Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Remembering the Victims of the Khmer Rouge

Warning: This post contains graphic images and discusses the heart wrenching genocide that was inflicted on Cambodia durring the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Not for the squeemish.

There is a fable of a wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, "who knows what's good or bad?"
When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her , the foolish neighbor returned to congratulate the farmer on his good fortune.
"Who knows what's good or bad?" Said the farmer
Then, when the farmer's son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor again came to console him.
"Who knows what's good or bad?" Replied the farmer again.
When the army passed trhough the following week , conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer's son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, the farmer shook his head, "Who knows what's good or bad?"
This dialogue could go on and on and shows that no event however they may first appear to us is inherrantly good or evil, and this is a sentiment that I have myself adopted, that it is not the events around us but our decisions in light of those events that are good or bad. When one visits the the Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng, formerly Security Prison 21 under Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia's name under the regime of Pol Pot, one can not help but challenge such a view. The events that took place durring this regime display the lowest depths of human capacity, and it is hard to gaze upon this one monument to their barbarism and not declare this as nothing but purely evil.

Nothing to laugh or smile about

Monday, December 27, 2010

First Impressions of Cambodia

I've been in Cambodia now for about six days and I'm still not sure what to think. If Nepal and Thailand had a love child it might come out something like Cambodia. Much of the landscape is flat rice fields as far as the eye can see interrupted with the occasional palm tree or small herd of water buffalo. Siem Reap, where I have spent most of my time thus far, is a strange eruption of five star hotels to small shacks that clusters near the Angkor ruins. This almost surreal city has a really interesting strip of good restaurants and shops that are mostly congregated around the old market. Although spending time in Siem Reap and saying you've experienced Cambodia is probably like spending a weekend in Vegas and thinking you understand America.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, reflected in a lily pond.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bangkok to Siem Reap Overland

This route is notorious in the region for lots of scams, and things like 'scam vans' and fake consulates are often brought up in its description. It really isn't that bad, in fact it was quite easy compared to anything one might attempt in South Asia. A tiny bit of research (and I mean just doing a minimal amount of homework) and just a dash of travel savvy and anyone could navigate this overland trip. So besides relaying my small adventure, I'll point out some of the basic tips for travel and some scams to avoid along the way. In the end I was able to do the whole trip in just under 11 hours, and it could have been faster if not for some random bad timing instances and an unnecessary snack stop just before Siem Reap.

The route itself takes you from Bankok to the Thai border town of Aranya Prathet where you walk across the border to the Cambodian side of the border to their border town of PoiPet and then it is a short ride to Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples. There are many options for the first leg of the journey including numerous bus services, mini-vans and trains. Scam number one to look out for is that many of the travel agencies hawking bus services will try to sell onward travel on the Cambodian side, and this is almost sure to be rubbish. The Cambodian side is controlled by a state sanctioned private monopoly, and they don't deal with Thai travel agents...it's not like you're going to use someone else when you get to the border so they don't need the business via agents. So if you take a bus just book it as far as Aranya. I've also heard conflicting reports that the vans can be terrible and cause a lot o problems. Some claim that they arrive at places late to force an overnight at the border and other garbage. Others have stated this went off fine. I didn't take the vans so I wouldn't know.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bangkok- Food is the Real Carnal Pleasure

When you mention Bangkok to many people they often imagine something out of the opening part of the second act of Full Metal Jacket, one that involves a girl in a very short skirt propositioning Joker with the now famous line “Me so horny”. Although the GI presence here during the Vietnam war was the jumping off point for the go-go bars that were at one time famous here, Bangkok has changed considerably in the last few decades and it has shucked off most of its seedy image and emerged as a world class capital city. This is not to say that the lineage of the go-go bars and what came after isn’t still here, I’ve seen plenty of old men with young Thai girls, but it is not nearly as prevalent or in your face as it was even when I was here in 2002 and 2004. Back then any time Kim got more than five steps away from me girls came out of the woodwork with greetings and smiles, now they're hawking only drinks, legitimate message, crafts, or food…at least on Kao San road.

I have no problems with these rules, though friends back home may suggest that I'm stealthily dodging the last one. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Flying Out

The only time I've left Nepal in the past year was for a short trip to Tibet back in July. It's funny that now as I get ready to fly to Thailand I feel like I'm leaving home, not just a place I was staying or traveling in. We've had a great year here and though things were sometimes awkward at first I'm really quite comfortable here now. Although Thailand is in many ways much easier to navigate than Nepal, my familiarity here makes it feel like a bit of the reverse.

The other day I went to buy some groceries for a dinner I was going to make for some friends when I opened my wallet and realized I had no debit card. Although we have access to Nepali funds through bank accounts here, that card is my link to US$, which are still very handy to have, especially if you will be in Thailand in a couple of days. Now the good news was that I realized this when I did, and not when I got off the plane and Bangkok to go use an ATM...that would have been a tough scenario. After a little research and some thinking it occurred to me that I may have left the card in an ATM, something that is very absent minded and quite stupid. Nepal being Nepal, I wasn't sure that even if I had done this I would ever see that card again.

For those that don't know, because they've been smart enough to always take their card after a transaction, the ATM machine will claim a card that has been left behind by sucking it into the machine if someone doesn't take it within an allotted period of time. The next morning I went down to the headquarters of Himalayan Bank (the owner of the ATM in question) and inquired about my card. Although helpful they were quick to try and get me to visit their card center in Patan. When I inquired to whether they could call to see if it was there, the guy I was dealing with was very helpful and made the call. Turns out the card was there and they would bring it to this office in a few hours for me to pick up. Crisis averted. I was actually a bit surprised how efficiently the whole process was and how polite the people were, so props to Himalayan Bank for providing services above and beyond what one normally experiences in Nepal.

So with that out of the way Kim and I did some last minute Christmas shopping, stopped by the market (sorry didn't have time to make salsa), and then went with Akshay and Jenara out to an organic farm for lunch and some relaxing scenery. Had a great time and some good food there, and saw the first blueberries, currants, raspberries, blackberries and passion fruit I've seen in Nepal. Cool spot, and we followed it up with dessert at Che Caroline's. Chocolates, apple crumble and macaroons were ordered and we had a good time, thanks a bunch to Akshay and Jenara for a fun day jest before heading south.

The one side note of this was that something somebody ate somewhere has not agreed with people's stomachs. Somehow I seem to have avoided any problems thus far (maybe I have iron guts) but Kim was up quite sick for the better part of the night, which is a terrible way to spend a night before you get ready to fly for 24 hours almost non stop. What particularly unfortunate is that in our year here so far we have not suffered from food poisoning once, so to be struck by it on the eve of departure seems a little cruel. I can only hope that something in my stomach doesn't drop mid flight. Anyway, I'm off to Thailand, and look forward to updating this blog from the road, hopefully with some interesting pictures as well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mr. Smith Goes to Thailand & Cambodia

So with my visa running out at the end of the month we were faced with a few different options of what to do. The easiest thing was to leave the country for a few weeks and come back. Due to plenty of things to do for Harilo, Kim was faced with what is essentially a business trip where she gets to see family around Christmas and new year. The cost of flying all the way to the states for both of us is a bit prohibitive and I came all the way out here to not visit Asia not fly back and forth to the US. So I'll be flying to Bangkok on Sunday and will split the next few weeks split between Thailand and Cambodia.

