Monday, April 11, 2011

Our next great adventure

I have to admit, I’m much more accustomed to traveling on Qatar Air in the middle of the night. In fact, I was surprised that there even were daytime flights – I’m not certain we have ever been on one before. On the plus side, this was an extremely full flight heading for Katmandu and we were lucky enough to be upgraded to Business Class! What a luxury! There’s room to cross your legs, an armrest that you don’t have to fight over and even something of a foot rest. Did make me change my mind…it IS possible to sleep on a plane.
We arrived at Katmandu late in the evening – around 10:00 or so – and began looking for our guide who was to meet us at the airport. We searched everywhere, or so we thought. We did find the Hyatt bus there and finally, as it approached 11:15 and the airport was emptying out, we decided to go to the hotel; the airport really didn’t seem like a comfortable place to be staying in the middle of the night. Sadly, we just didn’t look in the right spot – our guide was there, looking for us and somehow we missed them. They came out to the hotel for a midnight meeting – and to let us know that we needed to be up at 5:30 to get back to the airport to catch the plane to Pokhara. Here we were, at a luxury hotel, beautiful room, gorgeous bath that rivaled the Japanese bath, yoga mat, beautiful view…and we got 5 hours of sleep and left even before breakfast! Sad, very sad.
A 5:30 wake-up? I thought we were on vacation? Dutifully we got up, showered and made it downstairs in time to meet Bill, the man who orchestrated our trip and our guide, Tserig. He proved to be a delightful travel guide and great person to hang out with. He was always ready to answer our crazy questions – and find out the answer if he didn’t know it. Fortunately, he was going to be on the flight with us – a good thing since it seems that while most Nepalese in the big city speak some English, not all of them do. It was good to have someone who knew where we were going and could understand the loudspeaker announcements.
The International portion of the Katmandu airport is fairly modern with pretty up-to-date equipment and services…the domestic terminal, right next door, has the looks of an airport built sometime in the 50’s. The old scales, all hand signs, many more pat-downs for security – and much less intrusive than what they do in the US. The plane was very small – no more than 20 people. There was coffee service available…instant that is.

Pokhara is a much smaller town than Katmandu – something to be said about small airports and small towns – makes it a bit easier to get around! Wares are sold on the streets, fresh fruits and veggies from various carts, knock-offs from name brand items everywhere. Many carts sell various prepared foods too, though our western stomachs might have been unhappy with some of those delicacies so we stuck to the tea houses and restaurants that catered to the tourists. It was here we met our driver who was to take us to the trail head for our trek up into the mountains of Annapurna. 


Unique vehicles
Many vehicles
OK…no trip is complete without a comment on the driving and this one is no different. The people here are quite eclectic, gathering tips from around the world to create massive traffic jams and noisy passages on the various roads. Add to this the fact that road maintenance is running a bit behind (by maybe 20 years)… They drive on the left, unless, of course, you’re passing someone or dodging a pothole or driving down the middle of the road because…it’s there. 
Many more interesting vehicles
To be fair, some of the roads are only paved down the middle these days, making that the easiest place to drive. When you want to pass, you honk your horn. When you want someone to move over, honk, let you through, honk, stop honk. Now I must admit I got lost on honk talk but they seem to do just fine with it. It’s another country with legal “chicken”…as you’re coming up to an oncoming car, both of you driving down the middle of the road on the only strip of pavement, it’s always a test to see who will take to the gravel first. Usually both cars have to do it because there’s rarely enough space for even 1.5 cars on the middle strip. In town the cars jostle for position to get around a round-a-bout, make a turn or even just travel down the street. There’s always movement, rushing to get into any opening and push your way ahead. Add to this mix a million bikes, scooters and motorcycles weaving in between the cars and then the pedestrians trying to make their way across the streets. Really glad we had drivers the entire time. looks easy...

