

We were flying down the mountain, twice as fast as it took to climb up. As we continued descending and descending, I almost couldn’t believe how many stairs, hills, and steep trails we had climbed. Ron’s knees couldn’t believe it either, and he wasn’t a happy camper.

Washing clothes has been an adventure on this trek, especially as we have only two sets of clothes and they are inevitably stanky after a day of hiking. We would wash items in the sink but they would never dry overnight in the cold air, so almost everyday there were items pinned to the outside of my pack so I would have a fresh shirt or underwear the next day.

Our wool socks never seemed to dry thoroughly and my Mom (a veteran Himalayan trekker) advised many times to avoid wet feet at all costs. Well, I tried my best but I found myself in a pair of slightly damp socks in my oversized boots on the longest day of downhill. Needless to say, I got six blisters in identical positions on both feet, with several more days of trekking ahead. Not good.

We stopped in Bamboo for the night and were lucky to get one of the last rooms at the last guesthouses in town. I went for a hot shower in the disgusting toilet/shower combo and came out with the willies and not exactly feeling clean. Where’s the Purell?

Then the inexplicable happened. Can you guess? The same &*%#! girls showed up and checked in to the room next to us!! At this point I realized that god was punishing us for something we had done. There was no other reasonable explanation for the ridiculousness of forcing us next to these hyenas for a third night. I repented: God, I’m sorry for whatever I have done. Please, no more. I can’t take it.

We resorted to some rum and tea to ease the pain. Played cards with Krishna, even though he always wins! And watched the owners feed their fiesty goats. One of them, I would assume the billy goat of the bunch, would even waltz with you for some extra cabbage.

The next morning I bandaged my battered feet with medical tape, bandaids, and moleskin until they were unrecognizable lumps. My right knee was busted now like Ron’s (probably from over favoritism) and we both sported a super-cool knee brace.

Another casualty was Ron’s right index toe that was repeatedly jammed into the toe of his boot. It turned black, threatening to fall off. And yes, I have to avoid those jagged toenails underneath the covers on a nightly basis.

The neverending stone staircase from Sinuwa down to the river was painful on our tender parts. Ron dubbed it the Stairway to Hell, as we both tried to interject some humor into our constant complaining. But there was no consoling me on the way back up to Chomrong, even with the paradise vista of lush grass and waterfalls. It was as bad, if not worse, than I imagined it would be. Almost as nasty as the 3120 stairs up to Ulleri.

Donkey trains would pass us every now and then bringing supplies to the remote villages of the region. The bells around there neck jangling softly in the distance before you actually saw them bounding down the steps. We would quickly step aside, for this is their road and they knew it.

Exhausted and all busted up we collapsed in Jhinu, famous for their hot springs, at what else but the Hot Springs Cottage. They were still under construction of the second floor, but I could care less, eyeing the shower and then the wooden picnic table to rest my weary bones. Maybe indefinitely. Once I sat down, there was little that was going to move me again. Newtons law of inertia at full effect.


Monday, November 16, 2009

We made it to Annapurna Base Camp!

The morning at MBC was bleak and cold. We hoped it would be a clear day and we would get a glimpse of the peaks we had been hiking 8 days to see up close. The hike, excuse me, trek started out innocently enough. There were no major inclines just a gentle upward gradient that should have been easier than it looked. I was, once again, struggling to get oxygen into my lungs and just moved in slow motion for most of the way which was only a couple miles.

It was still one of my favorite days of the trek. So quiet and peaceful, only the cries of crows in the lulls of the wind, in the alpine basin surrounded by the massive peaks of Annapurna I, Annapurna South, and Machapuchare. We spied a Himalayan tahr on the hillside, which is some type of a wild goat with bushy, wiry mane of hair.

We were in the heart of the mountain range, called Annapurna Sanctuary, with Annapurna I staring back at us.

“The sight far exceeded anything we had imagined, a terrific wall of ice rising above the mist to an unbelievable height, we were quite overwhelmed by its magnificence and grandeur”.

Yup. I couldn’t have said it any better than Maurice Herzog who along with Louis Lachenal were the first to summit Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world. In doing so, they were the first pair to summit a peak higher than 8000 meters in the Himalayas, the planets highest mountain range. Higher than the Alps and the Andes. Put together. Ok, that last piece isn’t true but it sounds good.

