October 28, 2010
Ice Lake rests in the mountains high above Manang. At 4600 meters, the lake is also the highest point we have climbed thus far – some 1000 meters higher than Manang itself. The hike to the top takes about four hours, and not surprisingly, it’s straight uphill the whole way.
Although we had intended to sleep in, the sound of boisterous Israelis arising in the rooms next store rustled us out of bed. Strapping on our hiking boots and packing a small day bag, we headed downstairs for a light set breakfast of two eggs, a small side of fried potatoes, and a piece of toast with tea. I say ‘light’ because that’s what the menu said.
Before we set out on our hike, Joshua ran upstairs to find an immodium. Yup. His digestional tract has made few improvements since our stint in South America. On the up side, he hasn’t been vomiting (knock on wood); on the down side, he has had some of the most abrupt and momentous visits to the bathroom (or bush, as it may be).
With the miracle drug in tow, we stopped in at a little shop to purchase a couple pairs of mittens. I here and now denounce all contact with gloves. They are shit, and I shall never use them again. In their sted, I have selected a sweet, hand-made woolen pair with purple and blue striping. Not only are they more effective, they are also far cuter.
Our last stop before we left Manang was the bakery. Joshua’s a big believer in the power of pastries, and we nabbed a cheese roll, an apple roll, a butter croissant, and a couple of apples for lunch.
To get to the start of the Ice Lake day hike, you have to retrace your footsteps to Bhraka. with packs, it took about 30 minutes to reach Manang from this small village, but with a lighter load, we were there in 20.
Following the signs, we passed a wall of prayer wheels and then entered the stone village of Bhraka. Away from the trail, there are no guesthouses or restaurants; instead, the village has low doorways with glimmers of fires smoking and children playing. In the fields surrounding Bhraka, there are yaks and goats and farmers working the earth on their knees.
On the other side of town, we began to head up. Earlier that morning, my feet had skated over the slick ground near the waterhose. The last few mornings have all been below freezing, and it takes a while for the sun to surmount the Annapurnas and warm us up. With a stiff wind blowing along the side of the mountain, we were glad to have brought hats and mittens.
After about an hour of hiking, Joshua had another date with a bush, and I watched as a group of day hikers made their way up the switchbacks below. The trail is narrow and cut into the side of the mountain. Less than six inches separate my feet from a very long tumble downhill. However, it’s not quite as scary as it could be, because there are hundreds of prickly bushes that cling to the hillside. If we were to fall, we’d be stabbed by a thousand thorns, but we probably wouldn’t roll too far.
We continued to climb. Up and over the first ridge, we turned around to look at the mountains across the narrow valley. The snowy rooftop of the world ran from as far as we could see to the North to as far as we could see to the South. With the sun lighting them up, they are truly impressive.
More switchbacks led us up to another group of resting day hikers. We said hello and kept going. As we walked, we talked about what it would be like to travel with kids, if we believe in allowance, and our next culinary adventures, namely: cheese, kombucha, and sprouting (yes, Kyle. You have inspired me.).
After two more impressive uphill sections, we reached a more level (albeit still uphill) stretch of trail. When we turned around, we kept turning. All around us, the white mountains met us at eye-level. This is easily one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We stopped only for a moment, determined to make it to the top. We resolved to take pictures on the way back down.
The last bit of trail to Ice Lake took us up over another steep ridge, and as we circumnavigated one of the hills, we felt like we were walking right next to glaciers, jagged, snowy ridges, and peaks. Around the next bend, we caught up with another couple of hikers, and finally, we reached the first lake. Sure enough, the edges of the lake were frozen over, and as we continued down the trail to the second lake, we couldn’t drag our eyes from the reflection that the mountains made in that emerald water.
The second lake, Ice Lake, lies about 200 meters from the first lake in a cirque below tawny hills, and beyond, snowy mountains. Where the trail meets the shore, a pile of stones and a pole play altar to dozens of stands of prayer flags. The water is turquoise, and sitting by the water were a four or five other day hikers, eating lunch.
