Feathered Aspen


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Nagthali to Tatopani to Syaphru Besi

November 24, 2010
This morning, we had another breakfast of Tibetan bread and fried eggs. Afterwards, we finished packing up and headed out on the trail.

From Tatopani, you can follow the trail a number of directions. There’s a path to Syraphru Besi, another to Goljung, and another to Chilime. Intending to spend our night at Gatlang, we headed for Chilime.

Gatlang is the largest Tamang village and also the furthest west on the Tamang trek. Although our guide book doesn’t really suggest a specific itinerary for the Tamang trek, we assumed that it was a natural place to stop for the night from looking at the map. To get there, you pass through Chilime and then work your way up into another valley. In this way, the first two hours of the trek are down hill, and the last two are uphill.

For the first time on our treks, we got a bit lost. Although the trail has been fairly easy to navigate by maps and signs until now, the trail out of Tatopani has a number of unlabeled junctures and side trails. Thankfully, you’re never far from people, and if you ask, anyone can point out the correct trail to whichever village you’re headed.

The sun came out, and our long sleeves were much too hot. Changing into our shorts and pushing up our long sleeves, we slathered on yet another layer of sunscreen. It’s been five days since we were in a place where we could shower, and we’re feeling pretty grimy – especially after our questionably clean hot spring experience last night.

As we passed, the Tamang people were harvesting their fields. With baskets strapped to their backs and scythes in their hands, they skillfully sorted wheat, millet, rice, and chilies. Even small children helped – or at least enjoyed napping nearby in the sun. We said Namaste when we walked by, and almost everyone looked up with a smile and a Namaste of their own.

Crossing the river, we walked by Chilime and around chortens and mani walls. We talked about All the Pretty Horses and about coffee and what makes a cowboy and the souls of horses. It’s nice to read and like the same book.

Past another village, we turned up another valley. We passed our first trekker of the day coming in the other direction. She looked sweaty and miserable, and she asked if the trail ahead was mostly up or down. We broke the news to her gently.

It took another couple of hours to climb to Gatlang. Passing through more terraced fields, we watched still more farmers harvesting their crops and herding cows. It seemed like we could hear the bleating of small goats from every home we passed.

Finally, we arrived in Gatlang. One of the very first buildings was a community lodge, and although it looked quite nice from the outside, the rooms were filled with too many beds, and it looked a bit dirty. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed, and I told Joshua that I’d rather see what else they had to offer in the village.

It took us 20 minutes to walk up to the road. Gatlang is huge, but unlike the other larger villages we’ve seen, it still has all cobblestone pathways with no motorized vehicles or electricity. The place is entirely uncommercialized, and everywhere you look, there are homes and gardens with chickens and livestock living on the first floor. Above, the kitchens and bedrooms are walled in with lovely, ornate wooden windows.

We walked and walked, but there were no lodges. By the road, we saw our fist lodge, but it was in the midst of construction, and when we walked inside, the rooms were half-done and dirty. I didn’t like the look of it.

We ordered lunch from the half-finished lodge, and while we waited, we looked at the map. We asked the proprietor how long he thought it would take to get to Syraphru Besi. He looked dubious. ‘Four hours,’ he said.
We debated the merits of pushing on. It would be two by the time we left Gatlang, and if it took us four hours to get to Syraphru, it would be six by the time we walked into town. It might be dark. On the up side, there would be a shower and a lodge with clean rooms. Tomorrow, we could use the internet. We didn’t particularly feel like hanging out for the rest of the afternoon in this construction site.
We decided to do it. Our food came, and a trekker and his guide arrived and took a room. Sitting at the table next to us, the trekker introduced himself. He’s from Hawaii, and he loves it. Apparently, Maui was voted the 13th best micro-climate in the world. Rent’s expensive though; he pays 2100 dollars a month, which is a lot for someone who’s never had a real job. He paints t-shirts and sells old rock and roll posters for living. It takes him three or four hours to paint his t-shirts, and he usually ends up selling them in the parking lots of concerts that he goes to.
Within the first five minutes of conversation, we discovered that he had had a nasty strain of E.coli lodged up his ureter in Kathmandu, and he considered the Grateful Dead to be the greatest rock band of all time. ‘Minnesota’s cold, isn’t it?’ he said. Next, he told us that the oil companies of America are trying to turn New Orleans into Atlantic City ‘with lots of casinos and a weird vibe,’ but he hasn’t been there ‘since it was trashed.’
Joshua is pretty funny when he’s irritated. He gets this grimace on his face that I’m pretty sure he thinks is a smile but is actually a grimace, and he tries to casually exit the conversation, but instead, he’s not casual at all and really very obvious. Right around the time our Hawaiian friend started talking about watching Humpback whales mating and eating all raw foods, Joshua abruptly stood up and went to go pay. We left quickly, leaving Mr. Maui looking a little forlorn.
I asked Joshua what had irritated him so much about Mr. Maui. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but in the end, we took a line out of All the Pretty Horses. The vaqueros hate it when people have all sorts of opinions about things that they really know very little about. Cowboys respect people who know a lot about a little and leave the opinions to everyone else. Joshua fancies himself a cowboy 🙂 (For the record, I’d have to say I’d agree with the vaqueros.)
We set out of Gatlang at a cruise. Following the road, we walked fast as our shadows grew longer and longer. We passed packs of children that shouted Namaste and then demanded money, gifts, or school pens. Some of them ran after us for a long while, having spied a pen sticking out of Joshua’s bag.
We passed Goljung after a couple of hours, but we decided to press on, and at the switchbacks down to Syraphru Besi, we took the small side path that descended down stone stairs.
In the end, it took us about three hours to walk from Gatlang to Syraphru Besi. It was still light when we walked into town, and finding the Buddha Guest House, we were taken to a clean room. At the end of the hall, the proprietor showed us the shower with an electric water heater. Just what we needed.
Shedding my pack, I headed straight for the shower. It was hot, and I soaped and shampooed myself twice over. Downstairs, Joshua had ordered two dal bhat with extra pappadam, and we played cards while we waited. When the food came, it was sublime. The dal had cilantro in it, and the kindly cook served seconds of the fried greens, my favorite dal bhaat side.
We played a few more hands of Rummy 5000. We’re coming up to 4000, and although I’ve been winning since the first hand, Joshua’s finally caught up to me. It was touch and go for a while, but he’s trying out a few new strategies, and they seem to be working out. Things are back to normal, and I’m losing again 🙂
It’s late now, and Joshua’s been sleeping for a couple of hours while I’ve been writing. I’m hoping to post everything I’ve written in the past couple of weeks tomorrow, so I’ve stayed up late finishing. Lots of love to the friends and fam at home -E
November 23, 2010
For breakfast, we sat in front of the fire, watching Nima roll out Tibetan bread and then fry them in a dry skillet. Gyurme fussed with the wood, creating a space for the bread to sit on the coals, and one at a time, Nima would deftly drop the fried pieces until they puffed and browned.
To fry the eggs, Nima first whisked them into small cups. Warming a skillet with a generous coating of oil over the flames, she dropped the egg inside, tilting the skillet until it spread into a disc, and then flipping the disc with a twist of her wrist on the skillet handle. As she worked, Gyurme hovered and tried to help, moving things or trying to hand her implements. Irritated, she swatted at his hand and pushed him to the side with her hips. Finally, he sat down in front of the fire and stuck his hands directly into the flames, warming them.
The eggs were still hot, when Nima tossed them onto the puffed pieces of Tibetan bread. The oil and salt from the eggs flavored the dry pieces of bread, and their heat put off an appealing steam. We ate them with our fingers.

Creating a cup of Tibetan tea required an even more exotic process. Using a long metal cylinder fitted with a rope to carry on their backs like a quiver for arrows, Nima emptied a small bowl of water that had been infused with dark, brown, and apparently re-used herbs into a funnel over the cylinder. Next, she threw in a couple small pats of butter, two cups of milk, a generous toss of salt, and a thermos-full of steaming water.

From here, Gyurme took over. Using a long wooden plunger, he stepped on the rope fixed to the cylinder, placed the opening of the cylinder between his knees, and then started pumping the plunger. Steam rose out of the cylinder, and the plunger made an industrious sound. Beads of sweat worked their way over Gyurme’s brow.

