Howdy all. I’m back in Kathmandu for the third and final time, just about a week away from heading south into India. Just finished my second trek in Nepal – in the very cold but very beautiful Solu Khumbu region where Mt. Everest lives. I’ve got a lot to get you caught up on from the last 7 weeks, though, so will back up a bit and tell you more about the first trek.. first. I found it totally fascinating so there’s lots to read. Hold onto your hats.
As I mentioned in the last post, I left the lazy little lakeside town of Pokhara in late October and headed northeast to a village called Buhlbule and the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit, my first official ‘trek’, something I’d been excited about for a long long time.
We call it hiking. They call it trekking. “Same same, but different” as they say here. Trekking here isn’t quite like going for a hike at home. Nepal is home to some of the most amazing mountain scenery in the world in the Himalaya. The mountains are beautiful. They’re also very very very tall and they go on for hundreds and hundreds of miles. There are several major (and thousands of minor) trails throughout the country that travel right through the thick of all of that beauty. The trails actually connect hundreds of different villages situated throughout the very rugged land and have been used for centuries for just about the only kind of traffic you’ll see out there – that of the foot variety. Nepalis and Tibetans have been traveling these trails for trading since they were established. That’s how they get around still to visit friends, buy and sell supplies and do anything they need to do to sustain life in what can be a very harsh environment. Because there is no land too inhospitable for the mountain people of Nepal, there are villages from the lowlands all the way up to about 18,000′. That’s higher than any mountain peak in the continental US. And Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in Nepal (and the world), is over 11,000′ higher still at 29,035′. That’s, like, high and stuff.
When Westerners came along and saw their ‘roads’ as a helluva good place to do some sightseeing and get a good work out (a few years after Sir Edmund Hillary summitted Mt. Everest in 1953, bringing worldwide attention to the area), voila’, trekking as a tourist activity was born here. Now, many of the people that used to either trade meat, salt or foods they’d grown have begun catering to the tourist trade and teahouses, as they’re called, have sprouted up in many of the villages, where you can get a relatively comfy bed and a meal (including tea, of course) for just a few bucks. So, now you can hike most of the more popular trails in the country without the need for a tent, stove or really anything except clothes and a sleeping bag. It’s strange to be in such a remote part of the world with an infrastructure like that but turns out to be very welcome after long days spent on the trail. Sort of a toss up between whether it’s been good or bad for the area. There’s a lot of money pouring into the area from tourists, but so is the Western influence (clothes, music, attitude, ‘stuff’), the deforestation required for firewood to cook all that extra food (a big problem in some areas), the packaged goods that litter the ground never to biodegrade (you can find Coke, Snickers, Pringles and all sorts of other crap at most of them these days), pollution from the increase of ‘output’ from hundreds of digestive systems, and the motivation to leave some of the rich traditions, agriculture and animal husbandry behind to become businesspeople instead. Thankfully, there are good things coming of it and more and more lodges are receiving volunteer help, solar panels for electricity and hot water (most still use wood, kerosene or dung to cook), and more people are getting medical help and a better standard of life – by Western standards.
The Annapurna Circuit trek, located in north central Nepal, goes for some 160 miles and basically closely circles the Annapurna range of the Himalaya, including peaks like Annapurna I,II,III and IV, Macchapuchhre, Nilgiri, Hiunchuli, Daulaugiri and a bunch more ranging from 19,000′ to 27,000′, some of the highest in the world. It’s one of the most popular in the country because of the range of scenery and the very well stocked teahouses along the way. Some enterprising Nepalis have gone so far as to learn baking techniques (apple pie, cakes, croissants – no joke) to satisfy the needs of the hungry Westerners. Something I laughed at initially but eventually praised.
I chose the counterclockwise route that would have me hiking about six hours a day from a starting point of about 2,500′, through changing climates and village life to a high of about 17,800′ (3,638′ higher than I’d ever been before) on day ten before descending for five more days back down to near the start point.
