Nepal 10

Day 19, 20, 21 – Pokhara to Katmandu

We spent 2 relaxing days in Pokhara and  I was looking forward to dinners and lounging in the many chairs overlooking the lake.  Two sunsets were spent at a family bakery with a small balcony in the upstairs.  The baked goods are known, by locals and tourists alike, for their great taste and generous portions and each visit offered spontaneous interactions with fellow travelers.  First with an aging couple who seemed completely at peace with themselves.  I could see myself as an elderly man and realized that a steady decline in attitude and unchecked anxiety could make me a very unpleasant old crab.  Second was with and American/Spanish couple with a variety of experiences.  We enjoyed the sunset together and could have talked for hours.  The most interesting interaction however was our climax of experiences with the “Pokahrians,” at what seemed to be their meeting hall, the Tabi Restaurant.  This place is run purely on weed smoke and the entire encounter lost it’s endearment the moment we sat down.  We knew this wasn’t our scene but the place had been recommended on a number of occasions so we decided to endure.  The first waitress promised menu’s after a few minutes of us waiting but on her walk back towards the kitchen, someone handed her a joint and she must have forgot us.  Eventually 2 hand-drawn menu/ note-books arrived from another waiter and I wanted to contribute a picture to the collection (we had a lot of time to wait).  The other staff had joined up with our original hostess so I decided to add something small without asking, “no harm here,” I thought.  Upon seeing me drawing on his return the guy about flipped but then reigned it in with “O man please don’t write on the menus.  We use the extra paper for… stuff.”  Who knows.  The food came and it was so-so.  The only real benefit to this visit was the realization that stoners of this breed are basically useless and I am well beyond any romanticisms of the life-style. **There were no Nepalese staff or guests at this establishment.  We have had such success with Nepali hospitality and service that I would have liked to use my money at a place run and owned by locals.  The most disappointing part of the encounter was that we gave our money to these apparent nobodies.

It was a wasted evening because we were so uncomfortable we couldn’t even chat but the following day brought us an odd gift in the form of a “strike” or Bandha.  It forced us to stay an extra day and see a new side of the city.  It is unclear who initiates or why a Bandha actually takes place but the affect is that all motorized transport must halt, the electricity is turned off and shops not related to tourism must remain closed, COUNTRY WIDE.  The riot police were on main street corners in full regalia, sitting relaxed chatting and smoking, to enforce the Bandha. Today those who are caught driving or working are fined? (I suppose), but in the past were simply shot (by Maoists).   This day was apparently an election and the strike was government enforced to stop movement and organizing of the people.  We noticed an increase in Maoist flags and a few clusters of people organized in the streets but didn’t get to speak to any locals.  The political situation in Nepal is well beyond my comprehension but from what I have seen and read, there is no hint of “by the people, for the people.”  For tourists and children (schools closed as well!)  this day would seem like a street holiday.  With no horns blaring and the streets clear, bikes and soccer games can be seen up and down the usually congested roads.  Rachel and I took the opportunity to rent  rickety old bikes and tour the city outside of our comfy “tourist camp.”  My knees may be a bit tender from rusty chains but the ride was enjoyable.  Children safe on the streets, helicopters taking off, and some grazing buffalo eating garbage were just a few of the sites.  At lunch we met Jonathan from France/Israel and had a lengthy discussion, followed by dinner overlooking the lake and a clear sky with shining stars for a nice send-off meal.  We said good-bye to Kolpana and her comfortable beds in the morning and made it for Katmandu, leaving Pokhara behind.  Well almost, 2 Pokharian British girls, Cheech-ina and Chong-et, sat behind up stoned and jabbering the entire way.  What they said was unintelligible aside from one laughing like she was asphyxiating and the other repeatedly affirming her friend with “yea, yea, yea!”  Damn stoners.

