Feathered Aspen

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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.


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.


Sept. 18 and 19 Rambok to Leh

September 19, 2010

We woke up with the sun pouring through the curtains. For breakfast, we munched on the last of our millet crackers and apricot jam, and then packing up our dirty laundry, we set out for Dzomsa. I may have mentioned this lovely place before, but it really is like a traveller’s refuge: they serve tea and juice, provide boiled, filtered water for 10 rupees a liter, sell fiction in all sorts of different languages, offer organic and locally grown trekking food, and wash and dry your clothes with environmentally friendly soap. The woman who works there hums to herself the entire time. It’s an entirely inexpensive and pleasant place all around.

Once we had dropped off our clothing (she made us count each article so that we wouldn’t lose any), we walked up the old footpath to Sangkar Gompa. Today, we had decided, we wanted to see all the Gompas. Although there are many here in Ladakh, most of India is not so predominantly Buddhist. We wanted to taken in the Buddhist monasteries while we could.
Unfortunately, Sangkar was closed for Sunday. We walked through the courtyard and admired the lovely entrance and the lit candles. Dogs were napping in the garden, and inside their rooms, monks were chanting their prayers. We looked at our map and decided to try the other Gompas up near Leh Palace, and on our way, we wanted to see the ‘Forest of Stupahs.’

Walking through the domestic, farming neighborhoods of outer Leh, we passed Ladakhis walking to school and work. Going downhill, motorcyclists would turn off their engines and coast to save gas. Cows and donkeys milled about in the streets.

We found the Forest of Stupahs behind a couple of Ladakhi homes. Following protocol, we walked to the left of the Stupahs and admired all the carved prayer stones that had been stacked at their feet. There were a couple dozen of them, and Joshua took some lovely black-and-white photos of them with the mountains in the distance. In the middle of the ‘Forest’ I met a baby calf with big, heavily-fringed eyes. He tried to eat my scarf, and he let me scratch the top of his head.

Walking up to Leh Palace, we admired the views of the city. At the top, yet another Gompa was closed. We retraced the steps we had taken a couple days earlier and tried the Gompas below the palace. No luck there, either.

Finally, tired and thwarted, we made our way back down. In the city center, we stuck our heads inside a courtyard and found another Gompa. We walked in, took off our shoes, and went inside. Like the prayer room in the palace, the beams, pillars, ceilings and walls are decorated with textiles, masks, and sculptures. In the center, an altar to the Dalai Lama had pillows, votives, and – you guessed it – Christmas lights. In the corner, a monk sat near a gong and chanted his prayers. It was lovely.

Pleased that we had finally seen a Gompa, we went in search of lunch. Unfortunately, My Secret Recipe Bakery was closed, so we went to another restaurant down the road, Chopsticks. We ordered some honey, lemon, and ginger tea with a couple plates of curry and rice. While we ate, we listened as an American came in and arranged with the manager (Juma, the same man who sold us our bus tickets at Glacier Adventures) a special lunch for the US Ambassador who would be arriving the next day. Apparently, Juma had been very helpful to the Ambassador and the American tourists just after the flood. The lunch was meant to be a thank you to Juma and a chance for the media to see the Ambassador checking up on the flood relief efforts.

Once we had finished our meal, we said goodbye to Juma and went to the markets. Leh is known for its artisan and craft markets, and its supposedly a remnant of the Silk Road. While there are many permanent shops, there are also a number of markets set up beneath temporary parachutes. Many of them are advertised as ‘Tibetan Refugee Markets,’ but I’m not sure if all the goods and all the sellers are Tibetan; the word ‘Tibet’ is a sort of catch phrase for a lot of hippyish, SDS-type travellers. (Which is not to say that the plight of Tibetans is over-dramatized or any less real. China’s occupation of Tibet is very serious, and many Tibetans have suffered a great deal.)

Although I had been expecting the jewelry and crafts to be extremely cheap, the women’s opening prices were extremely steep. For one silver ring, a woman wanted 700 rupees (15 dollars), and most necklaces started at 600 rupees. Although I had been a ruthless haggler in South America, something about the banner that said ‘refugee’ made it difficult for me to offer them less. The women obviously wanted to haggle with me, but when they gave me their outrageous prices, I simply wanted to move on rather than offer them less. They would even ask me, ‘ok. How much you offer?’ Just by being reticent, they would often drop their prices nearly in half, but I still wasn’t ready to drop that kind of money.