Nima plucked four chipped porcelain cups from her shelves, and Gyurme poured a healthy portion into each. They handed two to us, beaming, and kept the other two for themselves.
So, for the second day in a row, I choked down Tibetan tea. I don’t know if it was because I watched the whole process or if it’s because Nima made it (and everything she touches turns to gold) or if it just grows on you, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered. It was almost palatable. Nima and Gyurme watched to make sure we drank every last drop. When we had finished, Gyurme seemed exceptionally proud of us and said, ‘Tibetan tea makes you very strong,’ he flexed his biceps to demonstrate, ‘it gives you gastric problems, too!’

One of the most amazing things about the whole Tibetan tea process was the cylinder-quiver. Yesterday, when we had seen them walking away from Nagthali, ready to close up and go home, they had two things with them. Gyurme had a small backpack, and Nima had the cylinder-quiver. They’re not about to spend a day without their Tibetan tea.

After breakfast, we began our hike up to the lookout point where you can see Tibet. It was a lovely hike, but we didn’t get our hopes up. When we woke up, the clouds had been thick over the mountains, and they showed no signs of letting up. After an hour of hiking through rhododendron forests that have been browned by fall, flakes of snow began to drift onto our shoulders. We continued to climb up into more forests where the gnarled trunks and branches were covered with moss like some pre-historic monsters or woodland creatures. The snow fell harder.

By the time we reached the third hill and the end of the trail, the snow was falling so hard, we could barely see twenty feet in front of us, much less Tibet. The snow was sticking to the path and trees, our shoulders and hats. It was a shame, because I’m sure we would have been able to see a spectacular view of mountains and Tibet, but it was wintry and wonderful just the same. We sang christmas songs again.

On our way down, we count ourselves lucky. Here we are, in the middle of the Himalaya, and we’re all alone. We’re hiking a trail that’s been open for just four years, and we’re getting a chance to meet Nepalis who have lived, cooked, and worked here for generations. We’re learning their names, and we’re eating their food. All around us, the landscape is spectacular. Some day, not too long from now, Nagthali will probably look and feel a lot like Ghorepani, and this hike up to the Tibet viewpoint might even look a lot like Poon Hill. But for now, it’s just us and Gyurme and Nami, and we feel like we’ve stumbled upon an incredible secret.

After three hours, their little white and yellow lodge comes into view. Nami is outside, standing with her arms crossed over her chest and looking out towards the Langtang mountains. Down the hill and over a distance, two small figures are sitting next to a prayer flag. She tells me one of them is Gyurme.

Joshua and I pack up our things and move them to the picnic table outside the kitchen. Although the clouds had seemed impenetrable just half an hour ago, the sun has broken through, and we can see some of the Langtang mountains peaking out. It’s just before 11, and Joshua goes off to the bathroom. Nima walks over to me and asks, ‘lunch?’ I try to tell her that we’d like lunch between 11:30 and noon, but this proves to be very difficult. Nima walks inside to get their little battery-run clock and comes back outside. She points at it and then she points at me. I try to show her 11:30. I point at the minute hand and then make a noise as though I’m dragging it around to the number 6. Nima looks at me, confused.

After a couple of minutes of trying to talk to each other, we give up and look back at the mountains. I’ve closed my hand into a loose fist, and it’s lying next to the little clock on the table. Nima raises her hand and I see her debate whether or not to pull it back, but in the end, she pats the top of my fist with her palm. Then she picks up the clock and walks back into the kitchen.
Joshua comes back a couple of minutes later, and we take out our books to read. I’ve just started All the Pretty Horses, and I have to say that I’m enjoying it every bit as much as Joshua did. I guess it’s not just a boy thing. McCarthy’s dialogue is perfect and hilarious, and during some scenes, I’m laughing so hard, I’m snorting. In honor of some of the best lines, we’ve begun asking each other ‘where’d you get that gun?’ and the other responds, ‘at the gettin’ place.’

A little after 11, we figure it’s time to order lunch. Joshua walks inside to order a couple veg fried rice, and he walks out a couple minutes later, having had none of the communication problems Nima and I had. As we wait, we continue to read. I stop Joshua every few minutes or so to repeat some of the dialogue.

In the kitchen, we hear Nima chopping. She dumps something into the frying pan, and it sizzles. After a bit, she brings out a couple of plates, and the rice is the same as it was the night before, and unlike so many of our other lunches, it requires no additional spices. By now, Nima’s cooking has risen to epic heights. She can do no wrong.

As we’re finishing our lunch, Gyurme walks up from his lookout. He nods a Namaste at us, but he heads first for his wife. They don’t touch, but they stand close to one another, talking. Nima’s shoulders seem to relax when he is near. Once he’s talked to Nima, he walks over to us and asks us about our hike this morning. We tell him that Tibet was hidden, but that it was still a lovely hike, and he nods his head. He laughs when we tell him it snowed a ton.

Nima and Gyurme head into the kitchen, and we hear them eating. We read our books for a few more pages, and then Joshua goes inside to pay. Nima and Gyurme ask him if he’ll wait for them to finish eating. They’d like to say goodbye.

Once they’ve finished, they walk out to us and Joshua settles the bill. We take a few more photos of the lodge to post on-line, and Nima hovers around, making sure that we’ve gotten the best angles. When we put on our packs, Gyurme tells us to follow him, and we all do, including Nima. Up on the hill, we walk over to the very edge, and he points out Tatopani, far below. The top lodge is his brother’s, he says. Nima touches my arm and points to the south. ‘Gatlang,’ she says. I nod. She moves her hand a little to the east. ‘Goljung,’ she says. I nod again. Then she tugs my arm. When she starts walking, I follow her. She looks to make sure I’m right behind, and as we walk, I notice how much taller I am. Her flip flops slap at her heels as we walk along.

A little ways away, on the south side of the hill, she comes to a prayer flag and beneath it, an exposed bit of rock. She points at three small depressions that look vaguely like footprints. ‘Buddha’s foot,’ she says, and then she sits right on top of the rock, with her feet tucked under her. She points at three more villages. ‘Dunche, Thulu Syraphru, Syraphru Besi,’ she says.
Gyurme and Joshua come up behind us, and just like Nima, Gyurme tells Joshua about the Buddha’s footprints. Gyurme sits down next to Nima on the rock on the edge of the steep hillside, and we thank them for their hospitality. Nima tells us to come again when we have a family. Gyurme tells us to not forget about the photos on the website. We tell him we won’t forget.

They point out our path to Tatopani, and as we walk away, we wave goodbye. They stay seated on the Buddha’s rock, waving back at us and looking out at the mountains to the west.
The trail from Nagthali to Tatopani is downhill, and we spend the first hour picking our way down a steep slope. Without trees to block our view, we can see Chilime, Gatlang, Goljung, and Syraphru Besi in the distance. The clouds have cleared, and the sun has even come out. Up above, the snowy mountains emerge.

In Brimdang, we loose the path at a gompa, and then we find it again. A pack of enormous grey and white monkeys gallop off into the trees just feet in front of us, and we stand, gaping at these enormous creatures, hanging from the trees. Their tails have to be almost four feet long, and they’re all looking at us, curious.

Brimdang is a small collection of wooden homes with terraced fields. A couple of women in the traditional Tamang top-hat and dress are sitting in their front yard, sorting grain. They bow deeply when we say Namaste. On the other side of town, a dozen or more cows are coming up the path, and a couple of herders in their woolen tunics and enormous Gorkha knifes tucked into their belts are tapping their rumps with bamboo switches. We come to a stand-off on the edge of a rice terrace, and although I’m terrified of their pointy, long horns, they’re actually more terrified of us. They look at us, and then they look at the fence into the field next to them. Much to the dismay of the herders, they decide to walk right through the fence.

Inside the field, two small children are running and jumping into stacks of hay. The little girl is a bit older, but she can’t be more than seven. When the herders yell at the cows, she takes matters into her own hands. She runs up in front of the big bull and stares him down, yelling. Then she picks up a little stone and chucks it right between the bull’s horns. He backs up and goes out the fence, leading a little entourage behind him.

