Sunday, March 28, 2010

March 24 Chitwan National Park

March 24, Pokhara.

This was a sort of pause - a day in Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna region and a major tourist mecca. When the air is clear you have marvelous views of the Annapurna range but it wasnt at all clear - visibility maybe 3 miles. Raj rented a motorbike because he said there was so much to see, and it was fun to ride clear out beyond the end of the lake, way beyond the city limits, and have the tiny fish they catch out of the lake fried, with a nice tomato garlic chili sauce. We visited Davis Falls, named for a woman who was bathing in a pool upstream and swept to her death by a flash flood. The creek falls about 40 feet into a limestone cavern, which we also visited; it is an interesting formation, a deep cleft in the limestone - but no stalactites or anything like that. Near the entry to the cave is a Hindu shrine ("photographing exceedingly prohibited"); there was also a rather tacky sculpture of a cow; if you put a coin in one place milk flows out, in another place, she pees.

The town itself is interesting, several miles of tourist hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops; not quite as jammed with tourists as I expected, but we did run into several people we met on the trek. I'd rather have walked than motorbiked, frankly - my butt got pretty tired of bouncing over the beat-up pavement, but it was a fun, laid-back day.

We passed a procession - Hare Rama, related to and similar to the Hare Krishna people familiar in the U.S. and elsewhere; very interesting; I got some neat photos I will upload. We also visited a very famous Hindu temple - it is one of the major festival days, day after the birthday of Rama, and the place was jammed with pilgrims from India as well as Nepal. A holy man was giving counsel in one place, people were entering the main temple (forbidden to non-Hindus) then making a sacrifice, and another holy man was reading from one of the holy books, then leading a song / chant in a nasal voice. Usually I find nasal voices very irritating, but his worked, and sounded overall very musical. The whole experience was beautiful and interesting.

We stopped downtown to try to get Raj's watch fixed, and bought me a cheap one for $2 that is hard to read in any but very strong light but will get me by for a couple or three more weeks. We popped into a momo shop - the dingy little hole-in-the-wall places seem to serve the best; this time the filling was a ground meat, buffalo I think; very good.

We rode the motorcycle Raj had rented up to a high viewpoint, but with visibility about 5 miles at best, we could barely see the lake and town much less the Himalayas. So Raj drove way out of town along and beyond the end of the lake, where we saw children catching small fish in the flooded fields as well as in the backwaters - we came to a village, where Raj stopped at a typical ramshackle hut / restaurant, cooking mostly in the open, and ordered some of the small fish, fried, with a piquant green sauce and a beer; it was very tasty.

Recipe: Nepali bar-nuts. Peanuts, a little finely chopped green chili (not too strong), cumin, salt, raw purple onion very finely minced, and lime juice. Very good with a cold beer at the end of a hot day. Can't remember where we had them.

Dinner in one of Pokhara's two authentic Indian restaurants (they don't serve pizza, tacos, etc. - just Indian food). The meal, for about $10 apiece, was about twice what we needed; with a little more rice we could have shared one. Chicken, curries, including a very interesting curried cheese dish, wonderful Indian bread. Raj told me about Dhana's unfortunate situation - both wife and mother recently hospitalized; kids needing money for a better school, etc. Don't know how much I can do, but I will try to do a little something for him.
March 25, Chitwan.

The road to Chitwan is mostly paved, in good shape, but with frequent stretches where the pavement totally gives way to deep pot-holes and huge rocks - 5 mph or slower. We left early, so the traffic wasn't too bad; stopped at a typical Nepali roadside eatery - a row of open-sided shacks, where people just stop on the pavement (our driver had the good sense to stop in front of a huge truck). I took a picture of the place and a slightly blurry picture of the kitchen. Food was great - vegetable balls rolled up and fried, something very like the fried potato cakes mom used to make, boiled eggs, a thin but tasty soup.

We arrived at the resort about 11, took a shower. Lunch was at 12:30, no activities scheduled until 4:00. ("four days and three nights." Hah!) Raj told me to just relax, take a nap - I threw a bit of a fit; after sitting in a car over rough roads all morning relax was the last thing I wanted to do. After a bit the hotel's guide, Govinda, showed up; a very nice young man, about 25. He said we could do a canoe ride and jungle walk if I wanted, asked me how my heart is. I told him to ask Raj about my heart. Govinda was waiting for another guest, due to arrive at about 1:30; said we would leave for the canoe ride about 2. The other guest came, a woman from China, and she did want to rest, so Govinda and I set out for the river.

Turns out Govinda had a very long walk in mind, so I picked up an extra bottle of water. We had the canoe - a dugout, made from the trunk of the ubiquitous cotton tree, poled by a man standing up in the rear. The river is shallow and slow this season; we drifted slowly along, listening to the burbling of the river, the splash of the pole, the many species of songbirds, some of which we could see, as Govinda pointed out particular specimens. It was a very relaxing trip, but also very exciting: We saw a total of about 5 crocodiles, including a tiny baby who backed into his hole before I could snap his picture. Some of the crocs were quite close to the shore. After about an hour, we left the canoe and began a long rambling walk through the woods, with Govinda pointing out a few monkeys, a few wild boar, several herds of spotted deer, and many birds. It was a very useful walk, both because of the opportunity to stretch my legs and because it gave me a chance to learn to see in these woods, learn what to look for and where.

We got back with only enough time before dinner for me to shower and clean up. After dinner, Govinda, Raj, and I walked through the village to a kind of community center for a cultural program. The community center is a long, narrow, low-ceiling concrete structure with horrid acoustics - to make things worse, the announcer had an extremely annoying voice. And, packed with human bodies and with only a handful of slow ceiling fans, it was intolerably hot. I sat through two dance numbers, stood up near the door through three more - all were very interesting, very nicely done, but sweat was running off me in sheets, I was far hotter than I was earlier in the afternoon in the full sun. Finally I gavve up and returned to he hotel, transferred my pictures to my camera, and went to bed.

A word about the resort (and I think most of them are like this, probably excepting the really high-end, expensive ones). Clean, reasonably padded bed, my room large enough for three people, two reasonable chairs, decent bathroom, and power off from 6 or 7 a.m. until 9 or 10. The staff, and Raj, worried about the heat, and apparently it bothers a lot of visitors, but I did not find it that oppressive. It was uncomfortable, even in the shade, from about 1 until 3:30 or so, otherwise downright balmy. As Raj told me when we first got there, the package included a "fixed program," much of it couch-potato stuff like elephant washing (they ask for volunteers, select a handsome young man and a pretty young woman, who get to try to balance on top of an elephant's back in the water while the elephant sprays himself and them with trunkful after trunkful of river water. Much falling off, clambering back on, screeches and giggles. 10 minutes was more than enough to watch. They also have a jeep ride into the jungle (jeep pickup with benches facing toward the center, filled with yakking tourists and belching half-digested hydrocarbons). After I was there a while, talking with one of the waiters, I began to get the story. He described the typical guests as a fat male, fat belly, fat legs, fat arms, with a slender over-dressed and sexually frustrated wife (he didn't say and I didn't ask how many of the implicit invitations he had accepted.) The program is not designed for people who want to engage actively with the park; it is designed for people who want pictures of themselves being near the park and doing wildlife-themed things. (Maybe 1/10th the visitors are from the U.S. and Canada, 1/4 from Europe, the rest from India and other parts of Asia.)

The restaurant was also a bit frustrating. Breakfast was an Austrailian / English style breakfast, including the hard, greasy sausages and pork and beans. Lunch was a veggie burger and fries - good fries, but not in the same league with the momos and other Nepali food I'd become accustomed to. Dinner the first night - fairly good American-style Cantonese food. They actually did serve a version of dal bhat the third night, the only semblance of actual Nepali food they ever served. A resort for people who want to travel without ever leaving home.

Fortunately for me, Govinda, finding himself with a tourist who was actually interested in the park, the wildlife, and the culture, was very willing to tailor a program to fit my needs and interests.

March 26

Early breakfast, all-day hike in the park planned, but Govinda said there was a line of about 100 people wanting permits, so we didn't actually get started until about 7:30. Saw rhino prints right in the village, in the dust near the outdoor tavern and sunset-viewing area. A boat poled us across the river, where we picked up a second (apprentice) guide - park rules call for two guides, both to help defend against possible large animal attacks and to provide a backup in case one guide is killed or injured, to make certain the tourists find their way back. The lesson was driven home when we saw fresh tiger and sloth-bear prints in the dust, as well as many more rhino prints. We walked a long route, following the river, then a smaller tributary where we saw a crocodile, about 3 meters long, sunning himself in the weeds above the river bank. I got some good pictures, but when we moved around behind him he slid into the water, then resurfaced just his nose on the far side. Lots of spotted deer - I got some beautiful pictures of them. Monkeys, most too far for pictures; eagles, other birds. About 1:30, we came to a marshy lake where Govinda thought we might see something, stopped in the shade to eat lunch (a very good olunch of fried rice, boiled egg, cold fried chicken from the night before), then the apprentice climbed a tree to keep a lookout.

While we were sitting there Govinda asked if I would like to spend the night in a platform hut in the jungle. Of course I said I would, so he said he would try to reserve it for us.

Abruptly the apprentice whistled, so we scrambled to put shoes back on, gathered our stuff into our packs, and hurried to him, then over a series of muddy trails to the lakeshore - where we were treated to the sight of several rhinos wallowing in the shallows on the far side of the lake. After we took a number of pictures, Govinda thought he heard another rhino coming, so we circled around to the end of the lake, and watced them some more. We saw two other small groups of tourists lounging in the shade nearby, but apparently they hadn't bothered to post a lookout and were unaware of the rhinos. I don't know whether Govinda told the guides or not - eventually the others showed up, just as the rhinos were leaving and the show was over.

We lingered a while longer, but nothing else showed up, so we headed back to the river, then along the river bank toward the village. Scanning the far short for crocs or other interesting wildlife I had the good fortune to pick up a large animal, which I soon realized had to be a cat. It was tawny in color, about the size of a cougar; it scrambled up a 15 foot high mud bank like a housecat going up a tree and disappeared in the woods. It was too small to be a tiger; I thought it was probably a leopard, a conclusion Govinda confirmed. It was easily 200 meters away, and the whole thing happened much too quickly for pictures.