  Map showing the route I'm looking to take.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mr Smith Goes to Kathmandu- One Year On

So today this blog turns one year old! I had no idea what I would be writing about when I originally put this together, and looking over the posts from the last year it's interesting to me to see how it all shaped up. All in all I've had a great experience over the last year, from the final preparations to come here in December to now when I'm planning to leave Nepal for the first extended period since coming here (I'm heading to Thailand/Cambodia for a short time). While any experience has its ups and downs, this one has been mostly ups and a great experience over all that I'm glad has been a part of my life. Not everything goes as expected, but that is in an ironic way that's something we expect.

So before I left I wrote a post on Why would you want to move to Nepal, and now that it's been a year I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of those thoughts and see what I have done, what I haven't done,how reality matched up with expectations, what I'd still like to accomplish and what was just naive thinking. I'll use Italics to quote the original text.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dinner at South Beach

So it looks like I'll be cooking at South Beach Pavilion on Wednesday for what I'm hoping will be one of the better dining experiences in Kathmandu. Now Nepal being Nepal I'm of course having difficulty finding the needed ingredients, for instance the guy that sells feta cheese has been MIA and thus the secondary person I buy from who gets direct deliveries from him is also having a shortage, so sourcing the Feta has been a little work. Herbs seem to be disappearing as well and I had to place a special order for fresh rosemary and thyme. Despite the difficulty in getting all the ingredients I need together I'm excited to be putting this together for people, and am really looking forward to the event.

South Beach Event Menu

The items on the menu are things I've developed since living here, making use of some of the great produce that are available through the year. I've started using pomegranate quite a bit, because it has such a great subtly sweet flavor and is available year round here. Other more exotic fruits, like persimmon, are things I really enjoy experimenting with since I just never had the opportunity to cook or eat them back home...or at least I never noticed them anyway. I've also managed to find really good whole cream at the dairy down the street from me which is exciting for me as well, and I think it will make the dessert great. Hopefully we'll get some good pictures of everything for a future blog post.

For those not familiar with South Beach its a great event space that sits behind the Wunjala Muskva restaurant in Naxal. The space has a very Miami style feel to it and Akshay and Jenara did an excellent job with its design, look and feel. We've previously attended a few tea events there as well as monthly movie viewing.  Anyway it's a great space, and I'm looking forward to being part of what should be a really fun and tasty event.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Market at Cafe Moksh in Patan

The farmer's markets in Kathmandu are a salvation for those of us who want some quality foods that are reminiscent of back home, or some of the better quality food products from Nepal. For the last five months or so I have been selling salsa's at the market at 1905 every Saturday. For people who live in Patan, there is a new market that is now being held at Cafe Moksh every Sunday from 9am to noon.

Rotisserie Chicken, Cakes, and Spices 

Everyone that sells at the 1905 market seems to be here as well, so you can get cheeses, dried fruits, French food from Christine, cakes from Virginia, and rotisserie chicken. Vegetables, honey, jams, achar/pickle, Nepali teas, and seasonal fruit are all available too. Most  importantly you can get Enlightened Salsa here in four great flavors, made and sold by yours truly. It's a good community of people, and many of the vendors are providing things that you just can't get anywhere else in Kathmandu, or Nepal at large. If you're new to the Kathmandu valley it's also a great place to meet people that live here, as it's a fairly small expat community and a good number of us show up these. If you've happened upon this blog entry and come to the market, don't hesitate to introduce yourself to me, I'm always happy to meet new people here.

Enlightened Salsa, French Food, Dried Fruits, and Live Music 

The location at Cafe Moshk seems like a really good fit, and the staff there did a very nice job of fitting their location to the market. They have a nice outdoor staffed grill, a full breakfast menu available and a counter for coffee, tea, and food orders. The space is a nice grassy area in front of the cafe with the stalls set up at the edges and plenty of space in the center to mingle or sit at tables. There was also live music available that was quite nice and the band was very talented. Francois, who put this all together, told me that this will be a regular feature, which I think will be kind of cool. There are plenty of good talented musicians in this city.

So the Market is at Cafe Moshk
in the Pulchowk area (restaurant row) in Patan
Sundays 9am to 12pm

Friday, December 3, 2010

Imago Dei- My Favorite Cafe in Kathmandu

Kathmandu has no shortage of places to hang out, have a drink and maybe try to get some work done on a computer or conduct a meeting. Many of the locations though are lacking, either in food, atmosphere, or internet access. Imago Dei by contrast supplies all three and further gives some of the better table service I've had in Kathmandu- which as an American I dearly miss on occasion. They also have a great location, being just across the street from the east gate of the Royal Palace Museum compound. This puts them in an easily accessible area, that is not far from most of the areas where expats who live in Kathamndu proper (i.e. not Patan) tend to congregate. It also has parking available, which is rare in this city.

It has a decent menu that covers everything from wraps and sandwiches to a Thai curry, dips, pastas, breads and deserts. My personal favorite items are the salads, especially the roasted pumpkin and spinach, which are all served very fresh, are a very decent size and are served with bread- the pumpkin bread is my favorite. When I'm looking for heavier meals I like the Thai curry dish and Kim likes the gnocchi.  The drinks are some of the better in the city, serving very good ice teas, as well as some tasty strawberry lemonade. The deserts are also very good, the cheesecake has a reputation as the best in the city and I am personally a big fan of their chocolate brownies which are served with a mall side of chocolate sauce to drizzle on this very big brownie.

Imago Dei's Comfortable and Well Lit Dining Area

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving Thanks

Last Thursday was American Thanksgiving, and celebrating it away from home in Nepal is makes it a little more meaningful for me. I remember when I was a kid my dad telling me that Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday, and as a kid this struck me as an odd choice. I mean how could Thanksgiving compete with the sheer awesomeness that was all the gifts and decorations of Christmas, or the costumes and candy of Halloween, it seemed at best tied with Easter which gave a whole basket of candy but had the downside of a long church session. Thanksgiving seemed to just be a large dinner, some boring football games (which I no longer find boring). Point being is that it didn't seem to stand up to the other holidays that seem geared toward children.

The themes that a holiday is often supposed to make one reflect on are often overlooked for what is practiced in the practical terms. So for children (and maybe some adults) Christmas and birthdays are about the gifts, and Thanksgiving is about the food. As I've grown older though I've come around to my father's point of view, Thanksgiving is firmly my favorite holiday. Unlike other holidays that require gifts, cards and other distractions, Thanksgiving requires only that we come together in common company and give thanks simply for what we have. We do this by sharing a large meal together, and though the host often undertakes the larger part of the cooking, guests often bring plenty of side dishes and deserts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Concept of the 'Self"- An Excerpt from The Purple Thread of Epictetus

This is a subject I have been tackling at length over the last month in a book I'm trying to put together. This topic has been particularly difficult, but after a good writing session today on draft three of this chapter I think I have most of what I want covered. There is still a good degree of off topic meandering which needs to be trimmed, some topics addressed too briefly and I'm not entirely happy with some of the opening paragraphs, but on the whole I'm finally content with the body of the chapter as a whole. So with all that said I'd thought I'd share this chapter as it stands for now with everyone. At one point I reference the logic problem known as the Ship of Theseus, which I go over in a previous chapter, I linked the wiki article there as a refresher to those who aren't familiar with it.

