Thursday, March 22, 2018

Dharapani to Chyame: Prayer Wheels & Plummeting Temperatures

Anita at the Manasulu Hotel cooked us a hearty hot porridge and muesli mix which left us feeling fueled and satisfied. As we parted she gave me the best hug when we set off and greeted me by calling me “ my sister “. What a wonderful soul!

Today’s hike took us through Bagorchap, Danaqu, Latamarang, Thanchowk, Koto and into Chyame located at an altitude of 2710 meters/8800 ft. Our journey was the ultimate stairmaster on steroids and of course the further we climbed, the cooler the temperature became. Right now it’s 1degree C/ 33.8 degrees F.

Earlier today we passed by apple trees covered in pretty pink blossoms and the hillsides were dotted in red and pink flowering Rhododendrons. We even watched two young men cutting a bunch of the bright red flowers with such a look of happiness on their faces. 

At this point I’d like to mention how peaceful the Nepalese people in the Himalayas are. Warmth, interest and friendliness abounds and even the animals look serene, peaceful and happy. The dogs here roam free and have serene expressions and calm demeanors. I watched a cow herder tenderly talking to his cows and stroking them in reassurance. I have not seen a single dog being cruelly kept on a short chain and this fills me with happiness.

Our rewards today for stepping out of our comfort zones were absolutely incredible views of giant, snow capped mountains and even higher peaks beyond them. 

Leaving Dharapani, and again after leaving Koto we had to present our permits at check points. The tourist police keep a very good log of all the trekkers which is reassuring.

The prayer wheels at Dharapani were impressive but when we reached Chyame we were completely amazed at the size of their prayer wheel wall.

Chyame has been described as a bustling town, with many stores and a medical clinic. We bought Dreadknot some medicine for his cold here and hope it kicks in soon!

Tonight’s tea house is called “Moon Love” and is by far the most luxurious teahouse we’ve stayed in yet. We have a largish room with an ensuite bathroom and a flush toilet!

The average cost for accommodation and food ( dinner and breakfast) for two people has been $25 per night.

It has begun pouring with rain and I have every layer of clothing in my pack on. According to other trekkers it is snowing heavily in Manang where we are headed... we hope for the best. Tomorrow we will start taking altitude sickness tablets prophylactically.

Thankfully we will be warm, dry and comfortable tonight in our down sleeping bags at Moon Love.


Jagat to Dharapani: Up, up and away!

We left the Tibetan Hotel in Jagat at an elevation of 4000ft after a breakfast of porridge and coffee. In our experience Jagat was a quaint and neat little village situated in a narrow chasm above the river, quite contrary to one report we had read on the internet describing it as dirty.

Hot springs were located 10 minutes away but we were too tired to walk there late the the evening and wanted to get going early the next morning. 

The towns we walked through were Chyamche, which we hiked to on the high trail past a beautiful waterfall, where we stopped to enjoy a juice and admire the falls with Ziko ( a hiker from the Netherlands).

After Chymche, we once again passed over the fast flowing aquamarine colored Marsyangdi Nadi, across a suspension bridge and climbed steadily upwards along a steep stone trail, gaining 1500ft (500m) of elevation in 4 hours.

We reached the fairly bustling town of Tal situated along the banks of Marsyangdi Nadi at lunch time and enjoyed vegetable momos ( dumplings) and vegetable fried rice with our friend Ziko again. He is a journalist who has done awesome travels around the world including driving a motorcycle across Vietnam.

As we entered and left Tal we experienced walking through the village gateways lined with prayer wheels, which gives one a good feeling to run your hand over each wheel. They are lovely, and at the exit were carved prayer stones above the prayer wheels.

The weather started changing during lunch, clouds were building up into what looked like could be rain and the wind had picked up. We only had to make it through Karte, a tiny cliff side village and onto Dharapani which was a 2 hour hike away.

The tea house we chose “Hotel Manasulu”, had a hot shower which was a welcome treat and I was was able to wash my sweaty clothes by hand and hang them up to dry. We both felt wiped out now that we came to a stop for the day and Dreadknot seems to be coming down with a cold.

During our hike we had seen a flock of Himalayan vultures with their massive wingspans circling above us. 

As the evening wore on it became extremely cold and I had to put on all my layers: merino wool base layer, fleece, down, a shell jacket , merino wool socks and my Nepalese woolen hat.