We saw ABC perched on a hillside in the distance. The white guesthouses and blue roofs signaled the end of our journey, the sum of our struggles. One hundred thousand stone stairs of pure torture for one brief moment of sheer pleasure at the accomplishment. Somehow the math works out. It is worth it. Something in the challenge shows us what we are made of, which you just can’t get sitting on your couch watching other people do it in National Geographic specials.

Ron and Krishna reached the top and stopped to wait for me. Again. I just love to feel like the tortoise. I plodded along and Krisha came back down to take my pack. The high altitude made it feel more like 50 pounds and it was a relief off my tired shoulders. The last of the stairs up were almost effortless with the exhilaration burning in my heart over finally reaching the finish line. Sometimes I doubted I would make it, but I kept putting one boot in front of another a million times over. I didn’t exactly saunter to the top of this mountain, but I DID IT!!

We toasted and congratulated each other with the whiskey that Krishna had carried for over thirty miles, god bless him. One drink at 4130 meters and I was certifiably tipsy. But I relished the warmth in my belly because it was icy cold, even the sun couldn’t temper the arctic chill. Doesn’t that subliminally make you want to chew some gum? The only gum I have is banana flavored and lasts exactly four chews before you have to spit it out.

We checked in to our room at Snowland Guest House, and guess who was next door?! We pleaded with the owner to move us one room down, away from the noise of the girls, but later that night we could still hear them blabbering two room away! The next day I decided to take pictures of them at breakfast, y’know for the blog. This one is particularly attractive, not only is it blurry but the girl has a full mouth of food. Maybe the only time she shuts up. I know, I’m mean and spiteful. Don't mess with me and my sleep.

We ate pizza in a packed dining room of trekkers all joyously exhausted. My stomach was a little acidic and I was frightened and reluctant to bare my bum in the freezing squatty potty at night by nothing but headlamp. It’s amazing what you can do when there are no alternatives. You just have to get on with it. In our room, we could see our breath, but could only guess how cold it was, I would venture to say it was….freakin’ cold! I pulled out all the stops to warm my ice-cubed feet: two pairs of socks wrapped in my down jacket stuffed in the bottom of my sleeping bag. In addition to my furry hat, I wrapped my scarf around my face so that not a square millimeter of flesh was exposed. Whereas, I looked like a lump of clothes strewn on the bed, Ron looked cute all mummified. Even with blue lips.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Into the mist of Machapuchare Base Camp

We awoke bright and early at 5am so we would arrive early enough at Machapuchare Base Camp (nicknamed MBC) and find a room. We had asked the woman the previous night to book us a room but through a miscommunication we didn’t realize it was a success until we were already up and dressed, having breakfast in the early dawn. Our new discovery is a Tibetan fried bread (sometimes listed as corn bread or gurung bread) with a fried egg “both sides” on top. So delicious is an egg folded in fried bread, like a giant breakfast taco, to get your motor running.

The next town, Himalaya came in only an hour and half, and I had premature thoughts of how easy the day would be. We continued up rolling hills, past so many waterfalls that soon the trail itself was wet and trickling underfoot.

The next two hours would be harder on rougher, steeper trails to scamper up until we reached Deurali. And then the final couple hours to MBC were pretty brutal. The change of altitude as we pushed towards the goal at 3700m/12,135 ft left me out of breath. I would slowly inch forward, getting further and further behind Krishna and Ron, leaning on my poles like crutches. My legs wobbled around in their hip sockets like I was relearning to walk again after being paralyzed. This would be my least favorite day of the trek.

As we neared MBC, the temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees and a misty fog rolled in like I was suddenly dropped into a very bad dream. Visibility ahead was only a couple feet. I panted and wheezed. Krishna said we were close. We crossed a river and were met with a fork in the road. He led us up a stone staircase that had a lodge that appeared to float on a cloud, an oasis amidst the mountains. I took all my strength that I had left in me to drag myself up those last hundred stairs. “Every step was a struggle of mind over matter”. It’s not like I’m battling the elements and hardships of the first Annapurna summit. Still, I silently cursed to myself, trying to urge myself on.