Leh is also known for its lapis lazuli trade, and finally, one woman offered me a deal that I took: three lovely earrings, one turquoise bracelet, and one lapis lazuli necklace for 800 rupees. For 17 dollars, I thought that was a fairly good deal, or at least, better than anyone else was offering.
We wandered in and out of the other markets, but the prices were still very high. We lusted after some lovely stone-encrusted tea sets, door knobs, and singing prayer bowls (bronze bowls that sing when you run a fabric covered stick around the edge) which were actually more reasonably priced (1300 rupees for an enormous, lovely tea set), but there was no way that we could carry them.

In one other market, I found another lapis lazuli necklace, and although the price was still to high – 500 rupees – I took it. Although some of the other jewelry might contain fabricated or painted stones, this was the real thing: it has a pleasing weight and the beautiful blue stones have lots of white inclusions in them. The woman told me that lapis lazuli is ‘good for the blood.’

After a while, we grew tired of shopping. This is unusual for me, but the refugee thing was really getting to me. It was hard to haggle. Joshua was a little disappointed in me, and he very logically argued that the people who were selling their wares were no harder off here than they had been in South America. I had really enjoyed the haggling, and if they didn’t want you to haggle, then wouldn’t they put price tags on things? He was right, but I’m not sure what had changed. In South America, I really didn’t have much money. When I haggled, I gave them what I could afford. Now, I have more money. It just feels cheap to offer them less when they have so little and I have so much. I don’t know. We’ll see.

We rested in the guest house for a little bit, and after we read for a couple of hours, we went out again. First, we stopped at Glacier Adventures to check in with Juma. We wanted to know where we would pick up the bus later that night. Juma was there, and although he didn’t have our answers quite yet, we passed a pleasant half hour just chatting. We asked him about how he felt about the US Ambassador coming, and he shrugged modestly. ‘I was just trying to help,’ he said. One of his friends came in, and when he saw the India Lonely Planet in our hands, he asked us if he could look through it. Immediately flipping to Kerala, he told us he was intrigued by what they said about his hometown in the very South of India. There were both very friendly, and we really enjoyed talking to them. Juma told us to come back later in the evening, and after we left, we browsed through a few more shops. Not finding anything else we had to have, we looked at our map and went in search for the Moti market, the market that Ladakhis use to by their daily goods.

As soon as we entered the Moti market, we started enjoying ourselves a lot more. Off the strip, this market wasn’t targeted towards tourists. There were hundreds of pots and pans spilling over the walk and Ladakhis haggling over the last rupee. Tunics for women’s shalwar kameez hung out of windows, and women browsed through golden bangles. There was nothing in particular that we needed or wanted, so we watched. Unfortunately, the market was just closing so we didn’t get to see it in full force, but it was fun to walk through anyway.

On our way back into town, we walked through the side streets. Barbers were giving men hot shaves, and on the floor, there were piles of hair. Tailors were whipping up suits and dresses, and in one corner, people were stirring big vats with fabric and steaming-hot red dye for monks’ robes. Just before we were about to walk back out to the main road, I saw some lovely embroidery hanging outside of a shop window. Usually, when the shop keepers say, ‘ok, yes, please. You come in now,’ or ‘I’ve been waiting for you! Come look inside!’ I walk by and smile, shaking my head no-thank-you. When I paused to finger the embroidery, an Indian man in a leather jacket hopped up and invited me into his shop. I agreed.

Outside the shop, I had been admiring a simple handle-bag with gorgeous woolen embroidery swirling in flowers. Inside, the shopkeeper pulled out a dozen more in different styles, colors, and patterns. They were gorgeous. He apologized that the fabric ‘is only cashmere. Pashmina is too fine for this work.’ Apparently, in the winter time, many Ladakhis stay inside by the fire and create these beautiful embroidered bags, blankets, and shawls. Most of the embroidery is done with a hook, but the shopkeeper also showed me a pashmina that had the tiniest needle stitching I had ever seen.

Pawing through the mound of bags the man had dumped on his display table, I picked my favorite three – gorgeous bright pink, yellow, and blue embroidery atop a black cloth – and asked the man his price. ‘350 rupees,’ he said.

Well holy shit. I did what no haggler should ever do; I said, ‘you can’t be serious!’ The man smiled and nodded. Obviously, I was about to buy. With a purchase in the offing, we chatted for a bit and exchanged names. Rajj had beautiful, slightly American-accented English. I asked him if he had ever been to the US, and he laughed. In order to come to the US, he said, you have to be able to show the US consulate your bank account. They won’t let you come unless you have enough money to not only buy the ticket there, but also support yourself while you’re there. The average income in India is about 900 dollars, and that is not nearly enough to get an American visa, much less come and visit.