Chapter 7- Defining the Self

“…because, of all things in the environment an active body must make mental models of, none is more important than the model the agent has of itself.”
-Daniel C. Dennett
Consciousness Explained 

No object will be more considered than ourselves, as we are the object that we seemingly have the most control over, so it is important that we spend at least a chapter considering what our “self” is. It seems painfully obvious to most of us what we are, “I’m me!” one might protest. Looking a little deeper though it is hard to find exactly what we are, what defines “you” and where we should even start to look. When considering objects back in chapter five we noted the need to see things as they actually are, discover what they are made of and strip them of their pretention. It would be less than thorough if we did not do this to ourselves as well as everything around us. Coming to an honest understanding of what you yourself are is an important part of setting yourself free. Because the subject object of much of your thought will in fact be those things that are in your power or those desires that arise in the mind, it is best to understand the object you will be observing the most, which is yourself.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Danger of the "People's" Revolution

Spending all of your time in Kathmandu it is easy to forget that the rest of Nepal is very different, and what seems normal here is not what the typical Nepali considers typical. It is this bubble that kept the middle and business class as well as the politicians at large from understanding the real threat that the maoists poised back in the late 90's and why even after the slaying of the King and the up tick in the violence of the civil war in the early part of this decade that to many in Kathmandu the moaists were an enigmatic group. When I first arrived here I had to put up with many of their so called bandhs, political strikes enforced by thugs on the streets that bring all commerce and transportation to a halt, but those stopped after the spectacular failure that was the May 1st protests. Since then the Maosists have been quiet, and one can easily forget that this is a country where the largest political party are communists who regularly depict mass murders (of their own people I might add) like Stalin and Mao on posters and reference them in speeches. For all of Asia's complaining over colonial oppression  in the past, no western influence has killed more Asians than the communist ideals that well to do Asians brought back with them from studying in Europe.

Today the Maoists are back in the news as they have had a big political get together, and party leaders released several papers defining where the party should be headed. Republica put out an overview of some of the chairmans piece, choosing to focus on his confrontational stance with India (read the article HERE). The ideas that are expressed in the majority of it is no shock to me, but I am slightly taken aback with how honest they are about their goals and implementation. They basically admit to what I've always suspected that the war has never ended and they basically won't stop until there is a communist republic in Nepal. The language is littered with the normal socialist diatribe, using words like proletariat, comrade, cadre, and throwing around the phrase domestic feudalism in every other sentence. One part of the story that stuck out to me was "Dahal was of the view that India will intervene militarily in Nepal when the party launches a people´s revolt to seize state power; so the party should be ready to resist Indian intervention." It's not a matter of "if" but "when" the party launches the "people's" revolt.

The danger these kind of serious revolts cause are clear in history, and it's highlighted for me by my upcoming trip to Cambodia in December. Nepal is in less danger of becoming another Cambodia due to the fact that it is bordered by two very ambitious emerging powers, India and China. What Nepal risks if it falls into a deep civil war is being completely co-opted by one of those powers or becoming the center stage of a proxy war between them. Most people don't seem to realize how tense relations are between China and India, and it was extremely interesting to me that one of the first things to happen when North Korea flirted with starting a war the other day was that India ordered 30,000 troops to its border with China. Both sides of the Nepali government playing these two nations against each other is a very dangerous game and Nepal is in a delicate situation where drastic moves that destabilize the country could very easily lead to a complete loss of sovereignty, let alone the human tole that a drastic revolution like those of Pol Pot and Mao would inflict on the citizenry of this country.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Rewriting- Because the First Draft Always Sucks

There is a saying  that "there is no such thing as good writing, just good rewriting". I've been doing a lot of rewriting lately, though I'm not quite sure that much of it is really good yet. Although I write much more than the average person, I've never really sat down and tried to write something in book form until this year. Blogging is more of an exercise in stream of consciousness, and other things I had worked on were short enough that rewriting them over and over again never felt like too big of an undertaking. Rewriting hundreds of pages at a time and keeping them at a certain flow, pace, and rhythm all while keeping the entire thing coherent is an undertaking that I wasn't prepared for, or at least I did not expect the sheer level of difficulty that it would pose. I have a new found respect for people that can really sit down and not just tackle the oft mentioned blank page but really take on the one that's already full of that not-good-enough draft that sits before them.

Back in April/May I pounded out a rough draft of the book I'm trying to put together, and I was quite happy with myself that I managed to get all the way through and actually write it. I was thinking to myself at the time that this whole writing thing isn't really all that hard. Once i was done with the first draft I thought it would be easy to just shore up some of those thoughts, reorganize the book a little better and presto, I should be done. It's now the middle of November and I'm forcing myself to fight through draft number three. It has been an excruciatingly slow process, and after sitting down just about every day for the last month, I've managed to get through only about a sixth of the the book. I've spent entire weeks working on seven stupid pages, and still not liked what came out. When I was tearing through my first draft I usually put out at least seven pages every day. The big difference is that I seem to spend far too much time re-reading and not as much time as I'd like re-writing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Some like it Spicy

There is this strange perception that goes around that white folk don't like spicy food, or can't handle it. As someone who has spent most of my adult life sustained almost entirely on spicy foods and bothered to order a gallon of Frank's Hot Sauce from the States, because I miss good hot sauce, this perception can be rather annoying. I first encountered it when travelling in Thailand back in 02'. I'd order Thai food and get this tasteless crappy version that was clearly prepared for that portion of the white population that prefers mayonnaise to Tabasco. Sure you could add spiced oil and red pepper flakes, but it usually wasn't as good as when the chilies are cooked into the dish. We encountered similar silliness in Nepal, India and Mexico as well, and I spend an awful lot of time convincing the people at the restaurants that, yes I really do want my food prepared hot and spicy. Half the time it still comes out and isn't that hot.

This kind of treatment normally gets me into a bit of a huff, and I find myself wanting to challenge the poor waiter to a contest of who can eat the spiciest food. "I'll bury you pal!" is the accompanying thought. seriously, I've happily consumed meals that when they touch your skin it turns a bit red from irritation...I can put down some seriously hot stuff. Since I've been in Nepal I've found that many Nepali people don't think westerners like spicy food, or that we can't handle too many hot peppers. When I first moved here one of the first foods I went ahead and tried to make was Mexican style chili, and my hosts thought it was intriguing that not only a man was cooking, but that I had bought chilies. The dish calls for not only chopped up chillies but I also added a fair amount of chili powder, which made my host question why I was making it so hot. Because, some westerners do indeed like it hot, in fact hotter than my host would have liked it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Technology & Travel

My first big trip was back in 1999, it was a 2 and a half month backpacking trip around Europe. back then there wasn't much in the way of communicating with people back home. Internet cafes though were just becoming common and it was definitely nice to be able to send some e-mails back home in order to let everyone know where you were and that things were going well. I suppose you also had phones, but calls overseas were quite expensive and I have always traveled as a budget traveler even when I've had plenty of money...it's the only way I know to travel.

Fast forward to 2001/2002 and Kim and I are traveling fully around the planet for about 9 months or so. The internet has become a much more communal resource that even my parents are using quite often at this point. Digital cameras are also now commonly available allowing us to share our adventures with people back home in pictures and not just words. Another big development was the proto-blog sites, ones that allowed us to put up stories and post our pictures and our friends to post comments or messages to us as we traveled. All of this really made it easy to stay in touch with family and friends as we moved from one region to another.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

East and West

Back in August there was a great post on a blog named Musings From an American-Nepali Household (read the original post HERE) that showcased some diagrams done by a Chinese artist named Liu Young who spent some time in Germany. He has illustrated in great simplicity some of the differences in how eastern and western cultures approach life. 

Blue = West                  Red = East


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tihar the Festival of Lights

So it's another big festival in Nepal. As I write this you can hear the sound of bottle rockets, firecrackers, roman candles and M80s exploding in the night mixed with the sound of Nepali music and some children singing in the streets. Since holidays in Nepal are an almost weekly occurrence  the big ones get set apart by a large number of days, Tihar, the one currently getting celebrated, is a festival that takes place over five days, and I believe we are on day three.