We walked along the shoreline and picked a spot. Taking out our pastries and apples, we set to work. The wind forced us to don our extra layers, but the view was stunning. Once we had eaten, we took a few pictures, and then started back.
On our way down, I stopped to take probably a hundred photos. The bad news is that the two dimensions of a photograph will never be able to capture quite how beautiful this place is; the good news is that you can come here and see it for yourself. Seriously. If you’re poor, there’s no better place to vacation: we spend less than 20 dollars a day per person. If you’re old, so are most of the other hikers. Most of them are middle aged; lots of them are retired. They hire porters to carry the bulk of their gear (which isn’t very much – a sleeping bag, a warm jacket, and maybe a pair of sandals for when you’re done hiking), and they just walk and walk and walk. I believe in you! If you want to do it, you can!
It takes much less time to descend than it does to ascend, so after about an hour of hiking, we were already halfway down the mountain. A couple of fearless trekkers passed us, throwing caution to the fates, but then one of them turned around and said, ‘hey! Aren’t you two the ones who were telling the really funny joke in Manang last night? You had someone else with you? I heard part of it, and it sounded funny, but I didn’t catch all of it.’
I laughed and told him about our awkward encounter with Gaetan. He had probably heard us joking about it with Ankit afterwards. The man agreed that it was a comic coincidence, and then we exchange the usual questions and answers.
Joah is originally from Pennsylvania, but he went to college at Carleton in Northfield, Minnesota. He thinks Minnesota has a great vibe, and we have a lot in common with Canada, but ultimately, he decided to move out to LA. He lived there for a few years, and now he’s living in New York. He loves to travel, and he’s just as surprised as everyone else to find another couple of American travelers so far from home. He confesses to sometimes lying and saying he’s Canadian. Especially when he’s travelling in Europe.
Joah ran off down the trail to catch up with is hiking buddy, and we continued at a slower pace, slipping occasionally on the loose, dry dirt. Somehow, we lost the trail we had come up, and we were heading down a much steeper trail. Fortunately, we could see a couple other hikers doing the same thing, and Bhraka didn’t look too far below.
It didn’t take long to enter the village, and on the other side, we found our trail back to Manang. Joshua was determined to beat the Israelis to the shower, so we booked it to Manang.
All in all, it took us a little over 6 hours to make it to Ice Lake. It was a difficult trek, but the views were worth it. Right now, we’re recouping in our room at Gangapurna. Joshua did, indeed beat the Israelis to the shower, and he returned to gloat that his shower had steam, it was so hot.
The sun is setting behind the Annapurna, and tonight, I think we’ll roam town a bit and have a nice big serving of Dal Bhaat. Hoping all is well with you, my family and friends, at home. Lots of love from Nepal.
October 27, 2010
We woke up to Ankit telling us that the view outside was ‘stupid.’ As in stupidly beautiful. We ventured out into the cold and confirmed that it was, indeed, stupidly beautiful. The morning sun lit up the white mountains across the valley, and the snow glittered.
Before breakfast, we packed up our bags. In the kitchen, Beem was flipping our pancakes and heating a kettle for tea over the fire. We reached our hands close to the flames, hoping to revive them, and then we tucked into hot pancakes smothered in honey. Beem told us that the hike to Manang would take us about three hours. He screwed his eyebrows up, considering. But if you were locals, he said, it would only take you an hour and a half. He smiled, shrugged, and then turned to the dishes sitting in an ice-cold bucket of water.
Once we had finished our tea, we loaded up our packs and said goodbye to Beem. He pressed his palms together and bowed his head.
Our little guest house was about a hundred meters from Ngawal proper, and as we entered the village, we saw a large group of trekkers setting out for the day as well. Passing their large group on Ngawal’s narrow, cobblestoned streets felt a little bit like an obstacle course, but on the other side, we had not only passed them but also a donkey train. There was nothing in front of us but open trail (and a couple seriously fast porters).
Manang is at a lower elevation than Ngawal, and we spent the first hour of our hike going down hill. At the bottom, we entered another small village called Munji. With a couple sweet stone buildings with orange-painted wood trim, this place was absolutely adorable. Locals rode by on horses with bells at their throats. A bakery sold freshly baked pastries and cookies.