I felt a bit ignorant, but Rajj was very friendly and explained everything kindly. He knew I was completely in love with the embroidery and he explained how he bought it from the remote villages of Ladakh and then sold them here, in his little shop. When he found out that I had studied Art History, he smiled and said, ‘I think I have something you might like.’ From one of his shelves, he took out a large black shawl with bright, beautiful flowered embroidery.

At the risk of vomiting superlatives everywhere, I shall select just one: sublime. As soon as Rajj unfurled the shawl, I knew I had to buy it, no matter the cost. I literally gasped. It is the most beautiful piece of art I have ever seen for sale. It’s gorgeous. It’s sublime.

By now, Rajj liked us. We were chatting easily, and he knew I was absolutely smitten with his embroidered goods. He pulled out half a dozen more shawls with beautiful embroidery, but none compared to the first. Even Joshua was salivating. Rajj lifted the shawl and showed me how it would be worn. Knowing that I had already lost any chance to haggle, I told him that there was no way on Earth I would ever wear anything so beautiful. This would be going up on the wall.
Almost scared to know the answer, I asked Rajj how much. With a look of total honesty and earnestness, he told me, ‘during the high season, I sell these shawls for 3600 rupees. But with the flood, there has been not so much business, and anyway, tomorrow I leave for my family’s shop in Goa. We don’t sell shawls there – it’s too hot. I give you this shawl for 1800 rupees.’
Rajj saw me doing math in my head, and even though we all knew it was pointless – I was going to buy that shawl – he handed me a calculator. 40 dollars. While Rajj and Joshua talked, I divided 2000 by 45 (there’s 45 rupees to the dollar) and figured that I would offer him 2000 rupees for both a bag and this shawl. Before I could even offer, he looked over and said, ‘I give you a bag and the shawl for 2000 rupees.’ Sold. I didn’t even haggle.

When we said goodbye to Rajj, he told us very seriously that we had gotten a very good deal. In truth, everyone says this, but with Rajj I beleive him: for one, 44 dollars for craftsman work like that really does seem like a good price (especially when you compare the 26 dollars I spent on 6 pieces of jewelry), and for two, I would have paid much more for it (and this, to those of you who know me, will mean a lot; I do not part with dollars easily, and that’s an understatement.).

As we walked to pick up our laundry, we sputtered over our find. Joshua was as in love with the shawl as I was, and he agreed: this shawl is not for wearing. It’s for framing, and our children will probably fight over it when we die. It’s so beautiful, it could probably start a family feud.
Once we had picked up our laundry, we went back to Tenzing Dickey’s Tibetan Retaurant for a repeat experience. Again, the food was delicious, and when we finished, we went in search of Juma. We found him at his restaurant, Chopsticks, and he told us that he had just missed us. Apparently, he had taken the bus driver down to our guest house and carefully instructed him to pick us up there and put our packs INSIDE the bus (not on the roof). We thanked him for being so helpful and then went back to the guest house to pack up.

Once we had finished putting everything away, we napped for a couple of hours under the scuzzy blankets (it’s customary for travellers in India to bring their sleeping bags; the extra blankets are for additional warmth, and they are definitely not clean).

September 18, 2010

We woke up just after 7 and packed our bags. Back in the kitchen/dining room, Tsering was making pancakes for breakfast. We sat down at the low tables, and when the pancakes were ready, she served them to us piping hot. Thin and slightly crispy on the edges, they were absolutely delicious. Tsering apologized for serving breakfast a little late; she told us that she had had to milk the yak first before she could mix the pancake batter. We laughed and told her it was fine. It’s not every day that you eat pancakes made with fresh yak milk.

Before we left, Tsering knocked on our door and told me that she had something to give me. Taking my hand, she pressed a little hand-knit bird that she had made. I thanked her, and when we said goodbye, she smiled and waved, telling us to come back again soon.

For the first couple hours of our hike, we slowly made our way uphill. Rambok is in a narrow valley lying between enormous mountains on every side. To get to Stok, we would have to climb Stok Le, a pass at about 16,000 feet. Following the dirt footpath, we passed the grazing fields of Rambok and walked along the rocky stream. From where we were, it was impossible to tell where the path led. We eyed the pointy mountains ahead of us, speculating where we might make our way up. At about an hour and a half, we stopped to take a quick break, and the German couple and their guide, Douwah, passed us.