We arrived back at the village with about 40 minutes to relax then shower before dinner. Sat down at the sunset spot and ordered a beer and popcorn, then Govinda asked if I'd be willing to do a bit more walking in the jungle. "Sure." So he told the waiter we'd be back, and we headed back into the park, walked probably 1 kilometer or a bit more to a spot where one of the smaller rivers winds through a large open meadow. There, as Govinda clearly expected, we saw a single rhino soaking itself in the river while women washed their clothes and kids swam in the river about 10 meters upstream. Watched it for at least a half hour. One of the other handful of tourists there had a dog, a mid-sized terrier, maybe about 45 lbs, that kept wading into the water toward the rhino; when the rhino would blast water from his nose in a loud snort, the dog would retreat to the shore, then turn and bark at the rhino. It was quite amusing. Eventually the rhino emerged and walked off into the meadow to graze; we returned to the last bit of sunset and my beer and popcorn, then returned to the hotel for dinner.

March 27.

Today we did another boat trip, on a different branch of the river. This time a French couple went with us with their own guide and two children, 2 and 5. The 2 year old girl obviously didn't understand what was happening, and more or less complained the whole time; I think her parents did a generally good job of keeping her silent - they seemed like very nice people. Their guide hummed under his breath most of the time - also distracting. But we did see one really large croc, curled up so he looked like a big rock - until I saw the scales; also several beautiful birds. After the boat ride we walked through the meadow, and back to the place in the river where the same rhino was taking a bath again.

After the walk, we rented a bike and bicycled to a Tharu village, which is set up to display their traditional as well as contemporary culture. I took a few pictures there - I was especially interested in their current use of biogas converters with both human and animal waste to generate gas for cooking - every house in the village has one.

After lunch and a short internet session, Govinda picked me up to go elephant riding. They put some sacks of padding on the elephant's back, then a platform with light padding and a wood frame around it; 4 tourists sit, one at each corner, one leg on each side of the upright - no good place to brace your feet. We were on a juvenile elephant; like all the others his gait was jerky and rough, so one bounced against both front and side braces with each step. After a while I learned to brace myself firmly against the front brace. I also learned quickly that I should have worn long pants - my bare legs were at exactly the right height for the shrubs, bushes, and broken tree branches to whip against. I learned how delinquent the elephant was quickly, when we crossed a mud hole and he siphoned up a bunch of muddy water to splash against my legs and thighs. He also tried to rear up to reach a tasty branch off a young tree, and kept ripping up shrubs to eat. The driver called him "Pizza Hut" and I kept wondering if that was a threat related to where the carcass would end up.

For all the discomfort, the ride was fun, and I wouldn't have missed it. We saw many animals up close - it is amazing how much closer the animals let you get when you're on an elephant. We were within 6 or 7 meters of two rhinos resting in the shade, and also of a herd of spotted deer - half as far as they keep you on foot.

The highlight of the day came at 5, when we picked up box dinners, a beer for me, some extra filtered water, and took a jeep to the edge of the community forest, then hiked in a kilometer or two to the sleeping platform. Along the way we came to a tree filled with monkeys, and sat and watched them for nearly an hour, then went on to the platform, a three story structure with a circular iron staircase. I was instructed to pee over the edge, and if I needed to use the toilet (ground level) during the night to wake Govinda to watch over me - never, under any circumstances, walk alone in the jungle.

A little before sunset a herd of spotted deer, maybe 30 or more, came out to graze, then they were joined by several wild boars. As the twilight deepened, too dark to take photos, two rhinos ambled out to graze, and stayed until nearly dark. The moon was full; we enjoyed just looking at the jungle in the moonlight, listening to the drumming and singing from the village (Saturday night, both tourists and natives partying) and to the many bird-calls, and eating dinner by moonlight. We opened up the windows to catch a breeze, so the sleeping quarters (two double rooms, one bed for tourist and one for guide) were cool. I went to bed in my clothes, but soon took most of them off to be more comfortable; there were very few mosquitoes but we slept under mosquito netting anyway. I awoke briefly several times, then about 1 got up to pee, and saw a big cat slink out from under the platform, then run in an easy loping gait across the meadow until I lost him in the dark. Too small for a tiger; almost certainly another leopard. A minute or so after I lost track of him I heard furious barking from the tree with all the monkeys in it. I gazed at the moonlight on the forest for a while, then went to bed and went back to sleep, listening to the various sounds, most prominently the peacocks. They have many calls, including one that sounds a great deal like a very unhappy cat's meow. The night in the tower was a very special night; I'm really glad I did it.

March 28, Leaving Chitwan; return to Kathmandu

This morning after we had returned from the platform, Govinda suggested another walk in the jungle. I agreed, so we had a light breakfast there at the entrance to the community forest, he resolved an issue with our permit, we picked up a second guide and set out. More monkeys, over a half hour watching another troop of them, then a couple of really large deer, and a couple of barking deer. They are larger than the spotted deer, and they really do bark - it sounded like a pack of hounds. Finally, Govinda and the other guy found a couple of rhinos soaking in a small, nearly dry pond. We settled down to watch, and a couple of tourist laden elephants came by, then a third rhino came up and stood uncertainly on the shore. One of the rhinos already in the water stood up, and Govinda said they were both males, the third one female, and he was afraid they might fight, which would be dangerous for us. So he made me stand next to an easily climbed tree, just in case. Eventually the newcomer waded in, made a gesture ofr submission and settled down into the water a ways from the first two, so they managed to work it out without a fight. However, about that time three tourist elephants in a group came up, Govinda decided that there was too much chance that the rhinos would get disturbed and unhappy about it, so we left. A great animal viewing trip.

Final thoughts on Chitwan. I was very glad Govinda was so accommodating - I think part of the reason is that I did my best to be easy to please and cooperative. The park is fun; more fun than the tourist village or the touristy entertainments like elephant bathing. There is an alternative I wish I'd known more about, that I will certainly do if I return to Nepal. You can take an extended trek - 5 or 7 days would take you to all the different habitats in the park, chance to see animals that don't hang out near the main village; stay in lodges along the way. That sounds like enormous fun, and I would heartily recommend it to others who are in good condition and enjoy hiking. Fall is bad - grass too high, visibility limited. March is good, but early February best because it is cooler and there is less dust and smoke in the air.

My guide was excellent - I don't know if he works independently or under contract with the hotel, but I would recommend him strongly:
Govind Parased Thanait
Auguli V3C Word No. 5 Shergungy
Nawal Parasi District Lumbini Zone Nepal
mobile 977 9845 347187

Flight back to Kathmandu was uneventful; very small plane but very short flight. 45 minutes to cross the city through the traffic. Thoughts about Kathmandu traffic. The busses are a major source of hold-up; they move slowly, stop frequently, and often fill most of the lane. Trucks are another big issue - they tend to just stop wherever, often block most or all the roadway. Motorbikes are another bit of grit in the wheels; they are quick, opportunistic, and often when there is a space barely big enough for a car to squeeze around the bus or truck. The lack of rules and "make it up as you go along" attitudes of most drivers is the biggest issue. People pass in whatever lane, turn from whatever lane, stop wherever.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Phase III - Completing the circuit and return to Pokhara

March 17. Kagbeni

Woke up this morning at 5:30, with no stiffness or other traces of yesterday's climb. Did some pushups and modified situps again, then Dhana brought me hot water to make a cup of coffee, and we walked up the street to a famous monastery / temple complex, that includes a small "eternal flame," apparently slightly sulfurous natural gas seeping out of a crack in the rock. Raj told me it was okay to take pictures in the shrine that included the flame so I did, but I got yelled at by a nun so I didn't do any more. The complex is very interesting, several very old temples and shrines in it. On the hills above the monastery are several web-like kpatterns of prayer flags; I hope they will show up in the photos I took. The entire visit was quite interesting, probably best grasped by looking at my photo blog.

After we left the temple we had breakfast, then set out for Kagbeni. Much of the way we walked along the recently built road, not much traffic except occasional jeep-busses and farm tractors pulling wagons; they always left a cloud of dust. Took a number of pictures of a couple of very old villages, and took some pictures back toward the pass I crossed yesterday; I'll post the best. I also took some pictures up the canyon toward Upper Mustang (the "forbidden kingdom" - recently opened to trekkers, entry fee about $700. (Still pretty forbidden!) It looks interesting - rather arid, steep mountains with little snow atop. By the time we reached Kagbeni, the wind was already starting - Raj says this valley is called "windy valley." In that respect, as well as the dry hills, with a low ground-hugging variety of sage brush, low cactus, abundant rocks and deep powdery dust it reminds me a lot of Idaho.

The hotel here is nicer than I've seen in several days - my room actually includes a private bath with a U.S. style toilet. I took a "hot" shower - at least it was warmed up enough that it didn't give me hypothermia, like the last one I took, back in Manang. I had fried rice again, but wished I'd had momo - one of my new acquaintances had it and gave me a taste; it was the best I've had. I had hoped to find an internet connection here, but they shut down the line during the off season. Best hope is Jomsom.

After lunch Raj and I walked into town, which is very old, and took some pictures of narrow streets, wood stacked on roofs, etc., then visited a 500 year old monastery - a few more pictures. On the way home we saw some sheep, including a ram with 4 horns; the picture Raj took only shows three of them. I spent much of the remainder of the afternoon sorting and naming pictures and catching up the blog. It has grown quite windy out, and cold, and I have a lovely view of Nirgidi Peak from the dining room. Very likely, the cold air sliding down all these snow covered peaks contributes to the chill.

A note about some technical details. Most rooms are locked with padlocks, sometimes attached to little more than a twisted wire. Many of the padlocks have a couple of annoying features: you have to hold the bar in the lock against a spring and turn the key to lock it, and the inner part of the key-hole often rotates away from the outer; together these require two-handed operation, awkward when returning from the shower burdened with towel, soap, etc. Outlets to charge batteries are often absent, and some hotels charge a lot - in one I paid nearly $8 to recharge the laptop.

March 18, Marpha

Another note about facilities - yesterday and today the toilet facilities were U.S. style sit-down rather than squat. Not coincidentally, there is an airport in Jomsom, between the two, so this area gets a lot of fly-in rich people. It was a slightly jarring note - I had got used to the squat variety.

