Monday, November 23, 2009

No trip can be perfect: An anti-climactic ending

"Come on. We have time, don't we?"
I looked at our guide Renuka with the same look I had given her many times this trip: the look that says I really want to do this, even if it's totally impractical and may mean reaching our destination after dark. I'd given her that look when we attempted our near-dusk excursion to the medieval village of Jhong, and when we took our two-hour Indiana Jones scenic detour on the way to Tatopani, and when we climbed to Poon Hill on a cloudy day when everyone warned there would be no view (in fact, the clouds lifted for sunrise).
This time, I was staring at the tumbling waters of Birethanti, an irresistable waterfall crashing into a deep blue green pool that - at this moment - was bathed in sunlight.
She nodded and off I went, scrambling down the steep hillside, unlacing my boots, and diving in, fully clothed. Exhilerating. The water was warmer than I expected, so I stayed in, letting it swirl around me as I soaked in what would be among my last fond memories of this life-altering whirlwind of a trip.
An hour later, we would arrive in the gritty, tourist-clogged town of Nayapul, the starting point for many trekkers. As they walked by us, clad in freshly clean North Face knock-offs they'd presumably just bought in Kathmandu, I felt at once priveledged and jealous. For now, I held a secret about how special this place really was. But now it was their turn.
Four hours later, back in Pochara, my exhileration would turn to agony. I'd spend the evening hovering over the toilet bowl - likely the victim of the same vile microbe that felled my Danish friend the night before.
Kim, who plays a nurse back in the real world, brought me hot tea and anti-nausea pills, which knocked me out, hurtling me into a world of weird Technicolor recaps of of those endless climbing stairs.
An anti-climactic ending to what would have otherwise been the trip of a lifetime.
Scratch that... It still was.

Cold Play, Charades, and sick neighbors

Day 7 of trekking: Part-two

During our four-hour hike down 4,000 unforgivingly steep stairs, I was struck by how different our surroundings were from where we had started. In Kagbeni and Muktinath, there was seldom a tree sprouting from the sterile, wind-scorched earth. Here, the land was bursting with life, from bountiful fruit trees, to lush rhododendron. Monkeys frolicked in the greenery and we found waterfalls at every corner. But melancholy was already setting in. Tomorrow was our last day.
After checking into our teahouse in Jili, a nondescript village of a half-dozen buildings, surrounded by terraced farms, we ordered our last teahouse meal: fresh tomato soup and Tibetan bread. A fellow traveler whipped out an Ipod loaded with David Gray, Van Morrison, and Cold Play (the first Western music I had heard in three weeks)adding to the mellow vibe.
Tired of playing cards, we tried to liven things up with a group game of charades. We laughed until our cheeks hurt.It would have been another perfect night, but for the sound of violent wretching that shook our plywood box of a room at 2 a.m.
After hours of it, I grew genuinely worried about our neighbor. I slipped my boots on and knocked on the room next door where the solo European guy was staying, offering him an anti-nausea suppository. Oops. Wrong room.
A feeble women's voice whispered, "yes. Please come in," from the next door over, and inside I found the two Dutch dentists we'd been hanging out with earlier. They'd spent a week volunteering at a dental camp in southern Nepal, looking forward to their four-day trek as a just reward. It was over.
The next day, dehydrated and weak from food poisoning, they'd head down to recover in a hotel in Pokhara. Knock on wood, I told myself. I've gone this whole trip without getting sick.
I spoke too soon.

Jockeying for position on Poon Hill

Trekking Day 7: Ghorepani to Poon Hill to Jili

My wake-up knock from Renuka came at 4 a.m., just four hours after my restless mind and body had finally succumbed to a fragile sleep. After days of retiring in silent, near-vacant teahouses, we had collided with civilization full-force in Ghorepani, and our close proximity to the community toilet drove that reality home all night.
At first, Renuka was hesitant. "The weather is not good," she told me, as I slipped on my long underwear and strapped my headlamp to my head, saying goodbye to a slumbering Kim. Renuka took me outside and pointed to the starless horizon. "I'm not sure we'll be able to see anything," she said. But I could see stars overhead, and after coming all the way to Nepal, I wasn't going to bag out on a trip to the summit of Poon Hill. "Remember: I'm lucky. It'll clear," I told her.
At 10,531 feet, about an hour's climb from Ghorepani, the famous hilltop offers panoramic views of 26,794-foot Dhaulagiri I, as well as Himalayan monsters Tukuche, Nilgiri, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, and Glacier Dome - on a clear day. It's billed as a "defining moment" in Lonely Planet. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who read that line. Ten minutes into our pre-dawn ascent, we found ourselves in a single-file line of agonizingly slow, out-of-shape Germans, gasping for breath as their headlamps bobbed in the darkness like fireflies. Upon arrival at Poon Hill, I was shocked to spot another 200 or so tourists jockeying for position to take the perfect sunrise photo. At first, I was deflated, visions of sublime solitude crumbling. But my disappointment was fleeting. I bought a cup of hot tea for myself and Renuka, put my camera away, closed my eyes, and soaked in the sounds of a half-dozen different languages marveling at the scene unfolding. The clouds were lifting, exposing icy hilltops tinted with crimson.
I may not have been alone, but I got my defining moment afterall.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stairs and more stairs