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Nepal 9

Day 18  by bus – Ghasa to Beni (4 hours/ 350 Rupees) to Pokhara (4 hours/ 240 Rupees)

After rushing to the bus station to make it before the buses’ departure time of seven, we waited an hour and a half for the driver to finally get on the bus.  He seemed to be waiting for a few more passenger but there only ended up being four of us to depart.  By 830 we set off mostly empty which ensured the light weight bus took extra air on each bump.  Passenger were picked up along the way but the bumps and curves never ceased.  More than a few of the young passengers (and a couple old) vomited in, on, and around the moving bus.  Rice seemed to be the staple of everyones breakfast this morning.  About 2 hours in it was time to pay for the ride.  We had heard the night before it should be around 700 rupees for the pair and were relieved when this was what Assistant 1 asked for in payment.  But as usual Assistant 2, an overweight slime-ball in a bright orange puffy coat/vest, asked us for 100 rupee more.   His insistence made me chuckle and I pacified him with a promise to pay the rest upon arrival in Beni.  As we unloaded, he continued to persist with outstretched hand and confident entireties, until we lost him in a restaurant and his driver began leave.  He may have convinced me of my extra fee had a) Assistant 1 had not told me the proper price initially and b) his markup didn’t go from “60, no 80, no no 100.”  It is a traveler’s joy to know with certainty that someone is attempting a rip-off, then to successfully and with a smile tell them to F*** off. (especially when the shyster is wearing an orange puffy vest!!)

The ride from Beni to Pokhara was on a larger bus and paved road.  The assistant was overly kind, spoke English well, and let on a man with a hand crafted 4 string “violin,” who played an Irish sounding tune for tips.  We were more than happy to donate 20 Rs. for his welcome enhancement to the trip. (I even woke rachel from a nap to hear  the live “concert” that we have been missing for so long)  We got out a bit early and walked 30 minutes to the Lakeside tourist area and actually met Mark walking down the sidewalk, looking amazingly clean and showered.  He guided us to our hotel and we eagerly took our first hot and full pressure shower in weeks.  Later we met for pizza and devoured our long awaited feast in Pokhara.  We will spend the next 2 days and nights here before heading to Katmandu eating and relaxing in what we now affectionally call “Pokharia” (an allusion to Portlandia).  This name comes from the funny mix of far-out tourists who are on their way, or just coming back from too much time in India or too much time rolling their next joint.

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Nepal 8

Day 17 Larjung to Lete/ Lete to Ghasa

This morning was a fairly tale in stone.  The quiet of nature was enormous and I was sucked into the vividness of the moment.  The paths are of stone lined with green moses and lichen then topped with loose dirt and cow dung.  To the left large boulders and small rocks cling to the side overgrown with weeds, hanging grasses and plants of various sizes.  All homes are built of the same stone and colorful windowpane inserts.  At first glance it is difficult to distinguish these homes from the terrain, giving the impression of permanence and establishing it’s right to be here.  The only objects which seem out of place are the electrical wires and we hikers, attempting not to pierce through the peacefulness.  Above on large stone ledges chickens poke their heads up and over to peer down at us.  Ahead moss grows up both the northern wall of a home and a tree which stands beside.  To the right a low river flows strong enough to produce a steady drone.  Rhododendrons shine red on the hills in the distance, and nearby wild strawberries overtake a retaining wall.  In these moments I am in need or want of nothing but to be entirely here.  My mind wonders then to a childhood never lived and a stone playhouse constructed into the side of a forested hill.  A simple wooden table in the corner to lay a sleeping bag and reading candle, a roof of local timber.  A solitude earned by someone willing to build their own dwelling from the earth, the same earth it was built upon.  Near the end of the path, just before the bridge, two mountain bikers race by and break the spell.  We take a seat at the head of the bridge and rest, the sun shining warm upon my face.  I am happy and thankful for the inner peace of those last few moments and hours that were granted me.

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Leaving Lete after lunch the bird song turned to warnings.  From behind dark clouds raced and belched thunder over the mountain tops and into our backs.  We had already entered the gap between us and Ghasa, leaving no option but to continue forward.  As the clouds reached the peaks to our front, sealing us in, the rain began to pour.  With a small rocky overhang for temporary asylum we donned our rain gear and walked on.  The lightening began to flicker when we reached a single home with a porch and refuge, then the heaviest of the downpour set in.  We sipped our over-priced and weak milk tea until the storm abated (the last few days and the farther from the pass we have traveled the more penny pinching and cut-throat over prices yet less hospitable the locals have become.  This could be caused by varying factors including desperation from lack of hikers, different tribes with different customs, and/or simply arriving on a bad day).  We set out again into a drizzle and finally reached Ghasa after about 30 minutes.  We didn’t enter our hotel for another hour however because prices here are higher than even 3 days ago and only 1 in 3 hotels were open, negotiations got us little … seems to be another town turning into a ghost.  But still in the distance larger hotels are being built, why?  Now I am almost certain the days of the trekker in Annapurna are coming to an end and what is left will be handed over to those arriving by bus.  Tomorrow morning Rachel and I continue by bus to Beni (4 hrs) then another to Pokhara (3/4 hrs).  We are tired and have had enough of these ghost towns.

