Feathered Aspen


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Bamboo to Landruk to Pokhara

November 12, 2010

I think there comes a point in everyone’s travels when they look at their bank account and think, ‘shit.’

Some wise, cynical soul once recommended that, when you’re planning on a trip, you should lay everything out on your bed. Lay out all of your t-shirts, your pants, the dress you’ll never wear, the hat, the sunglasses, the shoes. Lay out the first aid kit, the novels, and all your toiletries. Lay out your socks and underwear. Ok. Now divide by half. That’s right. Get rid of it; you won’t need it.

Next, lay out the money you think you’ll need. You’ve calculated the costs for the airfare, the hostels, the trains and taxis. You’ve estimated how much you’ll spend on food and souveniers, gifts for the family. You’ve even been generous and given yourself a bit of padding. Ok. Now multiply by two. That’s right. Scrimp, save, add it on; you’ll need it.

Right about now, I’m reminding myself that I’m no rookie; I knew all of this, and rather than do something sensible like pay off student debt or squirrel away a little nest egg, we threw caution to the jet stream and decided to travel for six months. It’s not that I regret our decision; it’s just that the prospect of five figures droping to four makes my breath hitch and my stomach clench. We’d been cavalier and even started planning what we’d do with all the money we would have left over once we got back. We were congratulating ourselves on our spend-thrift, bare-bones behavior.

Now I’m wondering just how much we could save on the grocery bill if I get serious about sprouting grains and beans. No meat. Perhaps I could sell non-essentials on eBay?

In all seriousness, it’s not that bad. I’ll get a job, and we’ll be just fine, but I’m sure you can empathize. Who hasn’t looked at their bank account and thought, ‘shit?’

And now that we’re on the subject of money, I have a few other things to say. I’ve been mulling things over (21 days on trail has this effect), and I’ve come to a realization. Not that it’s particularly useful to me, but perhaps it could be useful to you. I’ll warn you: it may sound cynical and a bit regretful, but I’ll reassure you: I’m doing my best to view things with a sort of holistic, no regrets attitude.

The realization is about education. More specifically, I’ve realized that I’ve been duped. Let me explain.

When I was growing up, I was led to believe that if I worked really, really hard, I would one day be accepted into a super-glorious college where I would then obtain a degree and find myself fit for gainful employment. Now, I do not doubt that this is true in many ways. Working hard does, indeed, improve your chances of getting into a super-glorious college; however, as I can attest, it does not guarentee it. Also, any super-glorious college will, indeed, equip you with a degree, and this degree will, indeed, qualify you for a number of professional opportunities. These things are all true, and I believe that the people who led me to believe these things did so out of love. They believed these things to be true, and they wanted the best for me.

But there are caveats. They are not readily apparent, but they reveal themselves in time. I have no doubt that there are super-glorious colleges that actually do carry a certain amount of clout. A degree from their superior institutions may have a certain glimmer that seduces potential employers. The problem is that there are lots of colleges that claim to be super-glorious and have that certain glimmer, but in reality, there are very few colleges that do. Ivy Leagues have the glimmer. A select few other big names also have the glimmer. If the University has had a cameo in a major blockbuster, you can rest fairly assured that it has the glimmer.

Small, liberal arts schools do not have the glimmer. Sure, places like the University of Puget Sound, Evergreen, Colby, Bates, and Lawrence might be highly ranked and provide above average educations, but a degree from their proud institutions is not about to seduce many potential employers. It’s more likely to crease their brow and make them say, ‘where?’

Which leads me to my next conclusion: if you’re attending a University with the belief that their superior rankings will give you prestige and greater employability, you have been duped. And really, it’s no small thing. These Universities suggest that their educations are so superior and so glimmer-y, they need to charge more than all the other Universities. Not only have you been duped, but you have also paid for your ignorance. You’ve paid nearly 40,000 dollars a year.

Think about it: there is a perfectly good state school. At this school, you pay 10,000 dollars a year, at most. If you worked really, really hard like I did, you might not have to pay anything at all. At this school, you will obtain an excellent education, and when you finish, your degree will be from a large institution that many potential employers will recognize.

On the other hand, there is a perfectly good, better ranked liberal arts school. At this school, you will pay between 30,000 and 40,000 dollars a year. You may be lucky enough to get a few scholarships, grants, and loans, but you can be reasonably sure that, by the time you graduate, you will be between 40,000 and 60,000 dollars in debt. At this school, you may obtain a slightly better education, but when you finish, you degree will be from a small institution that most potential employers have never, ever heard of.

It’s not a very nice thought; I know this. I wish I could sweep it under the rug and say that it was worth it, but I have my doubts. I’m dismayed to think that I was so duped, I never even considered a perfectly good state school. It’s no use to think this, but a part of me suspects that – had I gone to a perfectly good state school – I would have gone for free. The difference is startling: at a small, expensive liberal arts school, I was rewarded for my many hours of hard work with nearly 40,000 dollars of debt. At a perfectly good state school, I would have been rewarded with a recognizable degree and a free education.

***

I know that these are not pleasant thoughts, so forgive me if I’m depressing you, but I have one more. I’m beginning to suspect that there are many things that we’ve been duped into believing that we need. New cars. Big homes. A wardrobe of some size. Cell phones, computers, TVs. Furniture, our own libraries. Garage openers, double ovens, and dish washers. DVDs, CDs, iPods, and fancy cameras.

And how do we pay for it all? More importantly, how many people do you know who really love their jobs? It seems like so many of us end up spending huge chunks of our lives paying for these things that I’m not even sure if we need, and I’m really, really not sure if it’s worth it.

The scariest part is that I want these things as much as the next person. When I’m walking, I fantasize about how I’ll decorate my house, the new pair of winter shoes I need, and buying a sewing machine. I’m already in debt from school, and it looks like I’ll have to engage in the same cycle as everyone else: I’ll have to get a job to pay for my debt and other things. With a student loan bill arriving every month and a mortgage in the offing, I can’t afford to be choosy. I might like this job, or I might not.

So here’s my last thought: isn’t it sad that people end up working at jobs that they don’t really love just because they’ve been duped into believing that their education was worth more than some one else’s when it really wasn’t? Isn’t it sad that people end up working at jobs that they don’t really love just because they have to buy all the things that they believe they need?

This is not a new or original thought. Stacy told me about a blog called Rowdy Kittens. I looked it up, and since I’ve been traveling, I didn’t have time to read more than one post, but that single post really made me think. I’ve been thinking about it for 21 days. Basically, the author argues that experiences and relationships make people happier and more fulfilled than things. She argues that things force us to get jobs that we don’t like, but if we get rid of those things and live minimally, we can afford to give up those jobs we don’t like. We can make enough to survive by doing what we really love to do.

I think she might be right, but I’m afraid it might already be too late, with 40,000 dollars of debt and a mortgage in the offing. I guess I’ll have to read more.

***

Ok. So this is the last thing. Even though the sight of my bank account has led me to grump through the first half of this blog, it’s not all bad. I don’t regret spending the money traveling. I’ve gotten to spend five months with my husband and friends. I’ve gotten to see parts of the world that most people only dream of seeing. I’m so lucky, and the money that I’ve spent of traveling has made me so much happier than if I would have just put it toward my debt.

There’s more good news. I might want things just like the next person, but I’m also doing things a bit differently. As I’ve professed before, I believe in the powers of second-hand purchases, and although there’s a mortgage in the offing, it comes with the promise of a big garden for growing food and big kitchen for feeding family and friends. So, although I’ll have to get a job for the time being, it’s not looking like I’ll need to be a permanent member of the rat race. There’s hope.

***

Our ‘rest day’ in Pokhara turned out to be not so restful. I woke up a little after 8 to find Joshua typing away at the computer. On the screen, an Excel spreadsheet calculated costs spent and predicted. A tidy number – smaller than we would have liked, but sufficient – was highlighted at the bottom of the screen. At his feet, the trekking Nepal book was open to the Langtang Region. A journal had a new, tentative iternary drawn up. He’d been busy.

Joshua kissed me good morning, and then eagerly plunged into his findings. At length, we discussed our finances and traveling plans. We made a ‘To Do’ list. When he finished, there was nothing left to do but get out of bed and get started.

But first, breakfast. After three weeks on trail, I had forgotten how cheap food is in the city. I had two boiled eggs, two pieces of toast, fried potatoes, tomatoes, and onions, and a cup of black tea for 115 rupees – that’s a dollar and a half. On trail, the same meal would have cost between 300 and 350 rupees – that’s between four and five dollars. Nevertheless, days on trail seem to be less expensive. Lodging is between 100 and 200 rupees, whereas lodging in the city is closer to 400. Food is expensive, but there’s nothing else to buy. Our entertainment is hiking.

So I’ll tell you one last thing about money, and then I’ll let the matter rest. On average, we spend between 2600 and 2800 rupees (38 to 40 dollars for two people) per day on trail. Off trail, it’s closer to 3100 or 3300 rupees (45 to 47 dollars for two people). With additional costs like transportation, souveniers, and gifts for family and friends, our goal is to keep our daily average at 50 dollars a day for the rest of the trip. Up until now, including our travels in Europe but excluding major flights, we’ve spent between 50 and 60 dollars a day. Not too bad, eh?

After breakfast, we walked to the outskirts of Pokhara to purchase another 15 day extension on our visa. Along the way, we saw hundreds of Nepalis gathering on the side of the road. One section was blocked off, and in the distance, the military was marching in a parade. I noticed that lots of men appeared to be dressed for running, and they were slapping their quads, getting the blood to flow.

At the visa office, the gate was locked. A woman in the courtyard looked at us, perturbed. ‘Holiday,’ she said. ‘Closed,’ she said.

We grumbled in frustration. Joshua said something about this country always celebrating something. We walked back. We’ll have to extend our visa when we buy our new TIMS cards and hiking permits in Kathmandu.

On our way back into town, we decided to do the last of our gift shopping. I had popped in and out of a few shops, and having found a place where the initial prices seemed lower, we returned there. A lovely man from Kashmir was dressed all in white. He grinned, showing off a couple gold teeth and asked us to come in and sit. Running off, he retrieved a thermos of chai and three mugs. Serving us the sweet, hot liquid, he proceeded to pull hundreds of lovely shawls from his shelves.

With a rainbow of silks, pashmina, and even hemp spread out before me, we tried to think of our mother’s favorite colors. The lovely man told us about his business. He started out as a porter in Kashmir, then he became a guide. When he’d earned enough money, he bought a carpet and weaving business in Kashmir. Now, he owns another in Nepal where he trains Nepalis to make their own fabrics. He told Joshua about Kashmir. Yes, there is political unrest he says, but it’s a beautiful place. Then, very seriously he says, ‘there is no two. We are one. We see Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh. God only sees one.’

We purchased silks and pashminas from our Kashmiri philosopher, and he kept serving us sweet tea.

Once we had finished, we walked down the street, purchasing tickets to Kathmandu and stopping in at book shops to resupply on maps of Langtang and trail reading.

Fretting about money and buying stuff made us hungry. We stopped at a little cafe for hand-made spaghetti and chips chilly (the most glorious french fries that have been sauteed in chili plum sauce with green peppers and onions). I endeavored to finish my book (all 1100 pages), while Joshua looked up airline tickets from Kathmandu to Delhi.

Done with our meal, we paid and made our very last gift purchases. In a little t-shirt shop, we guessed at sizes and prefered designs, and then Joshua dickered over the last rupee. It’s official: I’ve lost my touch at bargaining, and Joshua’s found his.

Back at the hotel, we split up for a bit. Joshua went off to run a few more errands while I sat down to catch up on writing. We’ll meet up in a couple of hours at the pizza place. Ankit will be there, and we’ll repeat the glorious combination from last night: pizza and drinks overlooking Phewa Lake.

***

Joshua and Ankit were already drinking coke when I got to the pizza place. Hugging Ankit, I sat down, and started up where we had left off. Once we had parted ways, Ankit had gotten really, really sick, and in Marpha, he had hibernated for three days, trying to get well. Fortunately, he had met up with Marco around the same time, and once Ankit was feeling better, the two of them hiked to Ghasa and then on to Tatopani together. From there, Marco caught a bus back to Pokhara, but Ankit continued on Ghorepani and then Naya Pul. He got back just a day before us, and he says that Poon Hill was a wonderful way to finish out the trip.