Day six: Tatopani to Ghorepani

Imagine roughly 4,000 giant stone stairs leading relentlessly upward through rhododendron and magnolia forests, interspersed with friendly village towns of cobblestone pathways lined with thatch and mud huts. This is the path from Tatopani to Ghorepani. If this were at higher altitude, it would be an absolute killer. But mercilessly, the climb ends at 6,560 feet, roughly 1,000 feet lower than my home in Estes Park, Colorado. Nonetheless, with all our side trips and excursions we'd already walked a good 75 miles thus far on the trip, and this day felt brutal.
My tiny Nepalese porter, Danu, saved me from my borderline delirium twice along the way: Once, she stopped me from eating a corn-like fruit called monkey-corn that I plucked from a plant alongside the trail: Turns out it's poisonous. She also pulled me from a prickly thatch of stinging nettles that I was poised to use as a lavatory.
A team of wayward mules ran us off the trail more than once, the lead mule mysteriously aiming straight toward Kim each time they passed.
We finally arrived at the chilly, fog-shrouded town of Ghorepani at dusk, and checked into a "room" at the Sunshine Lodge that was no more than a plywood box with two blanketless beds. The dining hall, however, was glorious, with a roaring fire to dry our wet clothes over and chilled Australian Chardonnay awaiting. The place was a bustling convergence point of the many available treks in the area, so roughly a dozen female porters and guides from Three Sisters Trekking were there. They took their shoes off and danced to vintage Michael Jackson, coaxing me to the floor to join them in a groove to Billie Jean, despite wobbly trail-weary calves.
It was one of the most memorable nights of the trip.

Scary bridges and soothing hot springs at Tatopani

Trekking day five: Ghasa to Tatopani

Sometimes sisters disagree and the elder must make an executive decision. This was one of those days. After an hour on the dust-choked road, dodging crowded tourist buses and smog-belching Land Rovers, I began to grow envious of the barefoot villagers walking their livestock on steep narrow trails on the other side of the wide, churning river. "Can't we just go over there?." I asked our guide, Renuka, who we had come to refer to as Didi (sister in Nepalese). "I don't know the way," she responded. It seemed straightforward enough: just cross the river, walk on the other side, and cross back when we got to Tatopani. So after another mile I insisted.

After a nerve-wracking 350-foot traverse on a rickety wooden suspension bridge high above the roaring blue river, we were on the other side, where we meandered through a lush landscape colored with terraced fields of rice and millet, fresh orange trees, wandering buffalo and brick and mud homes.
It turns out we were lost, so after 20 minutes we had to turn back. But by now Renuka was determined to find the alternate route away from the road, so we tried another path. We pressed on, deeper into the jungle-like landscape, rich with waterfalls, and stopped to visit with a blind, 95-year-old man squatting by the road with his son and grandson.
One mile from our destination, the clouds enshrouded us in mist, just in time for us to cross another hairy bridge. It was a true Indiana Jones adventure.
Around 3, we checked into the Dhaulagiri Garden Lodge, a lovely teahouse surrounded with banana and orange trees, and just footsteps from two scorching hot riverside pools (tatopani means hot springs).

