nepal: it ain't india.
delaney and I flew into kathmandu in business class (not our first choice -- economy seats were all sold out). we looked down from the airplane windows onto a city enveloped by lush green hills. the time change, announced the flight attendant, was fifteen minutes past delhi time. yes indeed. nepal is a different place entirely.
our hotel had sent a car and driver to pick us up at the airport. (mind you, this wasn't some five-star establishment, but what $12/night accommodations come with in nepal.) we drove into town and through the tourist ghetto called thamel, thronged with hippies, trekkers, hawkers, sadhus (holy men), gawkers and just regular old nepalis. we pulled up at the hotel ganesh himal and were greeted with a 'namaste' and a bow by the hotel management and shown to our adorable room on the fifth floor.
we wasted no time in getting out into thamel an exploring what was to be our 'hood for the next two days. thamel is full of restaurants, gear shops (selling convincing knockoffs of famous outdoor brands such as the north face, mountain hardware, lowe alpine and marmot), tibetan souvenirs and pirated CDs. the very first thing we noticed, in stark contrast to our shopping experience in india, was the almost total lack of harassment or haggling on the part of shop owners. they were almost universally friendly, laid-back and understanding of our desire not to load up on prayer flags, turquoise-and-amber necklaces, embroidered pillowcovers and other goodies prior to hitting the trail. 'no' apparently can mean just that, 'no.' what a refreshing experience.
the second thing we noticed was the ubiquity of the 'namaste' greeting, and how heartfelt and genuine it seemed. 'namaste' literally translates as 'I recognize the divine in you,' and is, I think, one of the best greetings in the entire universe. I mean, really, what a nice thing to say to someone you've just met. everyone, from hotel guards to restaurant owners wetting down the dust in front of their doorways, to elderly men in topi hats and fruit vendors pushing carts full of watermelons and bananas, greeted us with a 'namaste' and a smile. more points for nepal. it really seemed to us that this was a place with true soul.
we spent the next couple of days shopping for gear we would need on the trail -- trekking poles, iodine purification tablets, fleece outerwear, water bottles, windproof gloves, batteries, pack covers in case of rain. mostly everything is a knockoff, and therefore quite reasonable -- a 'north face' short-sleeved t-shirt made of high-tech wicking material was $7. a similarly fake 'north face' fleece zip-up jacket was $8. in no time at all, we were set.
the annapurna circuit is one of the most popular treks in nepal. it can be done in anywhere from 9 to 21 days (most people do it in 17 or 18) and, true to its name, circumambulates the famous annapurna mountain range, offering spectacular views of snowy peaks at almost every turn. it's rated 'moderate to difficult' by the guidebooks and maps, mostly due to the fact that it includes a pass crossing at 5416 meters (17,768 feet). however, one of its greatest assets is the fact that it is classified as a 'teahouse' trek, which means that instead of having to schlep a tent, thermarest, cookstove and other camping gear, trekkers can stay in lodges or guest houses in each village for just a dollar or two per night.
lodges can be quite simple, with concrete or exposed brick-and-mortar walls, or they can be on the fancier side with attached showers, flush toilets and 24-hour electricity. mattresses are sometimes thin, but after a day of trekking, most hikers would be able to sleep quite soundly on bare concrete floors. beds can be in short supply during the high season (september to october), but there are fewer trekkers in april/may -- we often got the best room in the house, which was usually on an upper floor with windows on three sides.
these lodges also house restaurants, sometimes serving just simple fare such as fried eggs and toast for breakfast and dal bhaat (lentil soup and rice) for dinner. others have quite extensive (if sometimes cryptic) menus featuring moussaka, chow mein, swiss rosti, apple crumble, spaghetti and so on. lodges are sometimes more than an hour apart in the remote areas, but if you supplement your trek in advance with such snacks as chocolate, cheese and dried fruit, you can trek quite comfortably from one village to the next with little worry about your next bed or meal.
the other attractive feature of the annapurna circuit is that it takes you, sometimes quite literally, through the front yards of everyday nepali people living in villages much as they have done for hundreds of years. often we would trek through villages populated by chickens, cows, sheep, small children playing soccer, elderly men and women chatting on stoops, women doing laundry at the village spigot, and stray dogs sleeping on sun-warmed flagstones. or we would flatten ourselves against a convenient wall when a donkey train passed by. this, to me, was the best part of the trek -- seeing everyday nepali life, or even just the small portion of it visible to us as western outsiders.
many trekkers choose to do the trek with a hired nepali guide, porter, or combination of the two. a guide is expected to speak good english, have expert knowledge of not only the trek itself but about the flora, fauna and terrain surrounding it, and to educate his clients about nepali customs and culture. he is also usually responsible for making accommodation and meal arrangements in each village (often a place he has stayed at before and knows to be a good establishment), making sure the trekkers are safe and healthy (i.e., educating them about altitude sickness), setting the pace for each trekking day and outlining the trekking schedule.