It takes another hour from Brimdang to reach Tatopani, and as we walk, we talk about the jobs we’ve had. Joshua started out at Taco Bell, held a brief stint at Menards, and then moved on to Davannis, where he made pizzas and then delivered them. He worked from the time he was 14, and he worked all the way through the school year, too. In college, he worked at the gym and then at the school cafeteria. In the summers, he worked for conferences.

Of course, I’ve heard all of these stories before, but still, it’s fun to total them all up and compare our experiences. I started working when I was 14 too. I bussed tables and filled drinks at Key’s Cafe and Bakery the first summer, and the next, I was a receptionist at Great Clips, sorting bills, sweeping hair, and folding laundry. In the summer after I went to England, I worked at the Turkey Drumstick stand at the state fair, accumulating layers of grease and grit all over my skin, and then the next year, I worked the night shift at Fed Ex, sorting irregular packages. In college, I never stayed in one place for long, and I worked a series of office jobs – stuffing envelopes in Admissions, doing odd-jobs in Alumni Giving, and totaling figures in Accounting. In the summers, I worked for Fed Ex and another office job at Walden, and then with conferences. The last year of school, I gave speeches and rallied idealists to work in our country’s poorest schools, and in the Spring, I worked for a Montessori center, running after toddlers and wiping up their poo.

After a while, we could see the buildings of Tatopani through the trees, and before long, we were walking by three steaming pools, filled with Indian and Nepali men and women. At the back, carved fountains spouted hot water that smelled of sulfur, and behind the pools, dozens of prayer flags were strung over the source of the hot spring.

We passed the hot spring, and down below, we found Pilgrim’s Guest House, a large, well-kept, and completely empty lodge. The owner came out of his kitchen as we walked up, and when we asked if he had a room, he took us up to one on the second floor with lots of windows and a view of the valley. He told us it was ours for a hundred rupees a night. Done.

Changing into boxers and t-shirts, we gathered our towels and flip flops and walked to the hot spring. The three square-shaped pools were each filled with murky, brownish water, and a thin sheen of what looked like oil coated the water like skin. We got in.

For an hour, we sat in the hot water, enjoying the warmth and steam. In the pool next to ours, a dozen women were lounging, wearing red sarongs that bared their shoulders but covered them to their knees. On their heads, they’d wrapped up their hair in plastic bags. Some of the women were Buddhist nuns, and their closely shaved hair and red bathing robes seemed out of place in the steam.

The men in our pool and the pool to the other side had hairstyles that we’ve seen on some of the saddhus – a close crop with a tuft of hair at the crown in the back. They have a piece of string tied under their armpit like a shoulder bag with no bag and another tied around their waist.
After a while, two very old Tamang women approached the pools. Dressed in their traditional long wrap dress, woolen tunic, top hat, and fabric belts, they took their time de-layering. Although our guide book had warned us to dress modestly at the pools, it seemed like maybe it wasn’t as big of a deal as they had thought. These two very old, very wrinkled women were completely topless, and they wrapped their impossibly long braids around their heads like a crown before they walked into the water and stood under the fountains.

We’d been in the pools for a long while before another Westerner came in. A New Zealander with a guide, he got in and sat next to us, asking us about our trek so far and telling us a little bit about his job as a care giver and his studies in Organic Farming.

The steam went to our heads, and once we had been in the pool for about an hour, we were ready to head back to the lodge. Saying goodbye to the New Zealander, we wrapped up in our towels and walked to our room. After we had changed into some dry clothes, we ordered dal bhat and sat in the dining room, reading and playing cards.

The sun set, and after a little bit, our food came. It wasn’t as good as Nima’s, but it was still pretty tasty. After a few hands of Rummy 5000, Joshua stopped having fun. It seems that, after a good six years of learning how to play, I now know how to win, and I do so with alarming frequency. It’s making my husband cranky.


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Sinuwa to Deorali to Bamboo

November 9, 2010

We scheduled breakfast for 5:30, and once we had inhaled our crispy pancakes, we finished packing and began heading towards Base Camp. We left Joshua’s pack back at Shangrila Guesthouse, and without the extra weight, we flew. Our guide book suggests that the distance from Deorali to Base Camp should take about three and a half hours. Determined to make it there before the crowds, we made it there in two.

Unlike the Circuit, the Base Camp trek takes you mostly through forest and brush. The views are glimpses of waterfalls, clouds rolling in, and one narrow valley. It is decidedly less grand. There are no panoramic vistas, no sweeping ranges. The scale is much smaller.

Except for Base Camp itself. The Annapurna Sanctuary is an amphitheater of the Annapurna’s tallest and most formidable mountains. Base Camp sits in a cup below Annapurna I, II, and South, Gangapurna, Machapurchchre, Khangra… This is where many of the world’s best climbers have made names for themselves, have summited, have died. In fact, the lookout where we sat and contemplated this gorgeous landscape is crowned with a memorial of Anatoli Boukreev, killed in an avalanche on one of the Annapurnas. Here, the omnipresent prayer flags flap in the wind, and through their multi-colored strands, we see massive, snow-covered mountains reaching up into the bluest of skies. Glaciers pitch down rock faces, a huge valley of morraine and till spreads out below, and for 360 degrees, we can see the tips of the Himalaya. It’s beautiful, and although the Base Camp trek paled in comparison to the Circuit, this view is crowning.

The walk to the top gained over 1000 meters, but we hardly noticed. By now, we’ve gained both our trekking legs and altitude lungs, and whether it’s up, down, or flat, we just go. A river runs alongside the trail, and ahead, we can see just a glimmer of white-capped mountain.

Machapurchche Base Camp has a number of guest houses, but we passed it by. After a long afternoon and evening at Deorali, we’re disenchanted with high altitude lodges. These camps are no longer villages inhabited by locals; they are temporary dwellings, and when I’m here, I get the distinct feeling that I’m just a dollar sign. The food is two to three times the cost of lower villages, and it’s some of the worst I’ve had in either India or Nepal. The rooms are cramped and dark, and whereas many of the other lodges offer free heating in the dining room during cold evenings, these lodges charge 100 rupees per person. In other words, they could make nearly 2,000 rupees off of just lighting a fire. It just doesn’t feel very nice. I get the sense that they’re trying to squeeze every rupee out of me, and in exchange, I get cold, disgusting food and a very hard bed in a cold, dark, dank room.

ANYWAY. That’s why we didn’t stay up near the Base Camp. The amphitheater was lovely, and we sat there in awe for a little less than an hour, but when we saw the masses coming, we waved goodbye to one of the most beautiful views we’ve seen so far and started walking. The camera’s dying battery survived just long enough to capture shots that will remind us of what we saw but never quite do those hills justice.

On our way back, we passed dozens of trekkers heading up. It took us nearly as long to get down as it did to get up – we’re not nearly as fiesty when it comes to our descent – but we eventually arrived back in Deorali around 11:30.

Picking up Joshua’s pack, we eschewed the lunch crowds in Deorali and headed down to Himalaya Hotel. On our way, we ran into Cory, Shelby, and Gemma from the rafting trip. They started two days after us, and they were much in agreement: the Circuit is better than Base Camp. We stopped to chat for a few minutes, but all of us were anxious to find accomodation for the night, so we wished each other well and headed back on the trail.

At Himalaya Hotel, Joshua and I stopped and ordered a couple plates of veg fried rice. After just a pancake for breakfast, we were absolutely starving. Per usual for a high altitude lodge, the food wasn’t great, but it was filling, and once we had cleaned our plates, we continued on trail.

After Himalaya Hotel, the trail once again ventures into bamboo forests, waterfalls, and green branches with the sounds of monkeys singing in the background. The trail was mostly downhill, but we were starting to flag. After an hour, we passed through another village. We briefly considered staying, but both decided to continue on.

At 2:30, it felt like evening. The clouds had rolled in, and there were fewer trekkers on trail. I worried for a bit about getting a room, but after eight hours of trekking, we found ourselves in Bamboo. Although we had intended to make our way to Sinuwa, both of us were beat, and we decided to try. In our guide book, Bamboo is supposed to fill up quickly, so we didn’t really expect to find anything, but the third guest house we asked had a double with a nice patio. We dumped our packs.

