Day 13: Marpha to Ghasa

IMGP4343

 

joylani 130pxYesterday was a relatively fast and easy walking day to Marpha, with the only obstacle being the dust and wind the last hour.  I think we could have made it further today, but instead we spent an hour slowly meandering along a dried riverbed searching for fossils.  It was a comical sight—all of us spread out, periodically stooping with our backpacks to pick up a rock and throwing it down against a larger one to break it open.  In the end, all the fossils we found were already exposed and the best specimens came from close to where the river still flows (not by the road where I was looking more forward to lunch than fossils…).

IMGP4334

            Today was a longer walk to the village of Ghasa.  We had a couple of stops along the way for a snack at the famed Tukuche Dutch bakery and a few minutes later at a brandy distillery down the road.

IMGP4359

 

A little while later we stopped for lunch.  I finally had dal bhat again.  It was my first big meal since getting sick again after the pass and much needed after all this walking.  The dal bhat is starting to get a little bit tastier with a few more spices in the dal and veg curry, and more variety than just potatoes.  The landscape is starting to get more lush again, the air more humid, and we saw our first monkeys in a week.  Right now it’s about 4:30pm and we just got to our guesthouse.  I’m hungry again and Matt and I are waiting for beverages (apple tea and hot chocolate) and a Tibetan bread (like a flat cakey donut with slits instead of a hole in the middle).

164_6445-4.JPGToday was a long, but fun day. Unsurprisingly we left Marpha around 8am. By 9am, we had reached the village or Marpha, which warranted a stop to visit its Dutch bakery and brandy distillery. The Dutch bakery was delicious, as its run by a Dutch-Nepali husband and wife. We met a German guy there who was stoned out of his mind and being outrageously funny as he talked about the apple crumble and “real coffee, real filtered coffee!” Imitating him is far funnier than writing down everything he said and did, so you’ll have to ask me about it whenever you see me. After the bakery, we headed farther into the village to the distillery. It was rudimentary to say the least, but the lady that made the brandy had a half-dozen different flavors of brandy. I’d sampled the local apple brandy in Muktinath and Marpha, but I decided to buy a small bottle of cherry brandy for Tatopani, where we’ll be tomorrow.

IMGP4344

IMG_3443

            It was a long hike to Ghasa, stopping in Kalopani for lunch. The landscape definitely changed again today. We’ve left the land of deserts and bushes and now back under the tree line. And while we can still see snow on the peaks looming above us, there’s none here. Its getting more humid and sticky and we’ve started to sweat again.

IMG_3436

Day 12: Kagbeni to Marpha

IMGP4316

 

164_6445-4.JPGToday was an interesting day.

IMG_3435

 

It was a really short walk, but we spent an hour walking around a rocky floodplain looking for fossils. We’ve seen them in Pokhara and a few little stands along the trek, but today we actually found a few. Pretty much we just looked for blackish rocks, picked them up, and threw them at the ground. Like Joylani mentioned, all the ones we found were halves that were already broken. I guess we just thought maybe we’d find whole ones with both halves like the ones found in the shops. However, Udaya said those are really difficult to find.

IMGP4326

IMGP4324

 

Anyways, we stopped for lunch in Jomsom, which is actually a town. It has an airport/airstrip that people fly into or out of to begin or end the Jomson Trek. FYI, From here on, the Annapurna Circuit Trek is the same as the Jomsom Trek. After lunch, we made the short, but incredibly windy and dusty walk to Marpha. Marpha’s a larger village with large monastery. All the buildings have piles of firewood and corn on the roofs. Other than that, it was a pretty uneventful day, but we met some cool Belgians, Franky and Belinda, at our guesthouse. I guess they had been trekking with Hans, Sky, and Cal, but had separated along the routes as us, Pete and John. So we hung out with them a bit and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, leaving us in the cold again. Even at this lower altitude, it still gets really cold at night.

IMGP4332

Day 11: Muktinath to Kagbeni

IMGP4282

 

164_6445-4.JPGSlept in a bit today, which I feel like we deserve after waking up at 4am in the freezing cold yesterday. After breakfast, we bid farewell to Pete and John, who went straight to Marpha today, instead of detouring to Kagbeni like us. It was only a 2.5 hour walk, which was most a gentle downward slope. The scenery was amazing as it has been the past few days. Descending out of the snow, the landscape is mostly desert here. But if you read my posts on Ladakh, you know I think this type of desert mountainscape is one of the most beautiful in the world. The last stretch was pretty steep down, but we were soon at Hotel Shangri-La. The place really lives up to its name as it’s the most relaxing and my favorite place so far. Relatively nice rooms, great dining room (which if you haven’t noticed yet, is where everyone spends the majority of their time), and good food. Kagbeni is the Mustang district, which is split into Upper and Lower Mustang. We’re right on the border between the two, right now. In fact, we cannot go north into Upper Mustang unless we purchase 700 USD permits. The reason is that Upper Mustang is a restricted area and the Nepali government wants to preserve the area by keeping tourism down. We learned that Upper Mustang actually has its own king, although its still part of Nepal. Nonetheless, I’m happy to actually be in Mustang at all. I’ve heard and read about it before and I never thought I’d ever come here. Its such a remote and isolated place, the descriptions of the lost kingdom deep in the Himalaya sound almost mythical.