When I reached the top, Ron asked me not to be mad. Uh-oh I thought. Apparently Krishna directed us up the stairs but our lodge was down the hill on the other side. The entire staircase was an unnecessary detour! I was too exhausted to be mad, but later I would mime to Krishna that if he ever did it again I would strangle him with my bare hands.

We were greeted by the jovial smiling owner of the Gurung Guest House and fell into bed for awhile. Wrapped up under our sleeping bags for a nice afternoon nap, we would soon “meet” our neighbors, a couple Australian girls in their twenties, who checked in next door. Loud and extremely annoying, they kept chattering on without the least care to the paper thin walls. I learned more inane facts about them than I ever cared to know, including a blow by blow of a cold bucket shower, as I lay mentally and physically exhausted.

We got up to dutifully filter our water before dinner, and then snuggled into the dining room for some Tuna Mac & Cheese. The long wooden table seated at least twenty people and had a heavy blanket over it all the way to the floor to trap the warmth of a smelly gas heater placed recklessly close to our legs. At one point smoke billowed out from the table, us choking on foul gas, too cold to protest the danger and lung pollution we kept eating like it was perfectly normal.

There was no electricity in our room, so we tried to read by headlamp, shivering in our sleeping bags underneath extra blankets.

But the Aussie girls kept laughing and snorting, pausing only when someone from an adjacent room yelled “Shut up!” and then continuing on as if nothing had happened. Sigh. You can’t even get away from dumb people on the other side of the world and halfway up a remote mountainside in Nepal.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Little bit down, little bit up

We reached Sinuwa, after the grueling descent to the river and back up again, we were nearly parallel to Chomrong across a deep ravine, which made me wonder why they just put in a zipline between the two villages? Both Ron and I would be dreading the return trip for days to come. We are quite the pair. I hate up, he hates down and this segment has a little piece of hell for both of us. Luckily we were fresh from the rest day and our legs felt good and strong.

Beyond Chomrong we started to follow the deep forested gorge of the Modi Khola river. The forests were lush with pine, fern and bamboo thickets. As we walked past little villages, I saw a chicken projected out of thatched hut, arching through the air, feathers a-flying. Kicked by a girl talking on her cellphone. These are the contrasts of modernity and village life that strike you.

Now that we are in the special Annapurna conservation zone, wood fires and bottled water are no longer permitted and lodges are limited both in size and number to keep the area as pristine as possible.

We stopped in Bamboo for lunch and had the best Dal Bhat of the trip. Dal Baht is the ubiquitous meal in Nepal, sold for pennies to the porters but for a couple dollars to us. Consisting of lentils, rice, padadam, and some sort of assorted potato and vegetables, it is hearty and you always are offered free seconds. Its definitely the most economical meal. The only thing to watch out for is what we termed, “Dal Butt” or the ensuing gassiness after consuming too much Dal Bhat.

An hour further through rolling hills through the forest, we stopped in Dovan (2340m) around 1pm, we were extremely lucky to get a room at one of the three teahouses. So lucky, in fact, that an hour later they were putting people up in the dining room and two hours later they had to turn people away. It was sad to see some trekkers coming through exhausted after hiking all day, told they had to go another hour up or down the mountain and hope to get a room. We made it a point to get early starts from then on, so we always got a bed.

We savored our favorite dinnertime drink of warm lemon tea and khakuri rum. The tea was so good and lemony, it was like hot lemonade. Later, we found it wasn’t really hot tea or real lemon after-all but a sweet lemon concentrate. In any case, it was warming and delicious. We tore into a pack of Snickers bars to find them turned unnaturally white from sitting on a dusty shelf for what must have been ages. Rule #4 for travel - read the expiration dates. I can assure you after a 6 hour hike, even 3 years past guaranteed freshness, a Snickers is still pure heaven. Just close your eyes.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Chomrong - Gateway to the Sanctuary

We awoke late at nearly 7am (again) and hurried down for a breakfast of muesli with warm milk to assuage the cold morning. Then we took a path that winded down to a river, followed by a frisky rotweiller puppy. Across the other side there were a series of impossibly steep dirt trails, the kind you lean into and slide a half step down for every step you climb up. On to a village called Gurjung, past forests of marijuana and the aptly named Greenhill Lodge. There was a farmer tending his crops, grinning widely in the sun, and I thought about what a fantastic place this would be to retire for many of my compadres back home. A simple rustic life with killer Himalayan views amongst fields of green as far as the eye could see. This is a paradise found for someone, for sure.