Just as we started to order pizza, Marco showed up. Joshua and I told both Ankit and Marco a little bit about the Base Camp trek, and then we talked about what’s next. Ankit’s headed for Dehradun where he’ll take a class on farming from Vindana Shiva (I KNOW! Don’t worry, he has strict orders to report all.), and then he’s off to Goa for some fine living on the beach. After that, South America is on the roster, and then who knows? Marco’s headed back to Kathmandu in a couple of days, and then we leaves for Italy. We’re off to Langtang.

We scarfed down the pizza, and when we’d finished, I decided we needed desert. Paying, we walked to the same German Bakery we had visited the night before, and we all ordered something sweet. I asked Marco if he missed Italian food, and he shrugged his shoulders, saying ‘not really.’ I looked at him, askance. ‘Are you sure you’re Italian?’ I asked.

I told Marco that everyone knows that Italians gave the world good food, the Pope, fine art, beautiful women, and high fashion. We started listing all the things for which the English are known: tweed, dry humor, sheep, pubs, and tea, of course. It was fun to list all the things that the Italians and English are known for, but it got a bit depressing when we talked about the US. I won’t get all debbie-downer and list them all for you, but I will list the few I find endearing: feminism, cowboys, and road trips.

A little after eight, we looked at our watches and declared that it was time for bed. Paying, we walked outside and hugged goodbye. As a parting gift, Ankit had brought The Hobbit and made a bookmark. On the first day we had met, I had confessed to not having read The Hobbit, and I suppose he had resolved to remedy this oversight. On the bookmark, he had handwritten a poem by Robert Frost, ‘Two roads diverge in a wood,’ saying that it reminded him of the two of us. It was an excellent choice, and I felt bad that we had come empty-handed. As we turned to walk away, I told them that they’re in my pocket. I’m sure that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them, but it’s how I feel. I keep a little piece of all the good ones in my pocket. My family’s there, and so are Caitlin, Ashlee, and JJ. My students are there, and the friends we made in New Orleans. I put my English family in my pocket, and Eshai and Haddas are in there too. Michelle’s there, and so are Stephen and Scott. There’s a spot for Stacy and Kyle and Nora and Eric, and now Ankit’s there too.

November 11, 2010

We’d ordered breakfast for 6:30. Joshua nudged me awake at 6, and we packed our bags for the last time. Outside, we sat at a brightly painted picnic table and watched the clouds flirt with Annapurna South and Machapurchhre. The sweet guest house keeper came out with a platter in one hand, grinning. Serving us our tea, cornbread, and boiled eggs, he wished us a very happy morning and asked us how we slept. We assured him that we sleep like the dead on trail.

Once we had finished our food, we paid and said goodbye. The man and his family came out to wave. It was a wonderful place to spend our last night.

On the trail, we passed through the bulk of Landruk. It was larger than I had expected, and there were many brightly painted guest houses, but none looked quite as lovely as the Maya Guest House. On the other side, we hiked through green terraces, over streams and waterfalls, and past thick, green undergrowth. Climbing up, we passed through another village filled with guest houses, Tolka, and then we began making our way up in earnest.

We climbed for three hours, and for nearly an hour, it was straight up slippy, stone stairs. We passed a couple large groups of Korean and English trekkers, and at the top, we took a break to look out into the valley where we had come from. We said goodbye to the the snowy mountains of the Annapurna.

At the top of the mountain, we passed through a small village. I eyed a bowl of mandarins enviously, but the woman wanted 30 rupees a piece, and I declined on principle; I had bought them for five rupees the day before.

On the other side of the village, we began our long descent. As we walked, we talked. For some reason, the Annapurna Base Camp trek had left me feeling unsettled. The day we had done our epic trek from Deurali to Base Camp and then on down to Bamboo, I had all of sudden missed my friends. I wish it had been just that, but old insecurities prickled just below the surface, and I wondered if they missed me too. My husband fielded my oft-repeated worries with reassurances that I am lovable, missable, and befriend-able. His unfailing belief in me always makes me feel better, but still niggling doubts remain. Thinking only of good things, we painted our future bright with family and friends and big, happy meals with bonfires out back.

And then there’s the issue of what to do next. Having sped through the Base Camp trek, we were left with five odd days. We’d planned to take the bus from Pokhara to Varanasi, a 15 to 17 hour ride, and from there, we had train tickets to Agra, Jaisalmer, and Jaipur.

We tossed around some ideas. Should we do another trek during those five days before we had to leave for Varanasi? Where? How? Should we find a place to volunteer? Where? How? Should we return to Varanasi early? What would we do once we got there?

The more we talked, the more we realized that we wanted to do another trek. We had loved the first part of the Annapurna Circuit so much, but the last few days had left us feeling restless. It’s hard to explain, but somehow, the roads, bad guest houses, and crowds had left us wanting more of those first days when we walked for miles hardly seeing a soul and stayed in guest houses where we chatted with the guest house keeper as he made our food. What’s more, when we thought about our plans for India, we realized that the places we had planned to go were all big name tourist attractions. In Varanasi, we could expect to see the Ganga Aarti and walk along the holy river, observing the bathing ghats. These were the very same things that we had done in Rishikesh, and although we had enjoyed them, we didn’t feel the need to see it again. In Agra, there’s the Taj Mahal. For most, this would be a can’t-miss destination. I’m a bit of a reactionary in that way. When we went to Peru, we didn’t go and see Machu Picchu. Most people think this a travesty. Maybe it is, but I don’t want to go see the Taj Mahal for the same reason I didn’t really want to go see Machu Picchu: it’s expensive and crowded with other tourists. Its beautiful, and EVERYBODY knows it. No, I’ve never really wanted to see the Taj Mahal. As for Jaipur and Jaisalmer, I think it would be lovely to go on a camel safari and see golden and pink forts, but I’m not sure that I want to sit on a train for a total of 68 hours to go to very hot, very busy cities where the main attractions are forts that you have to pay exorbitant prices to get into.

We have 29 days left.

What if we trekked for most of them? What if we forsook our train tickets and stayed in Nepal? We could stay in the mountains. We could spend our last month walking and talking with one another. We could wake up in the morning and eat breakfast, watching the sunrise. We could go to bed with the sun. We could let our feet carry us over less-walked places in this beautiful country, and we could try and find the things we’ve loved best about our trip so far: we could look for old Tibetan, Buddhist communities. We could find gompas, and sit beside high alpine lakes. We could gaze at snowy peaks. We could eat Dal Bhaat for lunch and dinner, and we could warm our hands with hot cups of ginger and black tea.

India’s lovely, but it didn’t stand a chance. We love Nepal. We love the mountains, and we love to hike.

We resolved to pull out our Trekking Nepal Lonely Planet guide as soon as we got back to Pokhara. Maybe we’ll go to Everest; maybe we’ll go to Langtang. Dolpo would be interesting, but we might need a guide, a tent, and a flight to get there. We’ll have to see.

We kept walking, mulling over potential travel plans and treks. The villages became more residential as we made our way lower in elevation, and eventually, we hit a road. We saw our first jeep in five days. Cresting a hill, we saw the road to Pokhara far below in the valley. We walked down hundreds and hundreds of stone stairs.

After nearly 6 hours of hiking, we made it to the road. Three buses were waiting, and we were absolutely exhausted. There’s something about going downhill that just takes it out of me. I find it even more exhausting than going up hill. My knees were achy, and I was hungry. I bought eight mandarins from the sidestand.

Sitting in the bus, we were dripping with sweat. We tried to remember back to when we left Pokhara. Could it have possibly been this hot? Neither of us could remember. We peeled our mandarins and sucked down their sour juice.

When the bus started moving, a breeze came in through the window, and we closed our eyes, feeling much better. The bus picked up Nepalis along the way and dropped them off at different intervals. We stopped for a bit at another bus stand and I got out to purchase some bananas. For 50 rupees, the woman gave me ten bananas. We ate all of them.

Finally, the bus dropped us off in the outskirts of Pokhara. We paid and the bus driver pointed us towards a little taxi-van driving further into the city. We squeezed in, and less than fifteen minutes later, the driver dropped us off on the border of Lakeside.

It was a strange journey; the bus ride from Phedi took about 45 minutes. After another 15 minute ride, we set off on foot, and after another half hour of hiking, we eventually arrived at the lake. Oriented, we navigated our way back to our hotel where our bags were stowed.

By the time we arrived at Hotel Snow Leopard, we were absolutely quivering with exhaustion. I nearly cried when the man behind the counter looked confused by our requests. Bags? Room? Whatever do you mean?

Thankfully, we managed to gesture wildly enough to express the exact specifications of our desires, and soon, we were safely esconced in a room with a bathroom and our bags. But before I could take a shower, I needed a wash rag.

I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I was simply convinced that I would not get clean without a nubby wash rag. I needed to scrub off three weeks’ worth of sunscreen, dead skin, and sweat, and a little bit of soap in my hands was not going to do the trick. I spent almost 30 minutes visiting every street-side shop and stand within a three block radius. I pantomimed, begged, and pleaded. I approached hotels and laundromats, telling them I would buy wash rags they weren’t even selling.

30 minutes later, I came back empty handed. Joshua was in the bathroom, so I flopped onto the bed, exhausted and defeated. I closed my eyes for a bit. An idea came to me.

In the shower, I washed my hair twice, and using a clean sock, I sudded up and scrubbed will I stood under the hot water. I shaved. It was glorious, and when I finished, I was very, very clean. I dressed in clothes I hadn’t worn for three weeks. I brushed my hair. I put on a little make-up. I wore deoderant. (I may have neglected to mention this; Joshua thought that deoderant would be dead weight. I have decided that I’ll shoulder the burden on our next trek.)

Once the two of us were completely clean and dressed, we went in search of pizza and drinks, dropping off our absolutely manky laundry along the way.

Along the waterfront, we found a place that advertised wooden fired pizzas and balcony eating, overlooking Phewa Lake. Prices were reasonable, so we ducked into a little street-shop, bought a flask of rum, and headed onto the balcony.

Within minutes, we had two pizzas and two cokes bubbling in front of us. We surreptitiously spiked the cokes with a healthy dose of rum, and then we dug in.

While we ate, we poured over our Trekking Nepal book. For a while, the Everest region stole the spotlight. It has the name, the fame, and the jaw-dropping skyline. We tossed around a few itineraries, but it soon became clear that either we didn’t have enough time or enough money. One option ment that we would have to hike in to Lukla for 6 days and then out again the same way; it was only once we were in Lukla that we could begin the Gokyo or other Everest treks. That was over 20 days of trekking, and we just don’t have enough time. The other option would be to fly one or both ways from Lukla which is what most people do, but we just don’t have that kind of money.

We looked at Langtang. Reading the descriptions, we realized that this is more of what we wanted anyway: here, there are fewer large groups of trekkers. It’s easier to get to, but there are many sections of trail that are quite remote and untouched. These villages have a reason for existing beyond feeding trekkers. It’s not as crowded, and it’s beautiful. There are high alpine lakes, gompas, and even homestays.

Langtang it is. We can combine a number of the treks listed in our guide book for a 19 day journey. We looked at our pizzas and cuba libres. They were almost gone. Our tummies were happily full, the rum had gone straight to our heads, and we felt great. Only three hours off trail, and we were already cooking up a way to get back on. Spread out in front of the us, the lake glittered. The light grew weaker, and we watched as lights flicked on.

Decided on Langtang, we paid and linked elbows, walking down the street in search of something sweet. At a little German Bakery, we sat down for a chocolate crumble and apple butter pie.

In a coma of pizza, liquor, and sugar, we made our way to the internet to call family. We called everyone and raved about Nepal and how happy we were. We listened to warm, loving voices and felt good about everything: the month we have left and our return, too. It’s all good. We’re excited to be here and travel for another month. We’re excited to see our English family just before the holidays, and we’re excited to go back and live near family and friends.

When we finished our calls and checking e-mails, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted. Crawling under the blankets, we feel straight asleep.

