Monday, December 31, 2007

Annapurna Circuit: 12-14

Day 12
Muktinath to Marpha (Elevation 2570)


Clouds blocking out the sun over the Trans Himalaya high dessert

We had been convincing ourselves for days that things could only get progressively warmer after the pass and we have very high hopes. Soon we could take our wool hats off, don T-shirts, and lose those crusty pairs of thermal underwear we had been wearing for the last week. Alas, last night was still cold and today no better. Clouds hang over the whole Mustang valley blocking our view and the sun leaving us once again with unusually cold weather. Mahesh tells us that it is snowing up at the pass right now blocking safe passage- a remark which was later confirmed to me by a Scotsman who attempted to make the pass despite the bad weather. It seems as though I defended my PhD just in time- a day or two later and we wouldn't have made it !

Our plan today is to start early and make it to Marpha before noon. Later than this and we get caught in the heavy winds that regularly blow through the valley. Our plan, of course, is foiled by the cold weather which causes the winds to pick up earlier in the day. We are caught with the full force of it. It makes for some pretty unpleasant walking but we manage to make it to the town of Jomsom where we stop to have lunch.


Nepali school girls in uniform

The villages on this side of the pass, and Jomsom in particular, are very luxurious compared with where we had come from. Furthermore, there are many more trekkers here owing to the airport in Jomsom and its proximity to the city of Pokhara. Many people simply fly in from Pokhara and walk back down to avoid the exertion of high altitude climbs while enjoying some spectacular scenery. Both for the large number of apples and American tourists, this portion of our trek is often called the "apple pie trail" referring to the tasty desert catered at most lodges. At Jomsom, Katlijn and I are both able to order a chicken schnitzel with fries as a reward for walking through the wind.

We arrive in Marpha later in the day, still cold, still wearing that crusty thermal underwear. The power is out and there is no hot water. The hotel owner puts some coals underneath the dining table and we all sit around it roasting our legs and drinking some delicious local apple brandy to stay warm (there is a distillery just outside of town). With this cozy arrangement, we play cards with Mahesh and Vishnu. They teach us some Nepali card games while we teach them both the game and the word "bullshit" which they begin to use with regularly from now on. Mahesh would start by saying to Vishnu mockingly, "There warm showers at Lower Pisang." Vishnu would pause for dramatic effect and then reply slowly, "Booool-sheeeeet" to which they would both laugh uproariously. Katlijn looked a bit uneasy.

Andrew demonstrating the bucket system.

Day 13
Marpha to Ghasa (Elevation 2010)


The small business caste of the Thakali people living here line their roof tops with stacks of firewood. According to our guide, these stacks are a demonstration of wealth.

We are disappointed again the next morning when we look outside: icicles hanging off the ledge and a thick layer of clouds. The morning begins with a soft, gentle romantic snow but naturally this culminates into a full blown snow storm by the time we are halfway through the day's hike. It is like yesterday's winds, but colder, stronger, and mixed with a dense snowy precipitation making it impossible to even look up. Sunglasses are needed, not to block the sun's UV rays which I thought I would never see again, but as a kind of eye protection against bits of ice and snow. Safety pins are needed to keep that damn North Fake jacket closed.

Not only is it cold and unpleasant, but it is disconcertingly quiet and lonely. Nobody in their right mind is still walking through this- we are the only trekkers out there. At some point, I see a lone jeep coming towards us silently off in the distance. When it arrives, the British guy we met back in Muktinath opens the window and gives me two big thumbs up. As they pass by us, I see the beady eyes of the Korean Himalaya Woman, wrapped in her Eskimo outfit and fluffy ear muffs, peering at me behind her thick scarf out the back window, her arms raised as far as her snow suit allows waving a kind of "goodbye". Then the jeep vanishes and we are by ourselves again with only the snow and the sound of it blowing past us.

We trudge slowly onwards against the frigid wind for several hours and I can't stop thinking of those Tibetans up at the High Camp probably sitting there right now, cross-legged around a smoky piece of yak shit thinking, gosh, it's not quite as cozy as a log fire but I'm sure as hell glad I'm not walking out in that ! At times like these, it seems only natural that I have to go to the bathroom and I spend a long and uncomfortable period of time considering the various desperate possibilities available to me. Eventually, we come across a town where I ask Mahesh to enquire the owners of a small home if I can use their bathroom. A chilling sense of deja vu washes over me.

The old crone leads me to her barn. We navigate our way around the chickens. She makes a path through the goats and beckons me to go with her. She motions at me to step over her buffalo to a small wooden shack with a hole in the ground. As I crouch down, I feel instantly relieved. I'm not sick. There is nobody cooking dhal baat outside the door. I didn't even get attacked by an alpha rooster on the way in. I think I made it, so I get up and push on the door.
It's locked.

"Excuse me !" I cry out, "Excuse me ?", hoping my faint voice will carry through several layers of down, fleece, and wool- a faint echo above the howling winds.

After 10 minutes I start to get seriously cold and begin thinking about Mahesh' comments regarding people dying over night due to exposure to the cold. I wonder just how many tourists they find every year, frozen to death and forgotten, locked in the back of some Tibetan's bathroom. Is this how it is going to be then ? Freezing to death over a crouch toilet in the back of this barn ? It somehow seemed like a fitting conclusion to my Annapurna experience.