We passed an eco-friendly sign with superbly bad grammar, like a Buddhist version of “All your base are belong to us”, that read:

Next we came to a teahouse that had the saddest, most pitiful sight imaginable. A little baby monkey tied up with a rope to a nearby pole. It just about broke our hearts. An Australian couple whom we met the night before was already well into a lecture to the owner about releasing it back into the wild. The story, supposedly went, that they happened upon the youngster alone, his mother killed. Somehow I couldn’t believe this was a better fate to having to fend for itself.

My ankle was a bit sore. Not horribly bad, but it would probably deteriorate if I walked on it too much. Better safe than sorry, we decided to hike three hours to Chomrong and stay an extra day to rest, which in more ways than one was a godsend for my aching body.

We stayed at Excellent View Top Lodge, which was totally packed the first night. We had a double room with a little balcony that did in fact have an excellent view, with the soft white cotton candy clouds stuck to the mountain peaks. But we had a window facing to the inside of the guesthouse (another retarded design feature), and it was pretty loud being near the shared bathroom, that was constantly in occupation. I had a startling thought that I had not done my business in 4 days now. I think when I’m in unfamiliar circumstances, my body just shuts down. I had a similar thing happen when I was on a week-long river rafting trip. In both cases, I wouldn’t make it all the way back to civilization without some debilitating septic shock setting in, so I would have to figure it out. The next day we were lucky to get one of the only rooms with a private bath (and western style toilet) for 500 NRS ($7) the most we paid for a room on the trip, and that did the trick. I guess I just needed some privacy. Unfortunately, it also had a solar shower but the overcast day didn‘t bring any hot water, so we were outta luck on that front.

Chomrong (2170m) is known as the Gateway to the Sanctuary as it is a one way trip from here to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), although many loops and circuits can be made up on your itinerary up until this point. It is a large Gurung village, and the first in the region to have hydroelectric power, harnessed by the power of the rushing rivers.

Even with the massive amounts of ibuprofen I was consuming, my thighs were burning with every step down, I would lean on the banister and wince when descending the stairs into the dining hall. We had delicious chicken enchiladas one night that appeared to be an exception as everything else wasn’t anything to write home about. Overall, there are a plethora of guesthouses in Chomrong, so I would keep looking next time. Although it did, amazingly, have an internet café (for like 15 cents/minute or $9/hour!) that neither Ron or I wanted to step near. Being out in nature and away from technology was what this trip was all about.

Krishna showed us to a local place for food and drink called a fresh-house. Not surprising given the village in which we stayed, it was named Chomrong Fresh-House. We sat on bamboo mats on the dirt floor of the hut. The woman poured us local wine in little mugs, a warm rakshi brewed from millet. It had the distinctive taste of all the raki we’ve ever dared to sample all over the world, something resembling gasoline, likely prepared in an unhygienic way you prefer not to be shown. Over the open fire, she cooked slop for her cattle that wandered aimlessly outside the hut.

Her husband, an artist with good printing to prove it, painted a new yellow sign for their stair-side restaurant.

We sampled buffalo jerky that hung to dry in a wooden rack over the hearth of the fire. It was heated in some oil and was the jerkiest jerky I’ve ever chewed, like I gnawed on one small piece for like 10 minutes hoping I wouldn‘t swallow it, choke, and die on buffalo jerky on the floor of a hut somewhere in the himalayas. It was dried naturally without any additives, so it had a rather strong flavor. No brown sugar, molasses, teriyaki, or hot peppers in sight. It made me nostalgic for 1 ounce bags of sweet n hot jerky from Circle K. Such a little thing. The local children, just out from school, stopped by to pose for our cameras, giggling at each other in the viewfinder afterwards, and running from the husband playfully threatening to dab some yellow paint on their cheek.