November 10, 2010

In the morning, we packed and went into the dining hall for breakfast. The Seattlite and Las Vegan were nursing a hangover. While we gobbled up our hashbrowns and porridge, we talked to a couple across the table. The two were from Australia, and they had done a similar trip, combining both the Circuit and Base Camp treks. While they had skipped the road from Jomsom to Tatopani, they’d been on trail for the same amount of days. We compared notes, agreeing that we had enjoyed the early days of the Circuit most, but that the view from Base Camp had been incredible.

Once we had finished eating, we paid and headed out on trail. The walk from Bamboo to Landruk takes about 7 hours, and the first hour or so out of Bamboo is all up hill. Although you might think that coming out of Base Camp would be all down hill, it’s not. The trail dips up and over a series of humps, and there are great stretches stairs going both up and down.

We made our way up to Sinuwa, and on the other side, we descended again into a steep valley. Chommrong was at the top of another long set of stairs, and it took nearly an hour to crest the next ridge. By then, we were positively dripping with sweat. It was hot, and I was already exhausted.

From Chommrong, we turned off the trail we had taken up to Base Camp and headed towards Jhinu. Down a thousand steps, we made our way into a small village resting above some hot springs. We may have considered taking a dip if we hadn’t already felt like we were swimming in a hot spring of our own creation.

At a lovely guest house, we sat in the courtyard and ordered Dal Bhaat. Large, red flowers dripped over the tables and chairs. A breeze cooled us a bit, and we gazed out and over the valley. It was the perfect place to stop, and the Dal Bhaat was able to replenish our energy. When we headed back on the road, we didn’t feel quite so exhausted.

It takes about 2 hours to hike from Jhinu to Landruk. Descending further into the valley, we crossed a couple of particulary rickety suspension bridges and made our way along the river. I bought a couple of mandarins from a man carrying them up the trail, and we peeled them as we went, enjoying a sour after-lunch snack.

Things were green and warm again. The sound of the river made us feel like we were in some tropical forest. Up ahead, we could see the guest houses of Landruk perched above rice paddies.

We walked, enjoying the smell of flowers and hot earth, and when we got to Landruk, we stopped at one of the first guest houses, Maya Guest House. In the garden, a man grinned up at us and gestured towards his lovely courtyard. ‘Come! Come!’ he said. Once he had settled us in, he went back to the garden where he was weaving a basket out of reeds.

Dumping our packs, we sat out on the porch, overlooking the valley. Marigolds dotted the courtyard in front of us, and a woman brought us tea. We read for a while, enjoying the light, the flowers, and the tea, and when we got hungry again, we ordered tomato soup and corn bread. When it came, the tomato soup was fresh and home-made. The cornbread was hot. It was delicious.

When light fell, we thanked the cook for our fabulous dinner and went in to bed. I slept for 11 hours.


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Lete to Tatopani to Ghorepani

November 5, 2010

Joshua woke up with a roiling stomach. He suspects it was the cabbage.

As a matter of fact, a lot of pieces came together this morning, as he squatted on the toilet. For one, he realized that he’s been sick nearly every three days since he’s landed in India. In Leh, he was miserable with AMS. In Dharamsala, he had two to three bouts of diarrhea. In Rishikesh, he laid in bed for a whole day and lost nearly five pounds. In Kathmandu, he began a course of anti-biotics. On the rafting trip, he required immodium and began yet another course of anti-biotics. On the Circuit, his issues began in Temang, and he began another course of anti-biotics in Manang.

When the alarm went off, he looked at me very seriously and said, ‘I’m beginning to remember why we left South America early.’

While I started to pack, Joshua went down to the kitchen to change his breakfast order. No eggs, just toast. Back upstairs, he packed, intermittently clutching is abdomen and grunting in pain. By the time we were ready to go down to the dining room, the room was no longer habitable.

We ate breakfast. Joshua grimly contemplated the hike ahead of us. Tatopani to Ghorepani is the steepest and longest ascent in the whole Annapurna Circuit. It covers approximately 1700 meters in six to seven hours.

Joshua went to visit the toilet again while I paid. Outside, we walked out of Tatopani, watching shopkeepers unlocking their doors and put out their wares. It’s festival, and there were also a few dead goats lying about. Joshua joked, ‘festival in Nepal equals goat blood-bath,’ and then bent over in spasms when he tried to laugh.

It takes about 30 minutes to walk from Tatopani to the suspension bridge that crosses the Kali Gandaki. After a few minutes of walking, Joshua could hold himself upright, and things were looking a bit brighter.

Across the bridge, we wandered through a small village and crossed yet another bridge. Immediately, the trail turned up. Following shabby stone stairs, we climbed and climbed. Behind us, other trekkers fell into place, and we all plodded up the mountain like a trail of ants.

The elevation near Tatopani is much lower, and like the first couple of days of the Circuit, the surrounding flora is decidedly tropical. Rice paddies once again stripe the mountain sides, the great fronds of banana trees pop up beside the path, and gorgeous flowers – red, yellow, and orange – burst over every garden.

After an hour of climbing, we reached Santosh Viewpoint. Little bare-foot children with grubby faces and even grubbier clothing lifted green mandarins from their bags and baskets, ‘you want orange? I give you good price.’

Above Santosh, villages lined the trail. Mud-brick homes with corrugated-steel roofs were brightly painted. Anywhere else, their simple construction and haphazard materials would have spelt out poverty, but here, with lush gardens and goats bleating in the back, they looked positively overflowing with life and its wealth. Tarps with grains spread out over them dried in the sun. Baskets with halved-tomatoes would one day become baskets of sun-dried tomatoes. Chiles dried on paper. Hundreds of pieces of corn were bundled and hung from the rafters.

We passed the Dutch couple, sipping tea and looking out over the valley. They squinted at us, lit up in the early morning sun, and waved. We kept walking.

Although things had been looking a bit brighter, that illusion soon passed, and Joshua was again bending over his stomach cramps, leaving the most generous gifts of methane in his path. We stopped for a break to lube up in sunscreen and drink more water. We had only been hiking for a couple of hours, but even at 9:30, it was already hot and we were already sweating.

Some trekkers passed us, nodding hello in a smattering of languages: ‘bonjour! Namaste! Hello! Guten Tag! Mornin’! Koonichiwa!’

We got back on our feet. We climbed.

The villages that line the path from Tatopani to Ghorepani blend into one another. In our guide, it lists the hours between each settlement – two hours from Santosh to Shikha, one hour from Phalate to Chitre – but in reality, it’s less than ten minutes between signs that claim their lodge is in Phalate and other signs that claim their lodge is in Chitre.

In Shikha, most of the trekkers stop for lunch. Joshua isn’t very hungry, and it’s only 11:30, so we plug on for another fourty minutes, making our way to Phalate. At the first restaurant, we stop. Sitting under a porch – Joshua in the shade and me in the sun – we order veg chowmein and play a few hands of Rummy 500. A big vase of flowers sits in the middle of the table, and large, beautiful roosters strut around the patio. A kitten sneaks up onto the railing and then curls, resting in the sun. A baby goat sleeps on a pile of hay below.

When we’re finished, we continue on. The village of Phalate takes about an hour to get through, and then we’re already in Chitre. Lodges perch on the hillside, looking behind us where snowy mountain-tops are peaking out from behind the lush, green hills.

We climb and climb and climb. We stop. Joshua farts. Joshua sits on his glasses and breaks them. We keep climbing.

My back is doing suprisingly well, given the hours we’ve been hiking, but I’m starting to grow weary. It’s 2 PM. We’ve been at this for seven hours.

It’s one more hour to the top, and the trail keeps climbing. We make our way out of the jungle villages and into forests of evergreens and trees that are changing color. It’s fall now. Rhododendrons line the path, and streams cut through, getting our boots wet. More trekkers pass us.

When we finally arrive in Ghorepani, we see over a dozen steel-sheeted, blue guest houses perched on top of the hill. I was worried that there wouldn’t be any rooms left, but clearly, this isn’t going to be a problem. None of them look particularly cozy, and in the first place we try, we decide it’s too dark and loud. Joshua goes out looking for another lodge, and after a few minutes, he comes back, having found one.

The Mountain View Lodge is one of the first on the trail going in to Ghorepani. It has lots of rooms, but there aren’t too many people staying here, and it’s cleaner and brighter than the first one we tried. I sat down right away to put on some warmer clothes and then write, and Joshua, feeling restless, decided to go outside to look for some superglue for his glasses. Poor guy.

After a bit, Joshua came back. Amazingly, he had found some superglue in this high mountain village, and he set to work, patching up both broken arms and one broken lens. After a few minutes, he set them off to the side to dry, and when he put them back on, I couldn’t even tell that they had been broken until I looked very closely.

Downstairs, we huddled next to the heater and played cards while we waited for our dinner to arrive. The dal in Dal Bhaat had hardly any beans in the broth, but otherwise, everything was fine, and we played speed, cussing and laughing loudly while other curious trekkers looked on.

Later, we went off to bed and I read until late, completely immersed in my book. Finally, the chill in my fingers forced me to set it aside and burrow into my sleeping bag.

November 4, 2010

We ate breakfast at the same table where we had eaten dinner the night before. We imagined that there was still some lingering heat from the coals that had died out long ago.

I ate my boiled eggs and buckwheat while Joshua had his omlete and cornbread. The woman who owns the Paradise Lodge is a wonderful cook.

Joshua went to go pack up the last of our stuff, and I went to pay. In the kitchen, the woman was sitting on the floor, washing dishes in what I am certain was a large bucket of very, very cold water. Up above, the mysterious innards of some mysterious animal were neatly drying from the rafters. Something that looked like intestines was wrapped around one beam like a macabre string of christmas lights. Yum.

Outside, we continued down the road towards Ghasa. As we walked, we passed a few early morning trekkers, and Joshua decided to count the number of vehicles that passed us on the road. We made bets. In six hours, I guessed that there would be 50 vehicles. Joshua – ever the optimist – guessed 28.

As we descended, we practiced Spanish. Once we’d started talking about living in Chiappas for year when we have kids, Joshua’s a lot more interested in learning. For a guy who’s decidedly tight-lipped when we’re in Spanish-speaking countries, he was able to carry on a conversation for almost two hours. We’ve resolved to buy an audio language programme that we can use in the car while commuting.

In Ghasa, we checked in at the ACAP Permit Office and kept walking. The hike from Lete to Tatopani is entirely on-road, and although we were commited to remaining positive about the whole thing, most of it passed in a dusty blur. The scenery reminded us of the greener, more tropical days from early on in the Circuit. At one point, we came across an enormous waterfall, and we stopped to take a break in its spray. Although we were bundled up next to the heater last night, we’ve already descended so far that we’re sweating and we’ve shed our long-sleeved layers.

We bought four green mandarins from a little boy on the road. For five rupees a piece, we gobbled down fresh, local citrus. Usually, whenever Joshua and I ever share anything to eat, he subconsciously eats the lion’s share. Not so with citrus. I’d eaten most of them before Joshua even knew they had been peeled.

The Dutch couple caught up to us. Very seriously, I told Vincent that he should send his avalanche photos to National Geographic. He laughed and told us that he would think about it, once their done with their three month long journey. They just started a couple of weeks ago when they flew into Kathmandu, and once they’re done here, they’re going to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. They plan to sit on the beach and drink Mai Thais for the holidays.

As we approached Dana, the Dutch couple went off on a little detour. Once we had parted, Joshua and I laughed. Most people think we’re a bit crazy, but Marina and Vincent have gone as far as we have in less days, and even on the long days, they’re looking for ways to make it a bit longer.

In Dana, we found a beautiful restaurant with tons of gorgeous red flowers spilling all over the courtyard. We ordered veg chowmein and sat down to play a few hands of Rummy 500. As we were playing, the Canadians stopped to say hello, and one of them came over to look at my tattoo. ‘Texas Longhorn!’ he said, proud that he had identified this piece of Americana. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s Georgia O’Keefe.’ He looked perplexed. Georgia O’Who?