There was a power failure that evening, so sat in the primitive kitchen of our hosts beside a wood burning stove sipping on ginger tea and chatting with our lovely host Anita. She is building on a brick and cement addition to her tea house as she says it is usually fully booked in the high trekking season of October.

Loving the journey and we are most certainly up, up and away! 


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Ngadi to Jagat: In awe of the beauty!

On day two of our trek we awoke at 05:30am at cock crow, after a really sound night of sleep. There was dew on the grass and the air temperature was cold but pleasant. After a breakfast of pancakes and coffee, we were back on the trail in awe of the beauty around us and gazed in amazement at the high mountains, knowing that despite their height, they were the mere foothills of what lay ahead.

The new road that has been developed through this part of the Circuit has encouraged some hikers not to hike the entire way and instead many take a the rough Jeep ride to Chamche, thereby depleting the livelihood of the tea houses here and missing the first two days of the trek.  Rupes told us that a lot of hikers stop at the first two tea houses as they enter Ngadi and therefore his Hotel Hilton and many others up the road get very little business. He also gave us insight into the fact that the hydroelectric plant we had walked past earlier was installed by the Chinese government and that all the electricity generated by it would be sent to China for 30 years and only thereafter would the Nepalese benefit from it.

The hike today was beautiful. Everyone skipping this part by catching a Jeep was missing out for sure. The villages are terraced up the mountains and they all grow crops in their terraced gardens. The people that live here are of Nepalese and Tibetan descent. After China took control of Tibet, many people fled to Nepal, creating a new life for themselves. The religions practiced here are Buddhism and Hinduism and we learned that Buddha was born in Nepal and that Buddhism was taken to Tibet by a Nepalese princess who married a Tibetan ruler. 

The hike today took us through the main villages of Bahundanda, Ghermu and Jagat and it was fun seeing the children walking to and from school in their cute school uniforms. Occasionally some of the kids would ask us for sweets and because we didn’t have any, we had none to give. Most accepted this gracefully but a few swore obscenities at us and a couple of times attempted to pull the contents out of my backpack pockets to try to find treats, but those were the exception and not the rule....

We passed a few mule trains along the way carry bricks and building supplies, as well as men heaving heavy bags of sand and ridiculously heavy rebar, using forehead straps to assume most of the weight of the burden. The porters for some of the other backpackers also carry 2-4 backpacks lashed together using the forehead strap method.... they must have incredibly strong necks!

We have crossed paths back and forth with many hikers throughout the day. We met up with Tomas again for lunch which was a dish of vegetable fried rice and delicious! We have also been crossing paths with Rachel from Sonoma, California who recognized us from Delhi Airport and whom we met at the start in Besisahar.

Our evening was spent in the company of Ziko from the Netherlands and Serena from Milano, Italy. We had such fun talking story over our Dhal Bhat, veg curry and veg momo ( dumpling) dinner.

We are attempting to learn one Nepalese word a day and so far our repertoire is:

Namaste: a greeting

Thank you: Dhanyabad

Which way? Bhadhu? ( not sure of the spelling)

Water: pani ( not sure of spelling)

Lessons in etiquette for hikers: Culturally acceptable behavior:

Dress decently- no short shorts or revealing clothes. Do not show public affection. Do not buy antiques. Do not point your feet to people and point with full hand, not finger. Do not step over persons. Do not touch or step over offerings. Do not use your left hand ( dirty). Receive and give with two hands. Do not give local school kids seeets. Discourage begging and pay fair price. Take off shoes before entering a monastery. Go clockwise around stupas. Don’t eat, smoke or be loud at relic sites. Woman should avoid touching monks or lamas.

Kathmandu to Besisahar: Shaken, not stirred.

We awoke at 04:30am after another fitful night of sleep. At one point in the middle of the night, a man singing loud Buddhist chants in a drunken manner sparked the incessant barking of a dog and late night revelers shouted in the streets below, followed by a local establishment pumping out loud music at 5am. 

Our wonderful hosts at Hotel Buddha had packed us a take away breakfast box each and hailed us a taxi. This taxi driver knew which bus departure area to take us to, and there is a reason why I’m not calling it a terminal...He made the executive decision for us not to catch a big public bus but instead a smaller minibus, as he said the seats would be way more comfortable.