IMGP4288

IMGP4300

            One last interesting note about this place is that its run by a wife who’s married to two brothers. Our guides explained that the practice of marrying two brothers is actually a really old Nepali custom that’s still practiced sometimes in the really rural areas. From an anthropological standpoint, its explained as a way to increase survival chances in this inhospitable environment. Any children born are the older brother’s children. Seems like a strange custom (even to our guides), but it definitely shows how remote we are. The other thing that we laughed about all night was one of the ladies that works here is always nursing her baby and walking around. When she was nursing him when we arrived, I thought maybe we just caught her at a bad time, but she walked around and did her duties at the hotel with her sweater constantly pulled up to nurse the kid. The funniest thing was when she approached another group’s table, with one hand holding the baby hanging off her breast and the other hand on her hip, and said, “What you want order?” We laughed all night at that as we imitated her. Food notes: yak cheese is reallllly good :) Chyang, the local beer is not so good. Its like a thin yogurty drink made from rice. I’ll stick to the rakshi.   

  joylani 130pxSometimes I feel like I’ll go crazy if I can’t go home soon and have things like my own kitchen to cook my own food, warmth, clean clothes, and a functioning clean hot shower.  Now is one of those times.  I hate the fact that my dirty clothes, tired body, and cold air make me not even want to bother taking a shower.  It’s so gross!  At least I’m not like this normally—dusty and sweaty without any clean clothes to change into.

  

IMGP4303

            So yesterday we only walked a few hours to Kagbeni.  The downhill wasn’t so bad as the day before, but I could definitely feel the stiffness in my thighs, knees and shins from the descent the day before.  Even my toes were a bit sore last night when I stretched them out.  Happily the lodge we’re in turned out to be pretty nice.  You can see in the wood panels, stone floors, and overall construction of the place that more money and thought went into the construction of the building.  Its not composed of crookedly placed plywood boards like many of the other places we’ve stayed.  I like that this hotel is all enclosed—no outside corridors.  For the first time since Manang, the pipes didn’t freeze at night and our room was finally warmer (being at a lower altitude helps).  Happily the food here was good, with the apple momos (think fried potsticker filled with apples and cinnamon) and veg thukpa (fresh noodle soup) being very satisfying. 

Day 10: High Camp to Muktinath

IMG_3393

 

joylani 130pxWe made it over the pass today!  It feels so nice to have it done, to have accomplished it!  That, and it was also the part I was least looking forward to—the cold, altitude, getting wet from snow, and just a long day to get through it.  We started walking just after 5am.  It was still dark out, but the snow reflected enough light from our headlamp to show us the path.  Some places it seemed really narrow, and I was thankful to not be able to see how far the slope went down before leveling off.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t so bad.  We walked really slowly because of shortness of breath from the thin air, stopping periodically to catch our breath and once to attempt to eat a frozen snickers bar. 

IMG_3402

 

It was really cold.  But there’s not really anything to do but keep walking and make it over the top, so that kept me going.  The sun rise was delicately beautiful as it slowly lit up the vast peaks and blanketed us in warmth and light.  Even with little bit of warmth from the sun, the last bit to the top was still really cold.  Last night Matt and I stayed warm by sleeping in our clothes with hot water bottles by our feet (not to mention the batteries and other items of clothing we put in the bag to keep them warm for the morning).  But from the time I got out of bed my toes and fingers were numb until a little while after we started the descent.  The moisture in my breath froze on my scarf which I had loosely wrapped around my face, and when I sniffled I could feel a crackle from the thin layer of snot that had frozen inside my nostrils.  True mountain men, the Kiwis even had snotcicles dangling off their beards, looking like something out of National Geographic. 

IMG_3403

 

Thankfully the snow was really dry, so I didn’t get soaked like I was afraid of.  And my fingers and toes started tingling again when we started going downhill.  By that point the sun was fully up and we could move faster, getting the blood flowing again.  Our little group all “summitted” at about the same time (around 8am) and we congratulated each other with hugs and smiles before taking a quick group victory picture and retreating inside the shack, er teahouse, at the top to try to warm up.  It was awesome to be able to look down at the other side of the mountain. 