Tipsy and ready for lunch, we trekked the 10 minutes back up to our lodge. Now that’s my kinda trekking! I treated myself to a half hour massage on my feet and legs. I didn’t really expect a lot given I was out in the boonies but I got a fantastic pressure point massage in my room. At times my tender muscles screamed but I let the nepali masseuse work his magic and I was jello afterwards. He charged a very reasonable 800 NRS ($11) but I gave him an even 1000 NRS and drifted peacefully off to sleep. Room service…


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

To the quaint village of Chule

The next morning we awoke ready to hit the trail. Instead of walking up the stairway towards Ghorepani, Krishna showed us a sneak route, up a faint trail immediately across from our teahouse up through the forest. What a welcome difference it was being on an actual trail. This is what I imagined it would be the whole way, or maybe what I hoped. The forest full of pine, birch, and bamboo trees. Then massive rows of huge and ancient rhododendrons, dormant in the winter, but I could imagine what a sight it would be, a palette of colors in the spring. Continuing up the trail a little out of breath I thought of Krishna’s explanation of the day, he calls this “a little up”!!

We reached a summit that overlooked Poon Hill and I have to admit it may have been a better vista reached after a much easier climb. Perhaps we should have just seen the sunrise here on the way up to Tadapani. We snapped photos and I made a sad attempt at a panoramic shot which I won’t share with you but rather a good photo (except for my retarded 'wind' hair) of the fearless trio.

We descended down past Deurali and countless waterfalls to idyllic Banthanti situated right on the river in the gulley of two massive mountains. We spotted playful monkeys in the trees, their white hair contrasting their inquisitive black faces staring back at us. We continue the descent and Ron’s right knee started to bother him. He donned a knee brace and I snaped furiously his Napoleon Dynamite trekker visage of t-shirt, plaid shorts, ski hat, knee brace, and hiking pools. This is my boyfriend, folks.

Ascending now towards Tadapani, where most trekkers rest a night. I can see why. The views of the peaks, Annapurna and notably Machapulchre are astounding. For the English, the mouthful Machapulchre is called Fish Tail due to its distinctive peak resembling a fishes tail. This is a most sacred mountain to the Nepalis, and in fact it is one of the only Himalayan mountains to never have been summitted, not for difficulty but on purpose. In 1957 a British duo, Noyce and Cox made an attempt and stopped 50m short of the summit in deference to the local people and since then no other attempt has been permitted. It remains a virgin, inviolable precipice.

We pressed on, the trail headed down at a steep pitch over gnarled roots, loose rocks and dirt. The momentum of gravity often pulled me faster than I wanted to go, and once I came down on my left ankle and it twisted ever so slightly. It scared me that I could really hurt myself, and break an ankle out in the middle of nowhere. There is no medical care to speak of and it would take days to get me out of the mountains. A scary thought. I consciously used the poles to slow me down and brace the descent as best I could.

An hour later, a grass clearing came into view, both picturesque and quaint. It had all the elements to stir the soul into staying awhile: an inviting guesthouse, wandering donkeys, prayer flags stretched over the stepped farmlands in the distance. We just had to stay the night.

Upon checking into our room, I came face to face with my third hardship (first was the stairs, second was the altitude). It was my womanly visitor. I would say monthly visitor but before the trip I started on Seasonale birth control. It was to be the biggest boon to a world traveler like me, that I would only get my period once every season. It just so happened that my unlucky number was drawn on the trek and started in an undesirable squatty potty with no sink. Ugh.

The dining hall was cozy and warm, amongst Israeli, Australian, Swiss, Spanish, and even a Nepali couple (a little citified, and out of their element in the mountains). We ate lasagna, interpreted by a Nepali woman who may never have actually eaten real lasagne or even visited an Italian restaurant. The higher and more remote we go, the more amazing it becomes how well we are cared for by such isolated people scraping a living together. But we still have a chuckle at the frequent misspellings on the menu in the “dinning room“, like eggs “cock to order“.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Missing the Sunrise over Poon Hill

After the tough second day, we decided to take it easy and only hike Poon Hill and back instead of trekking several more hours to Tadapani, what most itineraries suggest. We were up at 4:30am. It was freezing cold, and we weren’t even out of our sleeping bags. It took every bit of intention to unzip from our cocoons and step foot on the frigid tile. At least we didn’t have to dress, as we were already wearing all of our clothes to bed. We went down to the dining room for some tea, as most of the other trekkers were heading out for the hike. We were planning to leave at 5am as I had read that the views were great for a couple hours, during and after the sunrise, so we didn’t think there was a huge rush.