Spying another of my tattoos, he asked to see them as well, and I obliged. ‘And here I was thinking you were a wholesome Minnesota girl!’ Slightly irritated at his assumption, I said, ‘I AM wholesome.’ He laughed and winked. They kept walking.

Once they had left, Joshua and I thought of different responses we could have had to his ‘wholesome’ quip. Joshua thinks I should have said, ‘boy, were you wrong! I’m a dominatrix, and every Tuesday, I make a blood sacrifice to the Devil!’

It’s ironic, because in every other way, I really am pretty wholesome. It’s not like I’ve tried to cultivate a wholesome identity, but when I live and act the way I feel most comfortable, it’s usually ‘wholesome.’ I married my high school sweetheart. I got good grades. I taught in disadvantaged schools. I’m moving back home to be near my family. I’ll be living on a farm. I don’t do drugs. I care about people and animals. I also happen to like tattoos. In my opinion, these characteristics are not in opposition, but given most people’s reactions, I think I hold a minority opinion.

Once we had finished eating, we kept hiking. It was another hour and a half to Tatopani, and Joshua was still counting vehicles. By the time we had arrived, 45 buses, jeeps, and motorcycles had passed us on the way from Lete to Tatopani. Joshua said that I didn’t win because I over-bid. I said that I won because I had guessed the closest number. We agreed to disagree.

Below Tatopani, buses dropped off loads of tourists. Fortunately, inside the village there were plenty of lodges, and we found a nice room with a double bed and lots of windows at Hotel Himalaya for 150 rupees. Taking off our boots, Joshua went off to check his e-mail while I sat and read.

When he got back, we walked down to the hotsprings. For 50 rupees a person, you can sit in steaming hot pools with other trekkers and porters. The Kali Gandaki roars nearby, and there are coolers filled with beers and pop for a price. We were in and out within 10 minutes.

The hot springs would have been nice when we were freezing cold – say all the way from Temang to Lete – but now, we weren’t cold. In fact, we were hot and sweaty, and the hot springs were way too hot for us. The chiseled Dutch couple seemed to have the same idea, and they were in and out within minutes too.

Back at the hotel, we took cold showers and washed off the many layers of sunscreen and sweat. I washed some of my clothes and hung them up in the window, and then we sat for a while and read. At 6:30, we went down for dinner.

My veg noodle soup was disgusting, but the vegetable parathas were wonderful. Joshua scarfed down his potato-mushroom burger and cabbage salad in no time at all. We sat playing Rummy for a bit, and then we ordered a delicious piece of apple crumble. Outside, we could hear people singing. The Deuwali Festival begins today, and one of the porters told Joshua that this is a three day celebration where you give gifts to your sister and sing and dance.

We wandered outside to watch. Five women dressed in red with lots of necklaces and bangles were dancing around a basket with candles and money inside. A man with a microphone and a stereo blared music, and everyone was clapping in time. Looking up at our room, we realized that we would probably have an even better view from our window, so we retreated upstairs.

Peering out over the crowd, we watched them sing and dance four or five songs. One of them was the ‘I am a donkey, you are a monkey’ song we had heard on our rafting trip. I wonder if its a traditional Deuwali song 🙂

The sun fell, and we laid in bed reading. Outside, people were still celebrating, but after a long day, we were too tired to let a little noise bother us. We fell asleep.


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Thorung Phedi to Muktinath to Kagbeni

November 1, 2010

We didn’t sleep well. At first, the room was so cold, the snow on our bags didn’t melt. We could see our breath, and the chill hurt. To prepare for bed, we wore everything, cinched up our mummy bags tight, and wrapped ourselves in the fuzzy blankets provided.

In the middle of the night, I woke up sweating. It was so hot, I had to take off my jacket. Still to hot. I took off my next jacket. Again, I was still to hot. Eventually, I shed my gloves, hat, extra layer of pants, and socks too. Ankit started snoring. Laying in bed, the air felt thin, and just as my eyes would drift closed, I awake with a gasp for more oxygen.

When Joshua’s alarm went off just before 7, I was already wide awake, just waiting for the night to be over. In the single bed across the room, Ankit was holding his head and groaning in that special way you do when your nose is thoroughly plugged and yours ears feel as though they are stuffed with cotton. As we headed for the door, he drew the blankets up and over his head to catch a couple more hours of sleep.

Downstairs, I found a cat curled up on the bench. When I sat down next to it, it stirred, looked at me, yawned, and then immediately crawled into my lap. Sticking its head into my belly, it began to purr loudly. I was in love.

For breakfast, we had the usual: buckwheat pancakes with honey, black tea, and oat porridge with apple for Joshua. Once we had finished eating, we headed towards Jhong. When I made to move, the cat in my lap growled low in its throat, warning me that my intended course of action was not acceptable. When I gently tried to move it, it sunk its teeth into my jacket. Finally, I swung my legs onto the other side of the bench, getting up with the cat still nuzzled tightly into my belly. It stretched, sticking its nose in my armpit and wrapping its arms around my arm. Finally, it let go.

As we walked out of Ranipauw, we passed shopkeepers setting out their wares on low tables. Coral, torquise, and bright yellow stones were strung into colorful necklaces, and behind them, mini prayer wheels, votives carved in yak bone, and buddhas sat ready for purchase. Women wearing the traditional, long dress worn by the Tibetans in Dharamsala gestured towards fuzzy scarves hanging in a rainbow of colors and designs: ‘you want scarf? Good yak wool. I give you good price. Discount!’

Past Mukhtinath, we ventured onto a narrower path. This region is dry, and the hills surrounding the area are tawny and almost desert-like. In the river valley, tall, fluttery trees that look like aspens and poplars pop up. Right now, their lovely yellow leaves gently part ways with their branchly homes and drift down to the ground where they are covered with a light dusting of frost. We walk on top of them, and for the first time in six years, it really feels like autumn. The are smells crisp, and our feet crunch pleasantly.

Crossing a stream, we flirt with ice-slick stepping stones. Joshua’s foot is thoroughly dunked.

In the first village, we pass more thin, silvery trunks dressed in yellow leaves. The buildings have been formed from brick, mud, and timber, and many of them have been painted with dripping yellow, red, and orange stripes. A mani wall of prayer wheels separates the path, and in the gardens, there are baby calves, chickens, and dogs. They’re curled up in corners, perched on walls, and bent over, eating.

There are no guesthouses, no shops. There are no cars, no tourists. It’s quiet, and the air is still so cold that we can see the big white plumes of our breath.

On the other side of town, we enter a thin grove of trees. Autumn has thinned their hair, and light filters through, revealing more calves and yaks, grazing. The path leads us over irrigation ditches the meander through small fields where their harvest once grew. Now, dry, shorn stalks wear a white dusting of snow.

We’ve lost the path to Jhong. Ours peters out in fields high above a river valley. On the other side, we can see more fields and a charming red and gold village. Far behind in the valley, we see the suspension bridge we should have crossed.

It would have been nice to see this little-seen village, but it’s hard to be disappointed. Perched on a hill overlooking Mustang, we sit like the Nepali do: with our arms around our knees, our seats of the ground. In the distance, high on the horizon, snowy mountains embrace our dry valley. We can hear the rushing of the river far below.

Check out time is 10 AM, so rather than find the path we lost, we sit for a bit and then turn around. We head back through the village, where people have ventured out into their yards to chop wood, feed chickens, or carry big bundles of who-knows-what who-knows-where.

As we walk, Joshua tells me that he’s been inspired by the man we met in the Penines. From Edinborough, this older gentleman told us that he worked three years and then, on every fourth year, he took the year off. He called it ‘constructive laziness,’ and I called it brilliant.

Now, we’re talking about having a family. How do you travel with kids? Sure, most people don’t, but we think it’s possible. Perhaps, on every fourth or fifth year, we’ll live abroad for a time. We’ll get to go on adventures as a family, and our kids will learn so much. Hopefully, another language; certainly, another culture. Compassion and worldliness and adventure.

Perhaps we’ll go to Mexico. Maybe we’ll teach English in Nicaragua. I want to go to Southeast Asia. Joshua cooks up a plan where we buy a trailer and then road-school our kids: we start in the Northeast of the US and read all the New England classics. We teach them about Manifest Destiny and move westwards. In the Grand Canyon, Geology. In the plains, Willa Cather and the Dust Bowl.

Back at the Caravan Guest House, we rouse Ankit and begin packing. It takes a while to get going, but by 10:30, we’re out the door. We check in with the ACAP Office, and then we head towards Kagbeni.

The trail from Mukhtinath to Kagbeni follows a road. We see our first jeeps since Besi Sahar. A Belgian trekker catches up with us and says, ‘the road’s a shame for the Circuit, but I suppose you can’t begrudge them for wanting four-wheeled transportation.’ He’s right. I’m sure this place was even more romantic and wild without jeeps or motorcycles, but it’s unfair to expect that the Nepali live as they always did, while we live in luxury and travel in plains, trains, and automobiles. They’ll make their own mistakes. We’ve made ours.

This place is so, so, so beautiful. It’s dry, but at the lowest parts of the valley, streams, rivers, irrigation ditches, and even waterfalls bring life to apple orchards, silvery trees, and herds of horses. Below Mukhtinath, we pass Jharkot, a lovely red and gold village with a few guest houses. I feel a bit envious of those who had the presence of mind to forge on past charmless Mukhtinath. A gust of wind blows hundreds of birds out of their roosts, and they fly over the village like omens or angels.

The sun warms our backs, and after a little while longer, we stop to buy some famous Mustang apples (for 10 rupees a piece) and shed a layer or two. After four nights without showering, a 5500 meter pass, and no deoderant (Joshua thought this little toiletry item unnecessary), we’re all pretty smelly. My hair, over-fond of shampoo, is slick with neglect.

Chomping on our delicious apples, we spy Eric, Nora, and their guide, Purna, walking up behind us. We’re all happy to see each other one last time.

As we walk, I ask Nora’s advice. Where would it be best to teach English in Mexico? She asked us if we prefered urban or rural, and of course, we said rural. She asked us if we prefered beach or mountain, and then she changed her mind. Mexico has everything; you don’t need to pick.

Both Eric and Nora recommended Chiappas and Oaxaca. They’re rich in indigenous cultures, archeology, beaches, and mountains. They’re beautiful and interesting. Nora went to visit for two weeks and stayed for three months. They’re that good.

Next, I asked about road trips through Mexico. They’re fine, they assured us. They’ve been on many before, and they’ve had a lot of fun. Oh, and we can bring our dog.

I ask Nora a little bit more about Mexico City. She’s clearly in love. Its got a little bit of everything, and it’s only five hours to the beach where you can eat fish that’s been freshly caught and stay in cabinas for less than 10 dollars a night. It sounds wonderful.

Nora sighs. There is a problem with drugs in Mexico, and really, it’s both our problem. Mexico supplies, and the US buys. It’s always in the news, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. We talk about the reasons why there is such a market in the US. Is it that people find excitement living outside the law? Are they self-medicating?

We continue to descend, and after a bit, we come to a fork in the road. For Jomsom, you head left; for Kagbeni, you head right. The five of us stop for a photo and hugs. We tell each other to keep in touch, and maybe we will or maybe we won’t, but as we’re walking away, I feel a little sad. I’d have like to keep them in my pocket, too. Either way, I’m blessed to have met them.

It’s another hour or so to Kagbeni. We keep descending, and the views continue. We pause, looking at the naked hills, the folded cliffs, and the mountains behind. Over the next ridge, we see Kagbeni, nestled near the Kali Gandaki, at the foot of Upper Mustang, adorned with yellow leaves and silver trees.

Every one we’ve talked to has recommended Kagbeni. They love this village and its narrow streets, and so we’ve taken the short detour here. It’s only a couple hours hike, so it’s a short day, but when we arrived in Kagbeni, we had to agree: this place is cozy and quaint.

It’s also a bit confusing. We wandered around, trying to get our barings, and finally, another trekker took pity on us, asked us if we were lost, and then led us to the Red House, a 300 year old lodge.

The Red House has a wall of prayer wheels inside, old Buddhist paintings in the dining hall, and a maze of wooden steps that lead to hidden halls and rooms. The proprietess led us up to the rooftop where she showed us two double rooms with a shared shower. For 200 rupees a room, we agreed.