My Street Lit Up for Tihar

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Democracy is the New Tyranny: The American Myth & Failure in Nepal

tyr·an·ny –noun: A government which practices arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

I try to steer clear of my home countries politics most of the time, as this isn't a blog about America, and certainly not about its politics. There is also the fact that the partisan divide has become so great in our country that you stand to alienate half your audience by just taking a stand. Even someone as popular and likable as Oprah saw her television show take a popularity dive as soon as she took a political stand. We have becomes so divisive in America that people of opposing opinions can rarely talk to each other without degenerating to name calling, and most people start with fairly negative opinions of anyone that is on "the other team". All of this over usual complete lack of understanding of the philosophical positions of where the other person is coming from, and the belief that people on the other side are trying to "destroy America". 

For all of the bickering between the left and the right, and all of their insistence that their team is different I just don't see it. After all of the rhetoric of any election Washington keeps on at the same pace, doing the same old stuff. Republicans who apparently believe in cutting spending, fiscal responsibility, and smaller government saw some of the largest spending and government expansion projects under the reign of Regan and both Bush's. Democrats who are supposedly socially liberal and have often opposed foreign war were strangely silent during our involvement in Somalia, Kosovo, Indonesia, and the silence to the escalation in Afganistan and Pakistan is deafening. I won't even get into the fact hat Gitmo remains open, the worst parts of the patriot act were renewed under a democratic super majority or that the recent "health care reform" was basically a big gift to insurance providers and completely disregards the freedom of American citizens to choose products for themselves. After all is said and done, regardless of what our public officials say, the machine of the Federal government keeps right on going. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Tribute to Some Really Worn Shoes

I'm not one to pay too much attention to fashion, but when it comes to trekking I am very particular about my shoes. Each person has different things they look for; some want to make sure they have ankle support, or waterproofing- me I want light weight and grip and just about nothing else matters. I met my perfect shoe back in  the middle of 2007 when I discovered GoLite's Spike Tail. Love at first fit. These shoes are exceptionally light, get an excellent grip even on steep wet granite and dried very quickly if you happened to go wading across streams. They were comfortable to boot, making them my favorite shoe I had ever put on my feet.

This is roughly what my shoes looked like when I got them.

I purchased the shoes specifically for my planned ascent of Kilimanjaro and went to work immediately making sure they got broken in on the trail. The shoes not only accompanied me up that very large mountain in Africa, but have since been my default shoes for trekking back in New England and now here in the Himalaya. They were also excellent running shoes, so they got plenty of use running the streets of Kathmandu two or three times a week. Here is a quick list of the places this pair of shoes got me;

Friday, October 29, 2010

Is Nepal a Culinary Gold Mine?

To most people that have spent any time here, the question on its face may seem like some kind of joke. When I did some travel writing on Nepal early this year the book's editor asked if I could do something on Nepali food, as all the submissions she had so far received had been mostly foreign adaptations. I explained to her that Nepal lacks the kind of culinary diversity of its neighbors like China and India, and that Nepali cuisine could for the most part be summed up in four words; dahl baht takari, mo-mos. Now to be fair there are plenty of regional and ethnic cuisines here that are good, Newari food in particular takes advantage of many different ingredients and subtle flavors. Many Nepali people are also very proud of their dahl baht, they love the stuff and often explain to me that they just don't feel right if they don't have a meal of it at least twice a day. Still in a country that has access to such an awesome array of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and neighbors with such rich culinary histories one can't help but think of someone in the Louvre that is content to sit and play with an etch-a-sketch.

Experimenting with some gourds

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day Trips from Kyanjin Gompa; Langshisha Kharka & Tsergo Ri

I've already described the basic trek up to Kyanjin Gompa in the Langtang valley in this post so I'm not going to discuss it again in detail. The main difference was that this trip was done in October, so it was drier, the scenery was much less green, and the river was flowing at about half the rate it was in July. There were also a tremendous number of people on the trail, but not so many that it detracted too much from the trip. While I enjoy this region in general, it has to be stated up front that the food on this trek is by far the worst of the three major regions. There are no meat options on any menus, and most menus are exactly the same as they are set by a local comity. What is actually available on the menu will vary greatly from guest house to guest house, as will the quality of the food produced and what the interpretation of the items description actually is. One stand out location for me was Yala Peak Guest House in Syrabru which produced a chicken chili that was soo good that I ordered two plates on my return from the trail (a place where I could order meat again). Nice people, good food, and would recommend this place to anyone passing through. So anyway let's get onto the topic at hand, two really fun trips from Kyanjin Gompa; Langshisha Kharka and Tsergo Ri.

Yaks graze in the Langtang Valley

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Road to Dunche: An Accident Waiting to Happen

I'm back from another great trip to the Langtang region, and I'll be talking about some of that trip in the following posts. Before I get to that though, I need to address something that is a very clear problem; the road to Dunche might be one of the most dangerous in the world. I do not say this in hyperbole and am not trying to be sensationalist, this road is downright dangerous, and it is only a matter of time before a number of people are killed on it. Being the only access to a major tourist area in this country makes this road even more absurd; in its precarious state it provides the lifeblood of money that sustains that region. Although the region is accessible by helicopter or very rarely by single prop planes, the cost is prohibitive and almost everyone takes the bus or 4WD into Dunche or Syrabru.

Trisuli- A typical Nepali bus scene

Monday, October 18, 2010

Silence of the Goats and Celebrating Dashain

So the holiday season is in full swing in Nepal. Someone might wonder what qualifies as a holiday season in country that has holidays every week. Well you see those holidays are only a single day, now that we're into the big ones they get entire weeks.  Dashain is a a full 10 day holiday and it is followed not long after by Tihar, another multi-day extravaganza. The first few days of Dashain were rather tame, but the festivities come into full swing in the last three or four days. It reminds me in many ways of Thanksgiving back home, comprising of family get togethers and lots of food. There are plenty of other ritual and religious overtones, but the result is essentially the same, only they don't watch Football.

Nepali Goat at a Temple

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Minds Are Malleable, Trails Are Not

People often ask me what I think about when I spend twelve hours alone moving over trails in the Himalaya, and I usually don't have a good answer. For some reason though when I woke up this morning I remembered a mantra that I tell myself over and over again as I traverse the ridges of the mountains, 'my mind is malleable the trail is not'. What I mean by this is that the trail is what it is, it does not change and it does not give you a break, if the trail climbs 3,000' it means that if you're going to get from point A to point B on it you're going to have to climb 3,000'. This all seems rather simple and straight forward, but it's more complicated because we like to lie to ourselves, and make promises that we can't keep, ones that we have no control over. We excel at sabotaging our own morale. We like to pretend that things are not as they are.