Today we left Kagbeni early and walked to Jomsom, where I spent nearly an hour (and about $7) doing a couple of simple e-mail tasks; thus no upload of journal or pictures). Raj spent even longer withdrawing some cash from his bank - one of the banks had an ATM, but it doesn't accept MasterCard. A lot of banks here don't - very annoying. I may have to break down and get a Visa after all, if I'm going to do much more travelling. The internet cafe was willing to give a cash advance on my credit card - for a 10% fee. Raj's bank charged 4% even for a withdrawal. It only took a bit over two hours to walk to Jomsom, but by the time we had taken care of business it was after 11:30, so Raj suggested lunch at a little momo cafe. I'm glad he did; it was filled with buffalo, plus seasonings, onions, etc. and the best I've had. He also ordered a plate of a kind of stir-fried noodles with assorted vegetables and dried buffalo, also very good.

By the time we finished lunch, the wind had started, so we walked against a stiff headwind all the way to Marpha - it is only a couple of miles but took over an hour, with the wind. Today's and yesterda's walking was about half on the road, half along trails that more or less parallel the road - many of them short-cutting switch-backs. The traffic isn't too heavy, mostly busses and enlarged 8-12 passenger jeeps that serve as a combination bus and taxi, plus farm tractors pulling wagons loaded with freight; in today's wind they were pretty annoying because of the dust they kicked up. Part of the way we walked on the gravel of the river-bed, while Raj and Dhana looked for fossils; apparently the monsoons wash them up from the river and down from eroding hillsides - the streets of Muktinath are filled with peddlers selling them. Raj says people come every fall after the monsoon to look for them. By now it's pretty picked over, but he did find one broken one. I'm pretty sure the guidebook warned that it is illegal to take them out of the country or into the US without a permit, and in the unlikely event I found one I would have checked with the US embassy before even thinking about it.

Marfa is an interesting, quite old town with whitewashed walls of rock and rock plastered with something, probably clay; I took several pictures. We also toured another old monastery, where I took more photos; it is partway up a hill and affords quite a view of the valley, which is quite lovely. Marfa calls itself the "Apple Capital of Nepal," and I had an apple crumble and glass of (hard) cider for afternoon tea; the cider was better than most I've had. They also specialize in apricot brandy here, and I hope to try some this evening.

March 19 Kalapani.

The hotel didn't stock Apricot brandy - disappointment. But they did stock an apple brandy that was excellent - delicate apple taste, very smooth, no unpleasant after-taste. I also had another apple crumble for dessert, with a kind of half-liquid custard over it - very good. Had another apple crumble for breakfast, along with some Tibetan fried bread that was also excellent.

We walked to Kalapani, first along the road, with the wind at our backs; that didn't keep it from blowing gritty dust in our eyes every time a bus or truck passed. About 1/3 of the way there we crossed the river and a series of lesser branches and walked the rest of the way over river rock and sand-bars left over from the last monsoon. Walking on that side of the river allowed us excellent views of Dhawalagiri, including the glacier that runs down from fairly near the top; I got a number of great photos. We also got some good views of a different aspect of two of Nilgiri's three peaks, then finally saw the third. Not long before we reached Kalapani, Annapurna I came into view. From the upper deck of our hotel I have a lovely view of all of Annapurna I as well as Nilgiri, and have already taken several photos - as the sun moves westward, the mountain changes radically. As I write, I am looking at bare, brownish rock where my earlier photos show blue shadows.

After I had lunch, we walked back to an internet cafe we had passed, a hundred meters or so down the street, and I had a frustrating half hour trying to send some small word files to LaJean. I finally had to use Raj's account, and even that was frustrating. I think the slowness of the connection caused the pdx computer to time out before all the preliminaries were completed. I gave up on doing anything else.

On the way to Kagbeni, we met an old German guy, probably about my age, slightly goofy who spoke in the sort of exaggerated soft way I sometimes associate with aging hippies - and he fit the character otherwise. He showed up in our hotel in Kalapani, and the reason for his wierdness became apparent. He claims to have spent a month or longer almost every year for the past 30 years in India and/or Nepal; he also smoked joints the size of a cigar about every other hour (marijuana and hash are legal in Nepal. I later saw one of the guides smoking a smaller, more normal sized joint.)

Along the way we saw two hikers who had taken a bridge to the other side of the river and followed what turns out to be a dead-end trail; they had to back-track nearly 2 miles. One more reason why it's a good idea to have a guide if you haven't been here before. Larger-scale high detail maps are, as far as I know, not available here.

Several other groups came through while we were settling in to our hotel and having lunch; Raj tried to convince several of them to stay there, where there was a spectacular view of both Nilgiri and Annapurna I as well as Dawalgiri, but they were all insistent on going on to Ghasa, which Raj said had no view at all. The next day it took us one and a quarter hours to reach Ghasa, and Raj was right - staying in Kalapani was much better. Just before dinner we were treated to a group of Tibetan women in traditional dress, dancing and singing / chanting (the kind of song where someone proposes a verse and everyone sings it.) They were on the last day of a 28 day celebration - since there was a teenage girl near the center of the group, I think it may have had to do with coming of age. I have a couple of nice pictures, taken from the second story balcony of the hotel. I also have a little video, but unfortunately didn't think of that until the group was already moving on, and seemed to be losing some of their enthusiasm. It was really fun. After dinner, we walked up the street a ways to watch the sunset, and I got several great photos showing the increasing color on Annapurna; then I took a photo of the rosy sunset clouds above Dawalagiri, marred by a power line but otherwise beautiful.

March 20, Tatopani.

The walk to Tatopani had quite a bit of pretty spectacular scenery, but we lost the views of high mountains about a half hour out. We were walking mostly along the road, inches deep in dust that fogged up every time a bus or truck roared by. The walk was enjoyable otherwise, and when we got off the road it was really nice - one narrow lane between two rock walls, with ferns, bracken, and flowers all over the place. The main attraction here is a hot spring, which is nice, but as usual I was good for only about 20 minutes. There is a view of Nilgiri, but it was mostly lost in the haze and dust - I'm hoping for better tomorrow.

I had a bit of a run-in with Raj again this evening that was rather unsettling. Tomorrow we start up hill again, a total of a bit less than 6000 feet, topping out at about 9000, looks like probably 7 - 10 miles, and he has planned to break it into two stages. I suggested we think about doing it in one stage - I have climbed that much and gone that far many times. He got in a huff and said, "You want to walk twelve hours? We can walk twelve hours. We can walk all the way to Pokhara if you want." I tried to point out the difference between walking 2 or 3 hours and 12 hours, but he was having none of it. Once again, his distinction between a "hike" and a "trek" reared its head. He assures me that in Shikha, where he plans to stay, there will be good views of 2 or 3 mountains, so I guess it will be all right. But I find it unsettling to be excluded from decision-making on a trek that, after all, I am paying for.

I am writing this on the outdoor dining / patio; lovely to have late spring weather again, even if only for a day or two. No mosquitoes that I've noticed. I could sit here writing half the night, but there is no electric outlet in my room for charging the laptop battery. Raj says I will have to pay if I want to charge it at either of the next two stops; of course I will do so; in the past it's not usually been more than $5 or so.

March 21, Gorepani

After I gave in to Raj about today's hike he apparently thought more about it - today, we walked all the way to Gorepani, which is situated on top of the pass, like I wanted to. I'm glad, because we were in Shikha, where he had originally planned to stay, by 10:30. The sky was already beginning to thicken up, obscuring the great view; it would have been a long boring afternoon. We climbed on up about another 1000 feet and stopped at a place with a nice view for lunch. I had a light lunch, vegetable fried rice, but Raj and Dhana had dal bhat, which is quite a bit heavier. A couple of guys from California hiked through; they had been doing some short one and two day hikes in the vicinity and were headed for Gorepani; when Raj asked they said they were going to just hike on through and wait to get lunch in Gorepani. Raj told them it was a 2-4 hour hike, and I pointed out that if they didn't eat they would start dragging, so they decided to stop for lunch. Raj and Dhana paid for their heavy lunches - they were dragging for most of the hike on up.

We had already seen several tree rhododendrons, and we soon saw many more. Many are 30-40 feet tall, have trunks as thick as 18 inches, covered with flowers. Raj had Dhana climb up to pick a blossom and gave me some of it to taste - to my surprise it is very tasty; like a sweet lemon. He says it is good for stoomach ailments, and they often drink rhododendron blossom tea. Will have to look into it.

It was a great hike - I was nicely tired by the time I saw the first houses of Gorepani, and quite hungry; climbed the street to the very top, where there is a bakery from which I bought a chocolate croissant, more like a leavened bread roll with crumbly chocolate inside but quite good - walked back down to where I could see the trail up and be sure I wouldn't miss Raj and Dhana when they showed up. I was just finishing the roll when they came, and we climbed up a steep side street, the trail to Poon Hill, to our hotel. After we took showers, we sat down over a beer and Raj discussed the alternatives for tomorrow and the return to Pokhara quite rationally. One would be a side trip, over another pass, more views, getting into Pokhara late afternoon day after tomorrow. The other would be a short trip downhill to a village between here and Pokhara with a good view of 3 mountains, then a short hike to a village where we can catch a jeep taxi into Pokhara, get there about noon. That would leave a day and a half for sight seeing, internet, banking, washing clothes, and I would leave a day early for Chitwan, so that I would have 3 nights, 2 full days and 2 half days there. I opted for that choice - I rather feel the trek is all but over, no point trying to extend it beyond its natural life span. Anyway, I have several internet chores to do, including finalizing some detailed arrangements for India and uploading as much of this journal and my accumulated photos as I can.

Recipe for Tibetan bread (the wheat avoiders will be interested in this): any flour or mixture of flours; what I had this morning was a blend of rice and barley flours. Add salt, baking powder, and an egg. Knead a little, pat it out very flat, cut two parallel slits in the center, then fry. It should puff up and look somewhat like the Greek letter theta. I have come to like it quite a bit.

The hotel where we are staying tonight is really funky. I'm on the 3d floor. I go up one flight to 2nd floor, which has a ceiling about 5.5 feet high; crouch as I walk to the next flight. My floor has head clearance, a foam pad covered with felt in lieu of carpet, feels very odd to walk over. The walls and doors are thin unpainted plywood. As soon as I got into my room I checked how long a drop it would be to the patio before in case of a fire - the place is a complete firetrap. Might break a leg but I would survive. With luck I'd at least have time to knot a sheet so I could lower myself at least partway down. The shower, on the 2nd floor, is lined with thin sheet metal. At least there is a stove heating the dining room. I don't think any place I have stayed would pass U.S. building code - in fact a building inspector would probably have a heart attack just looking at it. As it turns out there is a convenient plug in the dining room for charging my laptop while I work. Outside the mist and smog has thickened so that visibility is barely across the valley. Raj says it will probably rain this evening, but most likely clear some time after dark.