As soon as we shed our packs, we ran downstairs to eat. Sitting in the sunny dining hall, we read while we waited for our Chowmein, Veg Noodle Soup, and Ginger Tea to come.

The food was delicious, and once we had finished we stayed in the cozy room. After a bit, I went to go take a miraculously hot shower and wash some of my clothes. Hopefully, that wasn’t a really stupid idea; the sun was almost setting, and I don’t know if they’ll have time to dry by tomorrow.

Back downstairs, Joshua and I went for a little walk to explore the parts of Kagbeni we hadn’t already seen (when we were completely lost). We stopped first to buy dust masks for the trail ahead, and then we wandered through the narrow streets, ducking into hidden corridors, and passing through painted gates. At one end of the village, a sign forbade us from walking any further: Upper Mustang is available through guided tour and permit only. For a while, we stood looking at the gateway to this forbidden region. The Kali Gandaki’s river bed is wide here, and there are rivulets and streams that spring off across the stones, only to join it once more. On the horizon, dry, brown hills and mountains hide the Kali Gandaki’s source, and we can see just a glimmer of another red and gold village.

The wind is blowing through the valley, but we stay just a little bit longer to watch a shepherd lead his goats along a cliff-face and down into the valley. The goats barrel down the impossible angle, and we are amazed when, after 10 minutes of throwing rocks and shouting, he manages to line them all up and continue on.

The sun is starting to set, so we walk for a bit more. The shepherd has brought the goats into the village, and we gape at their amazing, gnarled horns that loop once, twice, and sometimes even three times.

Back at the Red Lodge, we wait in the dining room for Dal Bhaat. When it comes, a large, hammered, copper dish contains kala chana (toasted chick peas), steamed greens, potato curry, fermented pickle, rice, and dal. It’s delicious, and we all eat seconds.

After dinner, a sick Ankit went off to bed, and Joshua and I stayed back to read and write. Once the other trekkers had gone off to bed, Tanzin, the proprietor came over to us and sat down. For the next 30 minutes, he told us a little bit about his culture and what he’d like to take from our culture.

The Kagbeni are part of the Mustangi region. Along with Mukhtinath and Upper Mustang, they speak the same language and practice the same religion. Just a couple hours down the road, Jomsom has a different language. Across the pass, Manang has another language. Tanzin believes that Nepal is rich in culture. There are many different ethnicities, and each one has their own language and their own religious practice. Also, they all have their own caste system. For example, in Mustangi, there is the high caste, two middle castes, low caste, and no caste. In Kagbeni, there is only one low caste family. They are tailors.

One of Tanzin’s family members has visited the US, and she noticed a few things: we don’t know our neighbors, our families live a long way apart, we all speak the same language, and everybody works hard all the time. She admire that we work hard, because she likes to work hard too, but she prefered the Mustangi way of knowing your neighbors and staying close to your family. Tanzin agreed that there are some things that are better in Nepal and some things that are better in the US. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Finally, Tanzin talked about Buddhism. His father’s father was Buddhist, so he’s Buddhist too, but he doesn’t know everything about his religion. He only knows what his family has always done. In Mustangi culture, if there are three boys, the middle boy becomes a monk, and if there are three girls, the middle one becomes a nun. He thinks that the monks and nuns love Buddhism, but perhaps they are lonely and wish they could marry.

As we talked, the lights in the dining hall faded in and out with surges of electricity. After a bit, Tanzin gave us a huge smile and wished us good night. We thanked him for sharing with us, and then we trundled off to bed.

October 31, 2010

The alarm went off at 5 AM. Prying ourselves from our warm cocoons of sleeping bags and blankets, we packed our backpacks and went into the dining room for breakfast.

The night before, we had ordered large breakfasts to fuel our long hike, but this early in the morning, a huge plate of fried potatoes and a buckwheat pancake didn’t look appetizing. Considering the 1700 meter climb ahead of us, I ate it anyway.

It took a little longer to get ready to go, and it was nearly 6:30 by the time we set off on the trail. Up ahead of us, we could see packs and pairs of trekkers slowly making their way up the mountain like a trail of ants. There were two or three couples within a stone’s throw distance from us, but otherwise, there was no one behind us. We were the last ones to start.

The night before, we had heard trekkers saying that they were setting off for the pass as early at 3 AM. Most were beginning the hike at 5. Lonely Planet told us that 6 AM was fine, so we went with their advice. Nevertheless, it was a little nervewracking looking up at all the people who had gone before us and seeing no one behind us.

To make matters somewhat more ominous, the sky was cloudy. Nevermind that the sky had been crystal clear and electric blue every day prior; today – the day we planned to reach over 5400 meters – was cloudy with hardly a patch of blue sky.

We started heading up.

From Thorung Phedi to High Camp, the trail angles steeply over rocky switchbacks for about an hour. Focused on our goals, we all headed up at our own pace, passing a couple trekkers as we went. At High Camp, I stopped to wait for Joshua and Ankit, and when Joshua arrived, he informed me that we had all taken on Into Thin Air aliases, and I am Anatoli Boukreev. Joshua’s Mike Groom or Neil Beidlman, and Ankit it Rob Hall.

From High Camp, we continued heading up. By now, the terrain was entirely mountainous, and the peaks surrounding us were closer to eye-level. Huge glaciers pitched down ragged cirques, and their icy-blue glow suited this landscape’s grey-blue palatte.

Up over a scree field, we passed another group of trekkers. A suspension bridge led us across a frosty river, and then we headed up and over another steep stretch. At the top, Ankit caught up with us, and we agreed that, after an ominous beginning (what with it being Halloween and all), we were loving it. Even Ankit took a little glee from passing other trekkers who had started off earlier than us. Joshua took the most glee, counting them as we went: 21, 22, 23…

It began to snow. For a second, I thought to be a bit worried about crossing the pass while it was snowing, but everyone seemed so enchanted with the tiny little flakes, that I continued on, singing ‘Winter Wonderland’ to myself.

At the Yak-kawa Lodge, Eric and Nora came out, and we happily greeted one another. Purna, their guide, was impressed that we had already caught up. We felt great.

It took a little over an hour to reach the pass from the Yak-kawa Lodge. The path wound over rocks and prayer flags, and there were many false summits. On our way, we passed a few more trekkers and porters, including a couple of Veteranarians from Massachusetts, who missed their dog as much as we do.

At high elevation, we took the steep path one step at a time, leaning into each foot forward as we went. Although we were breathing hard, both Joshua and I felt great. Ankit seemed to be a little high on Diamox.

Finally, after three hours of climbing, we reached the pass. Hundreds of prayer flags flapped in the wind, and as soon as we stopped, I donned another jacket. It was absolutely freezing. Snow was still falling, and my fingers could barely move in their mittens. We posed in front of the sign for a couple of photos, and then, hugging Eric, Nora, and Ankit as they each made it to the pass, we quickly started to make our way down.

Most people will agree that going down Thorung La Pass is much scarier than going up, and although I was still enjoying myself – I had had a ridiculous grin on my face for the whole hike – my hands were so cold, I absolutely had to get down as fast as possible.

Before long, Eric, Nora, and Ankit were far behind us. I felt bad going so far ahead, but I just had to get lower where it would be warmer and my hands wouldn’t feel like they were about to fall off.

It continued to snow as we picked our way down the mountainside. We passed a few more people on our way down, and a few people passed us. While I’m competitive going up the mountain, I’m not going down; I’d rather make it to the bottom in one piece. That said, we were cruising.

Finally, after about an hour or two’s decent, the air grew a bit warmer, and my hands began to thaw. The path was still very steep, and I fell a couple of times, but luckily, I didn’t hurt anything. We continued on down the path, and eventually, we reached Charabura, a small pit stop with a few lodges and restaurants.

Inside one of the restaurants, we ordered noodle soup and momos. Gripping mugs of hot tea, we blew at the steam and looked worriedly outside, waiting for Eric, Nora, and Ankit. It started snowing in earnest. The hillside above us grew whiter and whiter. Inside the little mud-brick dining room, the snow on our bags never melted.

While we ate, we chatted with a couple from Australia. The two of them are also on a six month trip, and they also started in the UK. They looked absolutely miserable. Apparently, the altitude had gripped both of them with fierce headaches for the past three days, and near the top of Thorung La Pass, they had nearly considered turning around, they were in so much pain.

Luckily, they had continued on, and now, they were just stopping long enough to eat a candy bar and drink a cup of tea. They wanted to get as low as possible today – maybe even lower than Muktinath.

Once we had finished eating, Joshua left me with the packs and hiked back up the mountain to make sure Eric, Nora, and Ankit were ok. He came back 30 minutes later with Ankit in tow, and when they entered the lodge, Ankit collapsed in a chair and asked for a hot drink. I didn’t have to ask; I ordered him a hot chocolate.

Ankit told us that Eric’s knees had really been bothering him, so he had passed them a while back. He was exhausted, but otherwise, he felt pretty good.

While we waited for Eric and Nora, Ankit ate soup, and eventually, they arrived. Brushing snow off their shoulders, they entered the lodge to our applause. They were fine, but in the time that had ellapsed between when Joshua and I had gone down the mountain and they had gone down the mountain, the snow had built up, and the precarious, steep path had become even more slippy and dangerous. They had wisely taken their time and been gentle on Eric’s knees.

We all started to get a bit cold, so once Ankit finished his soup and we payed, we said goodbye to Eric, Nora, and Purna, and headed towards Mukhtinath. Outside, the snow was still falling heavily, and although the path was not nearly as steep, it was still down hill. With a thick layer of snow at our feet, we picked our way gingerly down.

Eventually, we reached a suspension bridge. Tightly holding onto the railings, we made our way across, and on the other side, we saw a sign that welcomed us to Mukhtinath.

Mukhtinath is a site of pilgrimage for both Buddhists and Hindus alike. A walled temple complex contains both a Buddhist and Hindu temple, and many worshippers and saddhus come from miles around to pray here. As we passed the temple, we admired the snowy landscape. The valley was cupped by mountains on either side, and through the falling snow, we could see smoking chimneys.

Past Mukhtinath, we entered Ranipauw. There were a dozen lodges, but the first two we checked were full. Finally, at the Caravan Guest House, we found a triple room with a double and single bed.

Dumping our packs in the room, we went out to the common area were plenty of windows gave us a view out onto the street. On the window sills, cacti and flowered plants creeped their way upwards. We ordered hot drinks, and from the room next door, an American lady from Eugene, Oregon came out to visit.

Lana had some local Mustang Brandy, so we all spiked our drinks. We chatted a bit about the pass and agreed that we felt proud of ourselves for completing such a grueling hike, and then we sat down to relax. While Joshua and Ankit played chess, I flipped through our camera’s photos and read.

It got colder. By the time the sun fell, we were so cold that we were simply huddled under all of our clothing and blankets, shivering. Lana told us that it had been zero degrees farenheit up at the pass, and it was about fifteen degrees down here. It certainly felt like it was about fifteen degrees inside.

Finally, the guest house keepers announced that they would light a coal-burning stove downstairs while we ate dinner. A group of trekkers huddled around the table, shivering, tired, and – dare I say? – miserable, and then one of the staff put a smoking, red hot burner under the table by our feet.

Just as we started to get warm, our dinners came out of the kitchen, and as I ate my veg chowmein, my legs were almost hot. Joshua complained about being to warm, but after freezing all day long, it felt nice.

Once we had finished eating, I could barely sit upright. I leaned into Joshua, and we sat there a bit longer, letting everything thaw out. Then, at 7:30, we went off to bed.

Happy Halloween!


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Manang to Letdar to Thorung Phedi

October 30, 2010

I’ve begun to wake up with the sun. For an hour after the sky has begun to lighten, I lay in bed, registering my cold nose and legs, waiting for Joshua to wake up. At 6:30, we grumble about getting out of our sleeping bags, but then we do, and we pack everything up before breakfast, packing our warmest layers last.

In the restaurant in Churi Lettar, we sat in the dining room. We had put in our order the night before, and as usual, we had asked for our food to be ready by 7. That’s how it’s done in most of these lodges, and although our breakfast has been ten or fifteen minutes late a couple of times, it’s not usually a problem. It’s a system that seems to work.