IMG_3410

 

IMG_3408

Leading up to that point all we’d been doing was looking up.  The descent was much easier on our hearts and lungs, but the constant downhill was hard on my knees (they feel a little stiff now that I’ve been resting for a while).  It took more concentration than I thought as some parts were quite steep.  The trail was either icy, gravelly, or snowy requiring a little thought and lots of balance as I carefully placed each step.  Between the concentrating, my knees, hunger, and being tired from waking up at 4am, my pace at the end of the day seemed to be the slowest it’s been all trek.  Our rest stop came just in time and after peeling off my socks and shoes I bravely ordered a bean and cheese burrito for lunch, which was more like a chimichanga, but thankfully turned out to be quite tasty.  Our accommodation tonight is a step above the rest, and we finally have a room with an attached bath!  After my bean burrito I had my first shower in 3 days (if there was a shower at the last couple places we stayed, I didn’t see it, and it was too cold to take one anyways).  It was nice and hot—one of the best I’ve had in Nepal so far.  Hot showers make me miss the developed world where hot water is more consistent and rooms usually come with a private bath…one that’s separated from the rest of the bathroom by a tub or shower stall.  As much as I like traveling, nothing beats the comfort of home.  It would be so nice right now to put on a fresh pair of sweats and t-shirt, pour myself a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats with cold soy milk and curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a good book.  But here I am in Nepal.  I’ve completed the hardest part of a trek I never really thought I was capable of doing, survived giant spiders, sub-zero temperatures, getting hit by a rock…I crossed the cold Thorung-La not in hiking boots, but in my trusty Nike trail runners and made it down the other side.  Now I’m sitting by a sunny window enjoying being warm without wearing a ton of clothes and this is a pretty nice feeling too. 

164_6445-4.JPGToday was a really long day. We woke up at 4am, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds- I think it was colder in Letdar. We ate a quick breakfast, geared up (put on every single piece of clothing we brought), and were walking by 5am. After a minute our two, I couldn’t feel my feet under several layers of socks or my fingers balled up in my gloves. The first hour was in the dark, which was probably good considering the path looked pretty sketch in some parts- all snow, narrow paths, steep dropoffs to the rightside. Luckily between the five of us, Binod and Joylani’s headlamps provided enough light. Looking above us, I could see the LED-glow of several groups that left before us, making their way towards the pass. They just looked liked bluish dots on the mountain. The best thing about the dark, was seeing the stars. The stars were so bright that despite it being a moonless night, I could see the snowy peaks all around us. It was the most stars I have ever seen in my entire life and definitely the brightest too. I never even realized a night’s sky could look like that. It was really stunning to learn something everyone grows up with their entire lives could be so new and intriguing.

IMG_3420

           

After and hour, there was a stone hut selling tea. We stopped for a few minutes to warm our hand on hot cups of tea and (as Joylani mentioned) marvel at how our breathe had turned our scarves to ice. We set back out into the cold, still not able to feel our toes or fingers. The next two ours were entirely up. They weren’t incredibly steep, but they were a constant up. And our walking was incredibly slow. We only took half-steps the entire way up, but were still panting as if we had just run miles. Even taking baby steps and resting every minute or two was difficult. My legs felt okay, but I just couldn’t get enough air. Besides the short pause every few steps to catch my breath, I had to stop a few times for a minute or two. It was an extremely difficult and slow three hours. All I could see was snow, sky, and few other people. My camera wasn’t working as the batteries were too cold, but I wouldn’t have taken many photos anyways as my fingers didn’t work too well. Luckily Joylani’s camera was working okay, which I got a few good simple shots with. At the top, we took a couple photos, had a cup of tea, and started down. I still couldn’t feel my extremities, but at least I could breathe. Going down was so easy in that sense. On the other hand, it was really steep and hard on the knees. IT was another three and a half hours of really steep down, before we made it Muktinath. A long day and a hard day, but we did it.

IMG_3415

IMGP4272

IMGP4277

Day 9: Letdar to High Camp

IMG_3372

joylani 130pxWe made it to our last stop before crossing the pass! Luckily no one is experiencing any problems besides heavier breathing while walking. There were some falling rocks right before Phedi. It’s a landslide area, and there were some deer up there causing the rocks to fall as we walked through. Binod was looking out for falling rocks because he’s had problems in that area before, and he told Matt to look out, who in turn told me. I ducked down next to the side of the mountain where there was a short retaining wall, but my arm still got hit by one of the rocks. After the shower of rocks passed we ran. It all happened in just a matter of seconds. My arm hurt, but I think more than anything I was really just shaken up. I mean, falling rocks—you could die from that or get really seriously injured. As we walked the next 20 minutes to Phedi I just kept thinking what ifs and was glad that I only got hit in the arm. Having to get helicoptered out would be awful for several reasons, but especially this far into the trek. At Phedi we rested for a half hour and I was able to ice my arm (luckily ice is in no shortage at this altitude). Thankfully I am able to move me hand and wrist ok; I’ll probably just have a bump and bruise for a while.