Taking out my computer to catch up on some writing, I brought it outside and sat down. Instantly, the computer was the center of attention. A group of five Nepali boys ran over, fascinated. Going into my pictures, I flipped through each country we’ve visited, and I had all of them sounding out the words, slowly. Big Ben. London Bridge. Westminster Abbey. Glendaloch. Ireland. La Mezquita. Spain. The Alhambra. Sierra Nevada. Scotland. Salmon Leaping. The Ocean. Turkey. Caves. Cappadocia. Hot Air Balloons. Leh. Gompas. The Dalai Lama. Mani Wall. Kathmandu.

After a while, someone called them away, and they all ran off without a word, giggling. Now, Joshua’s talking to a group of Brits, and I’m typing, looking out at the forest peaking out of the clouds.

***

For dinner, we ordered Dal Bhaat and tea. In the dining hall, we played cards while we waited, and a couple of American trekkers overheard us and introduced themselves. One was from Seattle, recently graduated from UW. He’s on a few month long trip, and just before he came to Nepal, he visited his girlfriend in Ukraine. She’s a Peace Corps volunteer, but she’s having a horrible time. She feels ineffective and useless. Joshua and I looked at each other. I guess we know the feeling.

The other guy was from Las Vegas, and the two of them were plowing through the Circuit and Base Camp with gusto. We chatted for a little bit, but once the food came, we turned our focus to eating.

Once we had finished, we headed off to our room to read ourselves to sleep. After a long day of hiking, it didn’t take long.

November 8, 2010

Apparently, the Sherpa Guesthouse isn’t actually in Sinuwa. The sign says Sinuwa, but actually, you have another 45 minutes up stairs to get to the village. We woke up and packed before breakfast, and once we had filled up on porridge and pancakes, we made our way up the stairs. It felt good to get started early; by the time we reached Sinuwa, the rest of the trekkers were rousing, but we had already been hiking for a while.

The path from Sinuwa to Deorali mostly passes through dense, green forests. Bamboo grows on either side of the trail, and numerous streams and waterfalls cut through. We walked for a few hours, passing through the small villages of Bamboo and Dobran, and after a while, we began to climb in earnest.

At Himalayan Hotel, the vegetation began to thin, and we could see the river rushing over boulders down below. A small cluster of lodges, this is where our guide recommends that you spend the night. They also recommend that you spend the night in Bamboo. We were fast-forwarding.

Past Himalayan Hotel, we continued climbing up. Someone has taken the time to place stones in the formation of many, many stairs, but they are not uniform – some are hardly two inches up, and others require us to heave our bodies up and over. We were making good time, and both of us were feeling great. We were blowing the time suggestions provided by our guide book out of the water, and passing a ton of other trekkers, I guess you could say we were getting a bit cocky.

Coming up behind us, a man dressed in a soccer jersey and satin pants came jazzercising up the hill (Joshua’s word; not mine). He stopped for a second to compare the distances we’d gone in the past two days. He’d started in Pokhara yesterday. This morning, he had started from Chommrong. Pleased that he was beating us, he forged on.

As he passed, it occured to me that what he was doing was supremely idiotic. Pokhara hardly reaches 1000 meters. Annapurna Base Camp is 4200 meters. He was gaining over 3000 meters in less than two days. From what I’ve heard about AMS, this sounds like a recipee for disaster.

Finally, we arrived in Deorali. Waterfalls dropped from cliffs high over head, and a small cluster of guest houses sat looking out over the valley. We planned to stop here, but I rushed ahead to catch up with the jazzerciser. I asked him if he’d ever been at altitude before. No. Did Pokhara count? No. I asked him if he had any Diamox. What’s that? We gave him some and told him that if he started to feel badly, he needed to turn around. He laughed, saying he was fit. We told him that didn’t matter. A guy had died less than five days ago from AMS. He was fit too.

Shrugging off our concerns, he sped off, headed for Base Camp. We asked around for a room.

Although it was only 12:30, there were no double rooms left. Most of the lodges had dorm rooms, but they were very dark and cramped. I walked to Upper Deorali. No luck there, either.

Settling for a dank dorm room at Shangrila, we ordered lunch. When the Dal Bhaat came, it was cold. The Dal had no lentils in it. I bit into the cold, curried vegetables and spit out something tough and chewy, thinking it was a stray, whole piece of cardamom. Nope. They were pellets of mutton.

That Dal Bhaat was the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. I don’t even know what possessed me to force it down, except I was hungry.

We donned our jackets and watched the clouds roll in while we read. Just as in Letdar, we were the first trekkers to arrive, but after a while, the others straggled in, grabbing their keys from their porters. They did not have dark, dank rooms. They did not have cold Dal Bhaat.

Other trekkers without porters came by, frantic to find rooms. Our lodge was starting to give out floor space in their dining room. Desperate, some people took it.

For dinner, I ordered an innocuous bowl of soup. By now, the dining room was so crowded that there was no where to sit. We huddled in a corner and ate.

We weren’t enjoying ourselves. It didn’t seem fair that we had woken up early and scooted our asses up a mountain, only to get a dark, cramped room with cold Dal Bhaat while others had slept in, taken breaks to eat lunch and take pictures, and then strolled in two or three hours after us to pick up keys to nicely lit, double rooms. Joshua, sitting next to me, seethed, muttering ‘survival of the richest.’

When it was dark, there was nothing left to do (nowhere left to go), except go to bed. We stumbled off to our dark room, laid out our sleeping bags, and laid down on a piece of plywood that passed for a bed. I felt bad for being grouchy, like I should be able to roll with the punches or something, but the fact that other lodges have been able to provide so much better accomodation made me feel like these guys were just taking advantage of us. It wasn’t a nice feeling.


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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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Ghorepani to Tadapani to Sinuwa

November 7, 2010

Ok. I admit it. You have every right to be jealous.

We’ve just arrived in the small village of Sinuwa. Our room is lined with windows on two walls, and sitting on our bed, we can see the rice paddies of Chimmrong, the clouds rolling into the valley, and the faded hills far in the distance. On the second floor of a building perched on a steep slope, it feels as though our room is floating in the mountains. It’s like a cable car over the valley, a glass box with a view on either side.

Outside, terraced gardens make use of the earth as best they can: sweet, blooming cabbages nestle in one patch, while lettuce, marigolds, and barely spring out from others. It’s green here, and with the clouds covering the tops of the lush mountains, it looks like photos you’ve seen of the cloud forests in the jungle.

This is the sort of place – sitting on a bed lit up by the late afternoon sun, looking at our own private, grand view – that I will take out when this is done. Perhaps I will be driving to work or washing the dishes, and all of a sudden I’ll have this image of the perfect afternoon. This perfect place. I’ll have forgotten that this is the same place where I took the world’s coldest shower and that the walls were made of clapboard. Or maybe not. I don’t need to delete the rough edges to make this place more idyllic. I’ll probably just think of the shower as refreshing and the clapboard as quaint 🙂

We woke up early this morning to beat the rush of the Danish running club. Outside, the sun was coming up over the soft hills below and lighting the faces of snowy mountains. It was pink and orange, and all around us, things were lighting up in their truest, prettiest colors. We went back inside to put another layer on. We wanted to sit on the patio and watch the sunrise as we ate breakfast.

Cups of tea warmed our hands. I peeled my boiled eggs and dipped them in salt. Joshua ate his pancakes with honey. Slowly, the Danes woke up and stumbled from their rooms, mussed from sleep, gaping at the sunrise. Uli and Anja came out and sat down next to us for breakfast, too. It seemed no one prefered warmth over the panorama.

When we’d finished eating, we packed and paid. Exchanging e-mail addresses with Uli and Anja, we waved goodbye and headed down the trail.

The path from Tadapani to Chimmrong takes about four hours to traverse. The first hour out of Tadapani is mostly downhill, and as you descend, you gain glimpses of the river rushing through far below and the path you’ll ascend winding up the other side of the valley. I like places like this; you can see where you’re going, and when you’re taking a break for water or just resting in the shade, you can look how far you’ve come.