Fellow travelers from Australia, Canada, Germany, and Asia lolled in the water in bikinis and thongs, but at the request of Renuka, we respected the modest Hindu culture and bathed in our shorts and T-shirts. With all our aches and pains washed away, we scarfed down spinach and tomato pizza and chocolate cake, and prepped for the next day - the steepest of our trek - a 5,741-foot climb to Ghorepani.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Forging streams in the world's largest gorge

Day 4: Marpha to Ghasa
This was the hardest day yet.
I awoke at 5:40 a.m., slipped my headlamp on, and snuck out for a solo morning climb to the Marpha Meditation Center, a hilltop sanctuary with sweeping birds-eye views of the mud huts and rooftop firewood piles of Marpha. Even the monks weren’t awake yet, so I lay down on the floor, arms folded behind my head and eyes cast upward at the sun-bleached prayer flags whipping in the wind. I fell asleep, and woke a half-hour later to the sound of a sole monk chanting in the distance as the crimson glow of sunrise lit up the valley.
The five of us left at 8, meandering back and forth across the broad Kali Gandaki river valley to stay clear of the road. At several spots, we had to take our shoes off and wade through the knee-high frigid water, our 20-year-old porters carrying our gear and holding our hands as if we were children.
The views were unreal as we walked in silence through the world’s largest gorge, a lush wide valley dropping 4,000 meters between the soaring 8,000-meter summits of Annapurna I on one side and Dhaulagiri I on the other. Views of the Dhaulagiri icefall, a massive frozen slab capping the top third of the mountain, came into view at the town of Larjung, a bucolic creekside logging town that reminded me of Oregon.
I stopped and watched as a group of men slit the throat of a yak and cut it open for meat next to a roaring fire. It would feed them for three months, they said.

Two out-of-shape American mountain bikers whizzed by. They’d been dropped in Jomsom for a jarring three-day downhill cruise to Pokhara with a guide. “Slackers,” I said to Kim, who had grown increasingly green and shaky from food poisoning. Exhausted, we stopped for hot tea and pasta at a roadside bakery in Kalopani, where Nepali men huddled around a table watching an American bowling match on TV. Outside, an old woman squatted on the ground, cutting grass with a sharp blade and packing it in to an overloaded basket she carried on her back. Food for the cows, which, in this country are worshipped, not ground up for burgers.

Two more backbreaking hours and we reached the fairly nondescript town of Ghasa, just in time for the sun to go down and the power to go out. Kim slept while I stayed up talking politics by candlelight with two women from Botswana. The food was awful and the sound of dogs barking echoed through the valley. Nonetheless, by 8 p.m. I was out.
Tomorrow: Tatopani.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eating dirt in the Kali Gandaki river valley

Day 3: Muktinath to Marpha

I taste dirt.
After a two-hour march through the ripping wind we had been warned about for days, my cheeks sting and my teeth are coated with a fine, ash-like film that I can’t wash out no matter how much I spit. Danu and Laxmi, our petite female porters, are holding hands to keep from toppling under the weight of our packs and the 50 mph gusts that greet us at every corner. Just beyond the twisting, sand-filled microburst in the distance behind me, I can see our guide Renuka barreling across the dry river bed in desperate pursuit of her tattered white cap. “It was a gift from my sister,” she explains, as she returns to my side, out of breath. “If I lost it, she would be sad.”

This has been a trip about sisterhood.

With each day, the bond between the five of us grows stronger. Kim – who the girls call “sudra” or beauty – has warmed to our diminutive but bold young porters. She asks frequently about boyfriends (which they shyly insist they have never had) and gets a kick out of their giggles. Meanwhile I have become awed by our guide Renuka. Her English is near perfect. Her knowledge of the mountains, and flora, and religious artifacts among us is astounding. And she possesses a wisdom and self-confidence that defies her early twentysomething age and her heritage as a Nepalese female raised in a poor, rural region where cattle are often treated better than women.

Finally, the inhospitable high desert of Mustang gives way to fertile creek-side apple and peach orchards and tidy villages of narrow alleyes, whitewashed stone, and friendly Tibetan innkeepers. Occasionally we spot the letteres YCL (for Youth Communist League) graffitid on a pole, reminding us that the Maoist conflict is far from over - we are told that YCL is the most radical and violent branch of the Maoist insurgency.
The only big downside to this stretch of the trek is the road: a new addition which has brought Land Rovers carrying food and drinks for tourists, but ironically driven many visitors away by its mere presence. (Many now end the Annapurna Circuit trek in Jomsom). For us, it has been a blessing and a curse, delivering the occasional blast of tailpipe smog, but creating distance between us and the masses. When we land in Marpha, we have it all to ourselves.

We let the girls use our hot shower and then accompany them to the cozy, empty dining room, where they crack lentils out of the seed for fresh Dal bat, paint their fake nails hot pink, and watch a Bollywood Teleserial (Danu’s favorite) while we sip hot tea and play cards. So many wild contrasts in this room. But we all settle in for a meal together as if we have known each other for all of our lives. As if we were sisters.

Tomorrow: To Ghasa.