Thursday, November 5, 2009

Trekking: Days 0, 1, and 2

Before I begin, I should mention that I initially intended to use my journal entries as a guide for writing this blog. I didn't want to directly use the journal because I felt that much of what I wrote in the journal would be a little bit boring for everyone to read. Does anyone really care what I ate for breakfast? But as I began writing this blog entry from scratch, I found myself continually copying entire sections from my journal. This complicated things, as portions of the journal are in present tense, while my blog entries are always in the past tense.

At the risk of boring some of my audience, I have deciced to simply copy my journal entries word for word. While my journal entries might not be quite as entertaining and exciting as some of my previous blog entries, I think that they better capture my mood during the trek, and definitely reflect better my specific emotions and feelings from day to day. I wrote by hand instead of computer, which was something I hadn't done in years. This made for a different style of writing, but I think it ultimately served me best. That being said, the introductory paragraphs were written on computer. I made the switch at the end of "Day 1." If the switch in tenses at that point seems awkward, just deal with it. Also, I don't think I will post this all in one entry, so check back often in the coming days for more trekking updates.

OK, enough clarifications and caveats, lets get on with it!

The Annapurna Circuit Trek is one of the most popular treks in all of Nepal. It may not have the romantic allure of the Everest Base Camp Trek -- after all, who doesn't want to catch a glimpse of the world's tallest peak? But Annapurna more than makes up for this by the diversity of its terrain, scenery, and people. The trek led me through lush, green valleys; dense alpine forests; stark desert-like landscapes of sad red shrubs and parched rivers; and freezing, snow-covered wastelands where there were no trees or plants at all. And that was only in the first week!

The trek also took me to some truly unique villages and holy sites. I saw Hindu temples and Buddhist prayer flags. At one point, we walked alongside a region whose culture and people are Tibetan in all but name. Tibet is in China, Upper Mustang is in Nepal. Over the past two weeks, I walked and walked and walked and walked. You see, that's exactly what trekking is. Trekking is putting one foot in front of the other and going. But let me rewind all the way to the beginning.

On October 18, the eve of our departure, we met up with Suman Dahal, the owner of the trekking agency we had chosen. A few days before, Suman had introduced us to our guide Raj, a very friendly man who spoke excellent English. We had spent a few days meeting with guides in attempt to find someone we trusted and felt we could get along with. Raj met this criteria and we were excited for him to show us the way and take care of us. When we arrived on the 18th to square away the details for the next morning, however, Suman told us blankly that Raj would not be available, and that a man named Dahn would be our guide.

Needless to say, I was furious. We had already paid in full for the 16 days of trekking, and now we were getting a totally different guide than the one we had picked. I felt duped. I made a half-hearted attempt to chat with our new guide, but I was just too perturbed to give him a fair chance. I argued with Suman and tried to negotiate a discount, arguing that we simply weren't getting what we paid for. He was skilled at deflecting my rage though, and all I came away with was a few free nights at a hotel in Pokhara, which is the trek's termination point. Mimi and I held a pow-wow, and we decided that the only option was to be zen about the situation. Dahn would be our guide, and that was that.

At first, Dahn was quite shy and quiet. He seemed to speak decent English, but wasn't nearly as sociable and articulate as Raj had been. We spent the next hour with him sorting out our sleeping bag rentals. At first, he took us to a place that had a pretty ragged selection or bags, many of which had funky smells and broken zippers. He looked dismayed at the quality of the bags though, and after a quick call to his boss Suman, he told us we would go to a different place. After waiting for what seemed like forever, Dahn finally came back with two brand new sleeping bags. This guy might be alright, I thought. We said goodbye to Dahn for the evening, and agreed to meet him at our hotel the next morning at 6:30 am.

DAY 1: October 19, 2009. From Kathmandu (1337m) to Bhulbhule (840m).

I didn't sleep much that night because I was just too excited and nervous for the days ahead. I did my best though, and before I knew it, the alarm was going off. Our adventure had begun. Dahn met us promptly at six thirty and introduced us to Ramji, who would be our porter. I will go into much more detail about porters later, but a porter's job is solely to carry our stuff for us. Dahn had just met Ramji himself for the first time just a few minutes before meeting with us, so we spent the taxi ride to the bus station making awkward small talk. I quickly surmised that Ramji spoke virtually no English.

The bus was supposed to leave at 7:00, but didn't leave until 7:30 so we had some tea at the bus stop along with some pastries that Mimi and I had bought the night before. Eventually the bus got on its way. In typical Nepali fashion, it then idled at various densely populated intersections and trolled for passangers. Finally, the bus filled up and we were on our way. The driver must have had a lead foot though because after some initial slowgoing through the city traffic, we tore through the countryside.