Just before I am about to enact a daring getaway that involves dangerously scaling the outhouse walls and walking out on their rooftops, Mahesh comes to my rescue. Within a few hours, the weather improves and we arrive safely at a small lodge in Ghasa.


Andrew turning Tibetan prayer wheels shortly after the snow storm and his
embarrassing brush with death.


Day 14
Ghasa to Tatopani (Elevation 1190)

View of the Kali Gandaki valley we follow down to Tatopani. Nestled between mountains higher than 8000 meters, it is the world's deepest valley- nearly 6 km deep and 36 km wide.

Nepali people love to take a crack at foreign foods and I was impressed to see Japanese Okonomiyaki on the breakfast menu this morning. It's actually a pretty good imitation, though it lacks Okonomiyaki sauce which sort of defeats the purpose.

It's an easy walk down the valley to a place called "Tatopani". "Tato" means "hot" and "pani" means "water", and the name refers to a nearby hot spring. A hot spring, I might add, that is about the best thing that has happened to us in the last two weeks. Forget the pine forests, the barren alpine scenery, the cold high dessert, this place looks like a club-med tropical paradise. There are bananas and oranges which you can literally pick off the trees for free from the lodge gardens.
Katlijn nicks a few oranges off the tree.
In short, Tatopani turns out to be a small miracle. How can it possibly be that we were slogging through a snow storm yesterday ? Here we have warm weather, fresh fruit juice, and some kick-ass banana milkshakes, not to mention the amazing healing properties of natural hot springs on two weeks worth of sore muscles. Finally, we are able get rid of those crusty thermal underwear.
Himalayan conquest.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Annapurna Circuit: Day 8-11

Day 8
Acclimatization in Manang (Elevation 3570)

It's Sinter Klaas Day in the Himalaya !

To avoid altitude sickness, we need to spend a day acclimatizing at Manang. This also allows us the possibility to do a little laundry, access the internet, and stock up on Snickers bars before the final push over the Thorung La pass waiting for us 2000 meters higher. Mahesh tells us that we should enjoy the luxuries of Manang now since the higher elevation lodges are pretty basic. He adds that we will need to use the bucket “system” after today. It is unclear at this point whether he is referring to the shower or the toilet facilities.


The variegated diet of the Tibetan people.

The nighttime temperature in Manang regularly dips below 20 degrees Celsius. Mahesh tells us that people caught exposed in the night will freeze to death. Bundled in my thermal underwear, a wool hat, a heavy down sleeping bag geared for extreme cold, together with a fleece lining, I can say that I would be moderately comfortable if not for the inadequate foam mattress which causing me to periodically turn over taking turns numbing different sides of my body. Unfortunately, all-weather sleeping bags do not take into account night-time toilet runs- something my body seems to need frequently at this altitude given the vast quantities of dhal baat I am consuming. Dhal baat, in my personal experience, is a natural night-time laxative. Every night I am forced to ask myself the same vexing question: do I really need to go to the bathroom badly enough to get out of this sleeping bag, spend several frantic minute fumbling around the room in a desperate search for the toilet paper, dash outside and across the field to the nearest toilet, and then crouch down and expose my bare bottom to the freezing elements ? Unfortunately, after long and uncomfortable deliberation, the answer is always affirmative.

Frozen tap water.



At about 8.30 in the morning, we can hear Mahesh coming to wake us up. Mahesh always gives us plenty of warning by singing a gentle melody. His voice grows gradually stronger as he approach until there is a sudden silence followed by a softly spoken, “Excuse me ?“ which is my cue to get up and return circulation to whatever side of my body I was lying on. Even on the trail, Mahesh normally carries a barely audible hum. When rounding a bend, he gives a soft whistle on the off chance we might startle somebody unseen around the corner. We like his gentle and unassuming nature.



Andrew marvelling at his frozen laundry.

The sun is very powerful at this altitude making a palpable temperature difference every time you walk into the shadow. Since there is no heating in Manang, a row of shopkeepers along the street can be seen each morning sitting outside their stores in the sun because it is too cold to sit underneath the shadow inside. We quickly adapt to the local customs, apply some sunscreen, and enjoy a hardy fried eggs and hash brown breakfast while soaking in the powerful rays.


Gunga Purna Glacier spilling down the mountain side. Evidence of glacier erosion can be seen throughout the Himalaya in large displaced boulders and smoothed rock surfaces.


Following the old climbers adage of “climb high, sleep low” to aid the acclimatization process, we hike up a few hundred meters above Manang to an excellent view point of the gorgeous Gunga Purna Glacier cascading down between Annapurna IV and Gunga Purna peak feeding a small turquoise lake below. Over night, the surface of the lake freezes over and we can hear it cracking in the sun as we march to the top.



Katlijn chillin' near Gunga Purna.

Along the way, we catch a rare glimpse of a small dear near the lookout point which, judging by the elevation and the description in my book, is likely an endangered musk deer. Perhaps more impressive, we catch our first glimpses of the legendary Korean Himalaya Woman and her entourage:

- 10 porters literally carrying buckets of kimchi on their backs
- 1 Korean Chef
- 1 Korean/Nepali guide
- 2 young Nepali boys holding her hand whose actual function we often speculate over while gossiping around the fire.