a porter may or may not speak english and is hired for one main reason: he carries most of the trekkers' stuff on his back, in addition to his own.
what may seem like a demeaning and demanding task to us is actually a respected and integral part of the nepali job market. nepali porters are legendary for their ability to carry loads of up to 75 kilograms up and down mountain valleys sometimes while wearing only plastic slippers. the load is balanced on a strap that goes across the porter's forehead (!). we saw porters, male and female, carrying monstrous items ranging from eight-foot pieces of tree trunk to rolls of corrugated steel (so wide the porter sometimes had to walk sideways) to cages carrying dozens of live chickens. to be a porter for a foreign trekking party is reputedly good money for a short-term job, and the porter can practice his or her english, which is essential if he or she is looking to someday become a guide. about half the folks we encountered had hired guides or porters, and most of them were happy with their choice.
my gear list for the trek included:
short- and long-sleeved, synthetic or wool shirt
fleece or wool thermal layer
rain- and wind-proof outer layer
long cotton skirt
quick-drying cotton/nylon cargo pants
silk sock liners
sturdy hiking boots
trekking pole (delaney and I shared a set)
gloves and glove liners
medical kit containing band-aids, tea tree oil, neosporin, painkillers, cold medicine, tweezers, diamox (altitude sickness medication), gingko biloba, homeopathic coca, cipro and norflaxin (antibiotics) for infections, anti-nausea medicine, imodium AD, ginger tea and leftover malaria medication from india
book for reading during downtimes
fleece sleeping bag liner
plastic bags for dirty laundry
pack cover in case of rain
rubber slippers for showering and hanging out at night
antibacterial hand gel
permit for annapurna circuit trek
some guidebooks to nepal suggest hiking in a long skirt as opposed to pants or shorts. nepali women do not wear pants. a long skirt is usually just as comfortable to hike in, makes going to the potty that much easier, and can be worn over thermals and hiking boots quite comfortably. female hikers are also encouraged not to wear revealing clothing. nepalis are extremely modest, and strappy tank tops or short shorts are looked upon with disdain.
in an effort to be culturally considerate, I wore my long wraparound skirt on the first day, with a long-sleeved thermal top. by the time we reached the town we would be staying in that night, I was ready to scream. the skirt was too narrow, limiting the length of my stride. it stuck to my sweaty legs and flew open when there was a breath of wind. I felt like a gigantic armpit. away went the skirt for the rest of the trek, only to be brought out at night, after showering, to eat dinner or stroll around the village in. so much for cultural sensitivity.
because we were only carrying two or three outfits each, we did laundry frequently on the trail. once we checked into a guest house, we would ask for a bucket in which to do washing. I was familiar with the routine after having done laundry by hand for two years in mongolia. a little water, a little washing powder. dissolve powder fully. add dirty clothes and swish. let soak for thirty minutes or an hour. scrub clothes, concentrating on crotch and armpits. rinse until water runs clear and wring out. hang up and hope they dry by morning. if not, attach to outside of pack and let sun-dry as you hike.
nepal is very big on ecotourism and conservation, not only environmental but cultural. in addition to dressing sensitively, they suggest eating simply while on the trail -- specifically, they suggest dal bhaat, which is the staple of every nepali diet. lentils are cooked into a soupy consistency and served with a mound of rice, some curried vegetables, a little dish of pickles and a papadum (thin crispy pancake). dal bhaat is (unlike western-style dishes) available everywhere, nutritious and easy to digest, and requires a minimum of fuel to prepare (usually because the family running the lodge is also eating it for dinner). and because dal bhaat is an all-you-can-eat affair, delaney and I would often order one and share it, which would be more than enough for the two of us.
we later discovered that once you've stopped eating dal bhaat on the trail and started eating more exotic fare like yak steaks and moussaka, it's next to impossible to go back. it's like your taste buds have woken up to a whole new world of delicious opportunity and refuse to do the DB again.
even in the most remote villages on the trail, we found that many people spoke or understood at least a little english, so learning nepali was not an issue. I did, however, learn how to say 'where is the toilet?' (charpi kahaa chhe?) and used it quite often. sometimes, in the rural areas, the answer was just a shrug and a general wave of the hand, which meant 'go where you like.' and often I found this option preferable to using the actual latrines, which could be downright disgusting.
nepali toilets are of the squat variety, with no flushing mechanism other than a bucket of water nearby. the water is used to wash yourself and then flush the goods down the hole.