Once outside, it was pitch black, except for the bouncing light shining from our headlamps. We had on our down jackets, in addition to 3 other layers of clothes but after only a few minutes of heading uphill to Ghorepani, we were stripping down. At some point we got lost as Ron didn’t see in the darkness the stupa after which we were supposed to turn left, according to Krishna’s direction. (Since there was nothing to carry, we told Krishna to take the day off. Mistake #1) Finally on the right path we continued up stone staircases. We weren’t even to the trailhead yet and I was in trouble. I couldn’t breathe in the higher altitude. Each inhalation was shallow and unfulfilling, then exhaled as wispy smoke, visible in the cold air.

All of a sudden it started getting lighter and lighter out. As if god was turning up the dimmer switch much too fast. We raced on at a snails pace, each step up was laborious and painful. I was going way too fast, my heart needling the danger zone, but way too slow to make it in time. We paused a few times to turn around and just take in the sunrise, its serenity and splendor and silence. Warm rays of sunlight, like radiant bands of orange crush, illuminated the ring of peaks like a glinting crown.
Then back to an asthmatic breathing pattern and relentless stairs up ever higher. The sunrise nearly over, hundreds of trekkers were already coming down past us, with looks of pity, as we missed what they just saw. The most demoralizing point came as we neared the top where a German trekker, with calves like tree trunks, snickered “You’re late!” in a most arrogant tone like we weren’t worthy to even be on the same mountain. If I can stereotype here for a just a second… German trekkers are my least favorite, followed by hipster trekkers, then anyone with a mustache. Unless of course the moustache is white, then it will inevitably be paired with a twinkle in the eye and an easy smile for their fellow trekker. If the ‘stache is brown or god-help-us blonde (ewww, can we just outlaw this?) then they are bound to be hopeless grumps.

Ron went up ahead as I struggled horribly the last 100 meters or so, my lungs on fire. The view was spectacular but I couldn’t appreciate it for at least 10 minutes while I cooled down and Ron scampered around taking photos. Once my heart slowed to normal and the sweat evaporated from my brow, it got quite chilly, the wind whipping wistfully about. A cup of sweet coffee made possible by the entrepreneuring local woman was a delicious treat at 3210 meters.

By the time we got around to taking photos of each other and our couple shots made from Ron’s long outstretched left arm, there wasn’t a soul around.

We had the summit to ourselves and the majesty of a natural wonderland. No teenage girls saying, “Me next! Me! Me! Me!“ dancing in our peripheral vision for the perfect shot. Just us. And silence. Maybe we were extraordinarily lucky after all to miss the sunrise over Poon Hill.

Going back to the lodge, we had some breakfast and commenced our regular chores of filtering water, organizing our stuff, doing laundry, etc. We took showers, or tried to, as we had the most unexpected problem. It was not that the water was too cold (our usual hardship) but rather it was too hot. So hot it would scald your skin off. I actually had to ask them to tone it down. But it was so luxurious to take a nice hot shower and snuggle in to our sleeping bags for some afternoon reading and a pre-dinner nap. Mmmm.

The dining room was built around a bukhari, a wood burning fire encased in an iron cylinder of sorts with a chimney duct. When it got cooking, the room heated up fast and furiously. We hung our laundry to dry from clotheslines and within two hours they were baked like hot potatoes. Trekkers from all over the world, sharing a common journey, gathered in the warmth of the room, for substantial high-carb dinners. The porters and guides sat around drinking tea and playing a loud Nepali game that is a cross between pool and air hockey. The clickety clak of the flicking pucks and for the skillful, the cries of victory going on into the night. It was surely one of those games that would be fun to be playing, but was not so relaxing for a background dinnertime soundtrack.

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