During my research regarding getting from Kathmandu to Besisahar I had read about the treacherous seven hour bus ride that was to be expected and the reality lived up to the stories. Firstly 21 passengers were crammed into a 15 seater minivan, some of whom were coughing and sniffing and the windows were all shut tight. Two poor woman in the seats in front of us started vomiting 5 km into the journey and continued vomiting for the next 7 hours.

Leaving Kathmandu we drove through slums without paved roads and some of the roads were in the process of still being developed, with the result that thick dust billowed around us . Almost everyone outside was wearing face masks and the entire scene was extremely unpleasant.

Once we drove out of the densely populated areas the scenery became more pleasant but the driver was “Mr Racing Car Driver” and the fact that I’m able to relay this story is a complete miracle!

We stopped twice along the way to stretch our legs and use the squat toilets. None of the rancid fish or deep fried food options looked appealing, but we had also lost our appetites due to the rough ride. As Josh described it, “ I feel shaken, not stirred!” 

Finally after 7 hours of misery and terror we arrived at Besisahar at midday and checked into the TIMS Check Post to have our permits stamped. I forgot to mention previously that we needed 4 passport photos to be able to obtain our hiking permits.

We sat at a sidewalk cafe for a few moments so that we could decompress after the journey and Josh needed to recover from car sickness. I could feel a headache coming on due to self imposed dehydration for the long drive.

We had placed our rain pack covers over our packs for the journey as the bags were all strapped to the top of the minivan roof with thin, frayed ropes. This had turned out to be an excellent decision as they were covered with a thick layer of dust.

As we’re started heading onto the trail we met a really friendly man named Rupes, who asked us to please come and stay at his tea house if we managed to make it to Ngadi 13 km away. He did a good sales pitch and we decided that it would be a good goal destination for the day.

Once we got onto the trail, we immediately started walking through quaint farming villages which were all very neat and clean with terraced fields growing a variety of crops. The local people we encountered were friendly and greeted us with “ Namaste” and the little children in particular were adorable and ran towards us shouting in glee with their hands clasped in greeting.

The path took us along a river, past a hydroelectric power plant and lots of small holdings growing food and farming goats and a few chickens. At about 5 pm we arrived at Rupes and Shanti’s rustic Hilton Hotel. The “garden rooms” had walls of haphazardly placed corrugated iron with huge gaps in them but it was nevertheless, very quaint.

As we arrived Shanti and her mother Bodsi welcomed us and made us feel at home with cups of tea and offers of homemade Nepalese wine which ultimately never manifested.

A very enjoyable evening was spent chatting with our hosts and Tomas from Slovakia who now lives in Denmark. Tomas is a delightful open minded, interesting and interested 24 year old who is doing this trek solo for many reasons, one of which is to help him decide on his career choices for the future, thereby embarking on an amazing vision quest experience.

Rupes proudly showed us his terraced farm out back. He is such a go-getter, running the tea house, farming and studying to be a guide all while doing other jobs too. From the yard we could see the high snow covered peaks of the tall Himalayan mountains up ahead.

Shanti cooked our dinner of vegetable curry and rice which was absolutely delicious. Most of the ingredients came from their garden, and we washed it down with  hot ginger tea.

We settled into bed early in our sleeping bags on a hard bed covered with an insect net, which made me feel better as we had found a giant spider in our room earlier.... and with that promptly fell asleep. A good first night on the Annapurna Circuit!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

One day in Kathmandu 

We arrived in Kathmandu at around 11:00 pm and had to go through the business of obtaining a 30 day tourist visa at the airport before we could go through immigration. This is supposed to be a fairly straight forward procedure which consists of filling out two forms, providing a passport photo and paying $40 USD each. We had our visa pasted into our passports and exchanged just enough money  to pay for a taxi and a few extras at a very overworked money changing booth . As our turn came around, there was an electrical power failure which fortunately was short lived and everyone around us laughed and said “ Welcome to Nepal”. 

It’s easy to catch a taxi ride from the airport which cost around 800 rupees to the Thamel district. A salesman who tried to sell everything from a trekking guide service to a city tour guide service and beyond, jumped into the taxi alongside us and performed a nonstop sales pitch to us the entire journey. We politely thanked him and said that we would think about everything and he certainly used fear mongering to make us think we would need a guide and/ or porter for our hike.

I must add a lesson that I have recently learned here. The word Sherpa does not mean “ porter”. Sherpas are a race of people, and yes, many Sherpas are porters but someone who carries your gear may come from a different ethnic group and they are therefore not Sherpas but porters. People erroneously call porters Sherpas. We however would like to carry our own backpacks and are going it alone. We realize that hiring a porter is a source of income for the Nepalese people but we will be providing income by eating and sleeping at tea houses along the way. 