At least she is doing her part to keep the mountain economy going. We have never actually seen or heard her, but only barely discern two beady eyes peering from behind a scarf, an enormous Eskimo jacket, and big fluffy ear muffs. She looks a bit like Kenny from South Park.


The district capital of Manang camouflaged against its harsh environment.



We get back in the early afternoon and I spend the day taking pictures of the Tibetan people and architecture around the village while Katlijn relaxes with a book. Being low-season, we enjoy the entire hotel to ourselves.


Tibetan prayer flags waving atop stone houses.



Day 9
Manang to Letdar (Elevation 4250 meters)

The human body needs time to develop physiological mechanisms to cope with the decreased oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. This process of acclimatisation is still not fully understood. Acute Mountain Sickness is a potentially fatal condition.

Mahesh gets us up early the next morning for the day's hike forcing us to bid a fond farewell to the comforts of Manang. The pine vegetation grows gradually thinner and finally disappears as we climb above the tree line leaving only small shrubs that can survive in the high dry climate here. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of rare mountain Ghorels grazing near the path.


Frozen waterfall.


To avoid altitude sickness, it is important not to gain too much altitude in one day so we have only a short four hour walk and gain about 700 more meters. Nevertheless, this doesn't prevent me from developing a painful headache. To make matters worse, Mahesh doesn't want me to sleep it off because he says I'll have more trouble falling asleep at night- another physiological effect of the body's acclimatization process. Instead, he suggests I eat some garlic soup which is the local remedy for altitude sickness.


Tibetans planting garlic, one of the few crops that grows at this altitude easily, and also a prominent ingredient in the local cuisine.

Regardless of its medicinal properties, garlic appears to be the ingredient of choice among the Tibetans living here. In general, it is chopped, grated, and roasted into all sorts of foods in such copious amounts as to render it utterly inedible. The fact that my soup was actually dubbed "garlic" by the Tibetan people should have been a clear warning for travellers to stay away, but I decide to give it a try. I slowly spoon down the whole bowl like a bad medicine. While my headache does indeed disappear, the soup's odor could still be sensed lingering on my breath for days.

While I recover from my headache, Katlijn talks with the Dutch couple. The older mother is afraid she won't make the Thorung La pass and so rented a horse from Manang allowing her to go faster. Rose, her physically fit daughter, has no signs of altitude sickness and wants to make the pass in one day- a feat normally accomplished in two days. According to our guide, making the pass from Letdar is not possible, but this does not deter them whatsoever. Later, our guide reveals that their porter and the horse trainer are aware of this and have planned from the beginning to take them to a shabby, ice-cold tea house just below the pass as soon as they realize they can't make it before daybreak. Naturally, this tea house is owned by the horse trainer and the porter will take part of the profits.

Today was my first introduction to the Tibetans' very own variation on the fire system. You may have wondered how the Tibetans can possibly stay warm at night above the tree line with the complete absence of fire wood. Their solution is to pack a large storage closet full of sacks of perfectly round yak turds. Two or three of these yak paddies are placed in a small oven and set on fire giving off a surprising amount of heat while filling the cabin full of a choking yak dung haze. It is definitely as effective as a log fire, though it certainly lacks the cozy ambiance.

It is so cold at night that the bathroom water bucket is frozen solid sending me to their backup toilet- a tiny outhouse of unspeakable filth. I come back and nestle my way between the Himalaya Woman and her large entourage of porters, chefs, and translators all huddled, shoulder to shoulder, around three chunks of smouldering yak feces. It occurs to me that maybe a Thai beach wouldn't be so bad after all.

Day 10
Letdar to High Camp (Elevation 4900 meters)

We wake up early the next morning and I am pleasantly surprised to find that my headache is gone and I'm able to climb higher. We see the Dutch couple leave at about 7 AM which is much too late to make the pass- Rose tells us the horse trainer took a very long time to prepare the horse causing their delay.

We are in very high spirits today as we enjoy another gorgeous hike in beautiful weather. While the temperature is bitterly cold at night, it is surprisingly comfortable to walk in during the day as long as we are in the sunshine. Along the way, we see a few forlorn travellers returning, pale faced and sick, to lower elevation. They had to go back down to Manang and recover from altitude sickness. Perhaps they will be able to try again in a few days if the weather holds. We stop at a village called Phedi and have lunch with Evan, the Canadian biologist from Nelson. We discuss what luxuries we miss most. For Katlijn, it is a bag of green hula-hoops and a pack of Fruitella. I want a good dark Belgian beer which would be the perfect Himalayan fire side companion. Nepali beer, by the way, is always of the lager variety and actually pretty good. The best brand is Everest which is quite a satisfying ice beer. Beer and whisky are available at all lodges even at higher elevations. However, like everything else, it all has to be brought up on the back of some poor porter making it unaffordable on our budget. In general, the price of all food and water inflates with altitude making tonight's destination the most expensive lodge in the Annapurna.