my yarn-crafting friends will be happy to know that my knitting needles and crochet hook have not been idle since leaving the Ice. here's a hat I crocheted for delaney out of wool I bought in himachal pradesh, india:
and a hat I'd made on the Ice out of a wool/soy blend that was too little for any adult, so I carried it on the trek until I found a suitably adorable child to give it to:
as you can see from the pictures, nepal is a somewhat photogenic place. I mentioned in the previous post that it's like new zealand on crack. let me amend that statement. it's like new zealand on SPEED.
more than once I found myself walking through a pine forest, or up a craggy slope, or past a mani wall filled with prayer wheels and festooned with tattered prayer flags, or along a field of buckwheat so impossibly green it hurt my eyes, or across a raging river with incredible views of snow-capped peaks in the distance, and I would think of the navajo prayer:beauty before me
beauty behind me
beauty above me
beauty below me
beauty all around me
everywhere I walk
I walk in beauty.
but there were also days I really just wanted to lay down and die.
I had thought my boots were broken in. I had purchased them before leaving antarctica and taken them on a couple of hikes. they seemed friendly and able to play well with others. but on Day #2 I developed blisters on both heels that were so bad the skin literally came off in my hands. Days #3 through #8 were therefore a rather interesting time involving various attempts at cures with duct tape, super glue, secondskin, neosporin, tea tree oil, electrical tape and good old band-aids. the blisters eventually healed during our acclimatisation days in manang, but there were times when every step brought pain. and just when those blisters healed, I developed the Granddaddy of All Water Blisters on my left big toe. I was actually quite amazed at how long-lived the blister was. it grew and grew over three days, until delaney got sufficiently grossed out to pop it manually with a pin. so, Sage Piece of Advice #2: never assume your boots are broken in. to be safe, run them over with an SUV a couple of times first.
to make matters worse, my period arrived unexpectedly on Day #2. what would have posed little problem back in the states suddenly became a rather interesting conundrum in a place with few flush toilets or running water. tampons are nowhere to be found on the trail. the only feminine hygiene products available were Stayfree pads so thick it felt as if I was wearing a futon strapped between my legs. eighth-grade flashbacks.
and last but not least, I developed a fun little head cold between chame and manang that had me doing farmer-blows along the trail every fifty feet or so. a song kept running through my head...snot-rockets in flight...afternoon delight
foremost on every trekker's mind is the question of safe drinking water. in the 1990s, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, with the assistance of the new zealand government, inducted something called the Safe Drinking Water Scheme. sixteen stations were set up at various points along the annapurna circuit trek to provide safe, affordable drinking water to trekkers and locals. the main push behind this effort was to eliminate or greatly reduce the number of plastic mineral-water bottles brought into the area by trekkers, which of course cannot be recycled or properly disposed of and pose a great ecological hazard. at the Safe Drinking Water Stations, ozonated water is available by the liter. it's a great alternative to buying bottled water or even using iodine, which can be harmful if used over a long period of time.
our daily schedule went something like this:
up at 6:00
breakfast at 6:30
hit the trail by 7:00
hike until 10:00
hike until 12:00
arrive in village we would stay in that night
do a reconnaissance of local lodges
find lodge run by friendly people, with clean toilet (attached to room if possible)
bed at 7:30
as we got closer and closer to Thorung La (the mountain pass at 5416 meters), and as we climbed higher and higher in elevation, we began to hear and think more and more about altitude sickness (also known as AMS, or acute mountain sickness). delaney had once been to 14,000 feet in colorado and been sick as a dog. I had never been higher than around 8000 feet before and so had no personal experience with AMS. I had, however, heard lots and lots about AMS while on the Ice this past season. part of my job entailed organizing talks by the physician's assistant, barbie, who would warn folks headed for the south pole about the dangers of AMS and try to make them take diamox. some of them would refuse the diamox and be fine. others would refuse the diamox and come down with AMS so bad they had to be evacuated to mcmurdo. so I knew quite a bit about the dangers and symptoms of AMS: headache, lethargy, loss of appetite, nausea, and in the later (more dangerous) stages, trouble breathing, ataxia (loss of coordination), confusion, and death. the key is acclimatize slowly by gaining no more than 400 meters of elevation per day, and to descend immediately if symptoms do not improve.
manang, at about 3500 meters, is where many people start to feel the first twinges. I developed a slight headache as we arrived in manang on the afternoon of Day #8. by that evening, the headache was so bad I could do little but lie in bed. everything made my head hurt -- the sound of delaney's spoon in the bowl of garlic soup, the harsh fluorescent light, every movement.
luckily, by the next morning the headache had passed. we bought some packets of diamox from the himalayan rescue association and resolved to take it slow for the next few days. we met hikers in various levels of distress -- some had no symptoms of AMS, others were completely miserable. we popped our diamox twice a day and didn't push ourselves too fast. nepalis said we should eat garlic soup and drink coca-cola. we did that too, and spent another acclimatisation day in manang. it wasn't difficult -- there was a german bakery in our hotel.
summit day finally arrived. we had spent the night in thorung phedi ('phedi' means 'foot of the hill' in nepali, and that is where most trekkers start their hike over thorung la). up at 3:45 am in the biting cold. breakfast -- fried egg and an apple pancake -- at 4:15 am. on the trail by 5:00 am. the sun was about to come over the edge of the eastern ridge.