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Nepal 7

Day 16 Marpha to Larjung

It’s a return to the pines and a very pleasant hike for our morning.  From Marpha, after passing Mark squished in the back of his bus (of course leaving an hour late), we took the alternate trail through a level and 5 sensory path; lush greens and mountainous views, birds chirping and streams babbling, pine and juniper smell fresh in the air and on the lips, and soft earth underfoot.  We took this until the branch towards Sauru which would have added 3-4 hours to the trip.  The guide says it is a nice route but due to lack of motivation and soreness of feet we decided to cross back over the Kali Gandaki and take the 30 minute road walk to Tukuche.  Here we took a brunch of veggie soup and stayed on the road again towards Larjung.  The river bed is fairly dry now so vehicles tended to stay on this, leaving the road mostly to us trekkers.  Unfortunately the strong winds of yesterday afternoon returned to harass our faces.  The road wound in and out to keep us sheltered much of the way and the hour to Larjung was enjoyable enough.  Clouds rolled in as we entered this very sleepy and less traveled village (most people now take buses from Jomsom or Marpha to Pokhara, avoiding the road trek altogether) and with little mental motivation to continue, decided to stay for the evening at only 1230.  The quietness of the village and desperation for business was a bit unsettling but we are resigned to sip tea the rest of our day and continue to Ghasa in the morning.

Note: Along the trail we met a group of older hikers, the eldest 73.  This sparked a conversation of the elderly we had each met during our previous travels.  Some were runners, some bikers, some swimmers and most well into their 70’s and still going strong with no signs of abating.  When asked how they maintained their health and drive at such an old age one unretired responded, “You just never stop.”

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Nepal 6

Day 14 Kagbeni No Movement

We pulled out Greg’s Nepalese phrase book to order breakfast, ‘Alu Phul’ for potato egg (omelete) and the results were unsurprisingly delicious.  After scanning the phrase book a bit longer, bit of practice pronunciation and a few awkward attempts I was able to tell the woman “your house cat is big and likes to eat.”  Which makes sense if you could experience the constant meowing of the behemoth feline when any food is being prepared or eaten.  After tea Greg and Mark walked the 30 minutes to Tiri, which upon return they said was so-so but offered nice views of the Mustang Gompa and a peaceful atmosphere.  Rachel and I opted for a short nap and reading then laundry in the stream just outside of our hotel.  We became a spectacle for the locals and were even filmed by a Nepalese tourist who was curious about our uncharacteristic activities for foreigners.  After a few days of walking and no real responsibility we were both craving some form of chore. The process of manually washing clothes in a stream was very fulfilling.  Buddhism is very much about service and freedom through work  and I have begun to feel the comfort that a routine of chores and simple living brings.  Sweeping the floors, collecting water, cooking food, doing the dishes, tending the livestock, or the myriad of duties we see performed daily may not bring enlightenment alone but a lack of idleness in daily living seems a beneficial method to contentment.  Rachel and I then took a stroll around this very charming and alive city to photograph and soak in it’s high narrow stone corridors and get in step with the slowness of it’s ancient energy.  Hotels are being built and it is easy to understand why people want to visit but I feel lucky to have arrived before the tour bus travelers have made their way in.  A true sense of “awayness” is rare upon this trail and as we sit watching the cows pass near and the mini-tour buses pass at even intervals on the far road, I know that the feeling grows more distant daily.

Tonight I will order Dal Baht and allow our Tibetan/ Nepalese host to cook in confidence as this is a dish she has surely been making long before I was born.  The woman, who again speaks no English and is unsure of the spagetti dishes we ordered yesterday, has been doing her best and doing well.  Making us comfortable and at home with every gesture of hospitality.  When confusions arise with food she simply calls her son who speaks perfect English and we explain our orders to him.  It’s a system we all find endearing and has forced us to learn a bit of Nepalese.  Tonight is our last meal and she has been so gracious, we would like to give her the easiest orders possible.  We are also excited to taste her version of Dal Baht which varies at each new destination.  Most chefs have a secret to their best dishes and we presume this woman has a few of her own.