March 22, Hile

It did rain, rather hard for a while, and when the rain ended, it was replaced by a thick misty haze. It was warm enough that I only needed my sleeping bag about up to my waist. Woke up earlier than I needed to, but got up anyway, dressed, put together some of my stuff for the hike down the hill. Raj and Dhana were also up, so we joined the rest of the tourists in the flashlit procession up Poon Hill to the top, where there is a watch-tower for sunrise viewing. By the time the sun rose at least 100 people had shown up, but fortunately the space at the top of the hill is quite large. During high season, however, it would probably be rather a zoo. At first it was pitch black, but within 10 minutes or so first light came, and within another 10 minutes I could see almost well enough without the light. The top of the hill is flat and clear, so I didn't bother with the tower, even though Dhana and I were among the half dozen or so of the first people there. Several mountains were sillhouetted against the growing dawn, but I was concerned because the haze was still there, and clouds kept rising up in front of the mountains. The Dhawalagiri range floated above a deep bank of mist, barely discernable through the mist.

As the light grew, the clouds dissipated, and Dhawalagiri became more distinct. All the mountains grew increasingly distinct as the sun rose, and for about a half hour after, then either the mist thickened or it caught more light, because they began fading into the mist. So we went back down the hill, had breakfast on the patio (by now it had warmed up to shirt sleeve weather). I took several dozen pictures, but only a few of them are worth keeping - the mist was simply too thick. I will look at them all again on a larger computer screen but probably delete most of them. I will upload the best picture of Annapurna South and the Fishtail, and maybe one more of Dhawalagiri, because a couple of those are actually kind of nice. It was a little disappointing, but I got so many fantastic pictures on this trip that I really can't complain.

We set out about 7:40 and walked through an enchanting Rhododendron forest - rhododendron trees with trunks up to a meter in diameter, standing as high as maybe 60 feet, mostly various shades of red to red-violet, full bloom, several species of song-birds singing, a crow that didn't croak like ours but called "Hi! Hi!" The trail led up and down, more down than up, mostly paved with hand-set stones, lots of stairs of varying quality. The trail goes down, with stairs, for each creek crossing, then back up, down below vertical cliffs, up over vertical cliffs that fall clear into the creek.

About 10:30 we came to a village where Raj saw a woman butchering a chicken and decided, with fresh chicken, so he decided we should order chicken curry and have lunch there. He also ordered a couple of beers, and when I expressed an interest, asked the cook to bbq the chicken liver for me. She also chopped up the gizzard, cooked both of them with garlic, thin-sliced red and green chilis, served them with a quartered raw purple onion. It was delicious - better, actually, than the curry.

A kilometer or so after leaving the lunch spot, we started down a very steep series of stairs, over 1000 meters, to the level of the river, where we crossed a suspension, bridge, climbed 40 or 50 meters again, then walked a bit less than a kilometer to our final rest stop on this journey. After that long, knee-killing descent, even though it was not even 2 p.m., I was well ready for a hot shower.

You can tell that we're pretty close to a trailhead, because the traffic has really thickened up, with short trekkers both in 2s and 3s and in large groups, like the 20 Japanese who showed up at hour hotel just now. I am sitting in a pleasant dining room looking out on fields of potatoes and one large groujp of campers' tents - another group is sleeping in the inn but cooking their own food - seems odd to me; the inn food is not expensive and it has mostly been quite good.

Some unfortunate news: Raj ran into the guide for the five British gentlemen; two of them came down with severe diahorrea and the whole group was flown out of Manang - unfortunately the missed the pass. I'm sorry for them; it was a stunning experience.

March 23, Pokhara

I was awakened at 4:00 this morning by the porters for the Japanese groups clomping around - the cheap watch I've been using had quit for a while so it showed only midnight, but the roosters were crowing, so I lay in bed for a while then gave up on it and got up. By the time I was dressed there was early light in the sky so I put together some coffee in one of the filter packets I bought in Japan and went down to the kitchen, where a cook gave me some hot water. It wasn't much after 6; I sat there sipping coffee and watching the porters breaking camp for the large group, while they hung around waiting for breakfast. Raj talked to a couple of the porters last night - the trekking company does not provide either food or accommodation for the porters, so they were looking for a cheap or free shelter somewhere; don't know what they'll eat. They are paid $15 per day; doubt they'll clear much after paying for something to eat. Half of them were wearing cheap thongs or other type sandals. One was so disgusted he told Raj he planned to return to Pokhara the next day. As they began leaving camp I noticed many of them carrying loads that must have been 1.5 to twice their own body weight, maybe even more - they're paid by the kilo, so carry as much as they can. Raj said the Maoists are starting to crack down on it - they have check points now at many of the trailheads and turn back any groups that don't have adequate arrangements for the porters. This group included Hindi speakers, Americans, and probably British; I think the tour is probably run by an Indian company.

The trip down to Birathante, the trail-head was pretty uneventful - lower we got, the thicker the mist and smog, so I pretty well gave up on further views of mountains. At Birathante Raj hired a cab to drive us up over a probably 1500 meter ridge and down to Pokhara. The cab was I think the smallest 4-seater Suzuki makes, you can't buy it in the U.S. Very underpowered to carry four adult males plus over 100 lb. of luggage; it kept popping out of gear, died several times. We followed an even slower bus half-way up the hill before the driver was able to pass - first part of the road out of Birathante is unpaved, much like a complete non-maintained Forest Service road in Idaho or Oregon; once we were on pavement, the edges were largely eroded and pot-holed, leaving a drivable portion a little wider than one normal lane. However, about half-way up the hill the decent pavement part widened - that's where the drive was finally able to pass.

Now I am installed in what is, by comparison with the past 3 weeks, a luxurious hotel room in one of the tourist sections of Pokhara - carpet on the floor yet, clean towels, reliable hot shower, big double bed with sheets (bye-bye to the sleeping bag). After Raj and Dhana have showered and done a bit of laundry we will go out for lunch, look for an internet cafe and ATM that accepts my card, and I will look for a pair of shorts and tropical-weight shirt for the next phase, Chitwan.

General assessment:

Overall I feel that this was a very successful trip. Some of the time I was bored, often cold, but much of the time was interesting, enjoyable, and at times ecstatic. I don't think I would do this every year, but I think I may do it again some time, though if I do I will be inclined to look for a slightly less famous and popular route. Raj has suggested several alternatives in Nepal that sound quite appealing.

In the category of "if I had known then what I know now": The itinerary Raj provided for this trip is pretty well identical to those provided by all other independent guides and trekking services I checked, including REI. Even though it is rated "very difficult," it is designed for a typical American or European in moderate physical condition, with limited hiking and back-packing (day hikes, maybe a few 1-2 nighters, little or no experience on very steep or rugged trails). The early part of the hike, which frustrated me so much, is clearly designed to allow the not-quite-in-shape to get hardened up a bit for the more difficult later parts. Anyone who is a strong hiker in top condition with extensive high-country back-packing experience is likely to find it quite frustrating, as I did. I tried to convince Raj while we were in negotiation via e-mail that his planned stages of 3-4 hours were too slow for me; once I finally convinced him and he agreed to combine some of the short stages into longer ones, I began to enjoy the trip much more - my three happiest days were the 6 hour trip from Lower Pisang to Manang, with a detour by way of Ghyaru, the trip over the pass itself, also about 6 hours, and the trip from Tatopani to Ghorapani, in which we skipped one of Raj's planned stops. I wish I had been more forceful and insisted on skipping at least 2, maybe 3 more of the planned intermediate stops. (In almost every case, the hours estimate was 30 to 40% over-stated; what he said would take 4 took 2.5, etc. When we combined 4 + 5 = 9 it usually came out to about 6 or 7, which is a very comfortable, enjoyable hike.) This morning Raj admitted that we could have done that and, already acclimatized to high elevation, we could have hiked from Ghorapani into Annapurna Base camp in no more than 3 days, back out in another 3. Had I been more forceful I could have had both the circuit and the base camp for maybe one or two days more - and I think that would have been the perfect trip. The trip I had was excellent, and I enjoyed it very much, but a somewhat more vigorous one, more walking and less loafing around, would have been even better.

The other word of caution to future trekkers - there is one ATM on the whole circuit, in Jomosom, and it does not take master card. Several outfits will take credit cards, for a 10% fee (plus the bank's foreign transaction fee.) The little treats you may want, which are rarely included in the guide's costs, cost about the same as in a larger U.S. city - $4 or $5 for a large bottle of Tuborg beer (small bottles are rarely available), $2.50-$4 for a pastry from one of the many German bakeries (the're good, and often worth it). You need to carry cash amounting to at least $10 or $15 per day.

The guide-books warn about the lower elevation smog, dust, and haze, and they're right. For those who can, autumn or early winter (bring lots of warm clothes) would provide better views - although in the higher country, above maybe 8000 feet, it doesn't matter as much. On the other hand, the most popular treks, Everest and Annapurna Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit, get really, really crowded in the fall, which is not at all appealing to me.

March 10, Chame, beginning of phase II.

Phase II, the approach and crossing of Thorong La, began on a wonderful note yesterday, with my first view of Annapurna II, and a wonderful hour spent examining it in detail over lunch. It quickly turned sour when a chill wind blew up, clouds formed (as they always seem to do by mid-afternoon, and then it began to rain, and right now is raining rather hard. Raj tells me that the wind always blows in the afternoon up here, which is part of why we get up early and do our walking in the morning and early afternoon. I am cold now in my unheated room, and plan to begin wearing my long underwear tomorrow - and we are only about half the altitude of the pass! I worry about whether I have sufficient warm clothing, but Raj assures me what I have will do fine. I am beginning to realize that I can expect to spend the next 6 mornings marvelling at the stunning scenery and the next 6 afternoons huddling over my computer (when I have electricity for it) in a dark room, sometimes with windows staring out at a blank wall. The far side of the pass is desert, so rain won't be a problem, but wind and dust storms may. Then we will be back in pleasant, forested canyon scenery, with frequent views of the other side of the Annapurna group, and warmer more pleasant weather.