Passing a couple of guest houses on our way down, we were envious of those who had gone just a little farther than Tadapani. Whereas we had stayed in a cluster of almost a dozen rather unattractive guest houses, just an hour down the hill there are lovely, lone lodges that look out over the valley in peace. At least we had had a wonderful view.

We continued to descend. Porters carrying enormous loads nimbly ran down the hillside, passing us by the dozens. Not only could we not keep up with them, but we had also decided that it’s no fun to rush. If Chimmrong is full, we’ll move on, and if that’s full, well, I guess we’ll figure it out when we get there. Trying to beat everyone prevents us from stopping and taking our time. We talk less and are less amazed.

Eventually, we crossed a wooden suspension bridge at the bottom of the valley. We paused for a moment to shed layers and layer up on sunscreen, admiring the white water rushing by below. More porters passed us.

We started walking up. It got hotter.

Actually, it got really, really hot. Hotter than it’s been in weeks. We were dripping with sweat by the time we crested the first ridge and entered Ghurung. We kept walking.

It’s so surreal to move from areas that feel like fall and winter into areas that feel like summer. Just ten hours ago, we were huddled around a table, shivering from the chill, blowing great white puffs of air into the middle and laughing over our chattering teeth. Now we look like we’ve just taken a swim.

While we climbed, we talked about potential jobs for me. I was going to take some time off to try and write we got back, but now, Joshua’s doing the officer training program, and we need the salary to get the mortgage and start some renovations. I game to be the breadwinner, and there’s no pressure for this to be either a long term or a dream job, but I’m still anxious. It occurs to me that I’ve never had a job that I’ve liked. I’ve been working since I was 14, and each job has left me either bored, abused, or miserable. On top of that, the last time I applied to jobs, I was sent packing. At a job fair in the RSD, people actually sneered when I told them that I had just spent a year working for S. Alternative School. So much for believing that hard work reaps rewards.

Anyway, I’m anxious. Like I’ve said, the prospect of stuffing myself into a cubicle makes my skin bristle, but maybe I just have the wrong idea. Maybe if the people were nice and there were interesting parts of the job, it wouldn’t be so bad. I’m open. I just hope that I can find something I don’t hate, somewhere people don’t hate me.

We arrived in Chimmrong in a little less than four hours. We were dripping with sweat and panting from the many stairs it took to get there, but nonetheless pleased to find a number of acceptable lodges for lunch. We stopped at one lodge with a large stone patio and marigolds blooming from the cracks.

We ordered veg noodle soup for me and a veggie burger for Joshua. Playing cards while we waited, we chatted with the young Canadian couple sitting at the table next to us. They’re also adding the Annapurna Base Camp trek onto the Circuit, and they’ve been going for a little over 20 days now. As they talked, the guy took out his camera equipment. He’s been carting a tripod and multiple lenses the whole way, and when I asked him if he’s a professional photographer, he just laughed and said he wished.

The food came, and we ate every last thing. We’d finally stopped sweating, and now, the sun pleasantly warmed our backs. We paid.

It took a little over an hour to reach Sinuwa from Chimmrong. The first 40 minutes were entirely down stairs. Unfortunately for Joshua, he had gotten a fistful of the world’s most powerful sting nettles earlier in the day. Fortunately for me, that meant I got to use the trekking poles to take it easy on my knees.

Chimmrong trickles down the hillside for a good twenty minutes, and as we descended, we passed trekkers going in the opposite direction, positively swimming in their own sweat. It was hot, and this section of the trek feels a bit like a stairmaster.

At the bottom of the valley, we crossed another stream and then headed up another series of stone stairs. Thankfully, the clouds had just begun to roll in, and the sun wasn’t beating down our backs quite as viciously as it had earlier in the day. We climbed steadily for a while, and then we saw the bright buildings of Sinuwa.

The Sherpa’s Lodge is one of three lodges in Sinuwa. It sits highest on the hill, and there are sweetly sleeping dogs on the patio. While we waited for a room, I scratched one’s ear. The dog squeezed its eyes shut and pressed in close.

I’ve already described the room. It’s amazing. The shower? Not so amazing. If they think I’m going to pay them for a ‘hot’ shower, they’ve got another thing coming 🙂

Once I had finished writing, we wandered downstairs to place an order for dinner. A large group of Americans were talking loudly, and we eavesdropped as we played cards. When the Dal Bhaat came, it was absolutely delicious, and Joshua looked envious.

Once we had finished eating, we went back upstairs to enjoy our view and read. Downstairs, people were singing, but not even the noise could detract from our perfect little room. That night, as we slept, it was warm enough to take off our hats and jackets.

November 6, 2010

Have I mentioned that our only time piece automatically resets itself on the alarm? Yes. Our brilliant little bit of technology – rather than admitting the expected beeps – simply redials itself to zero when it reaches the programmed alarm time. Which not only means that we have no idea what time it is when we wake up, but also that we are having a decidedly more difficult time doing things like waking up for the sunset and arriving to our pre-scheduled breakfasts on time.

Have no fear. I usually wake up about 30 minutes before I’m supposed to. I lean over, ask Joshua what time it is, and then much reassured, cherish my last 30 minutes of sleep. Not now. Now, I ask what time it is and then pester Joshua in 7 minute cycles, with a note of panic in my voice each time. I’m taking over for the alarm clock.

So, we got up just a little before 5 to hike up Poon Hill and watch the sunrise. Joshua ran off to the bathroom to take care of an emergency, and when he got back, we put on our headlamps to light our path.

It was completely dark outside, and there were hundreds of stars above. We hiked through Ghorepani a ways, and then we turned uphill. After a few minutes, Joshua ran off to the bushes to take care of an emergency.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to inform you of what Joshua informed me. The explosive farts of yesterday had morphed into the explosive… Shall we call them sharts? Of today. Joshua says it’s a little bit like spray-paint.

Anyway, rather than being the understanding sort of wifey-poo, I told Joshua to stuff it. We had woken up at a quarter to five (more like four, for me) to watch the sunrise, and goddammit, we were going to see the sunrise. Clutching his stomach, Joshua powered up the hill with me in tow. He did an impressive job of just clamping down and getting it over with. By the time we reached the top, almost half an hour later, we were sweating profusely and panting like crazy. It was like turning the stairmaster on high and just having at it. Also, there were HUNDREDS of people.

At the top, I shed a couple of layers, and we sat on the grass to watch the sun light up the piedmont of the Himalaya. All along the horizon, the sky and earth glowed bright pink, and behind us, the mountains waited for a little bit of light to make them glow too. It was breathtaking, but there were two factors that detracted from this otherwise romantic moment: for one, it was freezing cold and – after having practically run to the top – I was soaking wet. For two, I had just demanded that my husband with a GI disability run up a mountain. It was not one of my prouder moments, and Joshua knew it. For three, there were a bazillion people roaming around, posing in front of the sunrise, and taking photos. So actually, no. It wasn’t romantic at all. Joshua ran off to the squatter to take care of an emergency, and when he got back, I apologized, and we renamed it Poop Hill.

I forgot to mention our other technological difficulty. Joshua forgot the camera’s battery charger and extra battery in Pokhara. Up on Poon Hill, we quickly switched the camera on, snapped a few photos, and then switched it back off. The battery light is blinking like crazy, and we probably won’t have any more photos of the trek after this.

The sun lit up the mountains. Looking at the crowds around us, we decided to head down before there was a traffic jam or stampede to the bottom. As we walked down, I resolved to be extra super nice to my husband. He’s had a bad run of luck, and my demands to make him run up hills are not helping.

Back at the lodge, I apologized again and again, and then gave Joshua a big hug. He told me not to squeeze to hard. He felt another emergency coming on.

In the kitchen downstairs, we ate our breakfast of pancakes and eggs, and when we’d finished, we paid, finished packing, and left.

Walking out of Ghorepani, we headed towards Tadapani. After a half-hour of hiking, we came across huge crowds of trekkers. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones headed for Tadapani. We began passing them one by one, and when we came out of the forest onto a hillside, everyone paused to stop and look behind. It’s funny. Poop Hill is such a tourist trap, but this humble stretch of trail offers the exact same thing. We could have started the trail early, seen the same beautiful sunrise, and avoided the crowds. Maybe I wouldn’t have been mean to my husband.