IMG_3355

High Camp is in an amazing setting, nestled in the snow between various peaks.

IMG_3374

It is also somewhat disgusting. Between frozen water in the flush bucket and apparent problems with people being able to use the squatters (how they still don’t know how to use one this far into the trek I don’t know…), let’s just say the bathrooms are less than sanitary. It’s so bad that people are just going outside behind the buildings rather than inside the outhouses. Descending tomorrow will be good for many reasons.

164_6445-4.JPGCold. That’s pretty much the only way to describe today. It snowed again last night. Inside our room, Joylani’s alarm clock said 29 F. Nonetheless, we departed Letdar at our usual time of 8am. We made our way towards Phedi and then up to High Camp. Most of the past few days have been a gradual up. Today was back to Nepali flat- down a big valley and then up again. Besides being cold and above the snow line all day, we had another incident today. Yesterday, Binod warned us about a rockslide area and told us some personal and second-hand stories of the dangers. Passing a warning sign, we made our way along a path on a steep mountainside. All of sudden, a few meters ahead of me, Binod yelled, “Matt, rocks!” I quickly glanced up, expecting to see a large rock rolling down towards me, but instead I saw 4 or 5 golf-ball-sized stones whizzing towards us- too many to try to dodge. They made the sound of a baseball with busted seems- zzzzz. I turned and yelled at Joylani to get down, as I fell to a crouch in the corner of the left side of the trail (as the trail was an L-shape cut out of the slope). I heard the rocks whiz by and waited until Binod told us to get up and run. After we were somewhat clear, I learned Joylani had been hit in the arm. We took a rest at Phedi and iced her swollen arm. I felt pretty lucky for a few reasons. One, Binod had heard/seen the rock and alerted us. Two, Joylani only got hit on the arm by a smaller stone- a Swiss lady we met tonight got hit by larger stone on the leg and apparently has a large black bruise. Three, some American girls passed out at Phedi from the altitude. So, with all things considered, we’re doing okay.

IMG_3383

After resting and treating Joylani at Phedi, we walked the steepest 45 minutes I’ve ever walked up to High Camp. The trail just zig-zagged straight up the mountain face. We walked incredibly slowly as the air is so thin and rested pretty often. In all, we only walked about 3 hours today, but after arriving in High Camp, we rested for a few hours. Despite everything being covered in snow, it felt nice taking the sun in through the double-paned windows of the dining room. After resting for a few hours, we too a quick walk up a “hill” adjacent to the camp to be better acclimatized for tomorrow. The view from the top was unbelievable, but very cold. The rest of the night was spent huddled together with everyone else in the dining room, trying to stay warm.

IMG_3356

A few things about High Camp. Its completely covered in snow. For the past couple days, all the buckets of water near the latrines have been frozen, so flushing isn’t possible. As Joylani mentioned, that’s one reason to try to not go to the bathroom. Second reason is that its so cold, you really don’t want to pull your three layers of pants down. And the air is thin. I find myself panting even just walking the 50 meters between our room and the dining hall. The short two to three hundred meter walk up the hill today had me breathless, and not just from the view. Its really tough.

IMG_3370

Day 8: Manang to Letdar

IMGP4233

joylani 130pxYesterday was cold, and as we ascended today it got even colder. We rested yesterday to help acclimatize. It was nice to have a day off, but I am ready to make it over the pass and on to warmer weather. The scenery today was beautiful—mostly snowy mountains and glaciers.

IMGP4220

I heard and saw a little avalanche across the valley, which, from my safe vantage point, was pretty cool. It didn’t actually look like much—just like a little puffy clod on the side of the mountain, but I think knowing what it was made it cool. Last night the sky was completely clear, contributing to a very cold night. The water pipes froze, but luckily we put two heavy blankets over our sleeping bag before going to bed last night, so Matt and I stayed warm. The clear sky and lack of electric lights left only the stars to illuminate the night sky—they were the brightest I’ve seen. Unfortunately I was too cold to stand outside and ponder them for long. Tonight is looking like it will be cold again. Right now we’re just hanging out in the dining room with our little trekking crew: Binod and Udaya (the guides), Simone (from Holland), and John and Pete (the guys from New Zealand who we’ve met up with again). They’re all playing cards and throwing around “lazy American” insults. Fun times.