After lunch, neither of us are showing any signs of altitude sickness so Mahesh suggests we continue further up to the High Camp at an elevation of 4900 meters. This entails a steep 1 hour climb which will shorten tomorrow's final scramble over Thorong La. This is the first time during our trip where we start to really feel the lack of oxygen in the air. We have to make frequent stops to catch our breath and walk at a frustratingly slow pace. At this rate, it seems like we are making absolutely no progress at all, so it is surprising to see Phedi growing gradually smaller as the High Camp comes within view. Finally, we arrive. The sky is perfectly clear, I only have a mild headache, and we are confident we will make the pass. The Korean Himalaya Woman is with us too and she shares a little Nakchi with me to celebrate.

Seven ways to use a yak


Forget what you have read about Tibetan spiritualism and the Dalai Lama. In fact, Tibetans are actually avid yak herders ! Yaks are considered one of the most useful animals in the the world and are one of the only bovines that can live easily at high altitudes. Here are seven practical ways you can use a yak:
  1. Yak burgers.
  2. Yak butter, milk and especially yak cheese which is surprisingly tasty (actually should be called "Nak" cheese).
  3. Yak fur is commonly used in clothing and in shelters.
  4. Yak dung is a fuel forheating and cooking.
  5. Yak dung is also a fertilizer.
  6. Yaks are powerful beasts of burden.
  7. Yak spinal cords are an effective contraceptive.

Day 11

High Camp over Thorung La (Elevation 5416 meters) to Muktinath (Elevation 3710 meters)

Katlijn and I spend the entire night tossing and turning- contorting our bodies, sleeping bags, and pillows in search of that one mythical arrangement which might actually make us comfortable enough to sleep. There isn't one. At about 4:30 AM, Mahesh' song can be heard mercifully ending what must have been one of the longest nights in my life. I talked to several people who stayed at the High Camp and they all had the same experience. I only know of one Frenchman who managed to fall asleep only to wake up and run out in the freezing cold hyperventilating as a result of a nightmare he had where he couldn't breath properly. A physician we met on the trail told us that both lack of sleep and bizarre dreams are common side-effects at high altitudes.

It is pitch black outside and freezing cold. I can't touch my breakfast and give the whole thing to Vishnu. To make matters worse, I have a splitting headache and need to take some aspirin. It is the worst I felt the whole trip. Determined to make the pass, I dawn several layers of clothing, switch my headlamp on, and do up all three remaining buttons on that North Fake down jacket.

We have to leave very early to be sure we make the pass in the morning. Otherwise, the winds typically picks up resulting in a high wind chill factor and a potential for frostbite. As we march through the darkness, my headache slowly dissolves. Gazing at the multitude of stars in the clear night sky and the moon's glow illuminating some of the highest peaks in the world is almost a religious experience. At dawn, we pass a small tea house occupied by the two Dutch women, shivering and stomping, just as Mahish had predicted. They told us it was so cold that icicles were hanging off their frozen blankets in the night.


The Himalayan sky behind mountains.

It's very slow going up to Thorung La, the largest mountain pass in the world and also one of the highest trekking routes. Behind us can be seen a few interspersed trekkers at various stages of the ascent. Most of them are stopped waiting to catch their breaths while admiring the surrounding alpine scenery. Others can be seen concentrating on putting one foot slowly in front of the other, each leg like a lead weight, steadily moving forward. Our porter is the slowest with his heavy bag. Then, Mahish and I walking at our pace. Far ahead is Katlijn who seems to be less affected by the altitude. She is waiting for us at the top.

Katlijn celebrating at Thorung La pass. Andrew feeling a bit less energetic.

The Thorung pass sign draped in Tibetan prayer flags.

We are all happy to reach the pass and have a quick celebratory photo. However, it is too cold for us to linger long and, within minutes, we begin our long steep descent. The cold weather ensures us some tricky icy passages, but we manage all right and it isn't long before we start to take our heavy jackets and sweaters off. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of the dry Mustang valley and the Dhawalagiri range separating Nepal from Tibet.

Mahesh and Andrew managing the icy slopes just below Thorung La

A view of the Mustang Valley which is in a dry high dessert climate. This region most resembles Tibet, located just beyond those mountains, and is referred to as the Trans-Himalaya.



We arrive at the town Muktinath in the early afternoon after about eight hours of walking, our knees sore from the long descent. We celebrate with a few special menu items for dinner: I have a "pepper steak" (read, "Chunk of Yak in brown sauce") while Katlijn has "pizza prosciutto" (Spam ham). Over dinner, we talk with Evan and a British couple about their experiences in India and get a few good travel tips. It was truly a memorable day. I peek down the hallway and watch expectantly as Katlijn dissapears into the shower room. After a few moments there are shouts of glee and steam leaking out the cracks. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Annapurna Circuit: Days 3-7

Day 3
Bahundanda to Jagat (Elevation 1300 meters)


Eco-friendly solar-powered water boilers can be found throughout the Himalaya. It takes about 20 minutes to boil water on a sunny day.


After countless trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, I wake up early the next morning to the uncomfortable realization that I need to walk six hours with both a heavy backpack and a serious case of the runs. It is at this point that I am happy Katlijn brought a porter who significantly lightens my load by taking my sleeping bag. Of course, Vishnu now carries all of Katlijn’s stuff, 10 snickers bars, the last installment of Harry Potter and TWO heavy arctic sleeping bags. In order to manage this, he uses a head strap in addition to the shoulder and waist harness. Mahish calls this Vishnu’s “magic” which makes it all possible. Regardless, Vishnu is my hero.