We kept hiking, and after a couple of more minutes, I saw Joshua quickly unclip his backpack, throw it down, and then run off into the trees. Trekkers were passing us every second, and down below, we could all hear the distinct sounds of my husband taking care of an emergency.

When he came back, he looked much relieved but also perplexed. Usually, an immodium locks everything up. He took one after Poop Hill, but now, he was thinking that another might be neccessary. He popped another into his mouth, shot some water down, and gulped.

We kept hiking. Less than ten minutes later, Joshua informed me that he had another emergency to take care of. This time he had enough warning to stow his pack and poles, and I said I’d wait for him a little ways up the trail where there’s a bluff and a view.

Squatting, barely concealed by a thin thicket of bamboo, and mere yards from the trail, Joshua spent a good 20 minutes taking care of an emergency. Trekkers passed. I waited, looking at the mist roll off the subcontinent of India far below.

When Joshua caught up to me a long while later, he again looked much relieved. He asked me for some hand sanitizer. Sharts can be messy.

Feeling much better, Joshua set off at a speedy cruising pace. I reassured him, saying that it didn’t matter if people passed or if we went slowly, but he told me that he could feel the immodium kicking in, and he felt good. We walked.

The trail to Tadapani runs through a couple of villages. The first hour brings you higher in elevation for beautiful views of the mountain range behind and the subcontinent below, but after a while, you begin to descend, and the trail runs into the trees alongside a stream.

The path was congested, and we continued to pass trekkers. At the villages, we walked through without pausing, and eventually, we began climbing again. After a couple of hours, it got warmer and warmer, and we shed our long-sleeved layers. With people passing us, taking breaks, and then passing us again, it felt a lot like a race. We had passed most of the bigger groups, but there was a stubborn string of independent trekkers – French, Korean, and Swiss – determined to keep us at bay.

Cresting a hill, we saw the trail pitch steeply downwards and then ascend up over the next hillside. Gritting our teeth, we put our nose down to the stepping stones and went.

By the time we reached Tadapani, we were sweaty and tired. It had taken us a little less than three and a half hours to cover the distance from Ghorepani, and as far as we could see, we were the first to arrive. We could pick any guest house we want.

In the Lonely Planet, they recommend Panorama Point. That’s where we went.

True enough, there wasn’t a soul arrived, and we were led to a tiny, dim room at the very edge of the lodge. Desperately needing the rest of the day off, we agreed.

It’s been a long time since we had a rest day, but so far, we haven’t come to a place where we’d really want to spend another day, doing nothing. As we get closer to the end of our trek, its tempting to just tack on another day in Pokhara. For now, a lovely patio overlooking the mountains will do just fine 🙂

Once we had dumped our packs, we sat out in the sunshine and ordered lunch. Veg fried noodles and tea came out within minutes, and once we were no longer ravenously hungry, we tipped our chairs back and read, looking up at the end of every page to admire the view. At one point, I realized that the plant growing next to us was weed. Marigolds popped out at angles, and I nudged Joshua saying, ‘hey! It’s a marigold among the weeds!’ I know. Very witty.

For the rest of the afternoon, we enjoyed the view, played some cards, and read. Slowly, Tadapani began to fill up, and a couple of Germans and a huge group of Danes came to our lodge. After a bit, the German couple sat down next to us, and we chatted a bit, sharing stories and itineraries. Uli and Anja are on their honeymoon, and they’ve just spent two weeks in India. They have two weeks in Nepal, and for five days, they’re doing the Annapurna Skyline Trek. Uli is a Microbiologist, and he lived in San Diego for three years, finishing his post-doc. Anja’s a graphic designer, and the two of them now live in Frankfurt. They were friendly and cheerful, and it was easy to talk with them, even though Anja seemed a little bit nervous with English. We told them a little bit about New Orleans, and it was one of the first conversations we’ve had about that place that I felt was a fair and accurate representation. In the end, I don’t want the story to be: I went to New Orleans and it made me miserable and now I have no idea what to make of it all. That’s too insular. It’s all about me, and I’d rather people knew about the whole story. I want people to know why my students are failing and how things could be so much better. My part of the story is short and confused, with no real ending. Their part goes on and on, and really, there’s a lot of hope.

For dinner, we all crammed into the dining room to share a little body heat. The big group of Danes turned out to be a running club, and they all seemed like they were having the time of their lives. It was the last night of Deuwali, and little informal dance troops came in from the village, dancing to the stereo and asking for offerings on a plate of marigolds and candles.

We had a smaller dinner, after our huge lunch, and once we’d finished, we went off to bed. The temperature had dropped quite a bit, so we pushed the little twin beds together, hopped in our sleeping bags and then cuddled in close, watching our breath puff in the air above us.


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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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Kagbeni to Marpha to Lete

November 3, 2010

We woke up a little earlier than usual, eating our pancakes and porridge and heading out the door by 7:15. The Kali Gandaki river bed is very wide here, and while the wind is at our back in the morning, by noon, the wind switches direction. The dust from the river bed has been known to drive people crazy, and often, the fine particles irritate the delicate membranes of the respiratory system. Lots of trekkers have developed deep, phlegmy coughs that are hard to shake.

For lots of Annapurna Circuit trekkers, Marpha or even Jomsom are the end of the road. An airport in Jomsom whisks away travellers short on time, and a relatively new road now joins Jomsom to the rest of Nepal. In fact, there were jeeps as early on as Muktinath. This is no longer a pedestrian-only valley.

But for some trekkers, the dusty, jeep and bus filled road from Marpha to Tatopani is just a two day trip by foot. Yes, it’s dusty, and yes, there are obnoxious horns the whole way, but it’s a matter of principle: sure, there are roads and we could take a bus, but we choose not to. We choose our feet.

You’re right. This has the makings of a totally miserable, self-righteous journey. Fortunately, Joshua and I were able to avoid all but 30 minutes of road on our way from Marpha to Lete. Outside of Marpha, we walked for about 15 minutes, and then we crossed a suspension bridge headed for Chimang. We had heard that there might be a landslide that had washed out part of the trail, but we decided to risk it. If we could navigate the path, we might not need to use the road for most of the journey.

The light this morning was muted. The wind was strong and at our backs, and with the trees rustling and the leaves blowing, it felt like fall. The first village we walked through was silent. The only signs of life were smoking chimneys and blankets drying in the wind.

The fields on the other side of the village were filled with apple trees and evergreens. My throat still hurt, so we didn’t talk much; we kept walking. The path continued on through the shelter of more evergreens. Our tread was quieted by a blanket of brown needles. We crossed small streams and women walking with woven baskets strapped to their foreheads. Otherwise, we saw no one.

Whenever the path came to a fork, we chose the one closest to the river. After a wider stream crossing, we picked our way across what must have been a mudflow. For about 30 minutes, a dry, pathless plain of dried mud and rock occasionally revealed the tops of evergreens, determined not to give up. It took a little longer to make our way across this terrain, but on the other end, we were perplexed. Was this the landslide that had detered other trekkers from taking the East bank?

Where the mudflow ended, the Kali Gandaki veered in towards the mountains, and the path took us sharply upwards. Although we were concerned that the landslide might actually be at the top of this steep path, we again took the risk. We climbed for a while through evergreens, high above the river, and although it was uphill, the path was always wide and well-trodden. At the top, we could see Tukuche and other trekkers hiking on the road across the river. Our path may have been harder, but we did not envy them: the sound of a bus blowing its horn is enough to make Joshua have a hissy fit. He hates it.

The trail descended again, and we passed a village at the foot of the mountains. The river bed stretched out for a mile in front of the village, and the gusting wind blew dust everywhere. All the buildings were covered in a thin veneer of grit. Even the little children who held out their hands for sweets and school pens were dusty.

We picked our way across the river bed, and on the other side, we found a thin trail carved into the mountainside. Walking avobe the Kali Gandaki, long pieces of wood reinforced weaker parts of the trail. It would have been precarious, but it looked well-used and maintained.