IMGP4243

164_6445-4.JPGToday was a really early and short day. We got out of Manang before 8am and before the crowds (by crowds, I mean the couple trekking groups on the same schedule as us). The entire day was spent between the tree line and the snow line, which was absolutely beautiful. Today felt like the opening scene of Lord of the Rings II. We began walking along the mountainside, although I kept stopping to admire the views of Annapurna III and Tilicho Peak, along with the Gangapurna Glacier. We heard (sounds like thunder) and saw (you see a bunch of moisture get thrown up in the air) some minor avalanches. On a sidenote, one thing about hiking in these mountains everyday is that we actually see the water cycle in progress, which I find really cool. The mornings are always cold, clear, and cloudless. The sunrise illuminates the peaks and after a few minutes, you begin to see wisps of clouds, as the sun melts the snow and it evaporates. These little wisps grow on the side of the peaks opposite the wind and eventually envelope the peaks, before expanding down the mountains. These clouds move across the valley and by dinner, its snowing. By morning, the process repeats. Enough Bill Nye for now.

After walking along the mountainside for a bit, we crossed a couple of icy bridges which spanned even icier streams and walked constantly uphill across fields of snowy bushes. Seven and eight thousand meter peaks rose above us on both sides. The air is noticeably thinner and we’re definitely moving slower and breathing harder, but today was my favorite day so far. The scenery was amazing and I couldn’t stop thinking about how perfect it all is. I kept thinking that there’s nothing I would rather do than this. There’s few things I’d trade today for.

IMGP4217

On another sidenote, we were passed about two dozen times today by these suicidal racers. Men and women wearing spandex shorts and pants, showing off their ultra-lean muscular legs, and backpacks with about 20 different corporate sponsor’s logos. Apparently they’re all competing in some sort of 1000 kilometer, high-altitude mountain race. It was comical and unbelievable to see them. Comical because what else can you do but laugh when you see people jogging when you’re having a tough time walking. The hydration tubes hanging out of their mouths and the solar panels powering God-knows-what on their backpacks was comical too. But unbelievable too, because: they’re racing 1000 kilometers in thin air and difficult terrain. Unbelievable. I’m content walking.

IMG_3348

Day 7: Rest and Acclimatization in Manang

IMGP4181

164_6445-4.JPGToday was our rest day in Manang, mainly to acclimatize. When I woke up this morning, I reached above my head and pulled open the thin drape. I looked up and saw (upside down), the snowy peaks illuminated pink and orange by the rising sun.

IMGP4153

Eventually I mustered the courage to leave the warmth of our sleeping bag and we went for breakfast. Afterwards, we headed across the river and up a ridge to acclimatize. The ridge was actually the rim of giant crater, which held an aqua glacial lake. Heading higher up the mountain, we passed a tea stall for tourists and then an abandoned village, before reaching an amazing viewpoint. It was pretty steep and all of us slipped and fell on our butts plenty of times due to last night’s snow. On the way down, some of us just squatted and slid down the path, using our hands to steer.

IMGP4169

IMGP4179

IMGP4189

Having finished our acclimatization work for the day (going up to 4000m and then returning down to 3500m), we spent the duration of our afternoon just hanging out and talking to other people. Perhaps I should backtrack to this morning when we met a couple of German guys. After the initial exchange of ‘where you from’ and ‘what’s your trekking itinerary,’ one of them asked, “So are you going home after this or are you one of those fortunate Americans who is traveling the world for ten years?” After explaining that we belonged more to the latter category than the former, he said (in his German accent, which I think I’ve got down now), “You Americans are lazy. You just think life is a game about having fun. You don’t think or care about work, but just about having a good time.” The two things that bothered me about this were: one, he said it like it was something bad to have fun and, two, I was hearing this from a European. So I asked him how much vacation time he gets; 30 days. 30 days! That’s six weeks of paid time-off per year, not including sick and holiday time. I don’t want to hear about work from some socialist European working a 35-hour work week with 6 weeks of vacation.

