Posts Tagged 'hiking'

Existential Panic World Tour Part 7: Annapurna-a-go-go

Well, its my last night in Kathmandu, and what did I do? Look at some sites of cultural significance? Regal my fellow travelers with bawdy tales? No, I watched in rapt disgust as Clinton tried to parse what sexual relations meant on CNN (Clinton’s Nob Network). The crowds of Europeans watched and cackled at this stupid spectacle that only America could produce. The Americans muttered, shook their heads and skulked away. I’m looking into Canadian citizenship.

Anyway, back to my story…

I arrived in Pokhara and checked into my pre-arranged hotel wedged between a newly opened Benetton and a shack selling counterfeit North Face gear. Soon afterwards my guide Kamal (he took pains to emphasize that his name was pronounced ‘kaMAL’ and not ‘camel’). He was a quiet easy-going sort who resembled Jim Varney (the star of the dreaded Ernest series) with a gap-toothed grin. We talked some about my hiking equipment and arranged a starting time for the next day.

Trekking has become a major industry in Nepal. In Thamel, the tourist ghetto of Kathmandu, virtually every shop that isn’t selling embroidered T-shirts offers trekking services–and that doesn’t mention the countless number of freelance guides hawking their services in the streets. The two most popular trekking routes are the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna Circuit near Pokhara. The draw of the former is obvious–Everest, the roof of the world, the tallest mountain on the planet. The Annapurna Circuit also boasts some significant peaks but its also includes a rich variety of cultural attraction–particularly sites like Mukitinath which is a major temple for Tibetan Buddhism. The other draw of the Annapurna route is sheer logistics. The Everest trek takes at least three week and requires either a long bumpy bus ride or an expensive and potentially dangerous helicopter ride to the trailhead. The amount of time required for the Annapurna region is much more flexible (treks can be two days or two months) and one only needs a short cab ride to get trekking. Because of that blighted cheese sandwich and general indecision I had only about a week to kill. Thus Annapurna.

The plan was to spend six days hiking from scenic mountain village Dampus to scenic mountain village Ghandruk then over a ridge and down to scenic mountain village Ghorepani. After a brief hike up scenic vista site Poon hill its then literally down hill to Pokhara.

The first day was absolutely lovely. Terraced rice fields, quaint stone houses, snow capped mountains, women in traditional garb hauling baskets of grain up and down the mountain. The scene was so idyllic that, like my visit to Beijing some years back, I had remind myself that this was real and that the setting wasn’t some diabolical Disney recreation of a scenic mountain village. As with Chitwan, the tourist literature played up the exoticness of the setting. See a ‘real Nepali village.’ Of course I had other reservations about how ‘real’ the experience was. Each village seemed more a loose collection of guest houses than anything else. Moreover, the government–apparently fearing injury to the trekking business if legions of tourists keeled over from food poisoning–standardized guest house menus and licensed their cooks. Thus on top of the ubiquitous Nepali rice and lentil combo Dhal Bhat, every menu also had spaghetti, pizza, apple pie and for some reason Tibetan cuisine (ah, but I will discuss this more later). True enough, the valleys and mountains did seem to support a viable rural economy, and true traditional cultures and beliefs seemed to maintain an upper-hand over the encroaching 20th century and true there was nary a motorized vehicle nor paved road for miles of most of these scenic villages. (Trade and commerce was carried out by either mule caravan or by stout legged porters have the agility of mountain goats.) But it was also true that when the government threatened to build roads to some of the larger communities, the villagers loudly protested, arguing that such a construction would kill the tourist industry. It’s a fine line between cultural self-consciousness and simulacrum. Nonetheless the first day was lovely.

On the second day, however, things started getting tough. Indeed, I wasn’t tramping around any old mountain range…I was hiking the Himalayas. After a pleasant, leisurely six hour hike, the trail abruptly descends into a deep deep gorge. Without exaggerating the trail descended roughly 800 vertical meters almost straight down on loose, uneven and slippery steps. Having grown up in the flatlands of America, my mountain descending muscles were woefully underdeveloped, especially with the added weight of a 10 kilo pack (I don’t know why I decided to bring my espresso maker). Top-heavy as I was, waves of vertigo washed over me as did torrents of sweat. Few things focus the mind and hone the senses like the prospect of plunging head-long off a Himalaya. At the bottom of the gorge, sweaty and my legs feeling weak and rubbery, I was leaning up against a rock when Kamal, my gap-tooth guide, cheerfully informed me that the day’s final destination was perched on the opposite side of the valley about a kilometer up. Needless to say I crawled into town barely ambulatory–more physically exhausted than I have been since the day I struck a sheep with my bike (but that’s another story). Fortunately, our guest house–the Sakura Inn–had a hot solar powered shower and good food. After cleansing myself and devouring some Tibetan momo my diminished spirits were restored some.