Having the runs in a foreign country is one of the unfortunate facts of life in traveling to Nepal and India. Since many small villages dot the entire Annapurna circuit, trekkers are discouraged from going in the wild. Naturally, I was able to take advantage of this excellent opportunity to tour of the gamut of Himalayan toilet facilities. Like the vast majority of the world, they are of the “squat over a hole in the ground” variety and come in a few predictable classes of materials and designs. My favorite was when, in sheer desperation, I had to ask one of the villagers to use the toilet in her home. A tiny, hunched, ancient woman led me into her barn where I had to navigate my way through several chickens, a flock of goats, and a buffalo to the smallest wooden bathroom I had ever seen. Just outside the bathroom was her kitchen stove of all things- a funny wood burning stove with a small iron chimney that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. I stepped over the buffalo and ducked into what must be the filthiest spider infested bathroom in Nepal, if not the entire Indian sub-continent. I had to simultaneously hold the door shut and assume the crouching position forcing me to hang monkey-style over the hole- an acrobatic feat that would require extreme coordination even without my bowel condition. I lost my balance several times causing the whole shack to tremble violently for the duration of this experience. When I emerged, I was horrified to find the old crone just outside my door cooking some Daal Bhaat on the Dr. Seuss stove. She looked at me with her mouth wide open, revealing all three of her teeth, giving me a look of simultaneous astonishment and disgust that said, “What is the matter with you man !? You are 32 years old and still not potty trained !?” With what remaining grace I could muster, I stepped over the buffalo, put my hands together, and muttered “namaste”. She watched me carefully as I moved her goats aside and was literally attacked by an aggressive rooster on my way out.

There are currently no roads in this part of the Annapurna so all supplies are carried between the villages by porters who bare all sorts of strange and bizarre Eastern and Western items and livestock, often in ridiculously over-sized and over-stuffed backpacks and cages. However, a new road is currently under construction which will connect Besi Sahar with Manang promising to change everything, for better and for worse. We have to take an enormous up-hill detour to avoid blasting of the mountain side necessary for this construction. Mahish says the road will be bad for porters and guides which currently form the backbone of the tourist and transportation culture. When I once asked him if they will control the nature and amount of traffic on the road, he muttered sadly, “like in Kathmandu” which basically means a cluttered mess of buses, cars, and backpackers where pounding the horn repeatedly takes the place of road rules.

This is my favorite porter who was very kind to let me take her picture. Note that she is carrying that weight on her head ! Himalayan women do much of the hard labor. I have seen similar old ladies wielding dangerous looking axes to chop fire wood.

By the end of the day, my condition starts to improve. Unfortunately, Katlijn seems to be developing sinusitis. The lodge owners give her some local inhalant which seems to work quite effectively at reducing her symptoms. Mahish then produced another local remedy for my stomach condition that looks suspiciously like guinea pig droppings- I decide not to chance it.

Katlijn taking full advantage of the Jagat's local anti-sinusitis inhalant underneath her jacket.

During the night, Katlijn hears some commotion in the village.

Day 4
Jagat to Tal (Elevation 1700 meters)

Mahish gets us out of bed early the next morning and we enjoy a tasty apple pancake breakfast. He explains that the commotion was due to a thief caught stealing from one of the lodges. He is currently held in the local Jagat kindergarten since the nearest police station is in Bahundanda, nearly six hours walk away.

Mahish tells us that only kindergarten and elementary schools are available in most of the small villages we pass. He had to walk two hours to get to his nearest high school [uphill both ways] and this is not unusual. Some kids stay with relatives or in boarding houses away from home while other students can be seen in their uniforms walking the same trails as us. Still others, especially the girls, won’t go to school at all and are needed to work the farm at home. Maybe that road really will come in handy.

As we leave the town, we see all the villagers gathered in a crowded circle: men, women, children, and babies. We have to ask them to move aside so we can get through. In the center of the circle stands the young thief who looks positively terrified. There is blood dripping out of his mouth. He had been beaten. One of the villagers passes me by and feels the needed to explain, “he stole money”.


Waterfalls carving the Himalaya from stone.


Katlijn is still not feeling well so we do only a short three-hour walk to a small town called “Tal”. The path is very beautiful with several waterfalls cascading down the valley side. The Himalayas are caused by the massive collision of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, encompassing both India and Australia, with the Eurasian continent. The resulting force is causing the bordering land to raise in elevation at a rate of a few centimeters each year. When we look at the Himalaya, we are not so much seeing mountains but the gaps between them carved by the rivers. It is interesting to consider that the river we are following through the valley is therefore older than the mountains themselves.


Day 5
Tal to Chame (Elevation 2700 meters)


Tibetan people live at these higher elevations. Chortens, such as this modern example at Tal, mark the entrance to Tibetan villages.

Katlijn spent a lot of time in bed and we are considering staying in Tal until she recovers. However, Mahish encourages us to continue on at least a bit further today. He is afraid that if we lose another day or two now we may have trouble making the high pass since we are attempting this trek so late in the year. The next storm could block our passage entirely and we would have to return home.