The trek started at a very unremarkable spot in the road; two small shops, where you could have tea, of course, buy last minute supplies (though hardly an issue since there were tea houses with supplies all along the trail), and the porter could tie your bags together, ready to cart them up into the mountains. Our porter was a young man named Pfuri. He looked as though he was about 17, although he is actually 21. He took our two packs, along with his own smaller bag, strapped them all together, added a long strap with a wrap on it for the head, hoisted it took his back and took off. He was ALWAYS ahead of us, jogging up the steep steps and climbs as if they were flat ground, while we slowly ground our way up the tortuous steps. All of the men and women of Nepal climbed the terrain as if they were on a Sunday stroll – absolutely amazing and humbling.

The trails we traveled on varied greatly…the beginning of the trek took us winding through a small village with stores, services and homes lining the path, a path not much wider than a single car. A road above by-passes the village proper, giving a way for cars to get up to the river crossing, about a mile in. Kids played in the path, chasing each other, tossing balls, rolling sticks, and watching the many groups of foreigners hike through their village. We had a leisurely hike up to the bridge crossing the river…the point where we entered the true countryside where donkeys, horses and men are the beasts of burden. 

Rhododendron Trees

Uphill...always up
Did I mention that there’s some uphill travel here? Hmmm….if I haven’t, I better mention it. The Nepalese took lessons from the Japanese, I’m sure. The Japanese built steps that were uneven, meaning that if anyone was trying to charge up a hill or into a castle the uneven steps would slow them down, making it easier to defend said castle or village. Well…the Nepalese took this strategy to heart and create an unbelievably uneven, unending, ever varying series of steps. Apparently the trail had its beginnings as passage between small villages, eventually becoming part of the trade route from Tibet down to India. The tortuous steps were created, developed, repaired and left is disrepair throughout the ages, leaving behind wide, narrow, winding, steep, gigantic and never-ending steps for the trekker, donkeys, horses and locals to traverse.

One learned quickly that taking photos frequently was necessary when ascending the tortuous steps. It gave a plausible reason for stopping and the scenery truly was spectacular, though I do believe the hundreds of pictures taken of donkeys and sculpted mountainsides might have given our guide reason to think that perhaps the pictures were more for the opportunity to breathe than that we really needed that particular shot of donkey number 978 (and that was only the first day!). It really was a challenge but I’m happy to say we made it up and enjoyed our first stay at a tea house in Tirkedhunga. (yeah, if it wasn’t on our itinerary, I’d have NEVER remembered it.) There were also some gorgeous flowers all along the trek - bright and brilliant colors - well worth stopping for.
 I wasn’t certain exactly what staying in “tea houses” was going to mean when we signed up for this trip. Turns out it’s just what they call their small mountain “hotels” – they’re usually very small places with a restaurant and small store to supply the trekkers with everything they need. The rooms are usually just two beds and nothing more – you bring your own sleeping bag.
Donkeys right through the village

 Nepal is working on improving its environmental impact so many of the tea houses have installed more efficient electric or solar water heaters replacing the old wood burning ones (depleting the forests for firewood is a large problem). They’re also working on providing more places where the trekkers can refill their water containers (and add iodine to purify it) so that fewer plastic bottles are used. Everyone congregates in the restaurant area, swapping stories, reading books, eating and drinking. Electricity service is erratic and so frequently we found ourselves in the dark much earlier than expected. Since early rising is a must, we really weren’t interested in staying up too late…and that first day…we were ready for bed quite early. 

Moving up in the world...