March 11 Pisang

It quit raining not long after dark, and the stars came out bright and clear. By the time we had finished breakfast it was already warming up; I took off my fleece 30 minutes later, and my pullover by about 9. Met three nice Israelis and a Dutch guy travelling alone. Annapurna ("full rice bowl" - metaphorically "everything - good health, wealth, everything") played hide and seek with us all day. I got a few photos - we are in a deep canyon so the best you could hope for is shoulders and ridges, but that is spectacular. Raj explained why we stay in some kind of crummy places - it is off season and many places are closed. All of them have been clean, and the foam pad mattresses are pretty good, but they often feel closed in and claustrophobic. The walls are often of very thin plywood or pressed paperboard - no sound insulation and very little heat insulation; the floors shake when you walk. But all building materials have to be manufactured (by hand saw) or carried in by mules or porters, so it's surprising they do as well as they do.

I also had another insight last night during a brief spell of wakefulness: Every day here is a year. Morning is spring, still cold but clear, sunny, and full of promise. Summer starts about 9:30, warm, sunny, and lovely. Autumn starts about mid-afternoon when the wind begins blowing and, often, clouds start building up in the lee of the mountains. By bedtime, it's winter. So my mood is bright and joyous in the mornings and into the afternoon, turns thoughtful and a bit depressive about late afternoon, and crawl into the sleeping bag to hibernate soon after dinner.

Today was a better day - the best afternoon I've had. We got into Pisang about noon, I had momo for lunch, light and fairly good. Then I crossed the river and climbed the stairs (100 meters) to Upper Pisang and the monastery, then followed a trail and some cow trails about another 700 feet up the mountainside above the monastery. If I'd thought to put hiking boots back on I'd have gone even further. I found a place in the lee of some woods with no wind, warm in the sun, and sat for over two hours watching the shadows of the clouds over a nearby ice flow / glacier field, and examining the visible ridge of Annapurna.

March 12, Manang

Great hike today. Climbed over 1000 feet to the hillside village of Ghyaru, then walked along, 1000 feet above the valley floor, with stunning views of Annapurna II and II, views back toward two other mountains; took lots of photos. Saw a herd of Musk Deer, tested my telephoto and image stabilization getting pictures of them. Took more photos of the villages and the houses; most are built of flat stone, some found, most shaped by hand with hammer and chisel. Had a plate of fried rice that was very good for lunch, but still found myself getting quite hungry as the afternoon wore along. This was the longest and most ambitious hike yet, and we didn't reach Manang until after 2. By 1:30 we could see ominous looking storm clouds forming over the peaks to the north and west. By the time I was installed in a spartan little hotel room, with a great view of a glacier flowing down from Annapurna III and lower slopes of Annapurna II, it began to snow here; within an hour the view was moot because visibility had dropped to a few hundred meters. Now I am huddled in a little tent my porter fashioned for me out of two heavy, slightly musty-smelling blankets trying to keep warm. Since there seems to be no electricity to recharge the laptop battery, doing anything with my photos much less actually doing any writine byond this blog is unlikely; looks like another "early to bed" evening, since inside my sleeping bag is the warmest place around.

March 13 Manang

This day was for adjusting to high altitude. Cold when we got up, but quickly warmed; sunny and pleasant like all the mornings. From my hotel room, I got some nice pictures of sunrise on Annapurna II, III, and Ganga Annapurna. Hiked partway up Annapurna III to a really nice viewpoint, where I got a picture of the mountains on either side of Thorong La. Also surprised a herd of deer, got a picture of one of them. I climbed a total of about 2400 feet in probably an hour and a half; felt some thinness of air, but not very bad; no symptoms of altitude sickness, which is a good sign. Will sleep lower than I climbed today both tonight and tomorrow night.

At about 2:00, clouded up again; by 3:30 it looked like it was snowing at higher altitudes, none here yet. Raj says we'll go on to Yak Kharka regardless. He isn't worried about snow on the pass, and thus far he's been right about everything, so I will of course trust his judgment.

Got a few pictures of Manang. Even more than the other places we've stopped, it has the look of a set for an old Western, with dirt streets, stone and somewhat ramshackle wood buildings. The rooms are all spartan, but the one I have here has the luxury of windows facing out in two directions toward mountain views, and a private toilet / shower. They serve American-style food but I've mostly been sticking to the Nepalese menu, which gets more spartan as we leave vegetables behind. Raj has me switched to black tea, which he says is better for you at high elevations - although he did allow me one cup of coffee this morning. I bought a chocolate croissant at a tourist-oriented bakery for afternoon tea; it was surprisingly good, and a nice change from the coconut shortbreads Dhana usually brings me. As I write I hear Nepalese music in the background, which is pleasant. At lunch time, we heard the sound of a helicopter down the valley; all the guides immediately snapped to attention - it is the sign of either altitude sickness or an accident.

They have a lot of very small, very hairy goats - I think they keep them expressly for the hair. Yesterday I saw a horse pawing the ground next to a dormant shrub, to lay bare the roots, which he promptly ate. Forage is rather scarce up here, to say the least. As I finish up this posting, I see that it has started snowing down here on the valley floor as well. I set up a little nest for myself next to a window, pillow between my back and a pillar that supports the ceiling. It had a great view when I started but now it's just snow, and the lower part of the mountainside.

It is interesting how difficult it is to judge heights. These mountains do not look half as high as they are. From my hotel room I look across at where I climbed to this morning and it looks like closer to 500 feet up than 2500 - it is all a matter of comparison, I think. The spot where I stopped this morning is not very high compared to the top, or even to the nearest shoulder of the mountain, so it doesn't look very far up.

March 14, Yak Kharka.

Easy walk up here. Saw an eagle on a rock on the way; I'll upload some telephoto closeups when I can upload pictures. About an inch of snow on the ground, which Raj says means probably at least 2 feet at the pass. Tomorrow when we reach high camp he plans to walk on up the trail to check it out, be sure it's safe before we commit ourselves to crossing. It is snowing lightly again this afternoon, which is probably not a good sign - we need 3 days of sunshine with no new snow for it to melt off on the pass. My hope is that parties preceding us have tromped it down enough that we can pass - we'll see. A big group of Germans showed up at this hotel just after we got here, led by a very aggressive German guide - they seem to have taken over the dining room.

March 15 Base Camp

Today started out looking ugly - snowed lightly half the night, a total of close to 2 inches; sky still cloudy. This was the first night that I needed the blanket all night - one was barely enough and I wished I had two; zipped the sleeping bag clear up, put on the sleeping bag hood, and my feet still never got quite completely warm. There was no light because electricity comes from a hydro-electric generator and the water was frozen. I couldn't find the little headlamp Raj bought me after my flashlight gave out, and I started worrying about my water bottles freezing and bursting, which would be a total disaster. Fumbling around for the headlamp, I bumbled into the Nalgene bottle, the one I was most concerned about because it teams with the water filter, and took the cap off. It didn't freeze solid, but the top two inches were slush when I got up.

There had been talk of possible avalanche hazards on the final stretch of trail before Thorong Phedi, and I was quite concerned about that. Raj assured me there would be no hazard, but left the decision up to me. After thinking about it a while, I realized he was right; we could hike to that zone, if the snow was deep enough to be a concern, turn back. As it turned out, he was right - all the way to Phedi there had been only 2 inches of snow, and the slide zone has enough sparse brush that it wasn't a problem. The trail was a bit slipery in places, as a result of previous hikers, but the snow was relatively dry so in most places the footing was quite good. There was one descent to and crossing of a bridge that was pretty hairy - steep, slippery snow on rocks - otherwise the hike went very well, and turned out to be as pleasant as any of the others.

We stopped for tea at Phedi, and I had a very nice cinnamon roll - short on cinnamon and sugar, but very satisfying. We did not stop for the night at Phedi, but climbed the first 1260 feet of the pass, to Base Camp, which I thought much nicer, very nice view of Annapurna III and Gangapurna; a little hill next to the lodge provides a view of Annapurna IV as well, and a nerve-wracking view of Phedi, almost directly below. I am glad we came clear to Base Camp; it leaves only a bit over 1800 feet for tomorrow. Because winds usually arise by mid-morning, Raj wants to start at 5:30; it is dark until about 6 so we'll be relying on the headlamps for the first half hour or so.

I met a couple of nice kids this afternoon, Carla and Michael, who had tried the pass twice, but Carla was having difficulty with it. They asked Raj if it would be possible to go over the pass that day - and it was already noon! She said she got dizzy and faint, and that it was too cold to stay in Base Camp another night. Raj questioned her and determiined that she probably was not experiencing altitude sickness. After talking with her later - she says she is not in good shape physically at all - I concluded her problem is probably trying to go too fast, then running out of oxygen, which explains her report of dizzy spells. They were also not eating enough, which helps to explain why she feels cold all the time. Raj recommended hot food, and they said they couldn't afford it, because they had already spent all their money. Later I gave them a few suggestions, which they received well - eat something every hour and a half or so while climbing; use the "granny gear" short pace, pause for a breath if necessary, above all listen to your body and stop for breath before you run short.

General rant about student-age tourists trying to do this on the cheap: These kids seem simply naive, although one does have to question why someone who is not in good shape would undertake a trek advertised as "very difficult." Most of these kids lack even the most basic high country knowledge or skills, no idea about common risks such as dehydration and hypothermia, and their understanding of mountain sickness is sparse at best. I have seen many students out here, alone, in small groups of 2-5, and one group of Israelis that is quite large. The line is "you don't need a guide, you can just ask directions." What is missing from that idea is that the person they usually ask is a guide, who is there to answer questions because someone else is paying him - it doesn't bother them to freeload in that or many other ways. Raj is very generous with helping these kids, and I encourage him to, but I find the attitude very arrogant and presumptuous. Raj tells me that there is also a lot of freeloading, attempts to bargain with inn-keepers (the posted prices are set by communal agreement and they are not negotiable). I've seen kids who wouldn't hesitate to spend $5.00 on a pastry in the U.S. back away from one priced at half that - it doesn't seem to occur to them that everything out there, gets there on the back of a mule or a human porter. I saw some of the Israeli group scamming the Dal Bhat system. Here's how it works: With most meals you get one plate of food, and that's all. But when you order Dal Bhat, which includes rice, curried vegetables, sometimes curried meat, and lentil soup, which the Nepalis mix all together, the servers keep coming by with more. So what these students did - two of them ordered Dal Bhat, then passed the plates around to others, who had not paid for any food at all. The place was jammed with people, so the servers did not notice, and 5 or 6 people ate for the price of 2. My impression is that over half of these kids have no idea what they're getting themselves in for; they have no margin in their budget for unexpected disasters.