We continued walking. Eventually, the path took us to a road, but thankfully, no vehicles ever came. Across the river, we could see other trekkers, but we never saw a soul on the East bank. As we entered another village, we started getting a bit tired and hungry. Even when I pointed out a field of marijuana, we barely laughed, so determined were we to find the next restaurant.

The village we passed through had no lodges or restaurants, but the careful attention to detail was charming: the homes were tidy and cozy, the road had poplars planted at even intervals all alongside, and even the troughs for the livestock were clean and attractive. Some villagers looked at us as if to say, ‘what are YOU doing here?’ But they all said Namaste.

On the other side of the village, we continued on the road. Around the bend, we spotted a shortcut through the river bed and took it. It saved us time, but our feet did get a bit muddy. At one point, I’m fairly sure I stepped in quicksand.

Finally, at the finish of our shortcut, we rejoined the road, and it wasn’t long before we came to a suspension bridge that connected the East and West banks of the river. As far as I had seen, this was only the second bridge since Marpha. We were already past Larjung.

From here, the river turned sharply to the East, and we followed the path until we entered the village of Kokhethanti, where – Hallelujah – there was a restaurant. We both ordered Chowmein and with a side of roasted potatoes, and when the plates came, we inhaled them. We had been hiking for 5 hours.

Once we had finished, we split a Snickers bar for dessert and then paid. The waiter told us that it should take about an hour to get to Kokhethanti to Kalapani if you don’t take the detour to Titi Lake recommended in Lonely Planet. Tired, we decided to skip the detour. We were already fast-forwarding through Lonely Planet’s schedule – they took three days to cover the distance from Marpha to Tatopani, whereas we were trying to do it in two.

The path from Kokhethanti to Kalapani follows the Kali Gandaki’s narrowing river bed. The road has wide cobblestones, and there are mud-brick homes and gardens most of the way. Outside, women were washing their hair in the river or under faucets. Little chicks were singing sweetly from the side of the path, and brightly colored blossoms were spilling over the wooden fences. The sun had finally come out, and we were warm enough to walk in just a long-sleeved shirt, no hat.

Eventually, we came to a suspension bridge, and on the other side, we entered Kalapani. A sign informed us that the walk to the ACAP water station would take 20 minutes. Having read about an Eco Lodge in Lonely Planet, we set our sights on the other end of Lete – a good 30 to 40 minute walk from the start of Kalapani.

Kalapani and Lete blend into one another, and really, they’re pretty indiscernable. Homes, lodges, shops, and restaurants line either side of the wide-cobblestoned road, and there isn’t a whole lot of charm to mention. We stopped at the water station to fill up, and then we continued on. At the very end of Lete, we spotted the Eco Lodge.

The man outside led us upstairs, and for the usual 200 rupees, he let us have a double on the second floor. We immediately collapsed on the beds.

Unfortunately, that’s also when we happened to first really look at our surroundings. It was only 2:30 PM, and although most budget lodges are created equal, this one wasn’t. We’d have another few hours of daylight to take in the dirty floors and walls, the dark, dark rooms, and the decidedly unpleasant dining room. We didn’t unpack.

Joshua tried to strong-arm me into making a decision: did I want to leave? Well, the answer was yes and no. Yes, I wanted to get the hell out of there, but no, I did not want to tell the proprietor that I didn’t want to stay there. Joshua told me to stop being a wimp; he put his smelly socks back on, laced up his mud-caked boots, and hefted his pack.

Luckily, the man outside didn’t seem to be to bothered. We muttered some lie about thinking our friend was at another lodge, but really, it all happened so quickly that I don’t think it mattered. We headed back in the direction we had come from. The Old Namaste Guesthouse was the first lodge that we came across, and it had a beautiful, window-filled dining room and a garden of marigolds. No one appeared to be staying there, but the woman informed us that they were full.

Thankfully, the next place we came to – Paradise Guest House – was nearly empty, and the double that woman showed us had lots of windows. She charged us 150 rupees for the room. Done.

Joshua went to go take a shower, while I pulled out the computer to write. Sitting on the roof, this non-descript town takes on a bit more description. In fact, with the snow-capped mountains and saddles above, the scenery reminds me of Temang. Downstairs, I can smell something sizzling. It hasn’t been long since lunch, but I’m already hungry again.

In the dining room, we sit at a table with a coal-fired heater underneath. Within minutes, we’re warm enough to take off our hats and jackets. We play Rummy until the food comes, and when it does, we have some of the best Dal Bhaat and potato cheese Momos we’ve ever had.

Later that night, we read until we fall asleep, warm in our sleeping bags.

November 2, 2010

We all padded down to breakfast at 7. I got a little crazy this time and ordered oats porridge with apple. I love the buckwheat pancakes, but they didn’t have any on the menu, and I had started to envy Joshua and Ankit’s hot, steaming bowls of goop in the mornings.

Turns out the goop tastes great, especially when there’s world-famous Mustang apples inside. Once we had finished eating, we paid the wonderful, smiley woman in charge, and then we headed for Jomsom.

Actually, first we took a detour so that Ankit could take a picture of the ancient Bon fertility statue. I bet you can’t guess what was sticking out of it.

Following the goat-droppings out of town, we found a road that ran alongside the Kali Gandaki river bed. We passed a few porters with enormous packs, and at some point, the kindly trekker who had led us to the Red House Lodge yesterday caught up with us.

John’s a general contractor in Prescott, Arizona. He grew up in Sedona and near the Grand Canyon, so he’s been living in Arizona most of his life. For a while, he was a marine, but now, he’s trying to figure out how to replace drywall with clay and bamboo lath. Apparently, the gypsum used in drywall is not only allergenic, but it’s also harmfully mined from China. Clay has all sorts of great properties – it’s breathable, it has a negative ion charge (which means that allergens don’t stick to it), and it’s a less toxic material. Bamboo, of course, is another sustainable and healthful material. John’s working with a university in Arizona to develop his product, and he’s gotten grant money from the government because he’s trying to develop an ecologically-friendly building material. ‘I don’t think of myself as a tree-hugger,’ he said, ‘but I would like the planet to be here for my grandchildren.’

Well, John seemed like a pretty cool guy, so we kept talking to him as we walked. His guide, a Sherpa, is a particularly famous mountaineer in Nepal. He’s appeared in a couple of documentaries, and on the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmond Hillary’s first climb of Mount Everest, he stood in the place of Tenzing Norgay’s grandson. John and Dowah met about 10 years ago, and John’s been coming to Nepal ever since. They just finished a trek in Upper Mustang, and John says it’s as wonderful as ever to see his friend.

John also had an interesting perspective on some of Nepal’s difficulties. In particular, he hadn’t made up his mind about the new roads. Apparently, not only is there a road to Mukhtinath, but they’re also building a road through Upper Mustang all the way to Tibet. John’s done the Annapurna Circuit a number of times since he started coming here 10 years ago, and to him, the roads have brought mostly bad things to the communities they’ve entered. Sure, his Nepali friends mostly think it’s a good thing, a sign of progress, but John’s not so sure. Before the roads were here, he says, no one was starving. People had plenty of work to do, and almost everyone was healthy. They ate a local diet of whole foods, they spent time with their family and neighbors, and they had rich religious and cultural traditions. Now, jeeps have taken away the jobs of porters who would carry loads on their backs; they’ve brought in packaged food, and the Nepali diet has suffered. There are beggars, and for him, what the Nepalis see as ‘modernization’ looks a lot more like using drugs, alcohol, and listening to bad pop music.

I’ve been trying to be open minded about the whole thing, but I’d have to agree. Later, we told Ankit about the things John had said, and he agreed too. This is a topic he’s concerned about in India as well. Yes, China and India would like to develop just like Europe and the US, and no, it’s not fair to say that they can’t. That said, if your friend had never seen a boiling pot of water before, and he went in to touch it, wouldn’t you say something? If China and India use as many resources per person as the USA does, the world will be snuffed out. And while the consequences might not be as dramatic for Nepal, modernization doesn’t always seem to be improving their quality of life. It’s a tough question, and I’m not sure what the answers are.