The only flat spot
OK…we’re on vacation…sleeping in is supposed to be one of the perks, however, not if you’re up in the mountains. We were up at 6:30 the next morning in order to be completely packed, had breakfast, and ready to travel by 7:30. Did I mention some stairs yesterday? Hmmm…believe I did. Well, we had a few more today, in fact about 3 hours worth of stairs, straight up, unrelenting, switching back and forth, giant sized, small sized and in-between sized. They went on and on and on and on…I continued to marvel at the ability of the local people to just climb the stairs WITH huge loads on their heads and backs. I had a little tiny day pack and it was too much at times (and most of what was in it was water!). The beautiful valley, the farms eked out on the steep slopes, the children rushing up and down the steps; even though it was tiring, it was uplifting and satisfying. Fortunately, the Nepalese have a long standing custom of creating rest-stops along the way, these stops consisting of wide platforms where you can easily set your pack or basket down and then talk with the other people who are there. It’s an old custom, a way of gathering news, exchanging information, learning about others, and just plain resting. Usually there’s a tree of some sort planted in the middle, offering shade and respite from the hot sun, or perhaps a bit of protection from the pouring rain. Believe me - we took advantage of all of these stops on the way up the hill.
While we toiled up the hills, we were also delighted to find numerous waterfalls cascading through the various valleys we wound through. Many times we were able to hear the falling water but not actually see the falls. Some we were able to get a peek of through the foliage. It wouldn’t be until the last day, as we returned to our starting point that we realized that all the water we were seeing would wind its way down to the valley we started in, pouring under our first bridge. We did find a beautiful pool that would have been a great place to soak in the water if it had been warmer – it was frigid. It was definitely worth the rest we took, however, just to take in the tumbling water sounds and enjoy the beautiful colors of the pool. 

Pushing upwards...and upwards...and...

One of our many stops
What a view of our hotel

We stopped at another tea house for lunch that day – once we made it to the top of the hill. We were more than ready for the chance to sit for a while and rest! The food at the tea houses was pretty much the same everywhere we went; dahl baht, a local dish composed of rice with a thin green lentil dahl, pakoda, a vegetable fritter type dish and momos, a dumpling (similar to Japanese gyozas) filled with veggies or meats. Other foods represented numerous other countries, some curries, some burgers, some pasta dishes. We tried just about all of the local dishes over the course of our week there – most were pretty tasty and all were quite filling. must click on the picture of 'view of our hotel'. The blue roofed buildings on the lower part of the picture happens to be the lodge we stayed at last night. Methinks we've come up in the world - quite a ways up!

A few of the goats intent on eating
Most of the tea houses along the way had indoor as well as outdoor seating, though with the outdoors comes all of the livestock that might live in the particular location. This one had goats and dogs. I believe the dogs were supposed to keep the goats away from the actual seating area, a job that they didn’t seem to do well – they were too busy turning on the doleful eye bit, letting everyone know that they hadn’t eaten a thing for at least the last 2 years and were in danger of starving to death at any moment. The goats, meanwhile, thought that anything at all was fair game to eat and the younger children were tasked with the job of shooing them away from the backpacks and diners. There was also the requisite table with necklaces, bracelets, hats and other trinkets for the trekkers to buy – the call always being “it is free to look”. Until the last day, I avoided doing any looking – I didn’t want to carry anything extra at all!


View from the hotel restaurant

The climb after lunch was still more uphill than not but fortunately it was interspersed with some flat and even downhill portions, making it much easier on the legs and lungs, although the final stretch was still a killer. Finally, Tserig announced the good news; we had reached Ghorapani, officially, Lower Ghorapani…the bad news…we were staying in Upper Ghorapani, 15 minutes further up the mountain. Oh well…it did mean 15 minutes less that we had to hike in the morning.