Equipment failures: First the velcro on my watch strap gave out and the watch dropped off when I didn't notice. Raj bought me a cheap replacement, and the pin holding the strap on gave way twice; the 2nd time it dropped in some melted snow and the face plate came off. Raj was able to dry it out and fix it, but I left the strap off and now carry it as a pocket watch. The switch on my flashlight ceased abruptly to work; Raj was able to get me a cheap head-lamp as a replacement.

The hike up to Base Camp was quite steep, but pretty good trail; using short steps (4-14 inches) I was able to do the entire 1200 feet without stopping in an hour. There is a German guide leading a large (20 or so) group of German tourists - he is in the habit of rushing ahead of his group so as to secure the best rooms at each stop for his clients. Halfway up the pass I noticed him behind me, climbing very fast, strides of at least 24 inches, and thought "well, there's at least one person on this mountain who's in a lot better shape than I! Then, when I was only a few hundred feet short of the lodge, I looked back and noticed that he had stopped and sat down. He didn't reach the pass until about 5 minutes after I did - he commented to me "you're really strong." I replied, "my secret is 'low gear' - very short steps. We exchanged a couple more words, then he rushed in, again, to book the best rooms for his client (Raj didn't show up until about 10 minutes later). Not that any of the rooms were much to brag about - all were small and dark, only a few had any view at all and they had already been booked, the one toilet was effectively outdoors and involved walking through 4-5 inches of crusty snow. That evening I heard Raj telling him that, going over the pass, he had to stay with his clients in case one of them got mountain sickness. He replied, "they're all good!" And Raj asked, "yes, but what if one of them gets sick? If you're out ahead of them who will take care of them, treat them, call a rescue helicopter if it's needed?

About 5:00 they lit an iron stove, fed with Yak dung, and most of the guests gathered around it, huddling to get a bit of warmth. I had a pleasant conversation with the couple I had visited with before, down at Thorong Phedi. I got a couple of pictures. Reminds me of childhood days in Hunt - where it burned sage brush, then coal. The electricity has been off as often as on; it is increasingly cold as we go higher, and everyone is in the same boat. Being cold is a constant problem above 8000 feet or anywhere near one of the heavily glaciated mountains. I brought plenty of clothing fo the hiking itself, but I also find myself wearing most of it during the afternoons and evenings, and usually go to bed by 7:30 or 8 just because it is too cold to do anything else.

March 16, Muktinath.

Prefatory note: I don't think I've said much about toilet facilities. Those who have travelled in Asia will know about the squat toilets, porcelain fixtures flush with the usually concrete floor, with slightly elevated grooved platforms for your feet, positioned that if you place your feet there, you can't miss. There is a large bucket of water nearby and a smaller, liter-sized plastic pitcher-like container. You put your used toilet paper in a nearby basket or box, the Nepali's wash themselves with water from the small container; you are expected to use this container to flush the toilet, and if anything remains on the porcelain, use a brush that is also provided to clean it, then flush again.

I was kept awake half the night last night by the Austrian couple chatting and giggling - either they didn't realize how thin the walls were or didn't care. Finally I banged on the wall and they shut up long enough for me to get a couple hours sleep, then they started up again. They did eventually shut up so I got probably 5 hours of sleep, out of 9 hours in bed. I was in a sleeping bag, covered with a very heavy yak wool comforter, and wearing long underwear and a pullover, as well as socks on my feet, so at least I was reasonably warm.

I was awakened from one of my short sleep spells by other trekkers getting up for an early start about 4:20, so got out of bed, pulled on my fleece pants then my hiking pants and fleece jacket, put on my hiking boots and head-lamp (did I mention that there was no electricity because everything was frozen up?) and walked over to one of the (effectively outdoor) toilets. The last user had not flushed it, and I didn't either, because the bucket of water left for that purpose was frozen solid, or at least to a sufficient depth to make it useless. Well, I remembered this sort of thing from my farm childhood, so I didn't let it faze me. The fact that there was no water to wash my hands did bother me, but not a thing to be done about it! I returned to my room, took my boots back off to put on my rain pants (for extra warmth during the pre-dawn part of the hike), finished packing up the porter's pack (pretty light at the outset, since I was wearing most of its usual contents) and my own. I was delighted to see that my body heat had apparently kept the little cubicle room warm enough that the drinking water I had filtered the previous evening was not frozen. Dressing for the pass involved putting on just about everything I own: long underwear, fleece warmups, hiking pants, rain pants; t-shirt, nylon pullover, fleece jacket, rain jacket/windbreaker. I had just finished packing when Raj came to tell me my porridge was ready, so I followed him over to the candle-lit (but cold). They had cut up an apple in the porridge, but I used up the last of my dried cranberries and almonds anyway. Raj and Dhana had already eaten, so as soon as I finished Dhana and I returned to my room for our packs, did a last check for forgotten items, and set out to join Raj on the trail.

There was a huge line of trekkers, 2/3 of whom had gotten up 1.5 hour earlier to hike all the way up from Phedi, most of them wearing head-lamps. I was remind of nothing so much as a pre-dawn procession of monks or pilgrims, and I guess in a way that's what it was. The sky was already lightening enough to see by so I didn't bother with my own headlamp. It was quite cold, but fortunately there was little wind, and in many sheltered areas none at all.

Most of the others on the trail were going quite slow, but we had to wait for wide places or for places where the snow at the side of the trail was not too deep, and pass them. The first stretch of trail had been carved by the boots of previous hikers in a very steep, 2 to 4 foot snowbnk, collected in the lee of the hill; the trail was snow-covered on and off all the way to the summit. A few patches were iced, either from being compacted by so many hikers passing over the trail or from the previous day's afternoon partial melt, but most of the way up the footing was pretty good.

We hadn't climbed more than 200 feet before we had passed most of the really slow hikers and were able to establish our own comfortable pace (Raj and Dhana seemed to have a pace pretty similar to mine, a little slower uphill and a bit faster downhill). Other than the icy spots, hiking was very enjoyable; I was pleased that, as long as I kept my pace short and my speed down, I did not experience any difficulty breathing. The scenery is stunning, although the really big nearby peaks were only occasionally visible; everything snow-covered except the more or less vertical rock faces. But until about an hour after sunrise, it was too cold even to think of taking off gloves for picture taking. My hands were the only part of me that was cold - I wished I had brought my ski mittens. Wherever the trail conditions permitted, I used only one pole, withdrawing the fingers of the other hand so I could form a warming fist. But after about an hour my body started generating enough heat that this was no longer necessary. We stopped three times to drink some of the half-frozen water, eat a granola bar or other snack, and, the second and third times, take off surplus clothing, for me beginning with the rain pants, which have always been annoying to wear while carrying a pack.

8:00 a.m., a bit over two hours after leaving the lodge, I reached the high point (geographically) of my life: Thorong La. Actually, the high point was a low rise next to the pass, probably 5 or 10 meters higher than the pass itself. A couple of other groups had reached the pass before us, a total of maybe a dozen people, and were celebrating. By now the sun was fully up, there was as yet no wind at all, and it was a very pleasant day. I was very happy to have experienced none of the symptoms of altitude sickness: not even a shadow of a headache, and no loss of appetite at all. As for irritability, others will have to judge that. We took our own pictures, I sat for 10 minutes or so behind a little rock pyramid to contemplate Annapurna IV, visible from the pass in its full glory. A large group arrived, and we saw another large group coming, so after removing some more clothing and adding more sun-block, we shouldered our packs and set off for the descent, a full mile to the valley below.

Sun-glasses: I wore my darkest, wraparound sun-glasses, but kept checking to be sure I was wearing them. A welder's helmet would probably be better.

The trail down is in several ways much worse than the trail up. Most of it is quite steep, and the first half was mostly covered with snow or ice. In many long stretches, the trail sloped outward toward an edge; usually the trail was cut into a steep enough slope that sliding off would mean sliding 15 or 20 feet down below the trail. None of it life-threatening, but a fall would not have been in any way pleasant. Near the bottom of this section we came to a broad nearly flat shoulder of the mountain, where we stopped for a long break, water and snack, and removed yet more clothing. Then we set off down the bottom half, that had only a few icy spots but many areas of steep, gravelly or cobbly stretches. Laura might remember some of the worse stretches on the Point Defiance trail we took last year, only the full 5000 feet was more or less like that.

We finally came to the Muktinath side Phedi ("Phedi" simply means "foot of the pass.") It is somewhat poorly named, since there was still 1200 feet to descend, but the trail below the little village is much better, about half the grade of the top 4000 feet, wider, and less cobbly. We had tea and light noodle soup (very like Rah Min with some spinach and thin carrot slices in it) on a sun-drenched patio. There are several hotel / restaurants in this little village; the trail passes right through all of their patio dining areas. All have parabolic solar water-heaters.

On our way again, we met a couple, probably French, carrying very heavy packs (obviously planning to camp out, and probably to cook their own food). Raj asked if they were headed to Manang, and the man responded "Yes," in a voice that sounded tired and discouraged to me. I could only think, if he was already tired after carrying that pack up 1200 feet of easy trail at the relatively low altitude of 13000 feet, he was going to be in really miserable shape on the top half of the trail. To make matters worse, clouds were already gathering over the mountains to the west, clouds that appear to promise more snow. I think our own timing was not that bad - at least we had two clear, dry, snow-free days for the transit over the pass. I would not care to do the west side, downhill or uphill, if it were any more icy than it was today. And I don't think I would care to carry a pack heavier than maybe 45 pounds over it in either direction.

We reached Muktinath and Raj booked rooms for us at the hotel he likes. As has been the case about half the time, my room here is a small cubicle with a single window looking out on a rock wall about 3 feet distance, no place I want to spend time except when I go to bed. Fortunately there is an upstairs dining room surrounded with windows that is warmer, just because of the greenhouse effect, where I am writing this. Unfortunately, the architect or builder chose to emplace the windows in such a way that the potentially spectacular views of nearby mountains are precisely blocked by 8 inch wide window frame / cross-beams; the mountains can be seen only by ducking one's head to about the level of an 8 year old child. They also allowed trekking companies to paste ads a few inches below that window frame, further interfering with the view.

