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.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Back from Base Camp: Why the Everest Region is the Definitive Trek in Nepal

When people have asked me which of the classic treks they should do during their trip to Nepal I have often floundered, as each offers something unique that might appeal to some people more than others. After this last trip though I will definitively say that a trek from Jiri to Everest including Gokyo is the best trek in Nepal. The Jiri to Lukla section of the trail lets you see first hand the villages of the middle hills, cultural components that are lacking in the heavily traveled Khumbu region and it also provides some scenery that is not all dominated by huge snow capped mountains, though you see some of that too. Although I didn't do this section of the trek this time, I remember it fondly and mention it mostly because combining it with the latter part I'm about to spend several posts discussing is what makes it the most complete trek in Nepal. 

Ama Dablam- The Jewel of the Khumbu

So what makes this trek so great? Let's start with scenery. Sure Annapurna has it in spades as well, but the mountains of the Khumbu are just on another level. Mountains like Ama Dablam and Nuptse are some of the most beautiful on the planet. Combine this with beautiful valleys, rivers, lakes and otherworldly terrain created by the many glaciers in the region and it makes for a stunning natural landscape. Add on top of this already beautiful landscape the Buddhist monuments, villages, people and their animals of the local Sherpa and you have yourself one of the most photogenic regions of the planet.

Yak Watches Me Trek On By

So lets talk about the people for a moment, because they are most definitely another component that makes this trek so outstanding. Maybe it is because they have had some of the longest consistent contact with foreigners, but the Sherpa people understand  customer service like few others in Nepal and how to make it work for them. Aside from being out right friendly for the most part, they also run the best guest houses in Nepal offering more than just accommodation and food; including advice, help getting guides and porters, assistance booking and getting on flights, tips on where to see things, wake up "calls", etc. It's not just that they are willing to provide these extra things, they often go out of their way to make your experience better, and that really stands out. There were two lodges that I stayed at that really stood out and I'll mention them multiple times because of it and recomend them to anyone traveling to the region. The Khumbu lodge in Lukla and the Namaste lodge in Gokyo are not only some of the better lodges I've stayed at, with the best food, they were also staffed by people who took extra time and energy to really treat their guests well. 

Sun Rises Over Mt. Everest as Seen From Gokyo Ri

You also have the spectacular viewing points on this trek in Kala Patar and Gokyo Ri. Climbing both of these peaks in the early pre-dawn hours was an awesome experience and the views that I was rewarded with are the best I've had in the Himalaya. Gokyo Ri especially is just a stunning location combining the numerous nearby mountains with the Ngozumpa glacier and the third Gokyo lake is just amazing. I was extremely lucky and not only got a clear day at the top but a fresh dusting of snow on everything just to make it look that much better. As the sun came up over Mt. Everest in the east and I watched the sun reflect off all the new fallen snow in the mountains I counted myself among the luckiest people on the planet. This is not to say that the crag of Kala Patar does not have its own charm. It puts you front and center to give you the best view there is of the highest peak on the planet, Mt. Everest. While Everest deserves its fame and I'm thrilled to have been near it again, one quickly realizes that it is not the most aesthetically pleasing mountain in the region. That said it is Everest and it's a bit of an experience being at over 18,000' and still seeing something tower over you like that. 

Everest Base Camp

Then there is the fact that you are walking in the footsteps of so many legends. If you are taking the time to walk up here most people have read of at least some of the great expeditions to attempt the mountain. You know the names of people like Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, among others. You've read the tragedies of books like John Krakaur's Into Thin Air and visiting the places where these events takes place just brings everything more to life. From base camp you can see the infamous Khumbu ice fall and vaguely make out where the ascent rises up the western cwm. All of this makes this trek so much more than another walk in the mountains, it's a full experience that really makes you grateful that you got to see it.

I'll be posting a detailed account of my trip in the next few posts, and I've already added the pictures to the side panel for those interested. I'd write more now, but I got back just in time to make salsa, and today is a salsa making day! (For those that don't know, I make and sell Enlightened Salsa at the 1905 and Summit Hotel markets on Saturday and Sunday.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ready for Everest

Well kind of. I decided to fly into Lukla because I didn't want to spend three plus weeks away from Kathmandu.  I'm not looking forward at all to the flight, but then I'm never really looking forward to travel in Nepal. In fact while I'm no flan of flying into an airport that has a short 1800' runway that is sloped uphill, at least the flight is over in 45 minutes or so. If I take a bus it's about 9 hours to Jiri and the roads this time of year are even sketchier than they are normally due to the number of landslides and such. In short flying may actually be more pleasant. For those who have never seen the craziness that is Lukla airport here is a quick video I found on You Tube. Notice the steep slope, the short run way, and notice at around the 2 minute mark how the one plane pulls out in front of the landing plane...sure that's how they drive here but I would think you wouldn't do that with planes.