It took us four and a half hours to reach the top. Those of you who know me know that I like physically challenging tasks; if given the option, I will generally choose the longer route, the more strenuous climb. I like to sweat and grit my teeth, and when it’s over, I feel a vast sense of accomplishment. The one time I can remember giving up on a workout was at the end of January. Joshua and I were training for a marathon, and we went on a 17 mile run. By mile 7, my knee was in serious pain, and by mile 13, I had to walk. At mile 15, I had to stop, and Joshua had to continue on to get the car, come back, and get me. I was devastated. I LOVE running. I LOVE running a long way. Teaching in New Orleans, running was just about the only thing that kept me sane. Although I continued to workout about 7 to 9 hours a week at the gym on the elliptical, bike, and in the pool, I slowly went crazy from the withdrawal.

You might understand, then, exactly what it means when I say that I wanted to give up, throw in the towel, and simply be transported home about 45 minutes from the top of Stok Le. We took rest breaks every 30 minutes, and each time, I thought my lungs might collapse. With 40 to 50 pound packs and just three days of acclimatization under our belts, we were in no shape to take on the incredibly steep path that led up and out of Rambok valley. My legs were trembling, and the higher we got, the more precarious the path became. When I finally convinced myself that I couldn’t, in fact, give up, we continued on to the steepest part of the path yet; it was so steep, there was barely a sign of any path at all, and we basically scrambled our way to the top.
Clearly, I do not have a future in mountain climbing. I may love the mountains, and I do enjoy a good hike through them, but I do not enjoy slippery, scree-filled cliff sides, precipitous drops, and just generally feeling like I’m about to plunge to my death at any moment. I had to stop a couple times to prevent myself from hyperventilating. Joshua, on the other hand, is like a mountain goat. He told me that the path made him nervous too, but really, I think he was having a grand old time.

Finally, finally, we reached the top. For most trekkers, the hike from Rambok to the top of Stok Le is about 3 hours. It took us nearly 5. Granted, most trekkers are just carrying their sleeping bags and maybe a jacket in a tiny pack, but still. It was nothing to write home about (and yet…).
The view from the top was spectacular, but both of us were suffering from massive headaches. We took a couple photos underneath the banner of prayer flags, snapped a few shots of Stok Kangre and the valleys below us, and then continued on our way. Luckily, the path down was not nearly as steep or precarious as the path up; however, it was still rocky and steep enough that we had to walk slowly and we slipped many times. Above us, herds of some kind of animal with enormous horns grazed and occasionally sent down little boulders.

After about another hour of carefully picking our way down the mountain side, my legs were trembling so badly that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to stay upright. We took a break on a large rock, and Joshua force-fed me millet crackers with apricot jam. I had no appetite, but I choked them down anyway. After some water and a dose of ibuprofen, I felt a little better and we continued onwards.

After a while, I started worrying that we weren’t on the right path. Joshua tossed out some geological nonsense about rivers always moving downhill, and therefore, we would inevitably reach Stok near the Indus River irregardless, but I fretted. In the sand, I looked for the footprints of the Germans (who were wearing Converse All-Stars, the crazy nutters). Every once in a while, Joshua said he thought he saw a footprint, but I was dubious. After 2 hours of descending, we walked along the muddy, boulder-strewn river. The path had been washed out in a number of places, but it was a narrow gorge, and our path down was fairly obvious.

It’s a shame we were so freaking miserable, because it really was spectacularly beautiful. The mountains had created these strange rock formations that looked like plates stacked upright on a drying rack. The sky was clear and fantastically blue, and the mountain sides changed from shades of red to brown and yellow. We did notice, and so that we could appreciate it later, we snapped a few photos.

After a while, we took out the map and the written directions. Yup. We had gone the wrong way. Before you ask, yes. I did ask Joshua if he was ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN THAT WE TURN LEFT. He was. No. We did not take out the map or the written directions when we came to the only fork in the road we had come across all day. That would be just silly.

I’m proud of myself. I contained my intense fear and anger at my husband quite well. I simply said, “I’m profoundly frustrated with you at the moment,” and continued on the path. Joshua mumbled something about the laws of geology, and I started wondering just what it might be like to huddle in our sleeping bags inside a cave in the Himalayas. I decided it was doable. The jar of apricot preserves was still about half full, and we had a bag of Himalayan muesli that tasted, as Joshua put it so eloquently, like vomit. We would be ok for another 48 hours. The water situation, however, looked doubtful. Yes, there was a stream, but just a mile ago, I saw a dead, rotting yak carcas lying in the middle. No, thanks.