The following day was supposed to be easy but the monsoon season was a real bitch these parts and much of the usually well-tended trails were washed away. Much of that day and the next was spent stumbling through rock slides and mud slips.

On the fourth day, we arrived at Ghorepani (literal translation–‘horse water’) just after noon so I spent much of the day reading, playing cards with a boisterous couple from Hong Kong and wandering about the town. At one point, I poked my head into what I thought was my guest house’s shop, but instead turned out to be the owner’s private quarters. There in a starkly decorated room (only a single yellowed poster of an Indian movie star adorned the walls) I saw my guide, two turbaned old women with gnarled hands and large gold nose rings and a pair of half naked children sitting around a Sony entertainment system watching a Chinese bootleg of Titanic.

Mind you, this was a village that was miles away from any road, had only intermittent electricity, and only one (broken) phone. The copy was terrible and I’d already seen the flick too many times, nevertheless I sat next to Kamal and absorbed the weirdness of the moment. Was this merely a rude insertion of the 20th century in a place that has otherwise not changed in generations? Or was this in fact be some Nepali Disneyland and I had stumbled into some canteen for actors on break from playing quaint villagers? Was this some bizarre ruse or merely the dizzying clash of cultures that are worlds apart? Kamal, for one, was suspiciously tight-lipped about the whole thing. (He was, however, impressed with Titanic, though he seemed more moved by was Kate Winslet’s nudity than the flick’s much ballyhooed special effects. Indian cinema may shove a dizzying array of genres into one movie but they are notoriously prudish.)

The next morning we woke before dawn and climbed Poon Hill–one of the best vantage points in Nepal to see the Himalayas. “Poon Hill” is actually a few meters shy of being the same altitude as Mount Fuji. Mountains don’t get much respect around here unless they’re in the ballpark of 7000 meters. (For comparison, Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak is a mere 6200m) The view was positively sublime. There the sixth and tenth highest peaks in the world tower before you. Like many things on this trip, this defies easy description outside from the over-used, and thus meaningless, words like “stunning”, “awesome” and “overwhelming.” But indeed I was stunned, left in awe and overwhelmed.

Two days later, I boarded the first motorized vehicle I had seen in two days and checked into another motel in Pokhara. In an effort to reacquaint myself with the world, I thumbed through a Time magazine–the Starr report issue. My first reaction was to hop on another cab, head for the hills and not come down until this whole miserable affair is over. “Real” or not, Annapurna proved to be much more enjoyable and less deadening than the show playing currently on TVs around the world.

Next stop, Prague. I’m not sure about the internet situation there.
Stay tuned.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 5: The News In Brief

I’m back from my six day trek around the Annapurnas. My legs are so sore that I’m hobbling around like Captain Ahab and my clothes smell like a Taiwanese nightmarket but somehow I survived. I’ll write all about it once I get to a web server that isn’t run by a bunch of mouth-breathing weasels as this one in the resort town of Pokhara is. I’ll be back in Kathmandu in a couple days where I will recount my adventures with rhinos, vertigo and bootleg videos. However, I have culled an actual article from the September 8th issue of the Kathmandu Post to whet your appetites. I did not make this up:

YAK BLOOD CARNIVAL ENDS

MUSTANG, Sept 7 (RSS)–An annual carnival of drinking yak blood, unique to Marche and Muli villages in this district, concluded here recently with the participation of 20,000 carnivalists.

On the occasion, the carnivalists from Baglung, Myagdi and Mustang districts participated in the rituals in which about 500 yaks were slaughtered.

There is a popular belief here that drinking yak blood is a remedy for gastrique, blood pressure and gastric diseases and many other diseases.

However, it is felt that health [sic] of the yak should be checked properly before they are consigned to the rituals; for drinking the blood of an unhealthy yak may transmit various diseases to humans.

Words of widsom indeed.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 4: How Jon Got His Groove Back or the Himalaya Shuffle

Three Nepali who asked for me to take their pictures.

You will all be happy to know that my intestinal tract no longer reacts like a spooked animal to food, though I must say I’m become much more paranoid about what I put in my mouth now.

Anyway, I’ve just returned from a short hike around the Kathmandu valley with the ever-perky “Mr. Nepal.” We left the smoggy haze of Kathmandu for Bhaktapur (where “The Little Buddha” was filmed) and began our hike for Nagakot which reputedly affords a spectacular view of the Himalayas, including Everest. Now, since I arrived in Nepal I had yet to see real dipped in the wool mountain. It being the tail end of the monsoon season, the Kathmandu valley was blanketed with a thick layer of clouds every day. I was beginning to think that the Himalayas were, in fact, an elaborate ruse devised by the tourist board.