The Mexican couple we had met at Timang joined us on the trail at Munji. They had taken the lower trail from Pisang, and them seemed disheartened to hear how beautiful the upper route had been.
The trail from Munji to Manang is fairly level, and it walks alongside a lovely blue, glacial melt stream. Yaks with enormous, curved horns graze near prayer wheels, and we say more and more trekkers. At one point, we saw three Nepali men with the most amazing load yet: they were carrying three fifteen foot long planks of wood. As they bent over and plodded forward, I wondered why Nepal doesn’t dominate in the Olympics. You’d think with all the super fit Sherpas, porters, and Gurkahs, they’d win handily every time.
Passing through a gate and walking up a couple of short switchbacks, we entered Manang. There were guest houses and bakeries on either side of the trail, and we wandered along, looking for a place to stay. As we walked, men and women with enormous boulders strapped to their backs passed us in flip flops, headed for a huge pile of boulders in the middle of town.
The first we place we stopped was all full. In Lonely Planet, the authors recommend that trekkers stay two nights in Manang to acclimatize to the elevation. The larger village is a trekker hotspot, and not only are the guest houses bigger and fuller, but they are also much more expensive.
Luckily, the second guest house we stopped at, the Gangapurna, had a couple of rooms. They charge 500 rupees per room, but if you agree to eat at their restaurant, they drop the rate to 200 rupees. Some Dal Bhaat is marginally better than others, but in the end, Dal Bhaat is Dal Bhaat. We agreed to eat at their restaurant.
It had only taken us two and a half hours to get to Manang from Ngawal, so after we unloaded our packs, we sat out on the balcony and drank in the view. Manang is not one of the prettier villages along the Circuit, but our view from the guest house was lovely: down below, the stream rushes by, and up above, white-capped mountains soar up to the impossibly blue sky. The sun was shining, and even though it was still cold, it felt wonderful to tip our faces up to catch a little golden warmth.
We sat for a while, reading and gazing at the scenery, and when we got hungry, we went down to the timber-lined dining room for lunch. I ordered veg fried rice, while Joshua and Ankit branched out. They ordered the mushroom and yak cheese veggie burger. Everything was tasty, and even though the prices are higher up here near the pass, they weren’t too unreasonable.
After lunch, Joshua and I decided to head up to viewpoint on the other side of the valley. An enormous glacier tumbles down from between two mountains, and from the view point, you can see its deep crevasses and a lovely, jewel-green ice melt lake below. Ankit opted to stay back on the balcony and read The Hobbit.
Before we left for the glacier, we picked up a couple of pastries. We ate them on trail, wiping our sticky fingers on our pants when we were done. Crossing a suspension bridge, we soon left Manang, and the trail immediately turned up.
It didn’t take too long to gain a couple hundred meters of elevation, and soon, we could see the lovely lake below and the glacier up above. We continued climbing, talking about how we might be able to finagle purchasing another 66 acres with our property. Right now, the farm we’re buying includes the house, farm buildings, and 14 acres, but there are 66 more available. For ‘just’ 200 thousand dollars more, the owner would be willing to sell us the whole thing.
As attractive as it would be to own 80 acres, it’s not so attractive that we’d be willing to add a thousand dollars to our monthly mortgage. The only way we would even consider it is if we could have a fixed monthly income, but that gets tricky. Who’s going to rent way out in the boonies? We floated a couple ideas, among them an intentional community where we sell off portions of the land to like-minded individuals with the stipulation that they may only sell back to us our others who fit the bill, a high-ropes course, and a cabin-holiday community for our families.
While the ideas had pizzazz, none of them smelled solid nor sound. However, if you’re looking to live out in the boonies, grow your own food, and build a community of those who wish to live gently on the earth, let us know. There are 66 acres just waiting to be snatched up, and we’re hoping they won’t be taken by some industrial, feed-lot-esque farmer.
After about an hour of climbing, we reached prayer flags. The views over Manang were lovely, and we paused to take photos of our guest house far below, the mountains high above, and the pretty lake. Spying more trails heading up, we continued on.