A much more interesting conversation was with some American’s we met. Well actually, we first met the Canadian contingent of the group, Hans. We started talking to him at lunch and he explained that he had already been in Nepal for several weeks and had already been on a climbing expedition that had been cancelled at Camp 3, due to avalanches. He had wanted to go on, but the majority of his group wanted to retreat down the mountain. So he said after this trek, he might spend his extra time rafting or canyoning. Oh yeah, he is about 70. We asked about the adventurous things he’s done in his life and he told us about all the places he’s been. He was a person who was really taking advantage of his good health and living life to the fullest even at that age- still traveling and doing super adventurous stuff. By the end of our short conversation, I was convinced I’d be pretty satisfied if I could see the amount of regions/countries he’d visited in his life. That night, he introduced us to his two buddies from California, Sky and Cal. Both were cool to talk to, but Cal told us a really captivating story. Back in the mid-eighties, he and his wife flew out to Portugal and bought a sailboat. From there they sailed a circuit around the Mediterranean and then out to the Canaries. From there, they sailed across the Atlantic and all over the Caribbean. Then across the Panama Canal and up the coast of Central America, back to the US. He also told us about sailing around Australia and across the Pacific. But the thing that stood out the most to me was when he was describing sailing around the Aegean. He said they’d be sailing in crystal clear waters in Greece and Turkey and could sometimes just look down and see ruins. They’d see stoas, Doric and Ionian columns just below the surface of the sea. Sometimes ruins would be poking above the sea’s surface. Unbelievable. I’m not a sailor, but I like the sailing trips I’ve been on. And I do love history, especially Greco-Roman history. And Greece and Turkey are definitely two places that Joylani and I want to return to to explore more. Anyways, it just got the wheels of my mind turning. But beyond personal travel ideas, it was really awesome (even somewhat inspiring) to meet Hans, Sky, and Cal. It was a good day.

IMGP4165

Day 6: Pisang to Manang

IMGP4097

joylani 130pxToday was a flat and easy day and we arrived in Manang at 1:30 after taking a long lunch just outside of town. (Matt and I tried a yak steak—it was delicious!) Manang is where we’ll take a rest day to help us acclimatize to the altitude. It is big in comparison with the other villages we’ve walked through and is built at the base of mountain leading up to a beautiful glacier.

IMGP4105

IMGP4099

The scenery during our walk today got more and more spectacular as the plants thinned out and snow-capped peaks took their place. It is cold. Before it got dark tonight it started to snow. The wind was blowing so hard that it was coming in horizontally, and I’m definitely glad we had a warm spot inside the lodge before it started snowing. The first hour of snowfall it just melted, but now it is starting to stick; it will be interesting to see how much is on the ground when we wake up tomorrow morning. While the snowfall is beautiful to watch, I hope it won’t stick or snow too much. Melted snow=mud; snow drifts=cold feet. As for this lodge I speak of, it’s kind of interesting. It’s almost like a ski lodge, and since pretty much everyone takes a rest day in Manang, this guesthouse is bigger than the rest we’ve stayed at. A lot of the people we’ve seen along the way are staying at the same place as us, and we’re starting to meet some of them little by little.

IMGP4149

164_6445-4.JPGJoylani tells me that today was day six. We woke up pretty cold- Joylani’s alarm clock read 45 F. Unlike the past few days, it was drizzling this morning and rain clouds obscured Annapurna II above us. Despite the sunshine later in the day, the air remained cold. Most of the walk today was done wearing our fleeces. The one thing that did change a lot today was the landscape. The trees really thinned out and the mountains began looking much more deserty. But bright white snowy mountains were visible the entire day, so it was a really beautiful walk.

IMGP4101

IMGP4104

IMGP4132

We did stop for lunch in Bhraga, about 45 minutes before the day’s final destination of Manang. The only reason I mention that is because I ordered a delicious yak steak. We’re back in yak land again- saw a couple yak herds today, saw one yak being butchered, and a couple buildings had stuffed yak heads displayed on the walls. The hotel we’re at now is great and all the people we’ve met so far are staying here. Our room has an awesome view too. It began snowing in the evening, which isn’t too distressing because we’re taking a rest/acclimatization day tomorrow. Anyways, it was beautiful seeing the snow clouds slide down the mountains, while snow began to litter the sky and blanket the huge valley floor. We’ve spent the night mostly hanging out in this big, warm, cozy dining room hanging out with our friends and playing a traditional Nepali board game “Tigers and Goats.”

IMG_3346

Day 4-5: Dharapani to Chame to Pisang

IMGP3987

164_6445-4.JPGI’ll try to make up for two days of writing. The past two days have been my favorite so far. Luckily, we awoke in Dharapani to a sunny morning, which was great considering we fell asleep to the sound of rain on our corrugated tin roof.

IMGP3980

The landscape has changed a lot in the past two days too. Mainly, its become less humid as we’ve increased elevation. The vegetation first changed from tropical/jungly to foresty/coniferous and now to more deserty (although there’s still some trees around).

IMGP3979

IMGP3986

IMGP3996

Arriving in Chame last night, it was extremely cold. Luckily our guesthouse had a big fireplace right in the middle of the dining room. We began the evening with tea with the New Zealanders, but we all finished the night with rakshi. For the those uninformed on rural Nepali alcohol, rakshi is a distilled spirit made from millet. It tastes almost the same as sake and its also drunk warm. Our guides introduced it to us in Ngadi and they’ve had a few cups every night since. I like it and have joined them a couple times too.