Joshua is very, very lucky that he knows the laws of geology. After another hour of hiking, we met up with another gorge, and – hallelujah! – another path with distinct Converse All Star footprints. Joshua preened, and I told him just how lucky he was.

Not too long after we met up with the correct path, we passed another parachute cafe. It was empty, and judging from the directions listed in LP, we still had another three hours to go. Luckily, the path led down a gentle gradient, and we were able to pick up the pace.
Joshua and I finally had enough breath to talk, and we spent the last couple of hours chatting, crossing the river, and getting really wet. We lost the trail a couple more times, but we always managed to find it again, and eventually, we saw the buildings of Stok. When we finally made it into Stok, a beautiful woman sitting inside a little shop told us that the bus to Leh would be arriving in about 15 minutes. We sat down on the curb and waited. We both starred at the beautiful woman in the shop. She looked like an angel.

When the bus arrived, we boarded, and for 20 rupees, we were able to ride to Leh. On the way there, the ancient bus with incredible suspension bounced over the narrow, pitted roads. In front, three teenagers had transformed the cab of the bus into a clubhouse. An image of the Dalai Lama had twinkling Christmas lights strung around it with glittering streamers and money taped below. They were blaring high-pitched pop music in an unknown language, and every once in a while, they would stop the bus to hop out and have a little chat with someone they saw on the road. I thought it was great.

Just before we got to Leh, we crossed the Indus River. The steel bridge was absolutely covered in prayer flags, and doing their duty, the flapped magnificently in the river-breeze, sending their prayers… Somewhere. I’m not sure. When we crossed over to the other side, our bus driver dropped us off in the Tibetan refugee camp. There was a big tent with flood relief food and medical aid, and all around, there were impromptu stands selling anything and everything. For 200 rupees, we got a taxi to bring us the last few kilometers into Leh. The sun set.

We had our taxi driver, drop us off on Old Fort Road, just a couple minutes from the center of Leh. Because we would be leaving in the middle of the night the next day, we figured something closer to the center would be better. Jamspal Guest House is just off a little footpath, and like Lakrook, it has a beautiful garden. For 300 rupees, the wonderful, smiley keeper led us up to the second floor and gave us a huge room with lots of windows overlooking the garden. The bed was hard as a rock, but we didn’t care. We dumped our packs.

After 11 hours of hiking and barely any food, we were starving. Just up the road, we found Tenzing Dickey’s Tibetan Restaurant. For less than 200 rupees, we each had a cup of tea, spicy vegetable soup with noodles (Thukpa), and steamed and fried momos. It was delicious, and the inside of the little restaurant was cozy and small. For lights, glowing boxes hung from the ceiling, and on the walls, there were hanging scrolls with sayings by the Dalai Lama.

In paraphrase: The True Meaning of Life. We are on this Earth for perhaps 90 or 100 years. During that time, we must make sure not to waste it. We must wake up each day thankful and develop ourselves so that we may contribute to the happiness of the others. Resolve each day to believe the best about others and to treat them well. Strive to keep negative thoughts about others from your mind. Be kind.

I’m not sure if it’s the altitude, but gazing up at the kind, be-spectacled face of the Dalai Lama (again wreathed in Christmas lights) and reading his words, I felt just a little bit emotional. His words weren’t particularly eloquent or even articulate, and yet, I couldn’t have agreed more. I think he’s absolutely right, and when the Tibetans of Leh pass me on the street and smile at me with all the warmth they can muster, I give it my best shot and smile back. Joo-lay. I wish you good will.

Once we were full, we could barely hold our bodies upright. We headed back to the guest house, and when we got there, the keeper asked us if we might like some hot water. Grimy from our trek, we accepted, and in ten minutes, he knocked on our door and delivered a big bucket of steaming hot water.

Joshua looked at the water and then looked at me. Err… What am I supposed to do with this? I laughed and asked him if he had never taken a sponge bath before. He shook his head. Sometimes, I said, I forget that you weren’t raised by a hippie (yes, Mom. I’m referring to you.). I told him to use the cup provided to dump water over his head and handed him a rag. Have fun 🙂

Although it was cold, the bucket of hot water was too hot. I diluted it with some freezing tap water and quickly cleaned myself. It’s not so bad, and you can get just as clean as you would with a shower head.

Once we were clean, we fell asleep right away. Not even the altitude could keep us from falling asleep tonight.