On the first day, before I’d even hit the trail, I met a group of super friendly Israelis, Meni, Yael and Lee, and ended up spending that night laughing with them in a little town called Nagdi. It would turn out to be a trend as I’d meet a ton of interesting people along the way, from Canadian oil workers to tour groups from France, Germany and Switzerland, a globe-trotting couple from Holland (whassup, Maria and Bart!), more Israelis fresh out of their compulsory multi-year service in the military (and now letting their hair way down literally and figuratively), a Buddhist from South Africa, an Atlantan named Julian, a Texan named Keisha and hundreds of amazing Nepali people. I’d usually meet the tourists at one of the teahouses at night and then again a few days later somewhere further along the trail. I started the trek just on the tail end of the busy season so while there were plenty of other people on the trail, it was usually easy to get some solitude by getting an early start and jumping out ahead of the others. At that point, you’d pretty much have the trail to yourself ’til you threw your pack down at a teahouse. And then, it was usually really nice to have someone to chat with about all you’d seen.
While a few tourists opt to do the trek on our own, many hire porters to carry their things for them and guides to show them the way. I wanted to do it on my own so headed out solo. I was surprised at first when a couple Nepali people gave me a bit of a hard time, asking why I hadn’t hired a porter and given him some income. I certainly understand the need but kept thinking, it’s my shit, why shouldn’t I carry it?? I’m not that much of a fat white American. Yet. And nowhere else in the world would most people even consider the idea. Anyway, I wanted to do it on my own, to have some time to think and enjoy it all in relative solitude. There were plenty of ’em workin’ out there and I saw one tour group with 23 porters to haul the gear of only 11 people – ?? However, their question is an indicator of the financial hardship that many Nepalis face every day here.
More about porters ’cause I think they’re fascinating and definitely a big part of the life in the mountains. Everything that travels from town to town gets there in one of two ways – on a human or on an animal. And there’s a steady stream of both all day. As their ascendents have done for hundreds of years, many men make a living carrying shit around – up and down hills, from village to village – an absolutely thankless and brutal job. The more you carry, the more you make. They still do it basically the same way – bent over at an angle with massive weight squeezed in a handmade wicker basket perched on their backs supported by a rope that runs up to a piece of fabric called a tump line that crosses their forehead. These men are not big (I always felt like a giant at 5’11”) and can often be seen carrying loads of up to 220 lbs. That’s 22o POUNDS. For some perspective, my pack weighed about 30 lbs. And I outweigh most of the porters by 30-40 lbs. to start. They’re hearty people and are used to it but looked like complete punishment at all times. Another shitty job in a developing country. Insult to already massive injury: yaks fetch a higher price to carry a load than the ~$10/day that these porters get. Wow.
More about people. If they’re not one of the few that own a teahouse in the village or snack shack along the way (packaged goods, samosas and various doughy fried goods displayed in greasy windows), they usually make their living by farming, portering, raising animals (goats, water buffalo, sheep etc) or trading in some craft. Many of those involved in the tourism trade still maintain some of the former life to make ends meet. Regardless of the work, most of the people I met in the in these villages were amazing.
More important than work, I quickly learned how important community is in the Nepali culture. After working outside during the day, hours are spent in the kitchen of one family or another, talking over tea, homebrewed alcohol or daal bhaat (more about both below), laughing and bonding. The kitchen here, as in many cultures, is the focus and gathering point in the home. (Why is it that parties back home always end up in the kitchen too??) Most are soot-stained and smoky, with pots, pans and utensils hung on walls and little stools or benches situated around a long thin table, next to a moulded mud stove built on the ground – with a hole in the front for fuel and three holes on top for pots. Pretty old school. There’s always hot water for tea on, rice at the ready, often a freshly butchered animal (buffalo, yak) hanging in bloody strips from a piece of twine strung across the ceiling, and usually wicker baskets of various veggies drying somewhere – corn, peppers, carrots, radishes etc.