After a fabulous breakfast in the Buddha Peace Garden Restaurant at the Hotel Buddha we had booked into, we took a walk through the streets of Thamel to commence our hiking preparedness chores for the day. There was no difficulty changing money at all and we were quite amazed by the narrow prayer flag lined streets and the insane sight of the Nepalese power grid... these electricians must be miracle workers!

Next up was purchasing an outer shell jacket, gloves and a Nepalese woolen hat for Two Feathers which was amazingly inexpensive all amounting to $45 USD for knock off North Face brand products which look and feel like the real thing.

We hired a taxi driver to take us to the Board of Tourism where we had to apply for our two hiking permits, one for entry to the Annapurna Conservation Area and the TIMS permit ( Trekkers Information Management System) which you cannot obtain without proof of travel insurance. Each permit cost 2000 rupees ( $20 USD).

It was here that we discovered that the person responsible for filling out Dreadknot’s 30 day visa had made a mistake and had only given him a 15 Day visa expiry date. We figured that we should resolve the issue right away to avoid problems down the line and made our way to the immigration department where we had to go through a hellishly slow third world bureaucratic experience to have the expiry date changed... but it was eventually done and we received a lesson in patience.

Once we had all the important business out of the way we could be tourists for the day and we experienced the vibrant and fascinating Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square and larger district on foot taking in the sights and sounds of the very lively and bustling heart of the ancient part of the city of Kathmandu. 

Stray dogs are very prevalent but they are all quite sleepy and hang around the shrines napping. Street vendors are abundant and the store fronts lining the narrow single lane roadways that meander through the city are bursting with every type of artifact and consumer item you can imagine from brass goblets to saris and ornate daggers to name but a few.

The square is a complex of beautiful temples and shrines, both Hindu and Buddhist. Most of them are built in the pagoda style, embellished with intricately carved exteriors between the 12th and 18th centuries. This is where kings of Nepal we’re crowned and it is now a living museum we’re people go about their daily lives amidst the crumbling buildings and heritage sites.

We happened to be there during a lively street festival which included, singing, chanting, shouting, drumming and the playing of other instruments. Some of the participants looked like they were in a trance-like state and some looked as though they had worked themselves into a frenzy.

Lunch was Nepalese curry on a rooftop restaurant overlooking the ancient city.

It was fascinating to see how many of the ancient buildings damaged during the earthquake of 2015 were being propped up with wall-bracing beams of wood and the painstaking business of preservation and restoration of these beautiful structures is underway. The entire area has been declared a world heritage site.

Back at Hotel Buddha we are repacking our packs and preparing for the vigorous journey ahead. Hopefully we’ll get a good night of sleep but if last night was anything to go by, we are not in luck due to the vast amounts of noise coming from the streets. 

Namaste and thank you for joining us on our journey which will take us way out of our comfort zone and up into the Himalayas: roof of the world.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Trekking Nepal: The Annapurna Circuit 

The allure of Nepal, the Himalayan mountains and the chance to embark upon another long distance trekking adventure has directed us to preparing for our much anticipated and exciting upcoming adventure of hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I must add, that after looking at photographs taken by Atomic, my Pacific Crest Trail hiking mentor, I was thoroughly sold on the idea.
One of the inspirational photos taken by my hiker friend Atomic

The Annapurna Massif and surrounding Himalayan peaks were created by the collision of two slabs of the earths crust and subsequent buckling up of the earth to form these majestic rock and ice mountains. There are many versions of this hike but we plan to be purists and complete the entire Circuit on foot and in addition we plan a few side hikes including a journey to Tilicho Tal (a spectacular alpine lake at 16,138 ft/ 4,919m) and if we have time, Annapurna Base Camp (13,650ft/ 4,200m). To do this you backpack an orbit around the Annapurna Massif in an anti clockwise direction starting at an elevation of 2,490 ft/ 760 m in the humid, subtropical climate of Besisahar, climbing in altitude as you go to the highest point, which should be covered in snow at this time of year accompanied by freezing cold temperatures at Thorong La pass ( 17,769ft/ 5,416m).
Considering that this is a “ tea house trek” we have decided to stay most nights at the tea houses along the way and eat our meals at these places too. Evidently, as you hike, you walk through a small mountain village every 1-3 hours. The locals make a living by providing hikers with accommodation and meals. Fortunately for me, I love eating dal bhat (lentils and rice) and drinking cha... so I should be quite fine in that department.