Amazingly, Katlijn’s condition seems to improve as we walk. After a long nine-hour slog, we manage to make it to Chame making up for the time we lost yesterday. Mahish told me later he never thought we'd make it ! Along the way, the diverse sub-tropical vegetation gives way to pine forests. There are no more terraces of rice fields. Rather, corn, wheat, and millet are grown at this altitude. In contrast to the Gurung people living at lower altitudes, the people here are mostly Tibetan- both newer refugees and older communities dating back to the ancient trade routes between India and China. The villages themselves look notably different with spiritual displays of prayer wheels, flags, and stupas.

As if marking this contrast to a new stage in our journey, the weather also begins to roll in- changing from this morning’s balmy, “why the hell are we lugging around these arctic sleeping bags ?”, to the evening’s bone chilling “why the hell won’t the zipper work on these cheapo Kathmandu North ‘Fake’ jackets we borrowed from our guide ?” Towards the end of our walk, it starts to snow and we experience our first night of serious cold weather.

Mist through the trees. The weather rolls down the hills at us.


Nepali people are very fond of the word “system”. Everything is a “system”, no matter how trivial. If you go to a restaurant in Kathmandu and ask them to wrap your tuna sandwich in foil, this is referred to as the take-home "system". Similarly, after Mahish finds Katlijn huddled on her bed refusing to come out of the room unless we cut out little leg holes from her sleeping bag, he invites us down to use the fire “system”. We decide to take his advice and follow him to a room where a few Tibetans sit around a fire.

Andrew and Katlijn in front of the fire "system"


Underneath a curtain of drying yak jerky, sipping from a piping hot cup of coco, roasting my feet in front of the cozy fire after a long day of hiking, reveling in my lack of bowel problems, I realize that this is my ideal vacation. Katlijn is not convinced, however, and argued vehemently in favor a cocktail on a Thai beach. Nevertheless, she had to admit that this particular moment was bliss. We spent the evening chatting with our guide and porter until, thoroughly exhausted, we retired to our room at about 8 PM- a late night by our mountain trekking standards.

Day 6
Chame to Lower Pisang (Elevation 3200 meters)

The sun burning snow off the impressive bulk of Annapurna II seen here towering above us to an elevation of 7937 meters.

The weather clears up and we enjoy spectacular views of the Annapurna range during an easy five-hour walk to the town of “Lower Pisang”. Upon arriving, two loud Korean girls tell us that there are “hot” showers in our lodge. Excited by this prospect, Katlijn and I grab our camp towels and head for our first winter high-altitude shower experience:

Imagine that you are naked in an enclosed wooden room completely shielded from the sun. Imagine, if you will, the temperature in this room is close to 0 degrees Celsius- sort of like sitting naked in your freezer. Now, think of a chest-high tap on the wall with one merciless knob dribbling luke-warm water onto the floor. Imagine how cold that water feels against the concrete in your bare feet. Now, imagine small holes in the wooden shack through which you can feel a cold draft blowing against your body. Imagine standing there for what seems like an eternity waiting for, no… hoping to god, that luke-warm dribble will eventually turn into a “hot” dribble like those damn obnoxious Korean girls promised. Finally, imagine it never gets “hot” at all. In fact, it gets slowly colder and colder as whatever “hot” water that might have been there to begin with is being used up.

We soon learn that it is actually better to be under the luke-warm water than getting splashed by it in the freezing cold. You still feel cold under the tap, but it is definitely better than not being under the tap. Thus, it is not only hard to get into the shower, but infinitely harder to get out of it. My approach is to plan carefully my actions before I reach up from my naked crouch position and shut the tap off. I then slowly and methodically dry each part of my body and, as soon as possible, cover that part of my body with clothing. Katlijn’s approach is to yell maniacally several expletives followed by the word “cold” at the top of her lungs to serve as a warning to any other trekkers within the next village.

After our shower, we proceed with haste to the fire “system” and I eat some of the lodge’s chowmein wondering how on earth it is possible to cook something with absolutely no taste at all. The Korean girls are kind enough to lend me their red chili sauce. They tell me they take this with them everywhere in Nepal to provide a little character to their meals. It doesn’t help.

Back in Kathmandu, they make tea by simultaneously boiling together the milk, the tea, the spices, and some water. It is a truly satisfying beverage which I highly recommend. Up here in the Himalayan mountains, you are lucky to get a small tea bag floating ineffectively in a glass of slightly-warm unpasteurized milk. I decide, instead, to try my luck with the local “Tibetan tea” which turns out to be a vile brew made from salt and warm yak butter. I couldn’t drink it. I couldn’t get anyone sitting around the fire to drink it either. In fact, I couldn’t even get any of the Nepali people to drink it. Instead, it turned into the evening's much needed entertainment as everyone took turns smelling it and then contorting their face into an image of disgust followed by guffaws of laughter.

After this game grew tiresome, we spent the rest of the evening around the fire gossiping with the other travelers. One of the joys of doing the Annapurna Circuit is talking about the various eccentrics that are crazy enough to do this hike in the middle of winter. Since we are all walking the same trail, sitting around the same fires, and eating the same food, you get to know them pretty well. There is Evan, a Canadian Biologist from Nelson, BC, who actually decided to start the Annapurna Circuit immediately after he got back from a 20 day trek to the Everest Base Camp- otherwise he is entirely normal and we like him a lot. There are the Dutch girls, a 55 year old mother and her daughter who claim that Eindhoven has everything we need to be happy (at this point, a soft mattress, a hot shower, and sit-toilets). Our favourite, however, is the infamous “Korean Himalaya Woman”.