We hiked on for another 30 minutes, finding an old, rundown homestead, another lookout, and nice views of the glacier. When we had explored most of the trails we could see, we headed back down to Manang.
Back at the guest house, Ankit asked us if we might be interested in watching a movie. There are a couple of projectors in Manang, and one of them was showing Seven Years in Tibet. Before we headed to the little theater, we picked up some cookies from the bakery, and as we were walking back, we ran into first Marco and then Gaetan.
Marco’s the Italian that we met in Chamje. Swathed in a very puffy jacket, he was blowing great puffs of white air and smiling. We stopped to chat for a bit, and then Gaetan tapped me on the shoulder.
You may remember Gaetan from my posting entitled Himalayan Cowboys. Yup. The one and only Swiss-French Silk Road Cyclist who rode on the same bus from Leh to Manali. We recognized him right away, and he introduced us to his mother. Then, laughing, he said that he had thought he might run into us; just a couple of days ago, he had run into a couple (we’re guessing Shelby and Cory), and they had got to talking. Apparently, Gaetan had told them what he was up to, and the couple had told him that they already knew all about it: we had already told them.
A little embarrassed, we laughed and asked him if they had made it all the way to Kathmandu. Apparently, Gaetan’s bike had broken down just 200 kilometers from the city, and they had hailed a bus to carry them the rest of the way. Right now, his bike is getting a little TLC from a bike shop in Thamel. We didn’t see Nadine, and we didn’t ask where she was.
Before we parted ways, I stuck my foot in it again and introduced Gaetan to Ankit as ‘the guy I had told you about. You know, the one who’s been cycling from Switzerland?’ Smooth. Now he knows that I probably tell everyone I meet.
Walking to the theater, we retold the story to Ankit, including the ‘switching partners’ part of the story. Ankit’s eyes bulged, and he expressed a desire to become Swiss. We hoped that the mystery couple who had told Gaetan about his own story hadn’t included all the sordid details that we had included.
And that, my friends, is why you don’t talk shit about people on your blog. You might think that you’ll never, ever, ever meet these people again. You might think that your stories won’t travel far. You’re wrong. The world is very, very small. (And yet… I’m still writing. I guess this story is just too good to be left untold :))
In the little theater, we sat down right next to the wood-burning stove. Before long, our cheeks were pink, and the hairs on our legs were tingling from the warmth. The owner turned on a short, 20 minute film set in Manang before the film, and we watched as two boys raced horses, one stole a watch, and the other missed his father in America. Right now, the fields and hillsides of Manang are brown and dry, but when this movie was filmed, everything was green and growing. It’s beautiful now, but it must be gorgeous in the Spring.
The theater slowly filled up with other trekkers, including Marco, and then Into Thin Air blasted on screen. Joshua, Ankit, and I looked at each other, bewildered. Isn’t this supposed to be Seven Years in Tibet? No one else seemed too bothered, so we resolved to take it in stride. Into Thin Air it is.
It’s strange to see a dramatization of such tragic real-life events. I’m sure that if I had known anyone involved in the debacle, I would have been offended and outraged; instead, the bad one-liners were kind of funny, and the bad acting was even funnier. In the end, I was actually pretty satisfied with the casting: they all pretty much looked like the characters I had imagined when I had read the book. Except for Lopsang and Ang Dorje. Their casting was abysmal and their roles minimalized. Also, I found their representation of Yasuko, the female Japanese climber, completely belittling and chauvanistic.
In the middle of the film, the owner hit pause and served us all hot tea and popcorn. In all, the film and snacks cost 250 rupees per person. It felt surreal to be sitting in a little theater in the middle of the Annapurna, but you have to admit: the only better place to watch a corny dramatization of Into Thin Air would be at Everest Base itself, and I don’t think they have a little movie theater (but don’t quote me on it).
After the movie, we walked back to our guest house for a little dinner. I wasn’t that hungry from all the snacking, so I just had garlic soup (which was delicious) while Joshua and Ankit repeated their veggie burger experience from lunch.