After my last trek up to the everest region I met up with the two British trekkers I had spent some time with, Rob and Ian. As we were out in Thamel tossing down some well deserved fajitas Ian discussed what he thought was the hardest bit of trail. He did the whole section from Jiri up to Gokyo and then over to base camp, he had some really long days and climbed up to points over eighteen thousand feet with some rather steep sections. The hardest part though? The flat section of trail leading along the ridge that leads back to Namche Bazaar. It was a long day, and the first that they had really gotten stuck out in the rain, they had left that morning from Pheriche and were hoping to make it a little ways south of Namche. As they got onto that ridge they were wet and tired, clouds reduced visability to a mere fifty meters, and the trail consistently meandered around corners hugging the mountain on the right. Wanting to just be in Namche already Ian explained that it was just so disappointing to round each one of those bends and not be in Namche. He kept telling himself that Namche must be around the next corner, and it never was...well eventually it was but not as soon as he would have liked. It made this part of the trail unbearable for him.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Everest Trek Part 4: To Base Camp & Back Again

So when I left off, we had just spent all day trying to get to the village of Dragnag in order to prepare for crossing the Cho La pass, but complications on the trail over the Ngozumpa glacier had forced us to turn back and look for another way across. When we found the bridges also up when trying to cross to the village of Nha, we finally ended the day in Machhermo and had to plan another route around to base camp, skipping the Cho La pass. After studying the maps a bit we all decided that we would head south to Phortse Tenga and then cross the Dudh Koshi river ascending to the village of Phortse. From there we planned on taking the high trail to Pengboche and from there follow the main route up to Gorek Shep and Everest base camp. Our plan was to make for the village of Dughla, and then on to Gorek Shep.

The Village of Phortse

I hate getting behind, and my thought was that if I had been able to get over the glacier and the Cho La I would have ended the day in Lobuche. In the back of my mind this is really where I wanted to end the next day, but the distance seemed to make this fairly impractical. We were on the trail early the next morning and made good time retracing our steps south and we made it to the very picturesque village of Phortse still early in the morning. After stopping here for a few photos and dodging some streams that ran down the main trails through town we made our way to the top of the ridge and headed out on to the high trail to Pengboche.

The Vertigo Inducing High Trail to Pengboche

Monday, October 4, 2010

Everest Trek Part 3: Crossing the Ngozumpa Glacier

I love writing in this blog and I've rarely gone this many days without writing in it, especially after getting back from such a great trip in the Himalaya. The thing is that there has been numerous things conspiring against me. First I've been busy selling and making salsa for the last few days, and I've also come down with a mild head cold that has been making me quite tired. Anyway on to the story.

Horses relax at the edge of the Ngozumpa Glacier

So After climbing up Gokyo Ri the plan was to head a little ways south, take the trail that crosses the Ngozumpa glacier and end the day at the base of the Cho La pass in the village of Dragnag. I had talked to several people who had come across the pass from the other direction and had said it was a little tricky but they had just followed the cairns and had been able to get across. The pass itself was said to have had some snow on it and to be very steep from the side we were approaching from, but to be otherwise uncomplicated.

Trail Descends Onto the Glacier

So the three of us headed out for what we thought would be an easy couple hours of walking and made for the trail just south of the second gokyo lake that headed across the glacier. At first it seemed simple enough. Sure you were walking over some fairly large rocks and gravel and the terrain was a bit odd but the trail was well worn. Then the trail suddenly came to an end, where the stone and gravel suddenly had toppled into a pool of water that had resulted from a good deal of melting.

End of the Trail

From here the plans got a little confusing. with the clear trail gone we looked on some of the nearby side trails. We followed some yak poop which looked fresh, but these trails also ended in similar collapsed gravel, rock and a sudden drop into water. So we took some time to survey the surroundings, as it was hard to tell which bodies of water were connected, and many large piles of rocks and boulders obscured views of what was beyond. After a good half hour of looking over where we had to go and deciding how we were going to get there we started out across the loose rocks, most of them being about the size of a basketball.

Ian and Rob Navigate the Glacier

It's slow going as you have to avoid the areas that look a little unstable, avoid the water and try to stick to the more stable high ground. Eventually we made our way to the a rock that we had picked out from the first dead end and as we got on the back side of that rock pile I picked up another trail and a couple cairns on the pile to the east. Our big smiles faded immediately as we reached another dead end, which again ended in a sudden steep drop into a pool of water. From this point we again surveyed our position, and picked out a route across some increasingly sketchy terrain. At one point we had to traverse a scree slope, and descended to a very large pool of water that had water and debris falling into it on a regular basis. There was even a trekkers pole floating in this one.

This Pool Even Had a Trekker's Pole Floating In It

On the other side of this pool we came across a large sand dune, that from across the way I had thought was snow from a distance. There were plenty of cairns on the far side of the sand and even some rocks lain out to spell something, though we couldn't read it. We made out across the sand, but my companions were uncomfortable with the cracks in the sand that showed where it had shifted due to the glacier had melted underneath. We made it over to the other side and climbed over more rocks, only to see a huge body of water. This body of water seemed to snake a couple hundred meters north of us, and connected to the large glacial wake that had formed on the glacier just to the south of us. There was no way we were getting across this. It looked like you could possibly cross a ways to the north, but the route passed over some unstable slopes that were getting ready to fall into the watery pool that was in our way.

Sand Deposit On the Glacier

All hopes dashed of crossing this glacier from where we were we moved back across the sand dunes, took out our coconut crunchies that had been given to us by the good folks at the Gokyo Namaste lodge and got to thinking about how we could get over to the village of Dragnag. It occurred to me that if we travel south past the end of the glacier we could cross the river at the bridge that goes to the village of Nha, and from there we could turn north and head to Dragnag. Sure it would take us at least three hours to get there from our current location, but at least it was a route that we knew would eventually get us to the destination we were headed for. We consulted our maps and trekking books to make sure I was remembering correctly and with everything looking good we set off to retrace our steps and get off the glacier.

Trail Back South

Taking every step carefully over this terrain is a bit draining, and I was mentally and a little physically tired by the time I got back on the main trail. Happy that we were at least getting somewhere we set off with a little vigor southward toward the bridge. As we passed the end of the glacier we found the trail signs that pointed toward the crossing to the village of Nha, and we could see the village not too far ahead of us on the other side of the river. Th problem was that we couldn't see any bridge. I was a bit perplexed as we couldn't even find what looked like a bridge that had been washed out...there were trails along the high flowing river but no bridges anywhere to be seen. Some locals in Nha watched us from the far banks of the river, but they were much to far away for us to try to communicate with them in any way. Feeling thoroughly defeated and the time now closing in on 3PM I was out of suggestions.

Our options it seemed were to try and make it back up to Gokyo, at least a two hour walk when you're in a good mood and rested, or head up to the village above us, Phang. We all hemmed and hawed for a bit. In Gokyo we could get a guide to bring us across the glacier and possibly over the pass, in Phang we could rest. I voted for Gokyo and the others agreed that they thought they could make it. On the way up to the main trail we spotted the bridge to Nha, it was up and there was no crossing this river. Getting back to the main trail my companions decided they just didn't have it in them to make it back to Gokyo, and to be honest I was quite tired myself, so we turned south and made for Phang.

Once in Phang we were told that none of the lodges were open. That was about par for the day's course. So we continued south to the village of Machhermo, where we staggered into the friendly  Trekker's lodge that I had stayed in previously. Once there we happily had some soup and conversed with the lodge owner about the days events. He informed us that the glacier had "broken" and that you had to cross it a ways to the north now. Increased water flow from the glacier meant that the bridge to Nha was up more often. It would be some time before people could cross that bridge, maybe another month. With this day completely shot, and not enthused at the prospect of spending another day to possibly attempt the glacier again only to stop in Dragnag before heading over the pass, we seriously looked at taking the southerly route through Phortse and on over the high trail to Pengboche.It would be a long day but it would be possible to make it as far as Dughla.