We waited for fifteen minutes. Other trekkers came. A group of older Australians sat next to us, and their guide came around with a bowl of warm, soapy water for them to wash their hands. Their breakfast came soon after. Another couple of trekkers came in, and their guide came out with their plates moments later. At 7:30, we walked over to the kitchen to make sure that they hadn’t forgotten about us; they hadn’t. The kitchen was bustling with porters and guides, helping out. We went back to waiting.

At 7:45, Ankit went back to check. He came back empty handed. The other trekker’s plates were cleared. They got ready to go. Just before 8, our food finally came. The food was cold.

We ate quickly and then went to fill up our water and pay. There was no water at the ACAP clean water station, and instead, I filled up our bottles from the big basin in the kitchen. Lonely Planet says that giardia is rampant up here in the higher lodges, and our chlorine pills needed an additional hour and a half to take full effect with the increased risk of parasites. No water for our hike today.

I wanted to get out of Letdar. After our dinner last night, the crowded conditions, and the slow, preferential service, Letdar had left a bad taste in my mouth. It was freezing outside, I burned off the frustration and the cold by walking fast. Joshua and Ankit followed behind.

It took only two hours to get to Thorung Phedi, and the ascent is only 280 meters. Nevertheless, with the elevation, we were walking more slowly than usual, and we found ourselves short of breath. Joshua and I tried to remember all the songs that we know the lyrics to, and the only non-religious song I could recall word-for-word is ‘Goodbye Earl.’ God bless the Dixie Chicks.

We climbed up the valley, crossing a mountain stream and then climbing up the other side. From the top, we could see Thorung Phedi. Passing a large group of French and an even larger group of Russians, we made our way along the hillside, and soon, we reached the lodges of Thorung Phedi.

Thankfully, there beds available in the New Hotel, and we were taken to a room for three. It was cramped, but the blankets are thicker. We sat in the room for a while, looking at the map, how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go. We’ve been hiking for nine days. We have 16 left. Tomorrow, we summit Thorung La.

In the sunlit dining room, we enjoyed the warmth and ordered plates of Veg Fried Rice. While we waited and then ate, we met a couple from Switzerland who have been traveling since August. They spent three weeks in Ladakh, trekking part of the way to Manali. Since then, they’ve been trekking in Nepal, starting with Manaslu and then tacking on the Annapurna Circuit.

Next, they plan to tour Southeast Asia, and upon hearing their plans, we consulted the pro-travellers, Eric (of Eric and Nora from Mexico City) and Ankit. They told us that a hotel in Myanmar will set you back 7 dollars. Food will cost about the same. You can live on a budget for about 20 dollars a day. In Thailand, it’s the same, maybe a little less. By now, I’m sold. I want to go to Southeast Asia.

Nigel from Cork came to join us at our table, and we talked about culture shock. Kathmandu was Nigel’s first developing country experience, and he told us about the malfunctioning (read: non-functioning) metal detectors in the airport, the cows in the street, the squatting toilets. Eric and Nora told us that they had planned this trip, in part, to transition themselves back to Mexico City. They’ve been living in Washington D.C., and now, they’re traveling for four months in developing countries. When they get back to Mexico City, they’ll say, ‘wow! Look how clean! How well functioning!’

We asked Eric and Nora a little bit more about their history, and they told us that their families were both Jewish and had moved to escape the war. Nora told us an incredible story about her grandfather, and the two of them shared how they met (on a blind date). Nora is about to take a month-long cooking class in Thailand, and we bonded over a shared love of cooking classes and cooking. Nora knows how to cook all the Mexican classics, and after working for the farmer’s market in Washington D.C., she has a lot of experience with fresh, seasonal produce. Since her family is from Poland, her family’s culinary history is international. Eric approved of her phenomenal, multi-national cooking.

After lunch, Ankit went for a nap, and Eric, Nora, Joshua, and I went for a little hike up towards High Camp. On our way, we chatted more and saw wild deer. The sun set behind the mountains, and it got even colder outside.

Back at the lodge, we’re sitting in the less sunny, albeit heater-warmed dining room, awaiting food. We’re so hungry!

October 29, 2010

We left Manang a little before 8:30. For breakfast, we ate eggs, potatoes, and toast, and then we settled the bill. Outside, the air was very cold, and envious of our new mittens, Ankit broke down and purchased a pair of his own. They were the colors of the Jamaican flag, and we teased him with Bob Marley lines on our way out of town.

Before we left the last bhattis, a little boy ran up to us and gripped onto Joshua’s hiking stick. He walked with us, shouting to his march and the punch of Joshua’s hiking stick. On the other side of town, we crossed a frozen stream and began to climb.

The hike from Manang to Yakarta takes about three hours, and as we hiked, we passed many trekkers. Joshua gave Ankit a series of riddles, and Ankit solved none of them, although he tried very hard. Next, we played two truths and a lie. Of course, this works much better when two of the people involved are not married, but it’s still a fun game 🙂

In Yakarta, we stopped for an apple break. A guide told us that they were the best apples in Nepal. They’re apples from Mustang. Eric and Nora, the Mexican couple we had met in Temang, caught up with us, and worried that they wouldn’t make it to Letdar before the masses, requested that we reserve them a room.

The hike from Yakarta to Letdar was about 45 minutes. On our way up, we passed the Israeli couple we had met on our first day, and neither seemed very pleased. The honeymoon was not going well. Across a suspension bridge, we reached the first lodge of Letdar. There were no rooms.

In the next lodge, Churri Lattar, we asked for two doubles and a single. They shook their heads. Desperate, we asked if they had anything at all. They told us they had a four-person dorm room and one double left. These were the last rooms in Letdar. We took them.

Depositing my pack, I ran back to tell Eric and Nora that we had a room for them. On the way back to the lodge, I passed a number of trekkers, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were out of luck. Maybe their porters had gone up ahead to reserve a room?

At the lodge, Joshua was perplexed. How could it be that there were no rooms in Letdar, and yet there were hardly any other trekkers? Looking over at a table filled with porters, we figured that they had been sent ahead. Joshua was irritated. This should be survival of the fittest, not the richest!

In the warm, sunny dining room, Joshua and I ordered some veg fried rice. Ankit stayed in the room, resting. After a bit, he came in and told us he wasn’t feeling quite right. He decided to walk back down to Yakarta, but he left his stuff in our room, hoping that he would feel well enough to return later in the afternoon.

After we ate, we read in the sunshine. Across the room, three middle-aged men were sitting and talking. While I kept my eyes on the page, I left one ear open. One was complaining about Kathmandu. ‘What a trash pit!’ he said. ‘Kathmandu is disgusting!’ One by one, the men around the table agreed. Across the room, I disagreed. It irritated me to listen to these men deride such a beautiful city. ‘There’s nothing to do, to see!’ they said. Are you kidding? This has been one of my favorite cities so far. In between their privileged, derisive sentences, their porters waited on them hand and foot. They delivered tea, asked them how their lunches were, ordered their dinners… They would nod, continuing their conversations and never making eye contact. There’s something that makes me really uncomfortable with the trekker-porter-guide relationship. This is their country, and yet there seems to be an expectation that they wait on us.

Back in the room, we burrowed into our sleeping bags to keep warm. I worked my way through the end of America Unchained by Dave Gorman, and Joshua began his new book, having eschewed Alice Waters’ biography.

After a while, we grew worried about Ankit. Taking his backpack, we headed for Yakarta, but we didn’t have to go far. He was already near the first lodge in Letdar, and he told us that he was feeling better. We walked with him back to the lodge and ordered dinner together. Three Dal Bhaat for room 9.

While we waited for dinner at 6, we wandered around outside, venturing as close to the big, furry yaks as we dared. A couple of the young ones seemed both curious and brave, but the mothers grunted aggressively, and we gave them a wide berth.

In the dining room, we sat at the big table with the men who hated Kathmandu and Eric and Nora. While we waited for the meal to come, one of the men, an Australian, told us about his 20,000 acre sheep ranch. When we ‘ahh!’ed in surprise, he was quick to explain that it’s very, very hard work. He never has vacations, and he’s always worried about making ends meet. In the very next sentence, he explained his year-long world-wide venture, where he’s had a guide the whole way. Next, when he discovered that Nora and Eric were from Mexico, he asked them if they worked in pharmeceuticals. They screwed up their faces and said, ‘what?’

After that, he asked them if there are tequila farms all over Mexico. Then he said, ‘it must be so nice to have so many holidays! You must hardly work!’

Another man told us that he had lived in Kathmandu for four years. He joked, saying ‘I’m an army wife.’ He was very friendly, and when he told us he was interested in teaching, we told him a little bit about New Orleans. The Australian, listening in, summed up, ‘so you had an incredible experience!’ Hmmmm….

Finally, finally, the Dal Bhaat came. There was hardly any food left for refills (customary for Dal Bhaat, and the reason it costs more than anything else on the menu), and it was very, very gross. The whole time I was eating, I was thinking about what sort of parasites I might be contracting. After dinner, my tea didn’t come, and when I went to go get it from the kitchen, they gave me a cup barely half full. When I objected, they ignored me.

Back at the table, I felt bad. I felt like the girls I had overheard (and yes, made fun of) in Manang, complaining about the cold water, the doors that hardly shut, and the bathrooms that smelled. We laughed amongst ourselves and snidely suggested (so they couldn’t hear) that they go back to Tel Aviv where the bathrooms are clean, the water is hot, and the doors shut all the way. Now, here I was, objecting to no refills on suspect Dal Bhaat and a half-full tea cup. Am I really so inflexible?

Restless and irritated, we headed off to bed. I finished my book and then burrowed all the way down into my sleeping bag, hoping to get warm. It was a cold night.

October 28, 2010

To load my posts onto the blog, I had to sell my soul. Well, not really, but it did cost 7 dollars for half an hour of some of the slowest internet in the world. They charged by the minute.

Back at the lodge, I looked around for Joshua and Ankit. They weren’t back from the movie yet, so I wandered over to the theater to ask just how long Seven Years in Tibet really is. Long. I guess.

Not too long after, they joined me in the dining room, and we all ordered Dal Bhaat. An Australian man with a guide joined us at our table and then proceeded to tell us all about his trip. His stories were interesting and funny, but it was distinctly a one-sided conversation. He generously told Ankit all about India (Ankit’s family is from India, and he’s been there many times).

There were no refills on the Dal Bhaat, and we all went to bed a little hungry. After our long hike, I was exhausted. Tomorrow, we leave Manang.


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Manang and Ice Lake

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.


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Nadi to Chamje to Temang

October 24, 2010

At 7, Marco, Ankit, Joshua and I sat down for a big breakfast. Determined not to hike hungry, Joshua ordered a banana pancake and muesli with apples while I ordered a huge plate of fried vegetables and potatoes with egg and cheese. We drank a pot of tea between the two of us, and by 8, we had eaten, packed the last of our things, paid, and hit the road.

The guest house keeper sent his nephew with us, and although the young boy seemed initially irritated with his oversize, Westerner babysitters, he warmed up after a few minutes and introduced himself as Vevek. Vevek lives in Tal, and his uncle was worried about him making the hiking on his own.

The two hour hike from Chamje to Tal first crosses the river and then climbs up. Waterfalls cascade down cliff-faces and mountains on either side, and below, the river rushes frantically over boulders and around turns. The trail begins with a gradual climb and then steepens in earnest. While Joshua and Ankit chatted, I walked ahead and sung hymns. The only lyrics I ever remember are hymns.

Cresting a hill, we could see Tal below. Sitting next to the sprawling river in a wide valley, Lonely Planet calls Tal the Annapurna’s ‘Wild West.’ With its wide, dirt streets and wooden buildings, I guess I can see where they’re coming from. Descending into the valley, I admired the milky water rushing over the flat, pebbled ground. This place is beautiful.

In Tal, we said goodbye to Vevek and filled up our water bottles at a ACAP Water Station. There are a number of these all around the Circuit, and they sell boiled and filtered water for a reasonable price. Their goal is to cut down on plastic water bottles, and we’re all for it.