IMGP4071

This morning was sunny again, but still cold. The trekking today was short, but absolutely amazing. The trail is now right under the snowy peaks of the Annapurnas. On the right side of the valley are desert mountains. The scale of the mountains on both sides is bigger than anything I’ve ever seen- most of the mountains in this area are around 25,000 feet. Down here though, there’s still a few trees, which are all sporting their autumn colors.

IMGP4006

IMGP4015

IMGP4035

We arrived in Lower Pisang around 1pm and took a quick hike across the river and up a million steps to Upper Pisang. There’s a new monastery (less than 10 years old), which was awesome to see because all the art was beautiful and unfaded. There was also an incredible view of Annapurna II. The sun set fairly early, as it has the past few days (and am told will for much of the trek)- the high mountains really cut down the amount of direct sunlight.

IMGP4051

The place we’re staying tonight is one of my favorites so far. Its just a cluster of cabins, but everyone hangs out in the big dining room with a central fireplace. I really like these wooden dining rooms that fill with the soft sounds and smells of evening conversation and smoke. I really enjoy the warmth of the mountains, as oxymoronic as that sounds.

A couple other things I’ve been thinking about are: Nepal’s development (or lack thereof) and the tourism system here. I think I’ll write a full post-trek post on Nepalese Development, but I can vent on the trekking tourism system now. Within every village, each restaurant has the same food and prices. This is because each village has a tourism committee that sets the menus and prices. This cartel system obviously only has negative effects. Firstly, the food is all overpriced. I don’t mind paying more for a Snickers bar or for a Coke, because some porter had to carry them for x number of days and the restaurant/hotel bought it an increased price. But charging us five times the Nepali price for a plate of rice or a cup of tea is ridiculous. Secondly, the standards of everywhere is lowered. What’s the point in cooking better food if you cannot charge more for it? There’s no competition, so quality slips. Charge me a little more- fine. Quote a high price and lets work from there- fine. But charging me how many times the price that Nepalis pay pisses me off. Its the whole idea of “lets rip off the foreigner” institutionalized. Racism or capitalism, I’m not sure. Anyways, the trek is beautiful and there’s nothing I can do about getting ripped off (often paying more that I’d pay in the US even), so I’ll try to not let it bother me.

joylani 130pxToday was a fairly easy day. There wasn’t nearly as much uphill as the last two days, and I think the distance we covered was shorter as well. Yesterday the scenery started to change, but today it was definitely different from the tropical plants and terraced rice patties we walked through at the beginning of the trek. Now all the trees are conifers and the scent of the fallen pine needles smells just like it would at home. Plants are getting sparser, but they are beautiful in their array of greens, golden browns, yellows, and reds. It’s nice to get a taste of fall after spending so much time in warmer climates. We got our first good peak at the snow-capped mountains today; they are truly amazing. I can’t believe we’ll be walking up in some of them. Matt and I were able to talk more today since the paths were wider and more level (usually we tend to walk single file). We went over our vague SE Asia plans which will hopefully start to solidify in the coming weeks. After arriving at our stopping point (little orange and black cabins), Matt and I were finally able to do some laundry, albeit in freezing cold water, and take a quick shower (lukewarm water, but SUPER cold due to bursts of wind coming through the window and cracks in the bathroom walls). Afterwards I had a little bit of time to enjoy the last bit of sun on our doorstep before retreating inside.

IMGP4039

Matt and the others went to go see a monastery, but I am content to stay warm (sort of warm) inside my sleeping bag. The river isn’t too near (and therefore not as loud) and the only sound breaking the calm is wind blowing in the trees…and maybe the chattering of my teeth.

IMGP4059

Day #3: Jagat to Dharapani

day3

164_6445-4.JPGMade it through day three of the trek, which consisted of more up and down from Jagat to Dharapani. It was only about six hours of hiking, but our total time was eight and a half hours, due to lunch and Maoists. Some Maoists had set up a camp blocking the trail and were demanding 30 USD per person. They just said they were making a collection, but gave no other explanation. We weren’t going to pay. Besides the fact that paying them may leave us without enough money to finish the trek, they were asking for a ludacris amount. Joylani didn’t want to support a organization that had killed thousands in the past ten-year “People’s War.” Knowing Maoism inside and out (after his uncle tried to recruit him), Binod questioned and argued with them. One of the guys took him aside and said to wait until all the other people had passed and then maybe they’d let us pass. So we waited around for an hour, while we watched the bloody Maoists collect over 1000 USD! A German guy tried to argue politics with them and pointed out that the Maoists had withdrawn from the government voluntarily. He said he was from Germany and understood Communism and that it was a bankrupt system. He asked why he had to pay them, since the permit fee all trekkers pay to the Annapurna Conservation Area Project goes towards improving the region. They told him “you don’t understand our problems and we’re collections donations to support ‘the fight for peace.’” He paid.