Everyone on the mountainside knows of the Korean Himalaya Woman; rumors travel fast between the villages. According to the two Korean girls, she has been sited recently on horse back at Lower Pisang and they claim she gave them a cup of instant noodle ramen. She visits the Himalaya twice a year with not one, not two, but TEN porters ! This is in addition to her guide and chef. Each porter is purported to carry several kilos of Kimchi, an octopus, and some dog meat which her chef turns into a giant Korean feast every night somewhere in the distant mountains. Reports indicate she is generous. We have not yet seen her but have only heard stories about- she is sort of the Asian culinary counterpart to the illusive yeti.

I looked down at my full cup of salty Tibetan tea in quiet contemplation. Could the legend be true ?

Day 7
Lower Pisang to Manang (Elevation 3540 meters)


We get up early the next morning and I have some buckwheat bread with jam. Tibetan buckwheat bread looks like a Frisbee and tastes a bit like one too. Anyone for a game of Ultimate ?

Katlijn and Vishnu checking the map en route to Manang.

We enjoy a flat and highly enjoyable walk to the Tibetan town of Manang, the district capital and a virtual metropolis compared to the villages we had been staying in. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of Annapurna II, III, and IV. The weather is gorgeous. We have recovered from our illnesses. Upon arriving, I turned the tap water on… hot water ! It is a perfect day.

You can do everything in Manang. You can check your e-mail, buy Pringles potato chips, and even watch a small selection of DVDs on a big screen (“Seven Years in Tibet”, “Kundun”, “Into thin air”, etc.). You can even spend an evening around a campfire with the local Tibetans listening to their classic rock CD collection.

In short, Manang is the best place on this side of the Himalayas and we are very happy to be here for the next couple of days.



A couple of locals hanging out on main street Manang in the early morning.


Monday, December 17, 2007

The Annapurna Circuit: Days 1-2


Machupuchre, Elevation 6997 meters
Machu means "fish", Puchre means "tail. It is the fishtail mountain.
As seen from Sarangkot in Pokhara at sundown.
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Sorry for the long delay in updating this blog. Believe it or not, there really are solar powered Internet cafes in the Himalayas. However, they cost a small fortune to use so we decided to wait until we got back from our trek before updating our blog and responding to e-mail.

We completed the entire Annapurna Circuit a few days ago. Since it was a very special experience, we will provide a detailed day-by-day account of this particular journey which we will post in installments over the next week or so (subject to Internet availability and power outages, of course). After that, we will try to update the blog more regularly to describe the places we have visited...

The Annapurna Circuit

Day 1
Bus ride from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar (Elevation 800 meters)

Before it started leaking uncontrollably all over our hotel room floor, Katlijn enjoyed one last civilized luxury in Kathmandu: a hot bath. I have to say, in retrospect, our Kathmandu hotel is comparatively not so stinky and actually downright comfortable compared to what we will experience in the next 17 days.

We met up with our guide, Mahish, and our porter, Vishnu, in the early morning, got in a dangerously dilapidated taxi, and weaved at top speed through honking motorcycles and countless bovines before arriving at a bus station somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Mahish sat us down for a breakfast of Nepali tea and biscuits before we got into a rickety old bus painted in psychedelic pastel colours and took off for the Himalayas. This was our first experience with Nepal's public transportation system.

It takes two to three people to navigate the Nepali infrastructure by bus. There is the driver- in our case, an old man wearing a wool hat with a marijuana badge sewn on the front. Then there are one or two helpers who serve several purposes including the following:

- Calling out for passengers
- Looking out for the startling number and variety of highway obstacles
- A substitute for malfunctioning signal lights.
- Strapping baggage, furniture, and roosters to the rooftop
- Yelling Nepali profanities at slow moving vehicles and bovines

Our helper was a sixteen year old boy wearing a black "Jack Daniel's" bandanna, bandit-style, and black low-rider jeans. This wouldn't have been so bad except for the glaring fact that he was going commando. There do not appear to be actual bus stops in Nepal. Instead, the helper is constantly vigilant for potential passengers waiting in the middle of nowhere. To signal the driver to stop the bus, he would pound the side of the bus one time. After throwing whatever bizarre items the passenger may have onto a towering rooftop pile, he would pound the bus two times to signal it to start moving again.

Whenever passing another vehicle, a terrifying event which occurred with distressing regularity, he would pound the bus several times signalling there was no visible traffic, potholes, or farm animals. Our bus driver would then push the horn repeatedly and gun it- sending everyone lurching backwards, perhaps losing a few roosters behind us, as our bus hurtled past at full speed, held together only by a few rusty bolts, some rope, and the collective blind faith of those of us inside. On the narrow mountain roads, I had to hold back the urge to cry out. "Mr. Bus driver ! Are our lives really so dispensable to you !?"