Day 15 Kagbeni to Marpha 2670 m / 8759 ft

Of course our breakfast was phenomenal.  Rachel and I split an onion and potato omelete and vegetable Thukpa soup.  Then the “Snow Lion’s” true kindness shown through when it came to pay the bill.  She simply handed us a menu and let us name our own price for the 2 days of our stay. It was easy to over estimate the stay’s value and we each parted ways feeling happy.  The next stop was the large city of Jomsom and all the literature suggests that the trail there is treacherous from wind after 10/11 am.  We got an early start on the rocky, flat, and barren riverbed then right on time at 1015 the winds started to pickup. With face masks to protect from the dust we pushed on.  Luckily we were close to Jomsom for a long lunch of Mo-mos and friend potatoes.  We set off again on the rerouted trail east of the Kali Gandaki river.  This route began enjoyably and was through a few small villages but after 2 hours of up and down hiking we could still see Jomsom in the not-so-distance.  Aggravation led us back down across the river and along the road to cut the remaining time with increasing head winds in half.  With wind burnt faces we finally arrived in Marpha and at the hotel ordered a round of the famous Marpha Apple Brandy.  Not the most delicious spirit but our faces were then red from wind And moonshine making it easy to mow into our big plates of homemade lasagna.  Marpha is a town with character and the prices have drastically decreased but sadly our party of 4 will begin to part way.  After breakfast in the morning Mark with catch a bust to Pokhara and the 3 of us remaining with walk to Beni.

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Nepal 5

Day 13 Muktinath to Kagbeni 2800 m / 9186 ft

This day saw us in 3 unique and beautiful terrains.  We decided to take the 19 km hike off the main road through the town of Jhong.

After dinner yesterday evening the snow began to fall. Although not a welcome sight to those on the pass, the snow cover in the morning was  like walking through a new and beautified city for us.  All the trees and bushes were glistening white and the hills in the distance bright beacons.  This was the first fresh snow I have seen in 2 years and the effect was calming.  As we left Muktinath we encountered a series of small stone villages and filled our cameras anew.  This second terrain of villages and hamlets was rustic and well worth the detour to stay off the main road.  As we left these last patches of trees the immense bareness and erosion that is haunting so much of Nepal began and stayed with us for the next 2.5 hours of the hike.  The winds increased to blistering levels and all around us lay rocks and gravel.  The snow capped mountains in the distance only highlighted the surrounding infertility.  The last bit of downhill was through a tunnel of wind eroded cliff and with winds so high the whistle on my bag strap began to sing.  We had finally made it to the stone city of Kagbeni, filled with newly built hotels for tourism by bus.  We luckily found a”homey” hotel in the Snow Lion & Dancing Yak, where the woman working spoke no English and has treated us as honored guests of her home.  She served us tea and popcorn after inviting us to watch her small TV and has made us feel nothing but comfortable.  Tomorrow will be another rest day with the chance of a short hike to the town of Tiri (only Greg and Mark did this and only semi-impressed).  Or we will fill our day exploring the labyrinth lanes that is Kagbeni.

Note: After crossing the pass we expected a large drop in prices due to the road from Muktinath to Pokhara.  But in some cases we have found they are the same or even higher than the high altitude, minimum access, hotels.  All are still confused on how this could be but with a little searching and distance from the larger commercial looking hotels we have found some reasonable prices.  The Snow Lion was a delightful surprise with low prices, neatly painted mud walls, high ceilings, and a very sweet & friendly host.  It is clear that the older establishments are trying to keep up and refurbish themselves but I am afraid the hotel Goliaths will be drawing in the big crowds.  Visitors seem unable to part with creature comforts and cup cakes; the character, quaintness, and budget prices of these humble hotels may not be enough to keep them in business.