We stayed in the rooms on the left
We stayed at a place called the Sunny Hotel, though I must admit it didn’t particularly seem to be all that sunny there. In fact, it was downright cold in Ghorapani. They had a fabulous feature in the restaurant here – a large round stove, looked like it was made out of an oil drum turned on end. A hole was cut at the bottom for air and a second one was made with a “door” on it for adding wood. Around it they had a wooden structure for hanging clothes to dry and around the whole contraption were 4 benches. I parked myself on one of those benches and pretty much spent the whole afternoon and evening there, right in front of that delicious warmth.
There's a woodburner inside those clothes!
Instead of the typical rooms with the bath and toilet down the hall, this place had a few rooms with the bath included. We decided to take advantage of that – was nice to not have to run down the cold hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night. However…the facilities were different. The toilet was a standard toilet (most toilets here are Japanese style) with a few unique features…the tank was mounted on the wall…except it wasn’t particularly secure so they added a wire around it and pounded a nail in the wall to hold it up. The seat was, well, insecure, so they added a wire around that to keep it on the toilet…kinda. It slipped a lot. The toilets in the building were actually better put together so we used those most of the time but still…appreciated in the middle of the night. The shower was interesting…a shower head right next to the toilet…with two conflicting signs. Once said to “turn on water and wait 3 min. for hot water”. The other said “shower uses wood to heat water so please take very short shower”. We decided to skip the shower, did a spits bath and called it good for the night.

Poon Hill

It's official - we made it

4:15 am?! Wait a minute – we’re on vacation – I thought. This day, however, we were getting up early to trek up the steep hill to the top of Poon Hill, for a sunrise view of two of the largest mountains in the world – Annapurna (8,091m) and Dhaulagiri (8167m). We start out around 4:45 to hike through the pitch black village (no street lights here) and up into the rhododendron forest (yes, forest, you read correctly. Rhododendrons here are not bushes here, they are huge trees).
Sun across the mountains
For this trip, we decided to rent sleeping bags and jackets from Bill since what we have here is for desert camping rather than cold weather camping. When we got the jackets, I was appalled to discover that one of the jackets was pink – bright pink. I had resigned myself to being the one stuck with it…until I happily discovered that it was reversible, with only two small pink stripes on the reverse side. I also have to admit, as we started the climb, wearing those huge down jackets, I thought it was totally overkill. I ended up shedding just about all of my layers on the way up – and poor Pfuri and Tserig ended up carrying the jackets for both of us.

Sun peaking through the clouds
It was really difficult to climb – the steepness of the stairway (hmmm...steep stairs…nah…very unusual here) and the dark. For some reason the dark really seemed to make it more difficult. Although I was convinced it took us close to 2 hours to toil up the mountain, Tserig (and the ipod) assured me that it really was closer to 50 minutes. Along the way, I had the chance for many stray thoughts to enter my head…things like this was a case of mass insanity – climbing a hill in the dark? There were many of us, climbing that hill in the pitch black morning. I was also impressed with the entrepreneurship of the Nepalese people – a small group of men had a coffee/tea stand up on top of Poon Hill where they sold these wonderful hot drinks and snacks to all of us crazy people who hiked to the top to endure the bitter cold to view the sunrise.
Remember those jackets I thought were totally overkill…they weren’t. When we hit the top of the hill we discovered it was cold, bitterly cold, the wind was biting and the jackets were wonderful. I actually wished that they were knee length! Fortunately we were up there on a morning that was relatively clear – we had some clouds shrouding the mountains but to be fair, the clouds also gave us a little bit of color to the sunrise. It was really something to stand on the mountain and watch the sun come up, shedding light across the giants, sitting so close to the top of the world. 

Phenomenal, Memorable, Panoramic views

As we left Ghorapani, we were treated to an unending skyline of the same giant mountains that are part of the Annapurna Mountains. The trail we climbed, fortunately a trail that had many more flat stretches included between the steep uphill sections, afforded us multiple views of these giants. To put this in perspective, the trail we were following, meandering through the hills, following the line of snow covered mountains, was higher than Mount Hood. The cloud cover had melted away so each view of the towering mountains seemed like it would be the opportunity to capture the perfect picture with just the right lighting. Needless to say we spent a lot of time capturing “100 views of the Annapurna Mountains”. 

Life in the hills...