I had been having trouble catching my breath for the last couple of days. and I knew summiting was going to be tough. all I could do was take it slow -- really slow, sometimes -- and just put one foot in front of the other.
it took us an hour to get to High Camp, which is a location about 600 meters from the summit where some trekkers choose to spend the night. the sun was gilding nearby peaks when we arrived, and fog was lifting in patches around the two lodges at the camp. we refilled our water bottles and kept on going.
I had never known what hiking at altitude was like. I felt a hundred years old. I was breathing raggedly, couldn't quite catch my breath until I rested for a minute or two, and as soon as I started walking again my breathing would be just as labored. it was frustrating.
luckily, we had amazing weather. it was clear and sunny, and even as we approached the pass, the temperature never dipped below about 25F. during frequent rest breaks, I looked around. trekkers before and after us were little dots in the distance. the sky was an impossible shade of blue. the sun glinted off patches of snow. and oh yeah -- I was in nepal, hiking to thorung la! hot damn!
there were several false summits before the actual pass, which made me want to sit down and cry a little. but somehow, eventually, we got there. there were about fifty people there already, sitting around, eating celebratory snacks they'd saved for the occasion, taking silly pictures of each other at the sign, and doing cartwheels in the snow. we'd done it!
the descent was nearly as grueling as the ascent. we spent five hours descending 1600 meters to muktinath. thank god for trekking poles. we got to muktinath, staggered into the first guest house we could find, and ordered steak diane -- yak steaks diane, that is -- for our celebratory dinner.
red meat is rarely served in nepal. most nepalis are hindus or tibetan buddhists, which have their own sanctions against taking the life of a cow for the sake of a filet mignon. but in muktinath and further down the mustang/jomson side of the circuit, the villagers seem to understand the trekkers' need for animal protein and accordingly serve up yak whenever it's available. here's a pic of one especially enterprising restaurant.
marpha, another village further down the trek, was full of tibetan ladies hawking tibetan handicrafts. these short, roundish, middle-aged brown-skinned women are a force to be reckoned with when they're trying to get you to buy something. just walking past one of their shops makes you fair game. they all seem to have the same general spiel: hello madam! you wish to see tibetan handicraft? just looking okay. hey, where you go? just looking okay! you come back, yes?
one particularly persistent woman actually followed delaney back to our hotel.
the other thing marpha is famous for is apple brandy. 95 rupees, a little over a dollar, will get you a quarter bottle of the stuff. it was served to us in a teapot. we got through one glass. the apple brandy is powerful strong.
the one disturbing thing we experienced about nepal was heard from a trekking friend, an american woman who had done the same circuit. our friend is a largish woman, a few pounds overweight. she and her husband had hiked the not only the annapurna circuit, but the everest base camp trek (which goes even higher than thorung la). she had carried her own pack. she is not weak or willowy.
she and her husband have been traveling the world, in both developed and developing countries, for years and years. nowhere had they witnessed her being made fun of for being overweight as badly as she was in nepal.
nepalis would, according to her and her husband, ridicule her -- in english and to her face
-- an average of three times a day about being fat. it got to the point where she could also understand the words for 'fat' in hindi and nepali. nepali women would touch her arm and say pityingly, 'you are fat. but I am not.' nepali men would ask her husband, 'how fat is your wife? how many kilos?' while people standing around snickered.
this was really disturbing to me. I'm still trying to figure out what's behind it. it wouldn't have been as shocking if nepalis were rude in other ways. but in our own (limited) experience, almost every interaction had been pleasant and genial.
for a little compare 'n' contrast exercise, here we are on Day #1 of the hike:
and again on Day #16, the last day:
we finished the trek in a little over 16 days. we learned a lot about ourselves and each other, and what it's like to trek with someone whose style is different from your own. the annapurna circuit trek is changing rapidly. the nepali government is building a road that is supposed to link the remote villages on the trek with larger centers such as pokhara. many days, we passed road crews breaking chunks of rock with crowbars and sledgehammers. on the last few days of the trail, we choked on dust kicked up by motorcycles and trucks and tractors, in places where the road is already functional. the completed road will signify the end of an era for nepalis who live in the annapurna area. I'm not educated enough to say whether all the changes will be good or bad. but the trek is certain to be quite different. so I'm really glad I got a chance to do it when I did.
here I am, relaxing on phewa lake in pokhara post-trek.
hope this finds everyone blister-free and happy.