Since there’s no such thing as central heating in most places in Nepal, the kitchen is also the place to stay warm. So, as the nights become cooler late in the year, most people seem to live there as soon as the sun goes down – myself included most nights. I decided early that I’d come traveling to learn about other people and cultures and, while a conversation with a Westerner is a great way to connect with home and something I really enjoyed, I’d rather hang out with the locals when I had the chance. Otherwise, what the hell was I doing out here? As a lonely and probably harmless-looking solo tourist, I was thankfully often invited (or invited myself) into the kitchen where I’d try out a few words of Nepali, they’d laugh and then someone would break into much better English. This was the place to be to learn about real Nepal. An amazing cultural experience. A few cups of tea and daal bhaat later, we’d know much more about each other. (Oh, USA! New York! California! Very powerful country. Very rich country. How much money you make per month??) I met a ton of interesting people in kitchens – Buddhist lamas, farmers, porters, guides and many of the incredibly strong women that form the backbone of Nepali mountain culture (including farming, cooking, child rearing, cleaning and basically running the home which is the most important place in the culture). I found myself smiling many times, thinking about how vastly different my surroundings were than they’d be if I were back home. Crazy and amazing. It’s a nice feeling to be welcomed into a foreign environment like that and I always left with a full belly and a huge smile.
In the second village I stayed, Chame, I was the only tourist at one of the small lodges and ended up spending the night talking with the father of the family that ran the place, Gam Tamang. With kids running around giggling in candlelight (what little power they have to spread around the village usually goes out repeatedly throughout the night) over a few glasses of raksi, we got to know each other. He educated me about the many different and distinct groups of people in Nepal (Sherpas, Tamangs, Thakalis, Rais etc – all with unique traditions and some dialects), told me about the hardships of life in Nepal and reminded me of the incredible rate of poverty in this country (82% live on less than $2/day – the poorest country in Asia apparently), troubles with Maoists (more about these gems below) and how hard life can be trying to raise a family – especially when you’re dependent on a slow trickle of tourists 50 miles from any real civilization.
But he, his kids and wife seemed so happy despite the problems. Something I’d see again and again and again. With very little income and next to nothing by Western standards, I’d see kids playing and laughing everywhere all day – left to fend for themselves and be independent during the day, with the biggest smiles I’d ever seen. Dirty but happy (the higher I went, the dirtier they got for some reason – washing in cold water sucks, I guess?). Just happy to have each other to wrestle with and the few toys they’d either find or make out of scraps. Remember those old toys people used to play with years ago (before my time) – a plastic wheel they’d run alongside, rolling with a stick? They still use them here – and are usually made from old tires or plastic tubes and wire hangers. And the kids love them. All of this stood out constantly in such stark contrast from how kids grow up in the US now. Video games, iPods, cellphones, TV, movies, ‘designer clothes’ (do they still call them that?) and one-upsmanship, malls, MySpace, ADD, parents constantly worrying about them and keeping them in line etc. It’s crazy. And most kids I know in the US don’t seem nearly as happy as those in Nepal with next to nothing. Bizarre.. Anyway, I’m sure there’s a good balance in there somewhere in the middle and certainly good lessons for parenting whenever the hell I find myself in that position..
Life in general in the mountains is lived at a much much slower and from what I saw much more sustainable pace. Without modern conveniences, there is no other option. They live life as people have for thousands of years – by using their hands, some serious elbow grease, tools from the environment and cooperation from their community. When the food’s done growing, they harvest and eat it. When they need meat (either for food or a religious offering – Hindus only), they kill an animal and eat it. Much of the construction is done with hand tools – huge hand saws and planers, chisels and wooden wheelbarrows and the hands of neighbors (Amish come to mind in the US). No computers, belt sanders or stock exchanges here. (Actually, scratch all that. In one town where most trekkers get stuck for an extra day acclimatizing, someone had rigged up a DVD player and projector and was charging $1.75 to watch pirated movies about climbing. Missing the movie experience somethin’ fierce, I jumped at the chance and watched Into Thin Air about a summit bid of Everest where 5 people died. This, two days before I was to reach the high point of my trek. Awesome.)