The other problem John sees in Nepali culture is the caste system. I’m a total ignoramous on the matter, but John broke it down for me very simply: a very long time ago, the Aryans came to India. To create order, the Aryans told the Indians that they were the Brahmans, a high caste of rulers. The other castes were determined by the color of the Indians skin, and the low and untouchable castes were pacified by being told that if they were very, very good, they might one day be reborn into a higher caste.

John’s seen the caste system at work a number of times in Nepal, but the ones that stuck out to him involved his guide and porter. During another trip, his very young porter was rather inexperienced and had been carrying a heavy load. John saw that his shoulders were hurting, so he walked over and massaged his shoulders. Both the porter and guide were shocked that John would dare to touch an untouchable. In another scenario, John had decided to bring Dowah to a fancy restaurant in Kathmandu to express his appreciation. It turned out to be a horrible idea, because although Dowah is something of a national hero, he’s both a low caste and a Sherpa. The other diners in the restaurant – Brahmans – asked to have their tables moved. ‘I was furious,’ he said, ‘you see, I’m the kind of guy who sees just one race. The rest is just culture.’

There was something else that John said that made me think. He’s guided in the Grand Canyon before, and he’s an avid backpacker. He doesn’t need a porter, but he hires one when he comes to Nepal. Far from seeing it as a form of subjugation, John believes hiring a porter is supporting the local economy. It’s creating a job that pays.

When John realized how far he had gotten from his group, he said goodbye. We waited for Anit to catch up, and then we continued on towards Jomsom.

The road turned into the sunshine, and across the wide river bed big gusts of wind kicked up little tornadoes of dust. A couple of off-road jeeps splashed through the streams, and in the distance, we could see the square, concrete buildings of Jomsom.

Just before we entered town, we heard the roar of jets and an engine. An airplane had just taken off from the small strip in town, and we looked up as the small vessel arched and then turned South. We waved. Maybe it was Eric and Nora’s plane.

Jomsom is a sprawling town, and it takes about 30 minutes to reach the tourist businesses. I’m not going to lie; I didn’t great the first signs of Internet, blaring horns, and ATMs with either fondness or relief. Instead, I felt crabby and hungry. I didn’t like Jomsom’s long road, and I didn’t like that we had two more days of vehicular roads ahead of us.

At the ACAP check point, we registered our names and permits, and Joshua went off to get some more cash out of the ATM. Unfortunately, it was down. Actually, this wasn’t just unfortunate, it was also catastrophic: if we didn’t get more cash, there was no way we’d be able to finish out the Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary. We decided to regroup at a cafe for lunch.

The little Bakery across from the ATM is both clean and sunny, and the woman who runs the place is a force to be reckoned with. She tried to upsell us on every entree, but she was so friendly and earnest, we didn’t mind. The food was delicious. It was the first vegetable chowmein I’ve had that I didn’t have to drown in chile sauce.

Ankit passed us a piece of paper. We wrote down our emails, my blog. We passed him a piece of paper. He wrote down his. This is where we part ways. Ankit needs a day off, and while he’s taking it in Marpha, we’re taking a detour after lunch. Maybe we’ll see each other again, but maybe we won’t. There’s no question that we’d like to take Ankit in our pocket, but he has a lot more traveling to do, and maybe one day he’ll travel his way to our farm in Wisconsin. We hope he does.

After lunch, we said goodbye and split off in different directions. Ankit headed down the road towards Marpha, and we stopped in at the Internet station. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working.

Now that we were full, we weren’t quite as crabby, and as we walked back through Jomsom, we tried to have a positive attitude about the thriving little town in the Annapurna. Even so, it’s not that great. I’d skip it, if I were you.

Hiking out of Jomsom, we headed for Dhumba Lake. It had only taken two and a half hours to get to Jomsom, and we wanted to hike a bit longer. The trail took us up on the East side of the river valley, through apple fields and glittering irrigation streams. Thini, a small, old-fashioned Thakali village, charmed us with its mud-brick homes and bundled-stick rafters. Mani Walls of prayer wheels craddled the village on either end, and as we walked through the cobble-stoned lanes, we forgot that the Annapurna is modernizing. Not here. Chickens sqwuak in the courtyards, woodsmoke billows out of the chimneys, and their isn’t a guest house or restaurant to be found. The children don’t even ask for sweets or school pens; they just hold their palms together, grin, and say, Namaste!

From Thini, the path climbs a bit higher into another village, and around the bend, we find Dhumba Lake. It’s not amazing. I mean, the water is torquoise and there are snowy mountains above, but with a barbed-wire fence winding its way around, it can’t compare to the lake we found outside of Pisang.

We stop for a while, and I try to stretch out my back. For some reason, I’m experiencing this shooting pain between my left shoulder blade and my spine. My pack is ridiculously light, so I feel similarly ridiculous, but it’s so painful, I have a grimace on my face, and I stop talking.

We continue on the road up to a gompa and then down to a village below. Ringing the mountain, we find a suspension bridge, and then we cross back to the West side of the river bank. The wind has begun to blow in earnest now, and we spend the rest of our hike squinting into the wind and dodging jeeps. At one point, a motorcycle doesn’t honk, and because the wind is so strong, I don’t hear it coming. When it appears beside me, I’m so startled that I led out a blood-curdling scream. They look at me as if to say, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’

By the time we reach Marpha, we’re both thankful that we’ve bought dust masks. At least our lungs aren’t full of grit. The sign that declares we’ve reached Marpha also announces that this is the Apple Capital of Nepal. We follow a cobblestoned road and an irrigation stream into the village center. Up above, a red gompa sits on a rock face and looks out into the valley. The city is almost strangely clean, and with the shelter of buildings, it’s markedly quieter than the road leading here.

We pass a number of guest houses, and we stop in at a few. Neeru and Mountain View charge 300 rupees for a double. We find Paradise, and they charge 150. With a sunny room and a clean dining room, we decide to stay.

By now, I’m feeling a bit sick. I’m starting to loose my voice, and my back is sore. I can’t discern if my body is sore from falling and hiking or if I’m getting a fever. I’m exhausted.

In our room, we read for a bit, and at 5:30, we go downstairs to the dining room to order a small pot of tea and Dal Bhaat. We sit at the table with a heater under it, and I hunker down next to Joshua, cold, tired, and sore. Fortunately, not long after we’ve sat down, the proprietor comes over and puts some hot coals into the heater. A Dutch couple spy the source of warmth and head over to the huge table. We begin to warm up.

Our Dal Bhaat comes and we eat everything, including seconds. Ian, a Canadian from Vancouver Island, comes over to join us, and we introduce ourselves to Vincent and Marina, the couple from Holland. Ian’s disgusted with the hotel and its service, and his companions – two other men from Vancouver Island – are loudly complaining about their faulty showers, no hot water, and their hard beds. Vincent and Marina don’t seem quite as dissatisfied, and we all talk a little bit about our trek so far. Like us, Ian and his buddies have been hiking the Circuit for 12 days. They crossed Thorung La on the same day that we did. Marina and Vincent have been hiking for 10 days. They get bored if they get into the guest houses too early, so they’ve done some longer days. They made it over the pass the day after us, and although we had suspected that the trail would be impossibly slippy after the snowfall, apparently it was clear and they had had incredible views.

Taking out their camera, Marina and Vincent showed us a sequence of incredible photos they had taken in Upper Pisang a few days ago. An enormous avalanche had come down from Annapurna II, and the plume of snow had been so big and strong that it had come all the way across the river valley and up to their guest house. One of the photos looked like night had fallen, and there was a bunch on snow in the air. The photos were crazy; I told them – in all seriousness – that they should submit them to National Geographic. They had it all: a series of six or seven photos that showed the beginning, middle, and end of the most enormous avalanche.

Ian’s grouchy companions came over to sit down, and while we finished our pot of tea, they told us a little bit about the beautiful island they live on. ‘It’s the only place where you can go skiing, fish, and play golf all in the same day,’ said Scott, who was particularly disgruntled about his shower head. One of them asked where we were from, and Ian said, ‘they’re Minnesotan,’ with a note of certainty. We laughed. How did he know? He could just tell, he said.

We finished our pot of tea. I was feeling sicker and sicker, so we headed off to bed, even though it was only 6:30. In our room, Joshua and I squished onto the same twin-size mattress, and while Joshua read, I 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!