Time to give thanks. It’s been a tough few months dealing with my ruptured Achilles, complications, etc; 100 days and counting since I’ve walked without crutches. It’s easy to dwell on such things, so instead I want to finally share what we were doing last year at this time.
One year ago on Thanksgiving Day, we were in Nepal crossing the Thorang-La Pass in the Himalayas. It was the highest point of our 3 week trek and by far the most physically and mentally demanding challenge I’ve ever encountered.
Dutch and I spent a total of 4 weeks in Nepal. The majority of our time was dedicated to trekking, but we also spent several days in the jungle and several days in Kathmandu, which was a jungle in a different way. We did bring a tiny point & shoot camera, but only took it out when we saw something we specifically wanted to be reminded of later. A vacation experienced through a camera lens is very different than one experienced through your own eyes. Still, we photographed just enough to remember our favorite moments, which really is what photography is all about anyway.
We started the trip with a few days in Kathmandu to catch up from jet lag and get our trekking plans in order. We toured the Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples and all of the craziness in between.
We were taken to the banks of the Bagmati River to the Pashupati Aryaghat which is the most sacred cremation site for Hindus. Bodies were wrapped in bright orange and escorted by family members to the pyre. You can see in the picture several lined up to be next. The oldest son performs the funeral rites and then the body is cremated atop a pile of wood right in front of everyone. It was an overwhelming experience. It is a tourist destination because of the Pashupuati temple (which only Hindus may enter) and the hundreds of smaller statues and structures along the river, but I didn’t feel right being there. Families were wailing, smoke was everywhere, monkeys were running around the tourists picking up stray food. A moving experience, yes, but I’d rather leave some privacy to this tradition.
After three days in Kathmandu, we were more than ready for the solitude of the mountains. While we knew there would be dangers in trekking the Himalayas, most notably 1)Encountering Maoist rebels and 2) Getting Acute Mountain Sickness (from altitude), we did not consider that the bus ride taking us there would more likely be our demise. Imagine the steepest, skinniest road you’ve been on; hairpin turns, giant cliff off the edge, crumbling surface prone to landslide. OK, scary enough. Now imagine this road is filled with scraggly buses and big trucks going really fast and they pass each other on the turns. Since we had 8 hours to experience this, we had time to let our terror settle and pay attention to why we were all still alive. First, the constant honking had a purpose. If the truck in front of us thought we wanted to pass, it would give us a honk to let us know when the coast was clear. As we passed, we honked repeatedly to give warning to possible oncoming traffic around the corner. With the edge of the cliff not 2 feet away, the Nepali boy hanging out the door of the bus would give a whistle to the driver when our tires got too close to the edge. Perfected chaos.
We were on a trail called the Annapurna Circuit and we specifically chose this trek because the trail passes through villages, giving you the opportunity to experience the culture of Nepal alongside the grandiose scenery.
The mules are so used to making trips back and forth that the driver can stop for lunch and the caravan moves on without him. Typical traffic jams on the trail included water buffalo, yaks, and herds of goats.
Just when we thought we were as far from civilization as we could get, we came to a village with an internet cafe! Totally bizarre. We each sent two very short emails and it took forever.
A hard-boiled egg was the best snack along the trail. We also stopped often for a pot of masala tea.
There were so many surprises on this trip, but my favorite was this monastery. We reached our goal for the day earlier than expected and decided we had time to hike up to the upper village to start acclimating ourselves more. The village was so unassuming and ancient-looking (above). All rock, the only color we saw were the prayer flags. The trail wound up between the houses, up and up, until suddenly the trail ended at a monastery. We stood just outside the door and listened to the monks chanting. One caught our eye and invited us in to sit down. Inside, it was vivid and rich, full of reds and gold and intricate paintings. So different from the austere beauty of the surroundings. We sat and listened to them until the sun went down, their chanting culminated into several horns and shells being blown. Really amazing experience.