Planning: Getting there:

We live in Hawaii and there are many variations of the route we could take to get to Kathmandu in Nepal. The first thought that came to my mind was having the opportunity to go via Hong Kong to visit my brother Neil, his wife Valeria and their beautiful children. In addition, since we were going to be in that part of the world, I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to have a chance to visit my friends Amit and Neepa in India too, so hence our route was determined. Honolulu-Hong Kong- Kathmandu-Mumbai- Hong Kong-Honolulu. Whew!

What’s in our backpacks?

The contents of my backpack
We both have similar items in our backpacks.
Two Feathers has her trusty ULA 75L backpack already tried and tested on the Kalalau Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and El Camino Del Norte long distance hikes.
ULA ultralight down sleeping bag (20 degree F bag)
Thermal sleep sack (adds 10 degrees F warmth)
Silk sack (adds another 5 degrees F warmth)
Merino wool long johns and merino wool socks to sleep in.
Waterproof stuff sack for sleeping bag and sleep wear. (This ensures that I’ll never be wet and hypothermic at night)
Space blanket
Golite trekking umbrella
Frogg Toggs rain poncho
Trekking poles
Ultralight trowel for digging “ cat holes”
Toilet paper
Clothes stuff sack
Small trekking towel
Sawyer water filter and iodine tablets
Smart water bottles (empty)
Clothes include (5 pairs underwear, 2 sports bras, 2 pairs long pants, one lightweight trekking pair and one thermal lined pair for colder elevations with and extra merino wool long underwear pair of pants. 1 short sleeve T-shirt, 2 long sleeve T shirts, 1 fleece top, 1 down jacket, 1 beanie, 1 thick neck buff, 1 thin neck buff, 1 bandanna, soft gaiters, salomon hiking boots, 4 pairs of merino wool socks, one pair compression socks, 1shin brace, 1 beanie, flip flops ( to wear when we are not hiking).
Lightweight day bag.
Spy belt for our cash money
iPhone and charger
Gopro camera
1 battery recharger
First aide kit: diamox, z-pack antibiotics, Imodium, anti inflammatory medication, Tylenol, antihistamines. A few band aides, iodine solution, on Guard doterra capsules. Needle and thread for blisters, tweezers, small pair of scissors.
Toiletries: shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, sunblock, chapstick, hairbrush, hair ties, facial moisturizer, hand sanitizer.
UV protection wraparound sunglasses
Sunhat (Outdoor Research) which is also waterproof.
Trekking pillow
Headlamp & extra batteries
Pack cover
Notebook & Pen
Cash money
S-binders (to hang items off your pack)
Snacks: mixed nuts and Lara Bars
Big Agnes Flycreek UL 3 Tent for an emergency shelter (dividing it between two of us is 1 extra pound of weight each)

Dreadknot & Two Feathers in our Big Agnes Flycreek UL3
Dreadknot’s extra items:
Altitude watch
Universal adapter

Preparedness reading:

Nepal (Insight Guides) with free ebook and app.
We’ve watched many YouTube videos and read up random information online.

Studied information regarding altitude sickness and how to prevent it and recognize signs and symptoms.

Travel insurance:

You have to show proof of travel insurance to be able to obtain hiking permits in Nepal. We studied the different options available and made sure we got insurance that included airlifting us off the mountain.

Going it alone:

We’ve decided to go it alone and not hire guides or porters. For personal feelings of accomplishment we would like to navigate the trail with a map and only take supplies that we can carry ourselves.

Map of the Annapurna Circuit Hike

Documents required:

Visa: you can obtain a tourism visa at the airport on arrival in Kathmandu.
Hiking permits: TIMS ( Trekkers Information Management System). A permit you have to carry on you at all times. A Green Card for independent trekkers costs $20. Two passport photos required for this permit.
ACAP ( Annapurna Circuit Conservation Area Permit) is required to hike specifically on the Annapurna Circuit and costs $21.74, a passport photo is also required for this permit.
To obtain these permits health insurance and basic route information has to be provided. These permits can be obtained in Kathmandu at any trekking agency.
Map: showing the trekking trails, side trails, villages and altitude is a must-have. We will purchase one on arrival. ( Costs between $2-$7).