As disapointing as it was to not get to where we were trying to go, I had no regrets on the day. We had made good informed decisions, it's just that the goal we were trying to accomplish was impossible from the points that we attempted it. Later in the trek we would talk to several trekkers and guides who said the Cho La had received a good amount of snow and was very tricky at the moment. Apparently some things are blessings in disguise. Besides having another pass up that way that I haven't done gives me an excuse to go back up there! The next entry will cover the long day that took me over the high trail to Pengboche, onward to Dughla and onward to Gorek Shep, Base Camp and my one epic day that brought me from the top of Kala Patar all the way to Lukla.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Everest Trek Part 2: The Gokyo Lakes

When I left off in part 1 I had settled down after a short days hike in the village of Dole and was warming myself by a fire fueled by yak poo. This part of the trek I will be a little short with. Our views were terrible due to fog, and the trekking days were very short due to the limit elevation placed on us. This combined for some uneventful days. So going in to day four we left Dole and headed to Machhermo, a nice little town tucked into a little side valley. According to Lonely Planet there was a report that a yeti killed two yaks and attacked a Sherpa woman here, but we didn't have anything that exciting happen during our stay.

Stupa on the way to Machhermo

This day was just a couple hours of walking so we slept in a bit and left Dole late. we still arrived before lunch though. The guest houses on the south west side of the stream that divides the town appeared to either be under construction or had out houses, and for the extra 50 rupees or so I'd rather have the indoor toilets. So we headed across the stream and stopped in the very nice Namgyal Lodge which had impressive rooms and a very well maintained courtyard, but the food prices were a bit outside of the budget we were looking to stick to, so just beyond there was the Trekkers Lodge and Restaurant where we were ended up settling and were taking care of by Dawa Sherpa and her family.

Yak out Back of Trekker's Lodge in Machhermo

Now whether it is deserved or not, Israeli's have a very bad reputation in Nepal for taking bargaining too far. Now while my trekking companion certainly didn't mean to be rude, it was taken that way by the Sherpa running the lodge. In the exchanges that followed it was clear to that Ellie was not impressed by the way the lodge owners conducted themselves. These kind of cultural misunderstandings from both sides are painful to witness first hand and you really are powerless in many ways to stop the social mess that unfolds in front of you. Aside from this misunderstanding, the stay here was quite pleasant and the lodge owners were very gracious, first rate people in my opinion. The only thing that stops me from giving this place the highest endorsement is that the food was mediocre at best, but again the people made up for this.

Verification that Mr. Sherpa had been on top of Everest and Cho Oyo.

It turns out that the lodge owner is a two time Everest summitter and he topped Cho Oyo (the 6th highest) six times. I found this out by looking at some certificates that were hanging on the wall in the back of the dining area and then asking him as he passed by on the way to preform some chores. He affirmed that he was the one who had climbed the mountains, and in normal Sherpa humility he played it down telling me that, "Cho Oyo really wasn't that tough there is just this 50 meter vertical climb you had to get over that was tough." He showed me some pictures of the mountain taken from the Tibet side (where you do the ascent) and pointed out this difficult part. What he doesn't mention is that you are doing this and other parts at over 20,000 and exposed to whatever weather conditions come on by. Cool guy, and enjoyed talking to the people at this lodge.

Village of Phang

In the afternoon to keep boredom at bay and get my body use to the altitude I went for a walk up the valley as far as the small village of Phang, got a look at where the river cascades down from the glacier and headed back to have dinner and settle in for the evening. Even the next day would not be a challenge. From Machhermo we planned to head up to Gokyo village, something I figured couldn't possibly take more than a couple hours and after we got rooms, walk up to the lakes further up the valley. There are six lakes in the Gokyo region, but the sixth one by most accounts is too far north to make a reasonable visit from a day hike. I figured I'd go to the fourth or fifth depending on the conditions the next day.

Following the Trail Along Glacial Streams

Day five dawned in a fog as well, and as we moved up near the Ngozumpa glacier it looked to be thicker. That said a wind would pick up from down the valley and the sun was bright through the clouds with intermittent  patches of blue, leading you to believe that at any moment they might lift. Passing the village of Phang the trail starts to ascend beside the glacier, eventually climbing stone steps that rise beside a cliff on one side and a steep drop to the rapids below on the other. Once up over this you are rewarded with views of the first lake. The water, as is usual with glacial melt, was that bright aqua bluish green and the near barren fields nearby were populated with stone cairns and the odd yak that gave it an almost otherworldly feel.

Yak Near the Shores of the First Lake

As you walk beside the glacier you can't actually see it due to the huge amount of earth and rock it pushed up on its way through, so instead on that side is a hundred or so foot tall hill of rock and gravel. On the other side is the water that flows between the lakes, or the lakes themselves that are up against the ridge of rocky spires and mountains that form the west wall of the valley. Continuing between these entities on the trail we came up to and passed the second Gokyo lake, Taboche Tsho, and not long after that we reached the the village of Gokyo which sits on the shores of the third lake.

Approaching the Third Lake and the Village of Gokyo

Once at the village we went to the Gokyo Namaste Lodge on the advice of some other trekkers we had talked to the day before, and I'm very glad I did. This is very likely one of the best run lodges in all of Nepal that charges as if it were just any other lodge. The food was spectacular...I would have even been happy with most of it if I had ordered in Kathmandu, let alone way up in Gokyo. The rooms were spacious, the common area was nice and heated, and was cozy with Buddhist manuscripts on display. Best of all the people were very friendly, and extremely helpful. I can't say enough good things about this lodge, suffice to say that if you plan on passing through Gokyo, go out of your way to find and stay at this lodge, you won't regret it.

Surface of the Ngozumpa Glacier

Anyway, after a very good lunch we made way north without our packs and checked out the glacier and the fourth lake. The weather continued to tease, and despite receding clouds here and there they continued to cover most everything above us. Despite this we got some great views of the lakes and glaciers up here, and the mist at times even seemed to enhance the atmosphere of being someplace unique. Some might be surprised by some of the pictures that glacier doesn't appear as one giant piece of ice, but looks more like an abandoned gravel quarry. The reason for this is that the ice moves and disturbs a huge amount of earth and rock, and as it melts these deposits sit on the surface. For those back in the North East of the US just think of the once massive pile of snow in the Mall parking lot that as June rolls around is quickly melting and covered in dirt. That's essentially what the glaciers are doing, still melting from the last ice age, though they continue to get new ice and snow thanks to the massive amounts dumped on the slopes of the high peaks during the monsoon period.

View of the Fourth Lake

Upon returning to the lodge we started talking to a pair of British guys who had attempted Gokyo Ri, the nearby viewing peak, that morning. Apparently there had been no view, as clouds covered up the top of the mountain, although apparently they had been able to make out some of the peaks on the way up. Ian had turned back due the the elevation getting to him, and Rob was quick to note that he hadn't missed out on a whole lot. They offered to have us follow them up in the morning, and we happily accepted. We set wake up time for 4AM with departure for Gokyo Ri at 4:30. After stuffing my face with a double decker yak burger, which was quite excelent I might add, I headed off to bed and quickly fell asleep.

Morning Climb: Looking up toward the top of Gokyo Ri.

Morning didn't come without waking up half a dozen times to roll over or deciding weather I really had to pee bad enough to justify getting up in the cold. Every time I woke up I would look out the window and see haze and could hear this constant dripping from the roof, which I assumed was from the excessive moisture outside. When the alarm went off just after 4AM I looked outside, still looked cloudy, and I could still hear dripping. Moving closer to the window I wiped away the condensation that had formed on the inside and was surprised to see that what I had taken for cloud had just been this condensation, I was also surprised to see the moon up over Gokyo Ri. A little more energetic now about the morning ascent I jumped up and got dressed. I mentioned to my trekking companions the conditions, and everyone seemed relieved. Trying to decide if I needed a jacket for the rain I went downstairs and stepped outside to see if it was rain causing that dripping noise. Nope. It was snow. About three inches had fallen at some point in the night, and what I was hearing was it slowly melting on the roof and dripping off. The skies were the clearest I had seen them.