Anyway, back to Gam in Chamche. By the next morning over breakfast, he was offering me a plot of land to build a house if I wanted to come back to live. And said he could find a wife for me. And he was serious. Maybe next time.
There are some not so good things happening with people here, though. The Maoists, the communist party of Nepal which was until recently a guerrilla group that declared war on the government, have wreaked a lot of havoc on the people on their march to try to do some good for them. They’ve successfully deposed the king but have brought the current talks to integrate themselves into a new government – and any semblance of order in the government including a constitution.. – to a screaching halt, adding to the fatalist attitude that a lot of Nepalis have surrendered themselves to lately. While they seem to be trying to become a legitimate force in the country, they’re continuing their guerrilla tactics, including extorting money from tourists like me (started originally to raise money for their ‘work’).. I ran into a group of them on the trek, barricading the route until all foreigners paid the $35 they demanded of each. Not quite what I expected, they were sitting around a plastic card table wearing Adidas track suits with YCL iron ons at the chest – Young Communist League. They asked for ‘donations’ but subtley threatened force, enough to get most people like me, independent out in the middle of the woods in a foreign country, to fork over at least something like I did. Not exactly the kind of request for donation I’m used to and not a good tactic for enforcing the idea that your party is a legitimate force for good in the future of Nepal. I learned later that some brave souls (including some of the fearless Israelis who’d recently lived through much worse in the battle in Lebanon..) had busted their way through the lines and basically told the Maoists to ‘f’ themselves. A risky move but one I’d hear about again and again from people. After learning a bit more about the situation and getting frustrated with the idea of forced ‘donations’, I decided that was the last time I’d support them. I ran into them again on the second trek and was amazed at how a stern NO, avoiding eye contact, a brisk pace and a big walking stick solved the problem. Well, actually it was ’cause there was only one Maoist at the table the next time.. But I felt righteous. And tough.. Last night someone told me that until recently (until their gov’t bid), they sat at those tables with guns.
Back to some nice things. When I started on the trail, I was surrounded by lush tropical green everywhere I looked. Butterflies, hibiscus, banana trees and green and gold rice paddies terracing the mountainsides everywhere, creating what looked like actual map-like topography lines from above. Rice is a huge crop here and, after so much time spent peddling Clif Bars (main ingredient is organic brown rice syrup), it was nice to see how it’s actually grown. And I have new respect for it and the people that toil over it to bring it (and other crops) to our plates. Absolutely no machines involved (or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers as far as I could see – unnecessary!), it’s a humbling process. In May, shoots are planted by hand in perfectly level paddies which are flooded with water. In November, the harvest begins and thousands of people around the country spend days bent at the waste, cutting the rice down with little hand scythes one by one. They’re then stacked to dry in the sun. Days later, they’re bundled up (often by members of the neighboring communities – all of whom help each other during harvest) and raised overhead to be thrashed against the ground violently to release the actual rice kernel (whatever it’s called). Piles get bigger and bigger as they slam them down hour after hour until there’s enough to be loaded by hand into big sacks and taken to the market. Different types fetch different prices – basmati, white, brown etc. It’s a massively labor intensive process, like many of the other crops in the area including wheat (planted in the paddies right after the rice is harvested) and the others you see as you go higher and higher into the mtns: potatoes, carrots, cabbage, radishes, peppers, peas, lentils and more.
Millet is another important one. In addition to old fashioned elbow grease, I saw some women in some of the low-lying towns after the trek using some interesting mechanical advantage to separate the seed from the plant after harvest. They’d line it up on the road in two rows so that the tires from passing trucks would crush it as they drove by. They’d then sweep it up and shake the seeds out. Not sure I’d want to eat it but a damn good idea. In addition to it’s use in meal, it is fermented to make a few different local alcoholic drinks including the Nepali version of beer, “chang”, a sweet and sour milky looking liquid, and tongba, a concoction that involves pouring hot water into a big wooden mug packed with fermented millet seeds and sucking the mixture through a wooden straw (sorta like yerba mate’ but with a different result..). Oh, and raksi, the booze of choice for most Nepalis out here, is made like moonshine from rice in each village (w/ homemade distillation set ups), usually served out of an old plastic water bottle. Yummy..
