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Nepal

April 25: Ian’s knee was feeling slightly better so we decided to move on to the next village, Yak Kharka (alternatively called Yak Crack or Yak Carcass). Hugo and Roberto had decided to go up to Tilicho Lake (supposedly the highest lake in the world) so they would be a day behind us at the pass. I didn’t cry when they left, as Roberto and I were barely speaking to each other by that time. Up to that point I hadn’t been sure how long I would continue with Ian, Robert and Indra, as I didn’t want to impose and I knew they were nice enough guys that they would never tell me to take a hike. But that day began the incessant giggling that would characterize the rest of the trip; it convinced me I was welcome to go over the Thorong La pass with them.

We had gone to a seminar on altitude sickness put on by the mountain rescue and Robert started to get worried about his breathing. Although Ian and I were sympathetic and watched him closely, we also thought it was hilarious that it was the Eastern European giant who was most affected. Leaving Manang Robert found a man who was willing to carry his pack to the top of the pass; none of us could remember his name so between us we called him what it most resembled: gangsta.

It was a short day as we didn’t want to gain too much altitude too quickly. That afternoon we took a walk to get another couple of hundred meters under our belts, then went back to sleep lower. We had all started on a regimen of Diamox, the medication that supposedly helps you acclimatize; what Diamox also does is make you pee ridiculously often and gives you on and off feelings of tingling all over your body.

April 26: Up to Thorong Phedi, the last camp before the pass. Robert had a headache and was having a lot of trouble breathing, so we weren’t sure whether we would attempt it the next morning. Wait and see. I felt great, though I was very sick of peeing.

April 27: Up at 3:45. Robert felt fine so it was a go. We were all in great moods, dancing around singing the Hot Chocolate classic ‘You Sexy Thing’ at the tops of our voices and generally annoying the other trekkers. We headed out at quarter to five, using our headlamps for the first twenty minutes until the sun began to come up, jagged cliffs dark against the clear lightening sky. After the first, steepest, part climbed in the dark, we kept going up through rust oxide sliding plates to dazzling white snow.
We reached the pass at 8:45. It was crazy cold at 5400 meters, but I felt thrilled to be there. There was a man in a little hut serving tea; I bought a handful of snickers bars which ended up coming in handy when lunch did not appear for five more hours. Continuing the feeling from the previous few nights there was a very fraternal feeling among the trekkers at the top. We all took the same obligatory photo with the sign saying it was the highest trekking pass in the world.

Going down the other side of the pass seemed in some ways harder. Ian’s knee bothered him much more going downhill than up, so we were slow. I got cranky because I was very hungry, but when Ian said the rest of us should go on ahead of him I was quickly ashamed. We came into Muktinath at around three and were instantly disappointed: there was a jeepable road all the way from Pokhara so the silence was disturbed by motorcycles and people hawking things. It felt like we had come from a Tibetan paradise back into the Indian hinterland. We had our first beers of the trip that night (having been in training for the pass for the previous two weeks) and quickly became, er, a bit silly.

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April 20:  Woke up feeling much better and got on the road by 8. A little outside Dharapani we met American Ian (just finished medical school, slight with dark hair and mobile features), Slovenian Robert (a bald giant chef who has just moved to Australia), and their Nepali guide Indra; we walked with them on and off throughout the day. 

For the first time we caught sight of really tall mountains, snow glinting in the sun. Apart from one tough hour, the trail was flatter and easier than it had been the prior two days, for which I was thankful. No more puking – now I just needed to bring my lungs and legs up to speed.

We spent the night in the regional capital, Chame, a charming grey stone town nestled between peaks. By capital I mean that it had a hospital and a few shops as well as guesthouses strung along the path. The guesthouses are all fairly similar, but some have more amenities than others. If you’re with a guide he will take you to the guesthouse of his choice, which at first gave me flashbacks to our cunning driver in India, but things don’t seem to be so dramatic here: the guides receive free bed and board at any guesthouse, and I think they tend to choose the ones where they like the food the best or where they have a cousin working. 

It was in Chame that I surrendered to being taken care of by Indra — Ian and Robert’s guide — who eventually became my own. Once I let him tell us what guesthouse to stay in it was all over; it was Indra’s doing that Roberto and I and French-Canadian Hugo (who we had also met along that trail that day) were gathered into the fold.

April 21: The trail continued to get easier today, becoming a two-track jaunt through pine forests, though with one hair-raising portion cut away into the rock far above the river. The trick in these cases is to make sure you get through the scary part before a troupe of donkeys comes along and either mushes you into the rock face or pushes you off the cliff. Luckily you can hear their bells for a quarter of a mile.