Breath Taking Pre-Dawn View on Gokyo Ri.

We had a slight delay getting out of the guest house and left closer to quarter to five. Then we had to cross this stream and marshy area, which was quite tricky without trekking poles and with a headlamp that was low on batteries. I did well but eventually slipped a bit off a rock and got my right foot soaked. I don't wear heavy boots, so easily getting wet is one of the trade offs of light weight hiking. Then just as we reached the base of Gokyo Ri, I mistook a plant with some snow on it for a rock and got my left foot soaked. Oh well. Once we got to the trail we started up and slowly started to separate a bit. Just after five the sky really started to light up and for most of the climb it was quite easy to see. The new snow also made it easier to see, but a little tougher to find the proper trail at times. After a while I found myself in front of everyone and was having to blaze a trail through the snow and over the rocks. A couple times I lost it, but always managed to converge back to where it should be.

Yours Truly Enjoying the Morning on Gokyo Ri

At just about 6Am I reached the top of the steep climb to Gokyo Ri, and was rewarded with an absolutely breathtaking sight. The new fallen snow covered the rocks and prayer flags, and even more fresh snow had been dumped on the nearby peaks. Still alone at the top, the sun rose up over Mt. Everest in the East at just about quarter after six, and I considered myself a very lucky human being at that moment. Shortly after I was joined by about another dozen trekkers, many of whom had already made this trip once or twice, and everyone was excited about what a great view we got that day. Gokyo and the lakes below were tiny next to the massive scar that was the Ngozumpa glacier, and all of it was dwarfed by the massive mountains that surrounded us on all sides.

View on the Way Down

After about 40 minutes at the top I decided it was time to head down, my feet were getting really cold from standing on stone and in snow after having dipped them in the water earlier. As the sun cleared the mountains, it really warmed things up quickly, and the snow on the lower slopes had already disappeared, and once out of it my feet were quite warm again. Returning to the lodge we all settled in for a celebratory breakfast before setting off for the village of Dragnag which we figured should only take a couple hours to get to and there we could prepare for the Cho La pass. It turned out that Ian and Rob had the exact same itinerary that I had so we figured we could all team up to more safely cross what people were describing as a tricky pass. Ellie however was at an end with trekking, although thrilled with what he had seen on the mountain, he decided it was time to head back to Kathmandu. We all thought he was joking at first, but after packing we exchanged e-mail addresses and he headed for Namchee Bazaar.

Saying farewell to the Gokyo Namaste Lodge with Mountains in the Backdrop

So Rob, Ian and I departed the Gokyo Namaste Lodge, each with a pack of coconut crunchies courtesy of our gracious hosts and made our way south to cross the Ngozumpa glacier and find our way to Dragnag. This section of the trip really should get its own post, as it was quite a day, and this is getting long enough at this point. So next time I'll discuss the adventures that is crossing a melting glacier and how you can spend a 12 hour day, be exhausted and end up a two hour walk from where you started.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Harilo In the News Again

This article about Harilo was posted in print and online in Republica's The Week last Friday. It's great to see how supportive other Nepali businesses have been to the idea of online shopping, and teaming up with companies that offer a means of electronic payment such as Payway and others in Nepal is a win-win situation for everyone.

Two new Nepali websites-and one old favorite...
I rarely say anything nice about Nepali websites, but I think it’s time to give credit where credit is due. I discovered two cool sites the other day, and was pleasantly surprised with how non-Cybersansar-ish they are: Harilo.com and Payway.com.np

Both these sites share two important traits: they are both simple in design and rich in usefulness.

Harilo, an online “shop-in-America” site, was reviewed in this paper back in April, but just in the past month or so has started to catch on(line). Harilo.com is now getting over 3,000 visits each day, and as for the shopping activity, well, just see for yourself by going here: www.harilo.com/latest. Folks are buying laptops, guitars, phones, and even furniture.

This is how it works: you order anything you want from America by just finding the online sales link (URL) for a product. For example, go to Amazon.com and pick out a product, and then paste that URL into Harilo. Your account is created instantly, as well as a promise of a quote that gives you the total price of the product in Nepali Rupees and is shipped to your door here in Nepal.

I tried it out for a fancy USB microphone I need for my podcasting work (USA price: Rs 7,674), and within 17 minutes, I got back a quote from Harilo for a total cost of Rs 9,250, which reflects no domestic shipping charge (as you can pick up shipments at their Kanti Path office) and just Rs 512 for international shipping + Rs 1,064 VAT. Payment options included using a PayPal, Google, or Amazon account, as well as a VISA/MasterCard. Heck, you can even pay by old-fashioned cash or check!

Harilo shipping costs vary by weight, of course, and Customs may slap duty on certain items (for shoes, it could be as high as 20%) and some items can’t be ordered at all (firearms, drugs, etc.) but this has to be the best way to get products from America to Kathmandu – short of having cousin-brother Samir fill his carryon bags on the way home. Two thumbs up for this site on usefulness, and for a clean uncluttered website design – complete with social networking features (connection to Facebook, avatars, and all of that).

Another new site worth praising is Payway.com.np. This is the Nepali version of the famous Paypal.com, which allows users to send and receive money online, shop online, and to also create a Nepali gateway for their own online store. There are very moderate fees associated with transactions, but compared to PayPal, they are very reasonable.

Having a Pay Way account is a way to pay for goods at any website incorporating the Pay Way gateway (the list of merchants is rather small right now, but sure to grow as more merchants discover this service). Pay Way says they will soon offer other services, like a debit card for department store shopping and connections to dozens of international banks. So stay tuned on that front.

Important to note: This is a BIG leap in tech here at home as now Nepal’s merchants can easily jump on the online bandwagon, and accept Pay Way payments from Nepali customers who want to shop from their living rooms and offices (like everyone else in the free world is doing). After finding this site, I began to feel like I was living in the year 2010, instead of 1950. And like Harilo.com, Payway.com.np is designed clean and clutter-free, with an interface that your hajurama could understand – if only she could master the mouse and keyboard.

Besides these two new sites, there is one favorite of mine that I want to share, and this site is for the coffee lovers here who want fresh roast at a great price, delivered right to your front door. Topoftheworldcoffee.com is not a fancy nor perfectly designed website (reminds me of a typical NGO website), but its lack of glitz and polish is made up by owner Dale Nafziger’s dedication to service and quality. They deliver over 1,000 kg of fresh coffee each year to Valley denizens, and you can get beans of any type – even organic. You also get great prices, compared to the local market (trust me, I drink alotta joe). And on my last order, I even got a free coffee cup!

You pay when the delivery arrives, often to Dale himself, and if there is ever a problem with your order, this company will bend over backwards to make it right. But what I really find right about Topoftheworldcoffee.com is that you can have the best organic homebrew – without ever leaving your front gate. YES!

Now when merchants like Topoftheworldcoffee and Harilo get together with payment gateway providers like Pay Way, you are going to see a radical change in the way that we shop here in the Doo. Instead of slogging through monsoon mud to get our necessities and niceties, someone else will be doing the slogging and delivering those items to our homes and offices.

Our personal accounting will be online and accessible, and we will truly be part of the consumer revolution taking place elsewhere in the world, where consumers are discussing their purchases, rating their experiences with vendors, and overall becoming better and even more intelligent shoppers.