Nevertheless, as our bus tempts fate just a few inches from a cliff side rounding a blind curve on the wrong side of the road, the Nepali people do not seem to notice. It was astonishing. I want to explain to them, "Our lives are in the hands of a crusty ex-hippy and a boy who wears no underpants. WE ARE IN SERIOUS TROUBLE HERE !". But yet, as I stare behind me, there are, at best, a few looks of mild concern. Our porter is sound asleep.

You may call me paranoid, but consider the following facts and figures which are all true:

1) You are 20 times more likely to be killed or injured in a bus fatality in Nepal than you are in any developed country.

2) I can see burnt carcasses of psychedelic pastel coloured buses off the cliff side that look disturbingly like the one I am riding in.

3) Riding a bus is considered the most dangerous activity you can do in Nepal. It is more dangerous than white water rafting, more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest, even more dangerous than drinking the tap water.

I can see our helper bent over in front of the bus fiddling with the dash board and mooning the passengers while he's at it. Before long, I hear a crackling noise through bus speakers and then the booming sound of Indian pop music played at full volume through an 80s cassette player system: my nightmare is complete.

Resigned to my fate, I rest my head against the grungy bus window and stare at the havoc outside. I start to feel the motion sickness pills kicking in listening to the rhythm of the music. I begin to play a game with myself: closing my eyes and opening them again then mentally remarking the foreign images in front of me.

Nepali girls with tikas wearing British school boy uniforms.
A technicolour truck with the words "push horn" painted on the back in Hindu font.
Cows parked between motorcycles.
I'm asleep.

Day 2
Besi Sahar to Bahundada (Elevation 1310 meters)

Every inch of land used. Rice is grown in the Himalays up to about 2000 meters.

Damn. I shouldn't have eaten so much chicken with my Daal Bhaat last night. I am sensing the start of a serious case of Traveller's Diarrhea. However, Katlijn is in high spirits so I try not to let on too much. This is our first day of serious trekking.

We have a Nepali guide named "Mahish" who can tell us what we are looking at and show us the way. Actually, this isn't true. Mahish also tells us when to get up, where to sleep, where to eat, where to rest, and where to go to the bathroom. In fact, we are total lemmings completely under his command. We even ride the bus when he asks this of us. We do absolutely everything he says and pay him for this privilege. Still, he is polite enough to refer to me as "sir".

I carry my own backpack, but Katlijn hired a porter named "Vishnu". After noting that we were basically paying our porter for my vacation, we also loaded him with a few extra comforts. Vishnu is not as outgoing as Mahish, but we learn to admire his quiet determination lugging his load up the mountainside. He always carries, by far, the heaviest bag and the biggest smile.


Katlijn, Vishnu, and Mahish. Vishnu's bag is loaded with Katlijn's belongings, a heavy arctic sleeping bag, 10 snickers bars, and the last installment of Harry Potter.


So far, the Himalayas are not the bitter cold, white, icy, yeti-abode I had always imagined as a child. Instead, the vegetation is sub-tropical and the green hills are terraced with rice plantations plowed by oxes. During our easy hike through the country, we pass by many small villages stopping occasionally for tea, before arriving at our lodge; "lodge" being Nepali for "spartan shack with luke-warm showers". Nevertheless, it is cozy by candlelight and the views from the patio are gorgeous at dusk.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Internet by candlelight


A big thanks to all those who came to our send-off party. We had a nice cross-section of people from our lives in Belgium, and a few from our lives abroad. It was great to see you all one more time before we hit the road. Check out the pictures below:


Nadine, the Fort brothers (Kevin and Andrew), and Katlijn


Joris and Kim with our 10-year old party photographer, Lieselot

Dries and his Norwegian girlfriend

Opa Wifi


Helga and Ruben

Staf and Niels

Katleen with boyfriend and colleagues

Karel


Huub telling Andrew that Nepali burgers taste great [after 20 days of backpacking]


In true form, the subsequent events after our party consisted of eating chocolate coffee beans for breakfast on the floor of our empty apartment, hauling refrigerators down three flights of stairs, and submitting that last journal article sometime in the middle of the night. After some serious last minute banking arrangements early the next morning, we finally left Leuven to arrive 20 hours later in Kathmandu. A guy named Ram, who has arranged our 18 day trek through the Annapurna Circuit, picked us up at the airport. We had a short, but harrowing, car ride through the streets of Kathmandu to arrive safely, with all our gear, at a stinky hotel in the middle of the city. This was pretty much our plan.

We spent our first day being chased around by honking motorcycles in the narrow streets of Kathmandu. At night, the power went out which, according to the receptionist, is a common occurrence here. Thus, we used a few candles to find our way to the top of the hotel. We spent much of the evening together on the roof listening to the sounds of the city. Kathmandu sounds like people, honking horns, and dogs barking (it smells a bit like that too). Katlijn wants it to be known that she doesn't think our hotel stinks. But really, it is all relative, and I think she may have already been here too long. Here are a few images of Kathmandu:

Temple through the trees.

Beautiful Nepali woman with children


A square where the children play.

The children who wanted me to take their picture.

It's late. I'm at an internet cafe. I fear the power may go out again, so I will sign off for now. Tomorrow, we leave early in the morning with our winter gear to start our trek through the Himalayas. I understand there are some solar power internet stations along our route; sounds more reliable than the Kathmandu power grid, anyways. Until then, namaste !