I was sad to hear that two more of the people I had met and become friendly with experienced difficulties. One person came down with a bad case of diarrhea; one member of the young couple from Montana experienced altitude sickness and had to turn back.

LaJean and others who have observed my fanatic commitment to fruit and vegetables will understand how unhappy I have been about the increasing scarcity of both as we climbed to ever higher altitudes - "vegetables" came to mean potatoes, maybe a bit of carrot and/or cabbage. It was a great thrill to get back to a place where both fruit and vegetables are a bit easier to come by. I was going to wait until lower elevation to have either meat or alcohol, but Raj ordered a Yak steak (he says it is more likely that it is actually buffalo, since Yak meat is very expensive and not very available) and a beer. Both were great - the steak was in a sauce that included garlic, dried mushrooms, and some herb that I'm not familiar with, that I've tasted in other Nepali dishes. There were roasted potatoes, and three different vegetables! - broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. The steak was huge so I only ate half of it, but I was sitting at a table with several nice young people from Germany, the U.S., and Malaysia, and they gladly finished it for me. We had a nice conversation for a while, but at over 13000 feet elevation the beer still packed a lot of punch, so I went to bed early, and slept soundly for over 8 hours.

This was a great day and a great adventure. I can understand why many of the people I met plan to take a jeep out from here, or an airplane from Jomsom, about 15 miles away. But Raj assures me that the second half of the trek will afford many other spectacular views, and expose me to many new cultures. So this entry closes Stage 2. If I'm not able to get photos uploaded with this posting, I think I will be able to do so in a few days - Raj tells me that several of the stops on the south side of the Annapurna region have much better internet coverage.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 6, Beginning of Phase 1 of the circuit.

March 6, Beginning of Phase 1 of the circuit.

The first few days of the trek will be along the Nadi River Canyon, at relatively low elevations, climbing quite slowly at first, then three days of continuous climbing, about 2000 feet per day. At about Manang, the lush farm-lands and forest will give way to alpine landscapes, barren, with rocks, glaciers, and little or no vegetation.

The first day was an easy day, just 4 hours plus a 1.5 hour break at 10 to wait for one of the trail-side cafes to boil some potatoes for a snack. (I could gladly have done without the potatoes, and kept on walking.) Good views of Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal before we turned to go up the Nadi River valley, to Nadi where we stopped for the night. It was too hazy for very good photos, but I will upload a few anyway.

Raj has planned the second day stop for Syange, partly because of interesting things to see there, and he said it is a 5 or 6 mile hike beyond Nadi, which would make for a pretty long day. As it turned out, it took barely 4 hours, including rest stops - had we skipped the boiled potatoes we could have been at Syange by 4 easily. Raj calls me "baba" or "papa," which means father and is a term of respect; I think it also indicates a concern that I am an old man. I still haven't worked out when the long rest stops are for me or for the porter - if for the porter, that's good. If for me, it's unneccesary. We did have some popcorn in Nadi, which was good and rather surprised me.

The second day (Sunday) we headed almost immediately up a very high hill to a hill-top village, probably a 1500 foot climb up, then 1000 foot back down to a few dozen meters above the river, which we followed to Syange. I think perhaps the ease with which I took the long flights of stairs, pausing only to let Raj and Dhana catch up and be sure Dhana didn't need a rest, may have helped convince Raj that he doesn't need to worry about me.

The relationship with Raj is interesting - we generally get along quite well, but it is clear that he is the "wagonmaster," he has the trip planned a certain way and the best strategy for me is to go long with it and take it as it comes. The inn at Syange is a much nicer place, with a view of the river, than the one at Nadi, and there is a waterfall to visit; I think I will enjoy this afternoon quite a bit more.

Lots of interesting little farms along the way: land is scarce and they terrace and farm anything they can. The farming is done with ox-drawn wooden tools; I have pictures of harrowing / levelling and plowing, but I couldn't get a good close-up of the plow. There are villages at every level on the mountainside (I will upload a few pictures), many in seemingly impossible places. I also have pictures of a basket-making operation; splitting green bamboo into thin laths, partially drying them, then weaving them into baskets, which will be taken to Kathmandu for the tourist market.

All day we hiked with a view of an unnamed peak, 5600 meters, a bit left of Namjung. Thorong La is higher than this peak, which gives some perspective on what the coming week will be like!

The waterfall was spectacular, although you could not see it from our inn. We scrambled up to the base of the lower falls and played around a bit - I'll upload some photos I took and some Raj took. After dinner Raj agreed to skip Chyamje and go directly to Tal. When we got to Chyamje, where we had lunch, I was very glad; it is a nondescript little town in a steep-walled canyon, we got there at 10 a.m., and spending an entire long afternoon there would have driven me nuts.

The third day's hike was the first real hiking I've done, pretty steady climbing, much of the first half an easy walk along a partially built road, much of the second half fairly steep, through a canyon that reminds me a lot of Idaho - steep, rocky hillsides with sparse vegetation. We started encountering more tourists - there must be close to 50 in Tal with us, including a group of 5 or 6 Aussie men in our inn. We met several mule trains, some very long; it felt a lot like being on a highway for mules. Saw a tree with beautiful dark deep-lobed leaves; the seeds (datura or Bhang) are narcotic (I've heard of it before.)

The porters carry everything, including suspension bridge segments, pipes, culverts, huge bales of blankets, bags of sand. They get paid by the kilo; some of the loads are as much as 100 kilo. Saw a little boy who couldn't be more than 8 carrying at least 50 lb. of rock in a basket on his back.

It was beautiful hiking weather, but the sun was so intense that after 2 hours I decided to give up on wearing shorts. By day after tomorrow we'll be high enough that it will be too cold for them anyway.

Raj says the road will be finished within 3 years; people will take busses to central points for day hiking, and the circuit will be finished. You can already fly in and out of three airports along the way; I met two Israelis who are doing only the first half, then taking a jeep out. The beautiful valley I hiked in the first two days is also doomed - the government has bought up all the land and the valley will be dammed for hydroelectric power. Raj is all for it - Kathmandu is plagued with chronic power outages as well as interruptions of water service.

The worn-out velcro strap of my watch came undone and I didn't notice it - it's lying in the dust somewhere back there. Raj lent me his watch, and the watch was pretty near its usable life, so it's not a total disaster; he said we might get a cheap watch in Chame, which is the regional capital. Another small disaster - I seem to have left the backup battery for my Panasonic at Raj's, so I will have to monitor the battery level and be sure I recharge before I run out. I seem to keep making small mistakes and experiencing minor disasters, but thus far have been able to recover my equilibrium well and usually manage some kind of workaround. I guess that's part of what is meant by "adventure."

Raj has Dhana follow me everywhere - if I step outside to look at the stars, go for a stroll before dinner, anything. Dhana seems to have a role somewhat like Jeeves in Wooster and Jeeves - keep the bright but rather silly American tourist out of trouble, do his laundry, fetch water for him to filter, and carry his luggage.

Although Raj gave in to me about not breaking up the hike into quite such short segments, he took pains to instruct me in the difference between "hiking," which involves 12 hour days on the trail, and "trekking," which involves 4 nor 5 hours with a long break in the morning and stopping at or soon after noon. But he assures me that most of the remaining segments will be a bit longer, and after we're over the pass, after the first two days when we will start and quit early because of strong afternoon dust storms, they will also be longer.

Tuesday March 8

Today was another short day, 4.5 hours including a 30 minute break, but it was somewhat uphill, and the room with a view at the end is great - views of high peaks to both east and west. Getting off to an early start has many advantages. We seem to be travelling in parallel with about 12 other tourists, one group of 5 brits, 2 Germans, 2 Israelis, a German girl and a French Girl both travelling alone, plus several others I've seen but not met. The past two afternoons we've been the first to reach the hotel, so Raj has snagged premium rooms for me - this time, with a view of a very close mountain to the west and a somewhat larger but more distant one to the east. Right now the nightly cloud bank is obscuring both, but it will clear by an hour after dark, and they will be nice to look at in the moonlight.

Much of yesterday and today were through a river canyon that looks much like some of the more rugged areas of Idaho, Eastern Oregon, and Nevada, but now we're beginning to enter the alpine areas, and the scenery is becoming more varied and more spectacular. We have often been walking on the half-completed road (compare to an unmaintained logging road); it is easier than the trail but I like the trail better, I think. The trail serves as a main highway for commercial traffic - human porters carrying impossibly large loads, and long mule / donkey trains. It is in most places at least 6 feet wide, narrowed where rocks have fallen onto it. Steep uphill sections usually have rock stairs, unfortunately often with very narrow risers, and often rounded and slippery, so they are a mixed blessing. The trekking poles are definitely a necessity.

The food is generally good but a bit monotonous. The primary dish, dal bhat, is rice, curried vegetables, sometimes separate curried meat, sometimes pickled radishes or other spicy pickles; you mix it all together. It varies quite a bit - each area has its own version, for example today it included beans and garbanzo beans, so that keeps it from being boring. Tonight I'm having momo instead - a kind of dumpling that resembles a pot sticker, with a filling of cheese, potatoes, or vegetables - I'm trying the combination because I want to see what Yak milk cheese is like. They also do what they call "fried rice," but last night I had it and discovered that it isn't necessarily rice - what I had was actually noodles. I am told that, once we are over the pass, we will be in a fruit growing region and I can anticipate wonderful apple crisps etc. That will be a nice change of pace.

Today we had to stop at a police check station - Raj explained that the trail leading off to the right goes to the Tibetan border, so even though the border is 50 miles away, it is in effect a border station (the border itself is on a high mountain pass, which is not a good place for a border station.)

March 4 Entering Nepal

The flight to Nepal was pleasant; my seatmate was a Canadian retired from their National Park Service, and we had an enjoyable conversation. I was seated in the center section of the plane, but was still able to see Everest over the shoulder of the people in the window seat across the way - very exciting! The tops of it and several other mountains were higher than the airplane, even before we began the descent. As we descended into Kathmandu's infamous dusty haze, the visibility dropped radically; the city itself is nestled into a narrow valley between steep, forested hills and would be quite lovely if the buildings were a bit better maintained. Fortunately, Raj was there to meet me, with a car and driver.