IMGP3951

(Polish guy.)

A Polish group came and one guy replied to them, “We’re from Poland. We’re Communists too. Do we get a discount?” Apparently not, as they forked over 400 USD. The frustrating thing was that no logic or reason would work with these guys. They were just collecting money for themselves, under the Maoist banner. They weren’t educated about their party or otherwise and just wanted money. They were mostly just 20-somethings, trying to act tough behind their sunglasses. They blocked the trail and acted tough, but their nervous joking and laugher with each other while everyone glared at them was revealing. Once the rest of the stubborn non-payers had paid and the camp was empty, they told us we could pass but wouldn’t give us a receipt and would be charged double at the next Maoist checkpost, near Manang. It was so infuriating dealing with these bandits- collecting money just because they could due to fear. It was robbery really. Anyways, we passed and crested the ridge on our way to lunch in Tal.

On the way to Tal, we passed a police team going the opposite direction towards the checkpoint. Later at lunch, we saw them on their way back. Apparently they gave the Maoists a talk and told them they didn’t want to give them citations, but would if they didn’t stop. What is this, the UN? More likely, they got paid off by the Maoists (we met some people one day behind us who ran into the same checkpoint). So much money was being collected, that the police would have had to do something or take a cut (I mentioned we saw about $1000 collected during the hour we waited; the average Nepali makes $210 per month). Our guides said the police were often in cahoots with the Maoists, to make money. At lunch we met a big tough looking Russian guy and asked if he’d paid. His response: “Hell no. I was born in the USSR.” We also met a French guy who was exclaiming that the Maoists were “real bast-odds.” Other than that, I heard Joylani call them a lot different names and Binod said if getting a gun was easier in Nepal, he’d shoot them all (I should mention he’s had Maoists hold guns to his head before, when he or his clients mouthed off before).

The rest of the day was much like yesterday: a lot of ups and downs. I still cannot figure out why the path was built in a seemingly senseless series of ups and downs. Nepali flat.

joylani 130px

We left at 8am again today and walked up and down (Nepali flat) for almost four hours until we came to a Maoist checkpoint. Usually they request a “donation” of around 100rs or so. Today they were asking for 2000rs ($31USD) per person. (Per tourist, that is. Locals aren’t asked to pay. For many Nepalis we’ve met, “tourist” and “atm” mean the same thing. Apparently the Maoists are no exception.) We didn’t want to pay. Matt more because of the crazy price and I didn’t want to support such a horrible thing. Maoists come in all different varieties from violent bus burners to bluffing bullies, but because they can be dangerous it is best not to try to openly defy their demands. So we sat and waited for a while to see what would happen after the other, larger, groups of trekkers paid and passed. Luckily the ones at this checkpoint were the latter, and as soon as they started eating lunch and the other trekkers had paid the “donation,” we were able to pass with just an empty threat of paying double at a checkpoint further on. Police we met later on confirmed our suspicions that there wasn’t actually another checkpoint in this region.

Back to the trekking part of things. Today was a lot of uphill, but there was also a lot of downhill. It is actually kind of discouraging to have a downhill section after 10-20 minutes of stairs and switchbacks going straight uphill. When we keep going up and down like that only the cooler temps and the changing scenery remind me that I am indeed gaining altitude. So what do I think about in the midst of all the walking? It changes throughout the day. In the morning when I am the freshest and can focus more, I usually think about home, the future, things I miss (my cell phone, jello, cereal, people…), and sometimes I pray or sing in my head. I try not to think or ask about the time too often because I know it would seem to pass slower. After lunch is usually the hardest stretch. Meals on the trek take a really long time to get, usually we wait for 45-60 minutes before getting our food, so by the time we start walking again we’ve been sitting for an hour and a half. My muscles get cold and a little stiff, making it harder to start walking again. The last two hours of the day I usually just zone out. Generally I’ll wonder at least once why I am doing this and if a trek this long is really necessary. Then I’ll really zone out and it gets hard to think about anything at all besides planning out the next few steps I’ll be taking around a rock or over the dry stones in a stream. If I am able to focus on one thought, it’s usually pretty random. For example, today after dodging the 400th mule poo of the day (and having gone a few times myself…yup, sick…AGAIN), I started to think of all the English words we have for poo. So far I’ve got 17, but I’m sure there’s more.

IMGP3937

Morning view.

IMGP3931

Waiting for the goats to pass.

IMGP3943

IMGP3957

The trail more or less follows the river up to it’s source. We’ll get there in a few days…to the river source that is.

IMGP3969

Another waterfall along the trail. Just one of the many reasons why the trek is so beautiful.