I grew up in Montana, so am no stranger to altitude. However, the Himalayas were an entirely new experience. To give you some background, the Himalayas are home to Mount Everest and over 100 other peaks that exceed 23,600 ft. The peaks of the Annapurna range you see in the background top-out at over 22,000 ft. Training for our trek was a bit of a joke given Philadelphia sits at an elevation of 39 ft and the highest peaks around here are 3,ooo ft at best. Still, we ran in the city and did trail runs in the hilly woods nearby. I did wall squats while brushing my teeth and waiting for my coffee to brew. Anything to build leg strength. There was no way to prepare for the altitude though.
Every few thousand feet we gained, it was almost like being in a different country. I can’t express this enough. The Himalayas contain almost every climate imaginable. The trail actually started in the tropics, surrounded by terraced rice paddies, fruit trees (banana, orange lemon) and screaming monkeys. But within 5 days we would be in snow surrounded by towering granite peaks without a tree in site, wishing we could cuddle up to those furry yaks.
These were some of the cutest cabins we stayed at. Every place was simple, but some had more effort put into the exterior than others. All consisted of a thin mattress and thinner walls. The picture below shows the only insulation we saw…basically the same thin foam padding you’d use to wrap a book when you mail it. It was freezing, but well worth the entire $3 it cost to stay. We did have electricity for a few hours at night. The bathroom was always a very cold walk outside to a basic outhouse with a hole in the ground. Most places had a shower, but we were strategic about showering because there was only hot water if the sun had heated the water tank. It was literally impossible to get warmed up again after a cold shower so once we hit the upper elevations we gave it up for awhile.
These mules just delivered eggs to the tea house. At this elevation, nothing is grown and no animals are kept. As you can see, it’s completely barren and all food has to be brought in by donkey.
This picture is amongst my favorites since it gives some sense of how big these mountains are (do you see Dutch waving?). The tea house we were staying at is a mile straight below us. We were on a short acclimatization hike to prepare for crossing the pass the following day. We had both been feeling symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness already and I was still weak from a nasty bout of food poisoning three days before. Almost everyone we met had food poisoning at some point along the trail. No matter how carefully we purified our water and chose our food, it still caught up to us (though Dutch managed to escape it until he reached the jungle). At the higher elevations, the hygiene of the tea houses weren’t good because there wasn’t much water and fuel for heating water was hard to come by as well.
Thanksgiving Day, we woke up at 3:00 am for breakfast. This was the big day that we would cross the Thorong-La Pass, the highest point of our trip. We had to get an early start in order to make it over before high-winds made it impassable. We had done everything we could to prepare. We had acclimated at a lower village for two nights, taken our time getting to this point, and eaten endless bowls of garlic soup (which is supposed to help with altitude sickness). Altitude is a funny thing though. You can’t sleep, you don’t have an appetite, you get up 5 times a night to go to the bathroom, and you can’t breath well and that’s just while hanging around the tea house the day before you cross the pass.
The pass itself…wow, where to start. It was challenging. The hike itself is physically challenging, but at an altitude of say, 12,000 ft it would have been no problem. The pass we crossed was 17, 769 feet and the altitude was absolutely debilitating. It had nothing to do with strength or endurance or perseverance. There was no muscling through, all that really mattered was how your body was dealing with the altitude. We saw a 60 year-old woman from Australia practically breeze over the pass and we saw a super-fit 30 year-old man from Germany moving inch by inch, grimacing in pain. I was in the latter’s camp. Acute Mountain Sickness is no joke. It kicked my ass and it was completely scary. Dutch had a much more enjoyable experience, but even he had a severe headache. Long story short, we made it to the top and and descended down the other side as quickly as possible.
In the lower elevations, we saw more Hindu temples and customs of Nepali people. In the higher elevations, there are more Tibetan refugees living who had to flee from Tibet in the late 1950’s. A proliferation of Buddhist monasteries and prayer wheels abound. The dress and architecture of the local people are Tibetan as well. In all of Nepal, Hindu and Buddhist customs are blended together which we found really surprising. For example, the village of Muktinath is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. For Hindus, Muktinath represents the most sacred and most ancient temple of the god Vishnu. Imagine how surprised we were that a Buddhist monk cares for the temple and a Buddhist nun performs the ceremony for pilgrims who come here. We were not allowed in that specific temple, but our Nepali guide went in to be blessed. When he came out, he blessed us with a red tika on the forehead. Our guide did get us special access to a Buddhist monastery at the other edge of the village.