The drive through Kathmandu was a hectic traffic jam, as I've come to expect. We arrived at Raj's apartment after over an hour - it is a nicely furnished place, top two floors of a 4 story building. During the afternoon and evening I met almost all of his extended family - his two really charming children (I'll get pictures of them when I return after the trek), his wife, mother, father, brother and sister in law. The oldest child, Kajol speaks quite good English, the younger son, Kapil, is more limited, and none of the others speak any at all. I chatted with Kajol, the 11 year old the girl, on and off all evening; she was obviously delighted to have the chance to practice her English.

After having a beer and relaxing a while we went into town to rent me a sleeping bag, buy another pair of hiking pants, and try to get money for the trip. I had understood that I would pay half at the beginning and half at the end of the trip so had not brought traveller's checks, which was a mistake, since Raj needed the money up front to pay for our expenses as we go along. ATMs in Kathmandu are limited to 10 or 15,000 Rupees, about $160-200, so we had to hit several; then I hit my bank's daily withdrawal limit and we were stymied. We had to go back the next day to get the trekking permit anyway, so Raj contacted his cousin, who runs another trekking company and agreed to process the needed funds through his credit card account, and to do the paperwork for the permits. Downtown is an interesting place, a jumble of restaurants, guest houses, small shops selling tourist junk and trekking gear, the usual motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians weaving in and out. I'll upload a few pictures as soon as I have another opportunity.

Dinner was interesting - curried vegetables, rice, and a thin lentil soup, which I did not know enough to mix together; later Raj fried some rather bony but tasty fish. He served me a plate of food as I sat at the table with his kids, Kajol and the younger boy, Kapil, who were doing homework; I felt rather self-conscious about eating in front of them, but I later discovered that dinner for Nepalese extends throughout the evening, with different people eating at different times, sometimes alone, sometimes together. They all mixed their food together and ate entirely with their fingers, right hand only (the left is used for purposes at the other extreme of the digestive cycle, hence defiled). They get stew all over their hands, sometimes beyond the wrist; after the meal they go wash their hand. I knew from the guidebook that was the Nepali custom, but it still surprised me a bit at first.

This morning we went back into town, did the paper work for the money and the permit, picked up a rented sleeping bag for me, and returned. I am writing this as Raj and the porter go back into town to pick up the money and permit; we will have lunch and leave for the trailhead, Besi Sahar. I got a couple pictures of street life in the tourist district, then nearer home I got a picture of a strange cross between a garden tractor and wagon that is common both here and in Cambodia.


The drive up to Besi Sahar was both harrowing and interesting. We got started late because of bank bureaucracy, and traffic was horrible. A truck had overturned on the highway, so the driver took a long detour, then when we were almost around the traffic jam, the road was blocked by a truck on which some men were loading furniture, so we had to take a detour from the detour. It took over an hour and a half just to get out of Kathmandu. Then for the next couple of hours it was a long series of busses and trucks stopped in the middle of the lane, and other traffic blockers. We saw evidence of several old wrecks and three recent ones, including a truck on its side and another that was half off the road, high-centered on a low guard rail. I got a picture of one truck, on its side in the middle of the road. Most of the drivers are clearly insane - they pass on blind curves, honk incessantly, jockey for position at every traffic slow-up. Fortunately our driver was more conservative and Raj had told him we're in no hurry, so I'm still alive. I decided to fly to and from Chitwan, rather than take my chances on the highway.

The valley itself is quite beautiful, narrow, between high hills, like Oregon's Cascades or Northern California. Every hillside with more soil than rock, no matter how steep, is terraced and farmed for a variety of crops; farther up the valley where the water table seems to be higher was quite green and lovely. Unfortunately we were running so late I didn't want to stop for many pictures. I did get a few at Malakhu where we stopped for rest and a snack. I'll upload them when I have a chance.

It was too hazy and cloudy to see the mountains, and it was raining lightly by the time we neared Besi Sahar. Dampened my spirits a bit, but the air smelled nice and fresh. The accommodations are somewhat spartan, but clean: a toilet and shower, pallet beds, small sink. I will also get a few pictures of Besi Sahar before we leave - won't be off as early as I'd like, since Raj still needs to buy a couple of things.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March 2 Bangkok

Bangkok is a mixed review - frankly mostly negative. A city of 10 million, it seems to combine a layer of LA on top of a slice of, maybe, Mexico City. They give the impression that they think traffic jams were invented here. If there are any traffic laws I haven't seen any sign of them. If there is a long line at a stoplight, cars, Tuk Tuks, motocycles just spill over into the oncoming lanes. Forget what's painted on the freeway - the real lanes are a car width plus room for a motorbike to squeeze through. U-turn or left turn: fake someone out and go for it. There does seem to be some unwritten order to it; people do yield occasionally, and nod or wave to someone who has yielded. I wouldn't drive a car here on a bet.

Food - mostly like Thai food in Portland, though I've had some different things. One is the rhizome of bamboo, sliced thin. Woody, tastes mild and interesting, chew it for a while and it becomes intolerably intense. I like the flavor it adds, but I carefully pick it out. All in all, I like Khmer cooking much better, and plan to see if there are any Khmer restaurants in Portland. (I think there are some part Khmer restaurants, since I recognized a few of the flavor principles.)

People: In Cambodia, scamming the tourists was a game for two, played for low stakes with a smile. Here, it is a game of solitaire, deadly serious, smuch higher stakes, smiles only as moves in the game. Taxis, Tuk-tuks, just about everybody gets into it. Even more than he traffic, it is a big part of the reason why, if I return to Thailand, I will head for the beaches and islands or for the highlands in the north, and skip Bangkok. I'm glad I came, but if our association has a conference here I will probably skip it. Oh - and I actually did get an offer from a taxi driver to take me to "a good massage parlour."

Architecture: Worth a couple of days. Very different from the temple architecture of either Japan or Cambodia. I thought the temples at Nikko were garish; these temples set new standards of what "over the top" means. I'll get photos up as soon as I can. If I were to return, I would definitely want to hire a good guide to explain what I'm seeing. I don't think I will ever get another guide as knowledgeable as Anne was about Japanese temple architecture, but the guide I had in Cambodia was a big step up from thumbing through a guide book.

Have to admit I found the tour of the old palace a bit of a waste - but then the sumptuous furnishings enjoyed by people who don't have to pay for them has never interested me. The temples and outdoor markets were much more interesting.

Monday, March 1, 2010

March 1 Siem Reap

Today I got up a little less early, went out to a temple 35 km from the rest of the complex, Banteysrei (also known as the "women's temple" because it was reputedly built by women.) It is of a much harder sandstone, much less weathered, so the sculptures show to much better effect. They are also of a very different style - even a non-specialist like myself can see that.

The temple was roofed in wood - you can clearly see cuts for the beams - and of course in the jungle wood does not last. My guide, Khen Yon, nickname Sokhorn-Sokhorn, tells me that in many cases the tilting or broken up walls are from trees falling on them. But there are also obvious signs of soil subsidence. Merits of getting out early: when we arrived, only a dozen or so other people were there, and the hordes didn't start showing up until we were about ready to leave. We could hear the cicadas, parrots screeching at each other, amputee musicians fluting and drumming in the background - a real sense of the spirituality of the place. I tried to hold my photo-taking down to a minimum. It was a nice contrast to the other temples, and provided an interesting comparison when we went back to Angkor Wat to climb to the 3d level. I'm very glad we did - there is a truly excellent seated Buddha on one side and a reclining Buddha with a standing Buddha behind, well worth the climb in the hot sun. I managed to see only one parrot, at the very top of a tree - and I didn't carry my binoculars. Khen Yon tells me the reason parrots are so shy is that the Cambodians eat them. I'd be shy, too.

Khen is in business with his brother San Park; both are registered and well-trained guides (tested both for language and for knowledge of all relevant subjects. E-mail, if you're headed that way any time soon.)

I took lots of pictures on the way there and back; a few of them usuable. I got a few of multiple riders on motorbikes, one of a huge pig in a trailer pulled by a motorbike, several of the houses etc., and one of a monkey who approached the Tuk-Tuk then turned has back in disgust when no food was forthcoming.

The houses are mostly built on stilts, including the newer, prosperous-looking ones. Families shelter their buffalos there; they also hang hammocks and put out tables in the hot season, like our patios. And, the stilts put them above occasional floods. The traditional houses have both walls and roofs of either palm leaf or a very tough local grass. The palm leaves have to be replaced annually; the grass thatch lasts two years. Lining the road in front are outdoor stoves, made of the tops of termite mounds (which are plenty abundant). There, they boil down palm sap to make palm sugar. I told Khen about our peanut brittle, and he said they also make a similar confection with the thickened palm syrup. I got a picture of a very friendly woman stirring te thickening syrup to keep it from burning. It is clear that all the local people are very industrious - they do whatever they can to make a living and improve their lives, keep their kids in school as long as they can afford to. Almost everyone goes 6 years, over half complete high school, fewer make it to college. My sense is that, Cambodia is poised for economic growth if stable government can be maintained. .

It is the dry season here, so the rice paddies are fallow - the rice straw is good forage; what isn't gathered for hay against the monsoon season is eaten by foraging cattle.

We also stopped at a butterfly farm, run by a very enthusiastic scientist who is trying to educate the local farmers about the importance of butterflies for pollination, etc. They pay farmers to collect eggs, and conduct classes on organic farming methods; I did not mind the entry fee of $4 (rather steep by Cambodian standards) at all if it will help support their work. The butterflies are beautiful, which kind of goes without saying.

I knew I would enjoy the visit, but I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated. The B&B, Golden Banana, is very professionally run. A little spartan (no chair in the room, but a comfortable open air lounge) but very clean - no insects of any kind - good firm bed, hot water shower, efficient A/C, and a friendly staff, mostly high school students eager to practice their English lessons with guests. At $25 per night I considered it a tremendous bargain. My only regret is that I was so tired the first night I was here that I didn't go out in the evening, and totally missed a puppet parade - heard about it the next day.

It gets warm in the afternoon, and I sweated so much I think I have run up a salt deficiency, but it is not terribly uncomfortable, and the mornings can be quite nice. Khen tells me the monsoon season is actually nicer - humid, but he says less hot, and everything is green. Rarely rains more than a few hours, usually in the afternoon - you do sight seeing in the morning, hole up during the rain, go out again when the rain stops.