Most Nepalis eat one meal, two times a day for their entire lives. The same exact meal. I’m not joking. It’s called daal bhaat (literally ‘lentils rice’) and is something all trekkers learn entirely too much about very quickly. Mostly because it’s the most economical choice on the menu. It’s bottomless. If you order it, your plate will be refilled as many times as you like. Prompting quite a few gut-busting aches for me. How the hell do you say no to seconds?? How?? Anyway, it’s a plate full of white rice, some sauteed veggies (whatever’s local – peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic) and a bowl of lentil (or other bean) soup. Locals usually pour the soup (the only source of protein the diet for many of them) over the rice and dig in with their hands (utensils are silly Western inventions), mashing it up and forking it in to their mouths in skilled movements between thumb and forefinger. It’s a massive feed and essential sometimes when you’re burning thousands of calories every day. But did get quite boring after a while. It’s at that point that you discover the other rotating menu items you’re likely to see for the duration of your time on the trail. Veggie fried rice, veggie fried potatoes, veggie fried noodles. Throw in some cheese and an egg and you’ve got a few more variations but that’s basically it.
Tea is massive in this culture. Locals are always drinking it and soon, so was I. Black tea, milk tea, lemon tea, Tibetan tea (tea, salt, butter, milk – more like soup), hot lemon, ginger tea and a few others. In the cold, it’s essential and as much a social thing as the meal itself.
Occasionally, you’ll be offered another form of protein: meat. After a few encounters with goat (rubbery parts I didn’t want to identify served in a spicy sauce), yak, water buffalo and chicken (that I usually accepted out of gratitude, afraid to turn down), I became a most-of-the-time vegetarian. When they serve meat, it comes with all the parts, usually hacked in to bits with bone, cartilage and whatever else was attached. Waste nothing. A reality check for a meat eater from the western world where everything’s delicately butchered apart. Boneless chicken breast out here? You’re dreaming, my friend.. After seeing many animals rooting through garbage and shit, I’d had enough. I want to put that in my body??
Fauna. This deserves a minute. Because there are no motorized vehicles (except for a few days on the east side of the pass) anywhere on the trail, you see packs and packs of beautifully ornamented donkeys with red, yellow, green and blue headdresses laden with anything needed up and down the trail – rice, coke, cookies, glass, wood, you name it. The two or three ‘alpha mules..’ carry bells around their necks that toll a wonder soft sound, warning you about the mass coming down the trail. The pack is urged on by the donkeyherd grunting and whistling from behind to keep the pack moving, occasionally using a well placed reed on the ass or well tossed stone in the back of the head (not joking) from a few meters back to keep things going. I also saw quite a few Mongol horses, wild and thick and wooly beasts that some Tibetan locals use to travel back and forth from village to village, usually at breakneck speeds and always covered in tinkling bells that reminded me of Santa’s reindeer. I have one good pic of a guy pulling harder on reins than I’ve ever seen, trying desperately to get his horse, wild-eyed, to avoid smashing into me as he hurtled past me in full gallop. No cats this trek but tons of dogs, seemingly all without owners, all scavenging for every meal and lazing in the sun in between, usually in the middle of the street, the perfect location to be trampled. Never understood that one.