We made Lower Pisang by three o’clock, so had a lot of time to sit around before our normal eight o’clock bedtime. There was a singalong organized by Indra and one of his friends; Nepali guides sing pretty much all the time, on the trail or otherwise.

April 22: Hard decision to make this morning: take the easier low road or the much more arduous and longer high path that was advertised to have incredible views? By this time Italian Roberto and I were having some serious differences and I wanted to get away from him; I was also feeling chicken about the climb. But Ian made enough fun of me that I agreed to take the higher path with them. And it was worth it: after two hours slowly trudging up hot stone switchbacks we were rewarded with the sight of Annapurna II looming over the valley, soon joined by III and IV and Gangapurna to the North.

We had a bit of a setback at the top when Ian, taking a photograph of himself jumping in the air, landed badly on his knee. He thought for most of the day that he had torn his ACL, and the next five hours of the hike to Manang were not only long but fraught with misery for him, thinking his trek was over. Luckily there is a medical outpost in Manang, and the doctor assured him he had only sprained his knee. Normally one stays an extra day in Manang to acclimatize for the altitude; we determined we would stay two days to allow Ian’s knee a chance to heal.

April 23 &24: Rest days in Manang. When one calls a town in the middle of nowhere Nepal a regional capital, it doesn’t exactly mean much. There’s more there than in the tiny villages, but there still aren’t any vehicles on the streets (thank goodness) or any goods that haven’t been brought in by porter or donkey. There are, however, a number of small movie theaters in Manang, prompted by the fact that large numbers of trekkers stay there multiple days to rest up before the pass. Our first night we saw Seven Years in Tibet, a perennial favorite of the circuit crowd. On the second night we went for Himalayan Caravan, a docu-drama about a yak-herding tribe in the Dolpa region of Nepal. Robert had seen it before and recommended it, but he went to sleep as soon as it started, leaving Ian and me to recoil in horror from the main character, an elderly tribal leader whose stage direction had clearly been to yell in the direction of the camera at all times. For the duration of the trip Shouty Grandpa was invoked every five minutes.

[ I had hoped to finish writing about the circuit and get to where I am today, in Ladakh, but the electricity situation here seems to be just as dicey as in Nepal, so it may be a while before I finish.]

April 16


 Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, will give any thoughtful person the willies: you struggle with your western guilt of having more and understand that desperately poor people will grasp for whatever they can, but at the same time you can’t help being repulsed and feeling taken advantage of. And most of the touts on the street aren’t as poor as the villagers I saw in later in the mountains who have much more dignity. At any rate I am getting much better at bargaining. My fear is that it will be so ingrained in my psyche by the time I get home that I’ll try it in Target.


Pimply 19-year-old Cashier: “That will be twenty one dollars.”


Me: “Twenty one dollars! That’s too expensive. Give me better price.”


Cashier: “I’m sorry ma’am?”


 Me: “OK twelve dollars.” Cashier stares uncomprehendingly.


Me: “I’ve changed my mind. I’m walking out now.” Cashier: nothing.


Me: “I’m WALKING OUT of the store now…” (Why isn’t he following me?)


At any rate I couldn’t get out of Kathmandu fast enough. Once I had made up my mind, I spent a day and a half running around getting a visa extension, buying a new Conservation Area permit, and renting some outdoor gear. I hopped the local morning bus to Besisahar, a regional town that is the traditional beginning of the Annapurna Circuit. Six hours of low-budget Nepali music videos later – hero and heroine waltzing around in someone’s backyard making little effort to lip-synch but changing costume every 4.3 seconds – I dragged myself and backpack stiffly off the bus.


It was raining hard and I thought to check into a hotel but met a Spanish couple who were pushing on to the village of Bhulbule and tagged along. Bhulbule was dark and cold and seemingly deserted, and although the couple was pleasant it seemed clear that we would not be hiking together much. I began to doubt my sanity. What if there weren’t as many people on the trail as I’d thought? What if I didn’t meet anyone to hike with? I could be held up by Maoists; I could fall and break my leg and not be found for days; I could be gored by a rogue yak… I did what it is I do whenever I get too tired and lonely: went to bed.


April 17


The morning dawned bright and my spirits rose. I set off on my own, congratulating myself on my independence, feeling calm and happy. For the first few hours the path followed an easy up and down trajectory through a narrow green valley alongside a mineral-teal rushing river. There were Nepalis everywhere: old ladies tending goats, young boys with heavy loads on their backs, teen-aged girls in tight jeans and flip-flops and t-shirts with English slogans walking miles to who knows where.