Outside of Bhaktapur, Udhap (aka Mr. Nepal) asked a goat herder which was the best path to Nagakot since his favorite trail had been washed out from monsoonal rains. He lead us to one trail which probably was the fast route, because it went straight up the mountain. Panting and sweaty, we eventually stumbled onto the one and only paved road to Nagakot. We stopped by a food cart selling Fanta and coconut meat and checked our shoes and socks for leeches.

Like finding a wedding ring in your Ballpark frank, discovering a leech dangling from one of your appendages is one of life’s less pleasant experiences. Leeches are common in Nepal and India during the Monsoon and immediately after. They frequently hide in tall grass or they drop from trees. The earlobe, I heard is a favorite sucking ground. I always imagined leeches as looking like vampire slugs but, in fact,
having the privilege of looking at one up close as it worked its way up my shoe, they are actually quite small to begin with. Only until after they get a belly full of blood do they swell to slug sizes. I flicked a handful off my shoes, thinking that I had successfully thwarted the leech onslaught. It wasn’t until I reached the hotel and discovered that my sock was drenched in blood that I realized different.

Nagakot was a small village but it is slowly evolving into a tourist resort. A number of five star hotels have been built there, though during the off-season (e.g. during the monsoons) the place is empty. We stayed at a decidedly half star location called the Himalaya Resort. The room was carpeted in astro turf which didn’t hide the odd dead bug lying on the floor. The “resort” was perched right on a ridge that would have had a fantastic view. The clouds had rolled in though leaving the entire panorama white. Slowly though, as Udhap and the hotel’s owner beat each other in chess, the clouds parted revealing much of the valley below, yet they refused to show the Himalayas. “Don’t worry,” he said. “At dawn all will be clear.” That night, me being the only guest in the hotel, drank Nepali Rice spirits (think of sake and kerosene mixed) and looked at the valley in the moonlight. There was only a few light to be seen. I also learned that night that “Colorado” means “black penis” in Nepali.

When I groggily awoke, I discovered that it was of course that it was pissing down a cold hard rain. Hiking under such circumstances is risky at best, but since I left my fleece in Kathmandu, it was out of the question. So we caught a bus. It was pretty much what I imagined it would be like: toothless women with a pound of gold hanging from their noses clutching chickens to their laps; old men spitting out of the window; people hanging off the bus from the doors and roof. It was crowded, hot, and sweaty. As the bus snaked down the mountain road I oscillated from fits of terror to mere numbed detachment. The average Nepali road is as wide as an American driveway and full of every imaginable variety of vehicle, from rickshaw, to elaborately decorated truck, to scooters, to the odd Mercedes. The road is further clogged with pedestrians, cows, goats and anything else you can think of.

Back at Bhaktapur we changed buses for one bound for Dhulikhek on the highway to Tibet, which afford another alleged view of the Himalayas. We stayed at the Royal Inn Hotel which was booked full with a Nepali film crew who was shooting a movie there. That night Udhap and I played more chess with the director who was very, very drunk. Udhap and the other non-film stars had a very casual reaction to said stars. For example, Udhap once said referring to an youngish man sitting in the next table, “XXX is a good actor, but he hasn’t risen much in the business.” Then the man nods and says, “Yes, I haven’t risen much in the business.”

Before that though, I looked on the hotel’s roof deck to try to see the Himalayas. The rain had stopped but the clouds were still played peek-a-boo with the mountains.

I decided to walk about the village of Dhukilek. It was a charming place and aside from the odd Coca Cola advertisement probably looked much as it did three hundred years ago. No shops hawking email access or ten year olds hawking hash like in Kathmandu. I walked blithefully along, snapping pictures until I realized that my camera case had fallen off my camera. Backtracking I came upon a trio of women sitting on a towel in front of the local temple. She handed me my case, which apparently had dropped off right in front of them, but she also wanted me to take their pictures. She tried to communicate something else to me too but I couldn’t make out what it was. Soon a crowd developed around me and soon some guy who looked a lot like Bob Denver of Gillian’s Island fame translated in a circuitous manner. The women wanted me to send them the pictures. Ok, sure. Then they lead me to the local Hindu temple and asked, almost demanded, that I shoot them in front of a statue of Krishna. Soon my roll was spent and they eagerly wanted to know when they would get the photos. They gave me a remarkably vague address (behind the 3rd temple or something like that) and I beat a hasty retreat to the hotel.

At 5:30am the next day, today, Udhap beat on my door and said, “Hey Mountains!” Later that day, we climbed Dhulikhek “hill” which did give a jaw-dropping stunning, amazing view. At last.

Well, for the next three days I will be at Chitwan national park going on a safari. There I’ll see rhinos, barking deer (yes, that’s right, barking deer) and tigers in the wild. Then I’ll be gazing at Himalayas, and battling leeches on the Annapurna trail near Pokhara for a week.


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