The road was well paved enough, but had many ups and downs, as well as many sharp turns. We were making incredibly good time, given the conditions. For most of the trip the road also ran alongside a river that had many rapids and fast flowing water. I had purchased the weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune the night before. This enabled me to do the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle on the bus, which I thought was very funny. Hear I am, I thought, just doing the Sunday puzzle while blazing through the Nepali countryside on the bus from hell. No big deal!

At about 1 pm we arrived in Besisahar, a small town that marks the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit Trek. We still had over four hours of sunlight so Dahn suggested that we walk for a few hours to a town called Bhulbhule, which is quite comically pronounced, Boobily. As we walked through Besisahar, we came across some children playing a gambling game that involved some cool wood blocks with various symbols and a big mat with matching symbols. The game was essentially "dice," and Dahn asked if we wanted to join in. I figured I could spare a couple of Rupees so I hopped in a played a few rounds.

It turns out I didn't have much luck though, so I packed up early and we got back on our way. As we left Besisahar, the road transformed into a path. That was the moment when it truly sank in for me. Up until that point I somehow hadn't quite grasped what trekking literally is. We would be walking the entire way. The road had simply ended. Walking was the only option. In a world where some people refuse to walk just a few blocks and can't even concieve of the notion of walking for pleasure, trekking is indeed quite a foreign idea. Away we go.

Over the next few hours, we got to know Dahn much better. He is an amicable, kindhearted man of thirty five years. With his backwards hat and hairless chin, however, he could probably pass for ten years younger. The more time we spent chatting, the more I began to trust him and truly believe that he would look after us and take care of us. Yes, Suman had possibly pulled a bait and switch, but I thought that Dahn was actually a pretty cool guy. As we walked, we talked about the United States and fat people and McDonalds and Nepali food and his family. We also told him why it was funny that the village we were headed to was called Boobily.

As we talked and walked, I soaked up the scenery, which was quite beautiful, but not exactly breathtaking. It's only the first day though! The roaring river that ran parallel to the first path we were walking on was my favorite part of the first day. But I also enjoured the surrounding hills and also the small villages that we passed through.

Along the way we ran into a few other trekkers, but for the most part we had the path to ourselves. We also crossed several rickety suspension bridges and one very wobbly bamboo bridge. Looking down at the river below me was very nerve-racking but quite exhilerating!

Just before we arrived in Bhulbhule, it began to rain very hard. It would turn out that this would be the only rain we would encounter for the entire trek. Dahn was surprised that it was raining so we decided to wait under an awning for the rain to pass. It simply wouldn't let up though so we eventually made a break for it and ran across another pedestrian bridge that led into the village. Dahn quickly picked out a lodge and we got back inside. We were soaked.

The lodge was incredibly simple, but also peaceful and comforting. It was built exclusively from wood, and I could see through the little slits between the wood and into the room next to us. Auditory privacy was simply out of the question. The power was out for nearly the entire evening and the only toilet was essentially an outhouse, but the vibe was very positive among the other trekkers and the sound of the nearby roaring river was incredibly soothing.

In the evening, we sat on the patio and chatted some more with Dahn. There were some other trekkers hanging out as well but we didn't really chat with them. While we waited for our dinner to be made, we drank some local wine called Raxchi that Dahn had bought for us. He believed it was made out of barley or millet. It tasted sort of like a combination between bad sake and watered down whiskey. All in all, I didn't really like it very much but I was glad to try something new. While we were drinking, we also came across this cool looking bug that was attracted to our candle.

We're now retired to our room for the night and warmed up in our sleeping bags. It was quite hot during the day but it has really cooled down at night. We are still below 1,000 meters elevation, so I can only imagine how cold it will be higher up. I am very tired from the day's events which is good because the alarm is once again set for 6:00 am. Another exciting day awaits!

DAY 2: October 20, 2009. From Bhulbhule (840m) to Jagat (1300m)

Today was our first full day of trekking and I am realizing more and more how extreme trekking is. We woke up at six fifteen, packed up our sack and put in an order for breakfast. I had a lemon tea, two fried eggs and some Tibetan bread, which was a very oil, round chewy bread.

By 8:00 am we were back on the trail and on our way. That morning we shared our breakfast table with an Austrian couple named Dorothy and Peter. They were in their late 40s or early 50s and I was impressed with how adventerous they were, not to mention how athletic. Our guide Dahn is friends with their guide from many years ago. Later in the day we had lunch with the same couple again, but we did not actually hike alongside them.