After a few hours I was presented with the option of crossing the river to walk along the dirt road or continuing on a foot-path up the hill to a village called Bahundanda. The road seemed to me a bit like cheating, so I continued on my side of the river for about an hour, then began to climb. And climb and climb and climb, with alternate paths branching out every now and then and no sign-posts. I knew there had been people about recently because I saw stacks of freshly-hewn firewood, but otherwise no sign of habitation. It began to thunder and I wondered how far I should go. I must have climbed stone steps for two hours before giving up, sniffling into my poncho. I wondered what kind of moron would set out for a three-week walk in the middle of nowhere by herself. Down at the bottom again I questioned a young cowherd in sign language; he motioned that yes, Bahudanda was up there, but that it was a long way. I was skeptical. With low morale I trudged back to the bridge and onto the road, eventually arriving in late afternoon at the town of Syange, drenched. Once again there seemed to be few foreigners and I sat alone in the restaurant of a guesthouse trying to warm myself on a cup of tea. My stomach had begun to make itself known and I was afraid of explosion. A group of wet teen-aged Nepalis came in, one boy carrying an unconscious girl who he tenderly laid down on a table. While most of the group chattered amongst themselves and drank tea, her friend repeatedly took a handful of water, ceremonially dipped a gold pendant she was wearing into it, and flicked the water all over her body. Appalled that most of her acquaintances were paying little attention, I asked the guesthouse owner what was going on. He replied that apparently the girl passed out all the time and that she would eventually wake up and everything would be fine.


 April 18


It was sunny again in the morning and by seven o’clock I had slept twelve hours, but my stomach was still feeling funny. I decided to set out and see what happened. The trail turned steeper, undulating between the river banks and high above. There were road-works everywhere – basically men chipping out rocks with hand tools and pushing them off cliffs into the river – but none of the small portions of completed road met up with each other. It was as if they had gone along and done all the easy bits first and were now trying to join them up; apparently this will take another ten years.


I began to vomit every few hours. Stopping for a plate of plain rice, I slept on a wooden bench for an hour accompanied by a black and brown puppy. On the trail again I met Roberto, a philosophical 23-year old Italian with the biggest red afro I’ve ever seen. He had already walked fifteen kilometers that morning in new boots and had the blisters to prove it. He said he had come through Bahudanda, though I’m not sure I believed him; in fact I’m still not sure I believe in the existence of fucking Bahudanda. Though we were both in pain we pushed each other to continue, ending the day with a long slow climb up through a narrow gorge with white waterfalls all around, eventually reaching a hanging valley that long ago was a lake; now the village of Tal (which means lake in Nepali) sits on a plain of white sand and smooth cobbles next to a wide blue river, encircled by cliffs. Coming into the valley in dusky purple light I thought it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.


April 19


I woke up feeling miserable. We hit the road by nine o’clock, but I only made it a few hours. When we arrived in the village of Dharapani I proclaimed that I could not go any farther and fell into the nearest bed. I slept all afternoon, ate dinner, then went to sleep again at seven o’clock. I remember next to nothing about Dharapani and didn’t take any photographs. For some reason Roberto decided to wait for me. I think he realized that having company even if it meant moving more slowly was preferable; either that or he desperately needed to rest his feet.

Today I got really sick of street touts manipulating me into doing what they want, so I canceled the Langtang trek and decided I’m going full on to the Annapurna Circuit – by myself: no guide, no porter, no BS. I decided this after several people I know plus the guidebooks said that it’s pretty much impossible to get lost on the circuit in April due to the volume of people doing it. And I am in OK shape, so there’s no reason why I can’t carry the small amount of stuff I need. When you stay in guesthouses you don’t need the tent, the stove, etc. If I’m tired at first I’ll just take it more slowly. So I’ll get on the bus Thursday morning and start walking Friday. I think the longest hiking trip I’ve ever been on is five days, so three weeks will be an interesting test…

Regarding bargaining: I’m getting better at it (there was no place to go but up…) but at certain times I still not just suck at it, I completely forget to try it. I did that when I signed up with an agency for a trek yesterday – just didn’t even negotiate price at all, which in this part of the world is ridiculous. I’m feeling a bit ashamed of myself as I know I could have gotten it cheaper, which is a consideration when traveling on a budget. I’ve only paid a deposit, but at this point I think my leverage is lost. And in reality it’s not very much money to me and a lot to Nepalis: for a guide / porter and guesthouses for fourteen days I’m paying about twenty dollars a day. Add in food and rental of a backpack, warm clothing, etc. I may get up to twenty seven bucks a day. Just hiring a porter on my own I might have been able to do it for closer to fifteen, or I could have gone completely alone and carried everything, which I’m not sure I’m in the shape to do yet. Also, the Annapurna Circuit is extremely well-traveled, but apparently the Langtang where I’m going isn’t nearly as crowded, so I don’t know if I can count on meeting people to hike with.