Hanging out clothes to dry
Tree climber
While this portion of the trek started with a long uphill stretch, we finally hit the downhill point through the high forests, beautiful valleys and delightful waterfalls, along with those never ending steps. Thankfully, this time we were heading down them instead of up. Amazing…I kept thinking how bad it would be to go up all of the steps, Tserig reminded us that we had already come up that far the first couple of days. I still think that the downside was a bit steeper than what we had but…I could be wrong. I was just thankful that we were heading down. We wove our way through the forests, along the mountain edges, past numerous waterfalls and down to the small river cutting its way through the valley. The bad news…our next tea house was on the OTHER side of the valley…at the top.  
On the way we passed people doing everyday things - everyday things for them at least. The young girl in the tree was cutting branches to bring back to feed the family water buffalo. She would stay out until she had gathered enough to make a HUGE basket and then carry it back up the hill (I'm sure she lived up the hill - everything was up the hill). She's!

Selling trinkets to the tourists
Satellite dish heading home
The lodge in Tadapani was not one of our favorites as far as our room went. The age wasn’t the issue – all of the lodges were older and in varying states of repair – it was the location…right next to the toilet. People hadn’t figured out that putting toilet paper in a toilet was a BIG issue – so it was plugged. The floor was covered with water…who knows what was in the water (we used the squatter downstairs, even though this one was outside our door). However…it had a wonderful dining room. Now, it was not wonderful because it was fancy or anything but great because it had this long table with blankets hanging over the edge. Underneath was another of those oil drums, this one a smaller version (maybe a beer keg size???). Inside they poured glowing wood charcoal that sent delicious heat out. Everyone in the place sat around the table where we ate and visited all evening long. It was especially nice when the storm started…lightning, thunder and hail! We definitely did not want to leave to go to bed. 

We have it way too easy...

She carried these bags!

I have to take a slight diversion to tell about the people who live in the back country here. They are industrious, strong and extremely hard working. With no vehicles of any sort back in this country, EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING is carted in on donkey or people. We passed people carrying unbelievable loads up and down these hills…the same hills we struggled up with miniscule packs on.
Supplies for stores
All the bottled water we bought…carted in. The rice we ate…carted in. The pre-packaged food they sold…carted in. Fortunately, most of the food they cooked and sold was locally grown and pesticide free. Very healthy in that respect. But then you have to look at their homes, tea houses, electric power, metal roofs, metal poles, we even saw a man carrying what looked to be either a small refrigerator or a small washer, not sure which. Then there’s the feed for the various animals – all brought up on a person’s back. The rocks that they built everything with…all hand carried.

Camping group porters
Note the eggs...

When you look at what they have done and accomplished, knowing that even the cement and paint they used was carried in by back or donkey, it’s amazing. I had the perfect picture that got away – an old woman, at least in her 70’s, carrying 3 duffel bags strapped together. Unbelievable. And the most amazing thing was the speed at which they traversed the hills. Tserig told us that the 5 hour hikes we made were “tourist” times…the Nepalese would have completed the same trek in 3 hours – with a pack. 

Map of our trip

Yes! Here is a map of our trip through the Annapurna Mountains. What a trip it was! If you click on the link it will show you the elevation gain as well as the names of the paces along the route.
Annapurna Panorama Ghandruk Loop (Poon Hill Trek) at EveryTrail

More sunrises

Back to the trip…the next morning we got to sleep in – not planning on getting up until 7:30 – seemed like a really great treat. Well, Mother Nature, having a perverse nature, woke me up at my typical 5:30 time and, since the bathroom upstairs was less than desirable, I traipsed downstairs to the outside accommodations. Since I wasn’t the only one with an early morning bladder, I was forced to stand and wait, looking out over the mountains, realizing it was just about sunrise and the sky was clear and the sun was cresting and it was the picture perfect moment. I dashed upstairs, woke up Jeff, grabbed my camera and headed back downstairs. I think everyone in the hotel came out to get the pictures – we had all been up on Poon Hill the day before and while it was great, the clarity this morning was fabulous.