The first few hours of walking were relatively flat, but at about ten am we began a gradual but challenging climb of about 400 meters. For the next several days we will be trekking through the same valley alongside the same river, which is called the Marsyangdi Nadi. I love this river and think that "robust" would be the best word to describe it. It has many fierce rapids and a very healthy flow. Some times its waters look a bit murky, but other times it has a beautiful light blue color. The river is at the bottom of a reasonably deep valley. On each side, the hills go up quite high. While this makes the valley quite beautiful, it also obscures the snow-capped Annapurna Range that is just west of us!

We did get a brief glimpse of the Himalayas early this morning though. We saw two peaks of the Manaslu Range, which are to the northeast of us. I can't express how excited I am to get to a higher elevation and get even better, more close up views of these mountains. The white of the snow is simply amazing.

The hike today was quite tiring. The terrain is very jagged and rough. There is a clear path to follow, but it is littered with many stones and rocks, as well as the occasional stream that we have to hop over. The most difficult part of the day came at the very end, when we had to climb up from the bottom of the valley along a very steep, zigzagging path. At times it was so steep that I had to use my hands to help me. It was also quite dramatic because as we climbed up, a large group of "transport donkeys" were on the way down. There were also many other trekkers in this area going much slower than us and the result was something of a traffic jam.

I also got to know Dahn even better today. He is a funny but straightforward guy and I have definitely come to trust him. We don't really speak to our porter, Ramji, because he is often walking ahead of us or behind us. His load is quite heavy (although not nearly as heavy as some other loads we have seen) and he has to concentrate and go at his own pace. At the same time, he can't fall too far behind us. His job is supremely diffiult and it amazes me that anyone can verry such a heavy load for the entire day, let alone 16 days straight. People say you shouldn't feel bad for the porters because they are lucky to have a job. This is true. Working as a trekking porter you can make between $7-15 a day, which is much much more than the average Nepali makes. In fact, Dahn told us that many Nepalis believe it is rude to carry your own pack because you are coming into Nepal but denying a Nepali employment. I still can't help but feel bad for the porters who can carry up to 35 kilos, which is over 80 pounds. Unbelievable.

Tonight we are staying in a small village called Jagat. It is at an elevation of 1300 meters and is basically a cluster of trekking lodges along one strip of a dirt path. I wouldn't be surprised if less than 100 people lives in the whole village. We are staying at the Paradise Hotel. Last night it was the Heaven Hotel. We took a shower as soon as we got here in a very dirty bathroom with no hot water. Normally, I would complain, but we are in a poor, remote area with I'll gladly take what I can get. The price of a double room here amounts to about $3.33. The accomodations are quite modest, to say the least.

The place seems quite full of other trekkers and we saw many other trekkers throughout the day. They are nearly all European, with the occasional Israeli or American thrown into the mix. Some are trekking in big groups with as many as five or six porters. Others are going independently without a guide or porter and are carrying their own sack. It is a very strange thing, for all of these foreigners, myself included, to be wandering through these poor villages. It is true that we are bringing money into the local economy, but we are also cauing many problems, the biggest of which is empty plastic water bottles. Bottled water is very expensive on the trail so we are drinking local water but putting chlorine drops in to purify it. I'm not sure how successful this will be, but so far so good. I am definitely nervous about getting sick though given how sick I was in Darjeeling.

Another strange think about the other trekkers is the way that some of them interact with the villagers. I've seen many Westerners taking pictures of the local people, especially children, without asking their permission. I think this is very rude and just wish those people would stop for a second and imagine what it would be like for them if a foreigner showed up in theiry backyard and started snapping shots of their children. That being said, the children here are devastatingly cute and I want nothing more than to snag a couple of photos. So far, I have been able to resist this temptation. Earlier today though, a little girl approached us and wanted to see my camera. I let her take some shots of her friend, and this is the resulting picture. I'm hoping I can get into a Soho gallery when I get back to the states, or something.

It is also interesting to note how less shy people are here, when compared to the people we met in the villages throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Here, the children are so used to seeing foreigners that they don't even bother to say Namaste! or giggle at us. The villages near Kathmandu don't see many foreigners, and the people were much more shy and curious about us, but also more friendly.

Tomorrow will be a big day for us. It will be almost entirely uphill and through a lot of rough terrain. I hope that tonight I can get a good night's sleep. Last night we feel asleep early, at about 9 pm, but I woke up a little bit after  midnight and had to pee. The bathroom was two floors down and outside, and the flashlight guided voyuage was quite scary. I couldn't fall back asleep until about 1:30.

We walked for about seven hours today though, so I am hoping that I can sleep like a baby. Hopefully the French people in the room next to us won't be too loud. It's been known to happen before.

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