I think bargaining is more fun when you have friends to do it with. In Jaipur Holly and Eric and I had a great time in the clothing stores, developing a system of when to stand up and walk out, when to agree to a final price. There’s a whole lexicon you learn in India: “give me a better price”, “what’s your last price”, “I’m sorry, my budget is very small”, and the clincher of “OK, x” which is lower than their last price but one that everyone agrees on. Leverage is obviously important; Jaipur in early April was the end of the tourist season so people were begging us to buy (even more than normal). Nepal in April is high season, though I think the prices are still highly negotiable. But my western guilt kicks in at a certain point: that fifty rupees means nothing to me but means one hell of a lot to most Nepalis.

It may be Easter in the western world, but in Nepal it’s New Year’s Eve, 2066. Take that, easter bunny. I arrived in Kathmandu yesterday afternoon after a harrowing bus ride. No strikes this time (luckily I waited a day or the elections would have derailed my plans – transport is cut off during elections due to threats of violence) but the road up the hill into the city is comprised of miles of switchbacks that would be terrifying even if you were ignorant of the bus safety records. I’m planning the rest of my trip around not going down that road.

Holly and Eric flew from Pokhara, as they were short on time (and longer on cash than I am). We arranged to meet later in the day at the Kathmandu Guest House, which is a Nepalese institution; as soon as I got in I checked their message board and found nothing, then followed a street tout to his hotel. Two minutes after accepting the room I heard Holly and Eric coming down the stairs — they’d met the same guy a few hours earlier. Unbelievable. Contrast that with not ever catching up with my other friends in Delhi even though I had a mobile phone and we were in email contact.

Kathmandu is crazy. The center of the city is a warren of tiny streets and plazas, which makes the traffic worse than anywhere in India, and yet it’s somehow more laid-back. Because there’s no money here yet they haven’t started knocking down the old buildings and urban fabric of quiet courtyards. Kathmandu’s charm rest in its integration of temples and stupas into every half block, its old wooden buildings, and its dense low-rise character. I fervently hope it manages to outlast the phase that China has epitomized – of valuing highways and skyscrapers over hutongs. At the moment there is no danger of Nepal jumping on the manufacturing / outsourcing bandwagon for one simple reason: electricity. We were told that the supply of electricity to Kathmandu is 2 KW and the demand is 8; apparently the Maoists didn’t help things by going around blowing up hydro-electric projects. Now that they’ve been elected to power I wonder what they’re going to do about it? In any case, trying to get anything in Kathmandu done is frustrated by the general lack of reliable power.

Last night we followed the guidebook outside the tourist district of Thamel to a Japanese restaurant with a hot tub in a bamboo garden. At a certain point I became disoriented, luxuriating in a Japanese tub listening to French tourists in the background and talking to my friends about Boston. I do sometimes forget where I am. Today we walked to the Durbar Square, the center of old Kathmandu, which contains more temples than you can shake a stick at, and ran into a peculiar kind of tout: the guilt-tripping guide. Almost every guide who approached us had the same line: ‘if you don’t want to hire me you’re rude and you don’t get the Nepali idea of being friendly, so why do you come to Nepal if you don’t like us’? When that one didn’t work, they would pull out the ‘but you’ve spent so much money to come so far, so wouldn’t a guide make it much more enjoyable’? I have to hand it to them.

I’m leaving Thursday for a 14-day trek in the Langtang region. I hemmed and hawed about whether to go by myself or to try to cobble together a group, but I finally decided to go with an agency. That means that I’m probably paying more than I would just hiring a guide /porter on my own, but I don’t have to worry about negotiating the porter’s food and lodging, etc. I chose my agency based on the personality of the woman in the office, which I think is the way that the world will continue to work no matter how much is automated. She understood me when I said to her that my biggest fear was getting stuck in a group of people I couldn’t stand; she promised me that I could choose a guide who is friendly but not overly talkative. Of course there still may be people joining me, but at the moment I’m in my own pod and can choose to hike with people I meet at guesthouses or not. She also sent me directly to the Canon camera repair shop, where they fixed my camera in one day, so there’s a level of trust already. Next I’m going to ask her for the name of a good tailor…