Heading out of Tal, we walked along the river’s edge for a while, and then we crossed another swinging suspension bridge to the other side. As we again climbed up, we passed dozens of porters heading in the opposite direction. These men are unbelievable. They carry upwards of 70 pounds each, and their big baskets and crates have a strap that loops up over their foreheads. All of the men have small builds, and yet, they are able to carry the most incredible loads.

Watching these men labor down the path in flip flops, we had mixed feelings. On the one hand, porters are making money. There’s a market for people to carry goods up and down the trail, and they’ve tapped into it. On the other hand, it seems a bit demeaning. Lots of the porters are carrying things like tables, kitchen wares, sleeping bags, tents, and people’s surplus gear. These bags are so enormous and heavy, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s all really necessary. Between Joshua and I, we have 83 liters worth of space in our packs. They’re full, but we’ve been discerning about the things we chose to carry, and I seriously doubt that carrying more stuff would improve our Circuit experience. We have everything we need, and what we don’t have, we can easily find along the trail: food, lodging, good views, and wonderful company.

Along the way, we also encounter dozens of donkey trains. Some of the donkeys carry nothing but their saddles, but others are carrying huge barrels of water, fuel, or packs of food. All of them have bells that sound with each step. We move to the side to let them by, and they bob their heads as they descend. At the back of the train, a herder tuts and yells, and when he sees us, he smiles and says, ‘Namaste.’

After Tal, we catch up with a group of young Trekkers from Israel and Canada. We smile and say hello, but they’re deep in conversation, so we leave them behind. At one point, the trail passes through a waterfall, and when I stop to feel the breeze, I look behind at Joshua’s grinning face and Ankit filming.

A little while later, we come to another swinging bridge, and on the other side, we enter Karte. Surrounded by cliff walls and gardens, this sweet little town has a couple guest houses, and more importantly, restaurants. Although we prefer not to eat at a restaurant three times a day, the selection for over-the-counter food is mostly packaged, and we dislike the idea of creating more waste. Plus, most of the packaged food also happens to be junk food, so we decided to stop at a restaurant and ask them what was quickest and easiest for them to make. They said fried rice.

Sitting in the shade, we waited for our rice and pulled out our maps. Ankit has a little leaflet with a graph that charts the distance traveled, the amount of time it should take to travel it, and the elevation of each village. So far, we’ve hiked for four hours today, and judging by the chart, we have a little more than three hours until we get to Temang.

The plates of fried rice come, and in less than ten minutes, we’ve polished them off. Paying quickly, we load on our backpacks, and we continue on the trail. In all, our lunch stop lasted 35 minutes. The food tasted great, we didn’t create any waste, and we didn’t loose a lot of time.

From Karte, we walked to Dharapani. We talked about whether or not we feel homesick, and the sort of things we feel homesick for. Is it family? A place? A feeling?

In Dharapani, we checked in with the APAC, showing them our trekking permits, and we ran into the young group of Israelis and Canadians again. It didn’t take long to sign in, and once we had finished, we continued on to Bhagarchap. Although we had started the day in mountains with bamboo, rice, and other jungle-like growth, the ground cover began to change, and all of sudden, we were surrounded by mountains with evergreens. In the distance, we could see snow-capped mountains, and the air began to cool.

In Bhagarchap, we entered the traditional Tibetan gate and passed through the main street. We saw Marco exploring his port of call and stopped for just a second to say hello. It was another short walk to Danaque, and as we were walking into the village, we came upon a group of Nepalis. Two of the men were trekking, and the other two were serving as porters. Although the trekkers didn’t speak a lot of English, one of them was able to tell me that he was a football coach in Pokhara, and he’s hiked the Annapurna Circuit four times. When I told him that we planned to stay overnight in Temang, he told me that we had another hour of hiking left, and most of it is up a steep hill. He told me that his group was headed for Chame tonight, another three hours’ walk.

Danaque is a sprawling village with many guesthouses, and at the other end of town, Ankit, Joshua, and I stopped for a little rest while the Nepali group plowed on. After nearly seven hours of hiking, our feet and shoulders were aching, and I could tell that Ankit was questioning whether or not he really wanted to continue hiking with us. We had just finished having a conversation about the differences between Brits and Americans, and Joshua had given his theory: the Brits are about 200 years ahead of the Americans. Whereas the Americans are busy trying to be the most economically and politically powerful nation and concerned with fierce competition and winning, the Brits can’t be bothered. They’ve been there, tried that, and it didn’t go so well. Now, they’re content to have a cup of tea and have little thinks, and just generally observe us make massive mistakes. So, while Americans are busy making plans, working like fiends, making snap decisions, and forming goals, the Brits are happier to ‘go with the flow’ and see what the day has to offer.

Of course, this is a crass over-generalization, but we had Ankit in stitches, laughing and agreeing that this was the difference. We joked that perhaps this was one of the reasons that we’ve got on so well with the English travellers that we’ve met: Joshua is very proactive and great at making plans and leading, and our British friends have been quite content to follow along. After three days in Kathmandu, neither Scott nor Stephen had any idea what our guest house was called, much less it’s location. Having followed Joshua around the city, there had been no need to memorize their surroundings. One night, they had decided to head back to the guest house without Joshua, and then they had returned 45 minutes later, realizing they hadn’t a clue where they were.

Anyway, we’d just finished talking and laughing about these differences, and I think it occured to Ankit that it was these very same differences that were about to cause him a great deal of pain in the form of an hour long walk up a really big hill.

We plodded on, determined to get to Temang. The hill was, indeed, steep, and our place slowed considerably. Ankit looked pissed. After a while, we caught up with the Nepali group again, and when they paused for a break, I went off ahead of them. At the top of the hill, I was quite a ways ahead of Joshua and Ankit, so I stopped to sit, rest, and wait for them to catch up. When they crested the hill, both of them were smiling and laughing, and I felt a bit relieved that we hadn’t managed to totally estrange our new-found friend. As they approached me, they said, ‘how’s it going, Chairman Mao?’

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. It’s a long running joke between Joshua and I that I’m a bit of a tyrant when it comes to exercise. I have been known – on occasion – to lead us very long, grueling hikes and bike rides. It’s what I do.

We paused for a break, and I told Ankit that I was relieved to see him smiling. Joshua accused him of erupting into giggles half-way up the hill, and Ankit confessed that, all of a sudden, his plodding, baby-like steps had seemed very, very funny to him. When we continued walking, we all became a bit delirious, and there were extended recitations of Monty Python and songs in silly voices. The path pitched upwards once again, but we’d already left our bad moods behind, and now it just seemed funny. We made the last push up and over the hill, and finally, we saw the guest houses of Temang.

In the Lonely Planet guide, the writers say that Temang is not often used as an overnight stop for trekkers, but that if we were so inclined, we would be treated to the most fantastic views. This is true. On one side of the valley, we can see deep, craggy mountains with the light playing across them. In the late afternoon sun, they were glowing and lovely. To the left, the mountains rise up to a wide, snow-tipped saddle. Behind us, even snowier mountains peak out from behind forested hills, and as the sun set, we watched them first glow white, then pink, then grey-blue.

The air is cold, and as soon as we got to Prasanna Hotel, we got out our hats and jackets to ward off the chill. Up on the rooftop, we watched the sun set and the mountains turn colors. We drank tea and laughed, and then we ordered some dinner. Sitting inside the dining room to escape the colder temperatures, we met some other trekkers from Mexico, Spain, and France. We all agreed that the climb from Danaque to Temang had been difficult. We also agreed that it had been worth it. While the couple from Mexico recommended some places to go in Central and South America – Colombia, Bolivia, Northern Chile, and Nicaragua – the guest house keeper served us pizzas and momos. We inhaled them all, and still hungry, Joshua and Ankit ordered pumpkin soup, a specialty at this elevation.

For the rest of the night, we talked about good music and funny movies, and around 7:30, we began to yawn. Our bodies have already become accustomed to an early bedtime, and after we had put in our order for breakfast, we turned into our rooms.

October 23, 2010

We woke up a little before seven to pack up our bags. Outside, we sat under a covered table and admired the sun lighting up the mountains and rice fields. All around us, marigolds and hibiscus brightened the garden, and it felt a bit like a tropical island.

While Joshua and Ankit munched on muesli, I had my favorite: banana pancake. Back in the rooms, the Israeli couple were having a hard time getting out of bed, and the guest house keeper served them breakfast in bed. Their porter stood near their door, seeming anxious. Are they going to make it?

After breakfast, we brushed our teeth and paid. As we left their lovely garden, we waved and called out ‘thank you’ in Nepali.

Past Naddi, we walked through a couple other small villages with guest houses. Young children were playing soccer in the street, and as we passed by, they clapped their hands together and shouted, ‘Namaste!’ Beyond the giggling, squealing children, chickens pecked at the dirt and fluttered their butt feathers. Baby chicks foraged for worms and left-over scraps, and baby goats toddled on their too-big-legs. Huts with kitchens inside were burning woodstoves and cooking, and the air smelled of woodsmoke.

Crossing a suspension bridge, Ankit filmed us swaying high above the river, and on the other side, we began to climb through groves of bamboo. As we continued to climb, it got warmer and warmer, and by the time we reached the top, we were all very sweaty. Ankit bought a couple small, green oranges, and we ate them as we walked.

This place is unlike any other I’ve ever seen. The mountains are tall and covered in bamboo and rice. the villages are sweet and small, and children play in the street. Donkeys travel in trains, and deep in the valley, a river rushes through. When we crest the hill or the trees break, we pause to take it all in.

when we’re not walking with our jaws unhinged, we’re talking about whether or not we believe in things like ghosts, astrology, coincidence, or fate. We wonder if mental illness might be a sensitivity to the world unseen, and if those who are afflicted or gifted – depending – might become paranoid or overwhelmed from constantly having to confront reality and defend the things they’ve seen. We talk about the best meals of our lives, and where we might go if we knew it was the end of the world. we talk about who we might like to spend it with.

Under a big rock overhang, we stop to eat some bread, yak cheese, and cookies. The view is spectacular. Across the river, there are waterfalls dropping from incredible heights, and the mountain sides are covered in rustling green things. Another swinging bridge beckons us from around the bend.

We continue walking, and I tell Joshua and Ankit about what Kyle said about fasting. Although I’ve previously denounced this practice (in this very blog, in fact), Kyle had some really interesting things to say about his experiences. If you think about it, he says, our bodies evolved to go through short periods of fasting when food wasn’t available. Similarly, animals that are sick will often go off to hide and not eat for a couple of days until they are feeling better. There are a couple of reasons for this: first of all, the process of digestion uses up about one third of all the calories we consume. If we spend a day or two not eating, we free up our bodies’ energy to deal with other things. Second, when our bodies are not being given fuel, they begin to cannibalize. As a matter of self-preservation, the first cells that our bodies cannibalize are the sick or diseased ones, and therefore, fasting is an excellent way to devote our bodies’ energies into purging toxins. At the top of the food chain, we are most at-risk for bio-accumulation because we eat the plants and animals that carry chemicals in their bodies. That’s why fasting is even more important for humans.

I found this all very interesting, and it explained a story that I had heard about one of Ruth and Paul’s friends. An older man, Ruth and Paul’s friend was fairly overweight and suffering from cancer. Everyone was very concerned that he might die relatively soon, but his daughter did a bunch of research and came up with a diet for him. Here’s where it gets kind of funny: it wasn’t really a diet at all. The ‘diet’ was a 30 day fast.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably believe that if a human were to go without food for 30 days, they would die. Apparently, this is not so. The man went on a 30 day diet, and when he had finished, he became a vegan. He lost a ton of weight, and his cancer went into remission. Going by the reasoning Kyle provided, his body had cannibalized his diseased cells. Isn’t that bizarre?

We crossed another suspension bridge and passed through the small village on Syange. As the sun beat down on our backs, we continued walking towards Jagat. The road pitched upwards, and after a while, we were climbing switchbacks. Eventually, we arrived. Jagat means ‘toll station’ in Tibetan, and apparently, this place served as a stop on the salt-trade road. Lots of people stop here overnight, but we decided to forge on to the Super Rainbow View Guest House, about an hour away.