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Nepal 4

Day 10  Yah Kharka to Lattar 4200 m/ 13,779 ft

A Day of Rest.  I still rose this morning around 630 but with no real walking to do I stayed in bed reading Matthiessen’s “Snow Leopard”.   Around 715 the sun began to shine on the mountains and I go a nice picture of our view from the room, just above Rachel nestled into a sleeping bag and 3 blankets.  After a slow breakfast Rachel and I set off for the 1 hour/ 1 km walk to Lattar while Greg and Mark rested a bit longer.  Most are eager for this day of rest and could have settled for no hiking at all, but I have the urge for a short hike and an increase in elevation to aid in climatization.  We reached Lattar easily and found a much more friendly hotel with a window lined dining area to soak up the days heat.  Napping and reading are easily accomplished on the padded benches and afternoon sunshine.  I may even have a chance to fully charge my portable solar panel and see what it can really do.  We again negotiated a free room with the agreement that all of our meals are taken here.  We have not paid for a room since our first night due to the current lull in tourists on the trail but today was a much harder deal.  The owner eventually ceded but was adamant that we keep our deal secret from arriving guests, most will pay 200 Rupees for their room.  Tomorrow we will attempt to make high camp, just before the pass, and go for the big 8 hour push the following day.  Our bodies are beginning to feel the altitude more prominently, not with the more dangerous signs of altitude sickness, but with slight stomach aches, excessive gas after meals, and sore joints.  The only remedy we know is ultra-hydration and successfully making it down to the other side and lower elevation.

Day 11 High Base Camp 4900 m/ 16,076 ft

We are up and feeling high.  The air is thin, the head is getting light and it is a fun natural high.  Lattar to Thorang Phedi was a nice 2.5 hour hike through rocky cliffs on loose shale paths.  From Phedi it was up, up, up, for an hour to base camp.  The path was cool/chilly and as we got higher risk of slippage on ice increased, rocks flew passed our heads as mischievous birds played on ledges above, and to the left an invisible bird of prey made it’s occasional call.  We have reached the camp, now having to pay for a room with only one option of lodging. But the blankets are thick , we can stay hydrated drinking bottle after bottle of water, and we eat a bounty of food from the only, yet delicious, restaurant here.  The views from the glass wall dining area are white, craggy mountains.  Everyone is in high spirits (and little loopy and giggly) and the food is better than usual.  For lunch Rachel had homemade pasta with tomato cheese sauce and I has onion/garlic soup with tibetan bread and ginger tea.  (my meal in particular is especially good for fending off altitude sickness).  The prices are right here even though we are so high and we plan to make an early push, 5 or 6 am, tomorrow for the 8 hour day that lays ahead.  The trail to the toilets is through mounds of snow to our hips but we must still chug water.

Day 12 High Camp to ThrongLa Pass 5400 m/17,716 ft                                                                                    to Muktinath 3800 m/12,467 ft

We were off this morning at 630 and done by 3 pm.  It was a full day and the most strenuous yet. (Do you see the pattern?)  Up to the pass we encountered snow filled, breezy, and freezing conditions.  Gloves and face covers were necessary for the entirety of the morning.  There were people jams in the beginning with some ahead of us getting worked over by the altitude and steep paths (we saw no one go down hard or any evacuated, although it is known to happen).  Our group took few breaks but stayed slow and steady on “the chili walk” and Rachel set our pace most of the way.  Focusing on my breathing and singing my repetitive song, the top of the pass was a surprisingly quick 2.5 hours.  We took our pictures and I devoured the Nutrageous I had been carrying since Katmandu to celebrate.  We started our descent, without tea from the little shop up there, just as altitude headaches set in.  The difficulties of the day came mostly from this arduous 5 hour, 5, 249 foot, descent over snowy/slippery then muddy/rocky trails.   We took many breaks as fatigue and headaches increased and it took a lot of focus to keep from sliding off some of the narrow trails and steep cliffs.  The afternoon sun was warming but made for dangerous terrain as the snow melted, Mark and I both taking spills in the slush. (only funny now, infuriating then).  Our knees and backs were again tested but the lower we descended the more our bodies eased.  The sight of Muktinath from atop a ridge raised spirits and then the town of Charabu at 4230 m provided us with a celebratory tea.  Refreshed, we completed the final flat yet rocky path to Muktinath.  We all now await the more official celebratory Gorkah beer in our clean clothes after the only truly hot shower in 12 days.  CHEERS!

~Altitude Induced Song~

I lost my hands on the Annapurna / It’s just too damn cold   x3                                                               I lost my feet on the Annapurna / It’s just too damn cold   x3                                                                     I lost my mind on the Annapurna / I’ll never find my way home   x3

I followed my baby on the Annapurna / I hope I don’t get burned   x3                                                I brought my friends on the Annapurna /  But they ain’t friends no more x3                                    I lost my breath on the Annapurna / But still I sing this song   x3

ThrongLa Pass 5400 m

ThrongLa Pass 5400 m


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