The Original article can be read HERE at Republica.com.
You can visit the Harilo website HERE.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Everest Trek Part 1: Flights, Acclimatization, & Namche Bazaar

I'll start this series of posts with the usual disclaimer; this is a recounting of my experience, and I do not recommend this as an itinerary for most people. I am rarely bothered at all by elevation and thus I ascend a little faster than what some people with medical experience consider ideal. I also tend to walk a little faster than average and carry a light pack, so some distances may be a bit long for the average person attempting their first trip in the Himalaya. This will apply to all posts about this trip, especially my last day which was roughly a 34 mile marathon from the top of Kala Patar all the way back to Lukla.

Waiting for Take Off: The Twin Otter in this Picture is Identical to the Plane I was On.

This trek started with a flight out of Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu. Not the international terminal, but the domestic one, just a little ways to the north. I arrived early, just around 6AM with a flight time of 7:30. The scene was one of a mob clambering at a tiny set of booths, and since "the line" does not seem to have been invented in Asia yet it was chaotic and a bit of a mess. The early flights got out, but the later flights were put on standby as clouds seem to have moved in to Lukla that morning, something that is not all that uncommon. I figured I'd stay a while to see if things cleared up, but went as far as to call Kim and let her know that I would most likely be around for another day. At 9:30 good news of clear weather came in from Lukla and passengers eagerly filled the planes.

View During The Flight

The flight to Lukla takes about 45 minutes or so, and our flight was in a twin otter. We flew high enough to clear the middle hills outside of Kathmandu, but low enough to be below the cloud cover that morning, and this put us not too high above some of the passes that we flew over. This gives some great views of the hills and mountains as you fly over the region, and this time of year you get to spot some really spectacular waterfalls. Landing at Lukla is a bit scary as the plane banks into the mountain and then lands on the sloping runway, coming to a stop just as you reach the top of the slope. To be fair, our pilots that day did a wonderful job and I had a very smooth flight.

Buddhist Monuments Line the Trail

Once off the plane I grabbed my bag which weighed in at 8.5 KG full with 4 liters of water, not too shabby for a two week hike. The delay in take off time meant that I didn't get out of the airport until about 10:30 in the morning, and I wasn't sure how long it would take to get to Namche Bazaar, the spot I was planning to spend my first night. Plenty of want to be guides and porters hawked their services at the gate outside the airport, but I just tried to separate myself from the crowds and made for the trail. One man asked me where I was headed, and when I said I was going to try for Namche, he replied by shaking his head and pointing to the sky, "Too late to get to Namche."

I Soon Pass Other Trekkers Heading North From Lukla

Still I'm a goal orientated person, and I'm not a slow hiker, so I kept a consistent pace determined to make Namche by evening. Within an hour or so of leaving Lukla I started passing the package groups that had gotten out on the early flights. I've read that during the busiest seasons you can wait up to 20 minutes to cross some of these suspension bridges due to the number of tourists on them. I passed by a group that was wide eyed on such a bridge snapping pictures of where the stream below joined the Dudh Koshi just beyond. It seemed there was a good chance the rumors were true.

Waterfall Near Toktok

The trail through this portion of the trek is cluttered with stones that have Buddhist carvings, well positioned chortens, and small stupas set here and there. Waterfalls cascade down from the high Himalaya above and you are still low enough that everything is quite green. While some of the villages seem to exist for reasons other than tourism, most of the structures you pass in this area are well stocked with cold drinks, pringles, candy bars and other commodities that trekkers may be craving. Most also advertise their willingness to serve tea, lunch dinner or rooms for a nights stay. You also pass a number of gompas, most set off the main trail a bit, but there are often signs posted to point the way for those who want to visit.

For those that come trekking and do not get their park entrance permit ahead of time, the office to get it in is at the village of Monjo. Somehow I completely missed it though, maybe because I was just concentrating on getting to Namche. Not far after that village is Jorsale where an army post checks your paperwork, and since I missed the post at Monjo I was without a permit. The army post however was convinced that the only place I could get a permit was in Kathmandu, and since I didn't see the post on my way through Monjo I thought maybe they removed it (it's there, I saw it on my way out). Anyway, they let me pass but the price of not getting the permit meant explaining this to every post I would pass a much bigger hassle than just forking over the thousand rupees.

View from the Bridge Crossing Over to the Ridge Below Namche Bazaar

After this point it was across the last suspension bridge and up the final rise to Namche Bazaar, a climb I remember as being particularly brutal as I had done it at the end of a ten hour trekking day last time. The climb is one of the more sustained on the trek going from Lukla to base camp, being surpassed only by the climb up to Tengboche. After making it up the climb I arrived in what must be the wealthiest town in Nepal, Namche Bazaar around 3:30. If Thamel was to be done right, it would look like Namche; paving stones, no trash, no traffic, good looking shops and friendly vendors. It was amazing to me how much Namche had changed since my last visit just over eight years ago. It continues to grow too, as the sound of people chipping away at building stones is a constant reminder.

Streets of Namche

Upon arrival I found accommodation on the west side of town at the friendly and well equipped Yak Hotel. As most trekking groups take two days to get to Namche from Lukla and no flights had gone out the day before, the town was relatively empty aside from some that were on their return or those who had walked in from Jiri. I spent my afternoon munching on baked goods from one of the nearby bakeries and reading my Kindle. I also spent a little time mapping out my route from this point forward, looking over the maps and reading some details of the trails ahead. The next day would be an acclimatization day in order to adjust to the rising elevation, and I would use it to explore the other Sherpa towns and villages around Namche.

Walking Through the Hills North of Namche

Unfortunately the weather was quite cloudy on my rest day so the sprawling views of Ama Dablam and as far as Everest from the hill near the National Park headquarters was non-existent. As I strolled through the hills though the clouds cleared here and there offering up some nice scenery around me. I watched school kids make their way to the school that Sir Edmund Hillary founded and walked past the famous Everest View Hotel. Upon returning to Namche following lunch I started to see a trickle of trekkers arriving from points south, and got to talk to a few of the people who I had shared a flight or time in the airport with the day before. I also bumped into an Israeli guy who had walked in from Jiri named Elie, and he was thinking about calling it quits and heading back to Lukla as the weather and solitude were starting to get to him. I told him to at least try to make it to Temboche where there was the potential for fantastic views and also a very interesting monastery.

Morning Views of Ama Dablam

The next morning I looked out my window to see clear skies and jumped out of bed got dressed and headed up top the viewing point above the town. Many of the mountains around Namche were quite clear, but the one I wanted to see most in Ama Dablam was wreathed with a thin layer of clouds. As the sun came up though it burned off the last clouds around Ama Dablam and I got the view I had been waiting for. On return to the town I ran into Elie again and he asked if I'd mind if he joined me, and I told him I'd be happy to have the company. So we set out toward the town of Dole which is just a few hours beyond the turn off toward the Gokyo lakes. The views all morning were spectacular, and Elie especially was thrilled to finally see the mountains he had been hiking under all this time.

Yak Poo Dries in a Field; Later to be Used to Keep Trekkers Warm

As we moved toward noon the clouds moved back in and we arrived at the small village of Dole and got a room at the quaint Juniper Guest House. Now that we were in the National park and the elevation was starting to creep up, fires are stoked not by wood but dried yak poo. Yup, yak shit in place of wood. Of course the fires are not open, it's like a coal stove and surprisingly it doesn't smell or burn out too quickly, it actually works quite well. Still it strikes one a bit funny that you can say, "Hey my friend, can you throw some more shit on the fire?" and mean it in all seriousness. On that note I'll bring this post to a close. In part two I'll discuss the trail leading up to the Gokyo lakes and discuss at length the problems with crossing the Ngozumpa  Glacier.
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