Where was I? Oh yeah, flora and fauna. With each day and every few hundred meters ascended, the surroundings and climate changed. After lush green and rice came bamboo. Bamboo became pine trees, juniper bushes and small waxy leafed plants, all adapted to live under the conditions which become more and more harsh as I climbed, with lower temperatures and drier and drier air. On around the 4th day, the mountains made themselves visible and reminded me what had brought me to Nepal in the first place. All of the climbing immediately became worth it as from above the green peaks brilliant white mountaintops came into form, growing and growing with each step. At this point, the Himalayan part of the trek really began and the awe-inspiring views became regular. From the lowlands to the Himalaya, I’d crossed into a new world, unlike anything I’d ever seen. More and more harsh and beautiful. I’d entered the land of the largest mountains on the planet. And they were all around me. Stark beauty full of incredible clarity in greys, blacks and white. It certainly put the Tetons, Sierras and other ranges I’ve seen in the US in perspective. A totally different ball game. Massive and mesmerizing.
Eventually, in the final day or two before the high point of the trek, I crossed above the tree line and was left with just dirt, rock, ice and snow and amazing silence, solitude and bitter cold. It’s incredible. Colder and colder nights as you climb coupled with less and less sunshine as Fall became Winter result in some early bed times. And those result in early wake-ups and a lot of hours spent watching the sun rise in the morning. The sun would rise from the Eastern side of the valley, peaking out from behind the distant peaks and throwing brilliant light onto the peaks on the Western side, lighting up the snow on their faces as if they were covered in bio-luminescent paint. Majestic and jaw dropping.
It’s easy to see why Buddhism, with it’s well balanced approach to life, spectacular colorful shrines and monasteries perched here high in this very special place, has flourished here (and abroad) and why so many Tibetan people (former refugees from the Chinese occupation), many of whom now live in the mountains of Nepal, are as enchanting and calm as they are. It’s a magical place. The prayer flags strewn up and down the mountain casting their prayers into the wind are powerful reminders of mindfulness and calm.
Part of the reason I was looking forward to trekking so much was just to be away from civilization and all of its interruptions long enough to just do some good thinking. And damn, did I get some done. As one woman put it to me, the allure of trekking (just like hiking or even going for a short walk) is the simple idea it’s just ‘one foot in front of the other’, as she said. That’s it. So simple and so unbelievably therapeutic. Walk and think. Walk and think. Or walk and take in the incredible surroundings, smells and sounds. Or think about nothing at all as you enter a weird sort of zen state where you’re just moving, existing. Whatever state, it’s good for the soul. As many of you that got sad emails from me on the return knows, that’s where I did a lot of thinking about all of you and realizing how lucky I am for the life I have back home. The solitude of the mountains apparently has that affect on a lot of people.. Anyway, I got what I came for and loved every minute of it.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this is a long post. I’m sorry. I have diarrhea of the keyboard. And there’s so much I’ve seen and found interesting. If you’re still reading, bless you, my child.
After a 5AM start on day ten, I crossed the bitter cold and windy Thorung La (la = pass in Nepali) at 17,800′, adorned with Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags and prayer stones (casting om mani padme hum into the wind). At the top, I took in an amazing view of both the West and East sides and thankfully started the descent into warmer weather and better sleeping at lower altitude of the grey brown Mustang valley below. I spent the next 5 days descending, slowly reversing the trend in temperature, altitude, climate and flora, back down the valley floor, following the Kali Gandaki river (rushing down from the mountains bordering Nepal and Tibet) through the valleys and back to the mostly Hindu villages close to civilization. Along the way, I met many more interesting people in warm kitchens, shared some bizarre meals with locals, heard more heartbreaking stories about Maoists and the uncertainty of the future of peace in Nepal, and got asked for about the 4th time if I could help arrange a US visa. Couldn’t believe how many people wanted to go to the US – still the land of milk and honey in many of their minds. Hard to explain to them just how hard and expensive it would be to make it work there these days. Not surprisingly, I heard from one woman with a husband who’d made the jump that he wanted to come back to Nepal because the US is too “busy, busy – plenty of money but no time for family and talking, only working”). No shit.
Okay, I think that’s enough for one year. Er, day. More tomorrow about a return to Pokhara, funky food and freezing my ass off near Everest.