At first, the trek out of town wasn’t so bad, but after a while, the path turned further inland, we we began climbing up and up and up… We all grew a little tired, and when we sat down to rest, we watched an impressive Nepali man carrying four pieces of timber on his back as he plodded up the hillside.

We crossed a few waterfalls (which, after Stacy told me that waterfalls have negatively charged ions that are proven to release serotonin in the brain and make people happy, I call ‘Happy Water’), and finally, we saw our guest house opposite the most spectacular waterfall. Slumping in relief, we asked the woman if she had any open rooms, and she sadly shook her head.

Absolutely disappointed, we continued on. It was only 10 minutes further to Chamje, but Super Rainbow View had looked so beautiful and we were so, so hungry.

Finally, we arrived at the Tibet Guest House. The owner walked us up to his rooms, we agreed on 100 rupees per person, and then we collapsed. Ankit rushed off to secure the Coca Cola that he had been craving, and although it was only 3:45, we ordered three Dal Bhaats, stat.

Before the Dal Bhaats came, I went downstairs to take a shower. Most of the guest houses here use solar water heaters, and although the water wasn’t steaming, it was warm, and it felt nice to get clean. I quickly changed, and by the time I was back at the table, the Dal Bhaat was ready.

Dal Bhaat consists of a huge plate of rice, a bowl of soupy, savory lentils, and a side of vegetables. In this case, the vegetables were a spicy potato mix, and we devoured the whole plate within minutes. We requested seconds. And thirds.

Somewhere along the way, we also met another trekker, an Italian by the name of Marco. Marco’s English was pretty hard to understand, and he found our English equally difficult, but we managed to discover that he is from Verona, he just earned his Ph.D. in Environmental Microbiology, and he loves trekking in the Alps. He taught us how to say Good Night, Sleep Well and Sweet Dreams in Italian (excuse my phoenetic misspellings: Buen Note, Dorme Bene, and Sonya Dorro).

Once we had finished our Dal Bhaat, we sipped our tea and watched the sky turn dark. Joshua ordered a Snickers, which we all shared, and then we looked through the menu to order tomorrow’s breakfast. Joshua looked at how much his Snickers had cost and discovered that it was listed for 240 rupees (three dollars), the most expensive candy bar he’s ever purchased.

At 7:30, we sheepishly admitted that we were absolutely exhausted and wished Marco Dorme Bene, Sonya Dorro (or something like that). We read a few pages before our eyes started drifting shut, and then we shut off the lights.


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Temang to Dukhur Pokhari to Ngawal

October 26, 2010

There are two routes to Manang. One is called the High Road, and the other is called the Low. As you might imagine, the High Road ambles along seductively, providing monumental views, and then it takes a sharp turn up mountain. We chose the High Road.

This morning, we woke up to Ankit muttering outside. It sounded like he was narrating for his camera, ‘yeah, it might be beautiful, but this is how cold hell is.’ When we started laughing, our breaths came out in great puffs of white. It really was cold.

Prying ourselves from warm sleeping bags, we braved the outhouse and then immediately retreated the kitchen where the guest house keeper and his wife were frying up our pancakes over an open fire. We huddled near the stove, tucking our freezing hands between our knees and gaping at our cook’s bare feet. These people are hard core.

Joshua had his usual – muesli and milk with a pancake – while I had a buckwheat pancake. The buckwheat is hearty and warm, and I feel like it’s the kind of meal my pioneer ancestors would be proud of: something that sticks to your insides. While we ate, we enjoyed the smell of woodsmoke, the window-framed mountains, and the smiling company of our guest house keeper. Although we may be far away from home, it almost feels like we’re fast-forwarding through Minnesota seasons. First, we had fall, as the elevation rose and the trees turned colors, leaves fell, and eventually, we were surrounded by evergreens. Now, the mountains are snowy, and there’s a thick coating of frost outside. It feels like were back home, in a way.

Back in our rooms, we packed up the last of our things and headed out of Dukhur Pokhari. For the first 45 minutes, we walked on a wide, level path between evergreens and over streams. The mountains peaked out from behind greener hills, and their snowy caps reminded me of landscapes in Northern New Mexico, Montana, or the Cascades of Washington. Someplace dry and mountainous; someplace peaceful and breathtaking where the buildings are built from untreated timber, the chimneys spill fragrant woodsmoke, and the smiling locales grin and say, ‘Namaste.’

In Pisang, we wandered through another town that reminded us of the wild west, and past a long row of prayer wheels, we turned to cross the river. Our guest house keeper had recommended the High Road between Pisang and Manang, and as we all know, locals know best (and so does Lonely Planet). We bounded across the swinging foot bridge, admiring the prayer flags flap in the river-wind, and on the other side, we headed into the evergreens.

10 more minutes down the road, Annapurna erupted in a great white mass, and we stopped to stare. With blue-grey shadows, icy ridges, and an electic blue sky above, Annapurna makes a startling impression. Once we started staring, we couldn’t stop. For the rest of the day, we kept one eye on the trail and the other pinned on Her Majesty.

Around another turn, Ankit spied a turquoise lake nestled among evergreens. We detoured to the shoreline, and on the other side, a couple of Korean trekkers called us over. Dropping our packs, we circumnavigated the lake, and on the other side, we were greeted by the most magnificent view yet: Mring Tso Tal is a looking glass for Annapurna II, and the glassy green surface provides a perfect place to stop and admire the mountain.

After we took a few photos, we just sat and looked and enjoyed the sun warming our faces. We stayed that way for a while, occasionally sputtering something about how ridiculously beautiful everything was, and then we headed back on the trail. Walking through the evergreens, more snowy mountains played hide and seek between the boughs. The scenery made us walk more slowly, and we had enormous smiles on our faces the entire time. We’re so lucky to be here.

In a clearing, there was another wall of prayer wheels, and around the corner, another suspension bridge crossed a small stream below. Up above, we could see our trail cut mean switchbacks back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… Way up there, so high it seemed like a toy, stood a white and gold chorten with streaming prayer flags. I looked back at Joshua and Ankit, wished them luck, and plodded up.

I have this thing about walking or running or biking up mountains: I don’t stop until it’s over. I’m certainly not fast, but I’m commited, and in the end, the tortoise usually does beat the hare. It took about an hour to make it to the top, and once I did, I ducked into the chorten courtyard so I could watch Joshua and Ankit walk the last few switchbacks up. Sitting before the chorten, overlooking the deep gorge below, Annapurna II above, and Annapurna IV to the right, I was a very happy woman. The wind whipped the flags, and their fluttering did sound like prayers. I put on my long sleeve shirt and hat. I sat.

After a bit, Joshua and Ankit came into view, and just before they made it to the top, I ran over to greet them. They demanded lunch.

Luckily, the chorten sits directly in front of Yak Ru Mount View Lodge which also doubles as a restaurant. Dumping our packs, we stood gaping at the view for a moment, and then the blustery wind drove us inside their sunlit dining room. We ordered food and sat looking at the mountains through little potted marigolds sitting on the window sill.

Not quite hungry enough for a huge plate of fried rice, I ordered noodle soup and so did Joshua (albeit with a hearty side of steamed potato momos). The food was delicious, and after a good rest, we payed and headed back on the road.

The road between Ghyaru (where the lodge is) and Ngawal takes about an hour to traverse if you’re not stopping every other minute to stutter and gasp and gawk over how beautiful it is. If you’re like us, and you have the gift of sight, it takes about an hour and a half. On our way, we smoothed our fingers over walls with Tibetan-carved mani slates. We passed a yak train with yaks who had horns wider than my wing-span. We posed beside cairns, gompas, and stupahs for photos, and we counted our blessings.

Around a few more bends, we spotted Ngawal. Sitting cupped on every side by snowy mountains, this dry, windswept village is tonight’s port of call. Call us lazy, but when we saw the very first lodge, we stopped there. With just three rooms and a beautiful, secluded courtyard a hundred meters from the rest of Ngawal, the Himalayan Restaurant and Lodge is perfect, and if it isn’t, we don’t care. It has a little dining room with lots of windows that capture the best views. Inside, the untreated timber makes us feel like we’re in a Swedish Sauna. It’s cold, but it’s also cozy, and the guest house keeper is charging us 50 rupees per person, per night. Can’t beat that.

October 25, 2010

We woke up to our noisy neighbors singing in Spanish. It was 5 AM. We drifted in and out of sleep for another hour and a half, listening to them knock about loudly in the room next door, and when our alarm went off, we rolled out of bed, ready to go.

Once we had packed all of our stuff, we headed outside to admire the view from the rooftop. The sun was peaking into the valley below, and rather than it’s full force, we could only see its rays lighting up the mountains. Whenever I see rays like that, they remind me of those votive images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, standing on a ring of stars, cloaked in blue, and illuminated by visible rays of light. Anyway, that’s what the rays were like: visible, with all the power of something holy.

Down below, we sat in the dining room and wolfed down breakfast. My apple pancake had whole, beautiful disks of apples baked inside, and Joshua had hot muesli. Once we had drained our cups of tea and payed, we strapped our packs onto our backs and headed back on the road.

From Temang to Chame, the villages look like they’ve been taken straight from a Western film set. As we walked, we passed more donkey trains and men with enormous packs and bundles of wood. After a while, the sun warmed us enough to take off our jackets, and in Chame, we checked in at the ACAP station.

Over another suspension bridge, we walked through old Chame, and on the other side, we stopped for bit so I could bandage my toe. Fortunately, my hiking boots have been kind to my feet, but the hours on foot have caused the pad of my big toe to blister. Once I had finished doctoring my foot, we continued on. The scenery had changed yet again, and lining the sides of the turbulent river below were forests of evergreens. The mountains up above grew barer and barer.

In Bhratang, there are only two buildings, and one of them is a restaurant. We stopped to order some Veg Fried Rice, and while we waited, we enjoyed the incredible views and the sun on our faces. On the porch across the road, thousands of apple slices were drying in the sun, and a couple of big-horned cows strolled by.

Lunch came, and we ate heartily, dousing each bite with hot green chile sauce. When our plates were clean, we payed and continued on the trail. After a while, the evergreens thinned and the path took us along a cliff side. Below, the river rushed around enormous boulders, and up over the next ridge, we were greeted by the most incredible view. A mountain stretched up to the sky, and the side facing us was perfectly smooth. A suspension bridge crossed the river, and behind us, the mountains were frosty and pointed. We stopped for some photos.

On the other side of the bridge, we began our climb up. Once again, evergreens gave the air a smell that reminded me of fall and winter and home. It was beautiful. After a few minutes of hiking, we reached a little shelter where a couple of men were selling carved yak bone necklaces and beads. We stopped to admire their wares, and when a group of frenchies threatened to catch up with us, we moved on.

The rest of the walk to Dukhur Pokhari didn’t take long, and as we walked, we talked about relationships, dream homes and jobs, and compromise. In between our musings, we’d pause and look up. The smooth mountain stood like a curtain behind us, and up ahead, more saw-toothed, frosty peaks crowned the evergreens.

Dukhur Pokhari is a small village comprised mostly of brightly painted wooden guest houses and restaurants. We walked through, looking for the best accomodations, and when I spied a little guest house with just two little free-standing cottages, I made an executive decision.

After 6 hours of hiking, we arrived in Dukhur Pokhari earlier than we had at our other guest houses. We changed into some warmer clothes, ordered an enormous (expensive) pot of ginger tea, and sat out under the blue sky and mountains, reading. After a while, we moved inside the dining room where the little children were making their bed on the floor and wrestling, and then we ordered some Dal Bhaat.

One of the young helpers spearheaded the cooking operation, and when they served us, he stood by proudly and nervously, waiting for the verdict. We proclaimed it the best Dal Bhaat thus far, and he beamed. We weren’t lying, either. The food was delicious, and we ate until I thought I might burst.

Once dinner was in our bellies, we sat back, and even though it was only 7, we decided it was time to turn in. Thankfully, the bed for tonight is a bit wider than the beds we’ve had so far, and Joshua and I were able to squeeze onto the same bed. Snuggled in our sleeping bags and under an extra blanket, we read for a bit, and then we fell asleep.