Twelve hours of this (above). No kidding, we climbed steps straight up the mountain all day.
This is a wheat field I wanted to show my family since they farm in Montana; a little more difficult terrain to farm than they’re used to! The farmer’s machinery here was powered by water buffalo.
Dal Bhat. We ate it every day. Sometimes twice a day. It was only sometimes delicious, but always the best thing on the menu. This was a very fancy version of dal bhat that we had towards the end of our hike where the climate was warmer and the village wealthier. The greens were an exceptional luxury since the higher altitudes were too barren for gardens. At such high altitudes, meat is only eaten on special occasions, too. On the rare occasion meat was offered on the menu we were careful not to choose it: if it was chicken, it was likely they would have to butcher a scarce chicken just for you. If it was anything bigger like yak, it was likely you’d be in for stomach troubles because refrigerators were rare and constant electricity nonexistent. Nepalis eat dal bhat twice a day their entire life. Because Nepal borders India, you might expect fragrant curries and spicy food, but Nepali food is surprisingly bland. On the menu we were offered dal bhat, momo dumplings, soup and a few stabs at Western food like pizza. The “pizza” was Tibetan fry bread with ketchup and a sprinkling of dried Yak cheese. Besides this local fare, each guest house would sell about 4 things: Coke, Fanta, Pringles and Snickers. In the beginning we shunned these Western luxuries, but eventually our daily Snickers bar was the culinary highlight of the day.
And into the jungle… We rode elephants, tracked tigers, and spotted rhinos, sloth bear, wild boar, jackals, and crocodiles. It was incredible. Dutch also got jungle fever (literally, I’ve never seen someone sweat like that) so the first day I made friends with the elephants while he slept. There’s a lot to tell about the jungle, so I’ll settle on telling you the strangest thing. We tracked tigers on foot. Why? I don’t know. Sometimes when you’re put in a foreign situation you just nod and say okay. More below…
We stayed in Chitwan Park which is on the border of Nepal and India. We were the only two staying there beside one other couple and when you arrive, they give you your “schedule:” 6:00am elephant ride, 10:00am canoe, 2:00pm elephant ride, 6:00pm jungle walk, etc. We saw several rhinos from atop the elephant, including an adorable baby rhino that hopped around playing hide and seek with us. We saw crocodiles and numerous birds from the canoe. And then it was time for our jungle walk to try once last time to see an elusive tiger. Before we came to Nepal, we vowed NOT to do this as it seemed kind of reckless. Our guide was a sweet Nepali 23 year-old with a big smile and a passion preserving the jungle. He was shorter than me and probably weighed 120 pounds, not our first choice as our protector. He gave us each a big stick and then told us how to respond if an animal attacked us. For example, a sloth bear is incredibly vicious so you want to run and climb the nearest tree. For a rhino, we were to make a circle and make a lot of noise. For a tiger, there’s really no hope because if they want to attack you, they’ll sneak up from behind and you’ll never know what hit you. So, being that it was just the three of us on this walk and our guide was leading us, that left Dutch in the caboose position constantly looking over his shoulder. Poor Dutch, I got so caught up in looking for signs I strangely lost any sense of danger, I wanted to see a tiger! He did not. We did see tiger footprints that were fairly fresh and some poop that was several days old. Mostly we saw rhino tracks which you can see in the picture by Dutch.
It’s difficult to do this trip justice in one blog post and most of my favorite memories aren’t captured in photographs. Like the Nepali man grinning ear-to-ear who brought us a baby monkey in a gunny sack that he had just caught in his millet field. Or the time I heard thundering horse hooves coming towards us and looked over my shoulder just in time to see three horsemen galloping over a wooden bridge suspended above the river. Their hair was flying long and I felt exactly like I was in an Akira Kurosawa film. I’ll just leave you on one last note. If you look very carefully in the picture above that we took from the jungle, you can see a snow-capped peak. That’s where we were. And we can’t wait to go back.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
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