At one time, the path was 3 feet up
This time our trek led us through a more jungle like environment – moss hanging from the trees, ferns growing all along the way, rolling hills, level and downhill, lots more of the steps, shaded waterfalls and streams. It was really a very pleasant walk to the village of Ghandrung. Take note of the picture on the left. The trail here has been around for MANY years. At one time it would have been flat across the mounds on either side - just like rivers cut out valleys over time, so has the footsteps of countless wanderers. 

Ghandrung by far is the wealthiest village we have been to on this trek. It is, I believe, the last major village before the Annapurna base camp, making it a prime jumping off point for groups planning on climbing any of the mountains in the region. This village welcomes you with a wonderful rock path starting high up on the hill – actually at one of the many rock resting points you find across Nepal. One other resource that is available here is Nepal is rocks – you can find as many rocks as you would like for any project you want.  They used quartzite, common to the area, to create walkways down, into and throughout the entire village. The homes, tea houses, and farms all showed the care and dedicated work to make this village stand out. 

Walking around Ghandrung

Kitchen from the old days
The same basket was inside

The village also had 2 different museums, filled with artifacts from “life in the old days”, including baskets, farm implements, wooden wine containers and old weaving tools. There was a display of a “typical” day in the life of a Nepalese family. The greatest things about it was that many of the ‘artifacts’ are still in use today. The hand cranked spinning wheel could be seen sitting on someone’s porch with partially spun wool on it. The amazing array of baskets they used was both beautiful and functional – and again still in use. The same weave used in the past was found under the corn laid out to dry in someone’s courtyard. The basket the baby was in didn’t differ from the one on display inside the museum. Same, same but different describes it well.

A lively game of cricket

Posing for the camera
While we were out walking we came across a group of boys playing cricket. Kids are the same everywhere - they loved posing for the camera and we had a great time talking with them in crazy English, and taking their pictures while they performed more and more crazy acts for us to record for posterity. Wish there was a way to get pictures back to them - they were such clowns and so funny. They loved hamming it up for us and everyone wanted to be the one to hit the ball a mile away - sadly only one of them even connected while we were watching. I don't think it stopped their enjoyment.

Milan Tea House in Ghandrung

We stayed this night at the Milan Tea House – a delightful place with beautiful rooms, hot showers and great food. Sadly the restaurant was colder than last night’s but I guess you can’t have everything – I really was wishing for that wonderful foot warmer…I am really tired of being cold. Another hailstorm kept us inside that evening – thankful that we at least had a closed room that was a bit warmer.
Despite the cold weather, the rain, the hail…we heard a terrific discordant clashing of symbols and gongs, loud and noisy, making its way towards the hotel. The same group of boys, along with some others, came rushing into the hotel, banging, laughing, singing and dancing for all. Some were wearing masks, others held sticks and many noisemakers. Apparently is was some kind of local celebration that they were participating in – part of it being going from house to house, asking for money and making noise until you paid up. Tserig wasn’t even certain exactly what they were celebrating, just that it was a local custom and that this was the night that they did it. The masks and noise-makers gave it a Halloween type feel to it. Crazy. 
They actually came twice to the tea house - the picture is from the first visit - sans masks. Sadly I didn't have the camera with me when they returned in the evening with even more boys and more noise-makers, masks, and much more confusion.

Leaving Ghandrung

Prayer flags added color to view
What a setting for a hotel
Once again we awoke to gorgeous blue skies and fabulous views of the surrounding mountains. Jeff got up early to go into the village and take some perfect shots – I stayed warm in bed. I am really spoiled by living in the Middle East – it’s never that cold when you wake up in the morning so it’s very easy to get up at any time. The view from the hotel, however, was not to be ignored. What a place to wake up in – to view the top of the world!

One of many pastoral farms
Today’s walk took us downhill through large terraced and scattered farms, beautiful settings with views of the far reaching valley. Really not certain why this side of the valley seems so much richer and better developed than the other side we hiked through – neither one has access to cars to bring in supplies, both cart everything in, both have hikers through during the peak season yet the richness and wealth over here is quite obvious – a huge difference.