While we ate, we played cards, and Ankit told us a little bit more about his travels in Southeast Asia. Talking about Vietnam and the horrible things that America did to both Vietnam and her neighboring countries, Laos and Cambodia, made me feel guilty. Disagreeing with American foreign policy isn’t enough; in my mind, my apathetic attitudes toward American politics and government render me just as culpable as people who supported our murderous efforts abroad. I struggle to figure it out. The biggest part of me looks at our politicians and government and wants absolutely nothing to do with it. I know that a lot of people work very, very hard and some of them even make small steps towards progress, but it never seems like it’s enough. No one is radical enough, and it feels like our government is designed to thwart radicals. Teaching in New Orleans left me feeling largely hopeless that our government might ever be able to scrape our education up off the ground. When I look at the politicians running for office, none of their environmental policies are extreme enough to turn our path to destruction around.
Ugh. This is why I don’t talk politics. In the back of my mind, I’m aware that goverments and politicians are the ones with enough power to make a difference, but in the front of my mind – the place that sees and reads about the things that governments and politicians do – I’m aware that they are a slow-footed force beaten into moderation and banality. So while I suspect that massive changes are only possible through governments and politicians, I’d rather stick with people. I’d rather live my life the way I believe is gentlest to the land and to others. I want to build relationships and plant things, and if I can help the people around me, that would be wonderful. I feel guilty that I’m not driven to be the radical force that’s so obviously needed. I know that my lethargy is partially to blame for the continuation of our murderous and neglectful policies abroad.
Ugh. I guess I’m writing this to find some resolution, but there doesn’t seem to be any. I have a lot of excuses, but they sound pretty weak even to my own ears. I suppose I will have to resolve to do something about it. I’ll keep you updated if you hold me accountable.
Before we went to bed, we planned to hike to Ice Lake in the morning. Ankit considered joining us for a millisecond, but then he looked at the map and decided a day of relaxation might be in order instead.
October 26, 2010 cont’d
We moved into the kitchen. The warmth from the fire drew us in close, and as we watched our Beem, our guest house keeper, cook our curry and dahl, he told us a little bit about himself.
Beem has two sons, and both of them go to school here in the Annapurna. They have the usual subjects, including English. The school is poor, so none of the students have used a computer, and Beem is disatisfied with their quality of education. He tells us that there is a lot of inequality in Nepal. The rich Nepalis receive excellent educations for their children, while the mountain people receive poor seconds. Still, things are somewhat better than they were when he was growing up. He never went to school. He learned his English from tourists.
Beem told us that he has friends who have moved to America. They work very hard he says, but they have much more money. Their lives are better there. He shakes his head. Living here is very hard, he says.
On this trip, I’ve written about how beautiful the landscape is, how beautiful the villages are. I suppose I’ve also written about the men carrying enormous packs on their backs in little more than flip flops and an economy mostly based on tourism. In order to provide an accurate description of this place, it is important to say this too: the Nepali way of life is undeniably hard, and not all of them are satisfied with it. Before we came to Nepal, a couple of tourists heard where we were going and shook their heads. It’s such a shame that they’ve built a road all they way to Jomsom, they said. That’s globalization for you. That’s modernization for you. Destroying the culture, the way of life.
I suppose these things might be true, but at the risk of pissing off a lot of people, I might also suggest that it’s a bit unfair for us tourists and trekkers to expect the Nepali to keep living like they’ve been living for hundreds of years while we go off and tour the planet, write e-mails, have running water, and carry supplies in our cars. Don’t get me wrong; in a lot of ways, the Nepali mountain culture stands for everything I believe in: they live off the land, their economies are local, and they have rich, rooted cultures and close families. But who am I to say that they can’t have what we have? It’s not my place.
Dal bhaat was delicious, and we cleaned our plates while Beem sat, warming his hands by the fire. Only after we had finished did he serve himself.
Joshua went off to bed with a little headache while I finished charging the computer. I showed a few photos of our travels to Beem, pointing out Big Ben, London Bridge, the Blue Mosque, and La Mezquita. He nodded and smiled. I think he wanted to see them, but I also felt painfully aware of our massive privilege. We’re so lucky to be doing this.