So with time freed up from the walk in, I've decided to head up to Gokyo, which I haven't beet to before, and then cross over the Cho La pass and head up to Everest Base camp. Here is a rough sketch of the trip;

Everest Region

The plan is to fly into Lukla tomorrow if weather permits it, and then walk up to Namche Bazaar. Many people stop on the way up there to acclimatize a bit, but to be honest I've never so much as had a head ache below 11 thousand feet that had anything to do with elevation. I'll spend an extra day in Namche to get use to the elevation and then set out toward Gokyo, taking a couple of days to get there. I've heard the views from Gokyo Ri are some of the best in the Himalaya, and the trail ascends right next to glaciers. After an extra day spent at Gokyo to potentially do some exploring and again get use to the elevation I'll set out across the Cho La Pass to Lobuche, and from there up to Gorek Shep where I can do side trips to Kala Patar and Everest base camp. 

On the way down I'll follow the Khumbu valley and return to Namche via Tengboche. Tengboche is one of the coolest places I've ever visited and I'm thrilled to be passing through there again on this trip. I plan on tis trip taking roughly two weeks, and that's if the flights go well in and out, as I know people can stuck for days in Lukla waiting for the weather to clear so they can catch a flight. So while I'm quite looking forward to all of this, the downside is that this blog will be rather quiet during my time away.

Remembering 9/11

So today is the 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the US back in 2001. It may seem like an odd post to talk about, considering this is a blog about Nepal, but there is a connection. Like everyone else in the U.S. I remember what I was doing that day, and it's possible I may have been one of the last people to know what was going on. At the time I was working for a company that arranged wholesale car rental services to Americans that traveled to Europe. I was part of our crew that was on shift to work European time, which meant late nights. I went to bed at about 7:30 AM that morning, and no one bothered to wake me up, until Kim stopped by sometime around 1:30 in the afternoon.

On September 9th I had just booked a package of ten flights that would take us around the world, the list of countries on that itinerary included; Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Turkey, and Greece before flying back to the US via Switzerland. Kim and I had been planning the trip for about a year at that point, and I had even moved into some dingy basement apartment and sold my car to raise cash for the trip.

Of course I wasn't even thinking about this as the events of that day unfolded. I went with Kim over to her Dad's house to watch TV, as I didn't have one at the time. That night was supposed to be my day off, but with air traffic shut down I knew we would have lots of stranded customers so I offered to go in to work. I arrived and spoke with some other people in management that had talked to the president of the company earlier, there was something like 2 million dollars worth of cancelled trips. That night I took a lot of calls from Americans stuck in Europe that not only wanted to sort out their car rental, most were just wanting to talk with someone back in the States, there were lots of rumors at that point still, and a lot of uneasy people not only at home but stuck abroad as well.

Our departure date was set for October 12th out of Boston's Logan Airport. It turned out that two of the conspirators, including Mohammad Atta had flown out of my home town of Portland Maine, and then one of the flights that hit the towers originated from Boston. This was a bit creepy, and made many people in our family uncomfortable about us traveling. After the initial shock of the event subsided a bit, there was still a lot of uncertainty, as everyone knew the world was about to change, but nobody knew exactly how. After a short discussion Kim and I decided that we would indeed go ahead with our travel plans, to the dismay of some people in our family. My dad, who was a chief in the fire department, just assumed I wouldn't be going.

There was also another thing that made people uneasy; we were passing through a number of Muslim countries, or countries like India who many thought could quickly become in conflict with Pakistan along with the US over what took place. To be somewhat fair to those concerns at least 4 places that we visited during our trip were the target of terrorist attacks in the years following our visit; Bali's Kuta Beach, Mumbai (you can see our hostel in some of the pictures of the 2003 bombing images), Dahab on Egypt's Sinai peninsula and Istanbul Turkey. We decided though that though these kind of events tend to turn countries and people inward, this was not the time or the solution to this kind of event.

The events of 9/11 colored so much of that trip. Tourism dropped plunged world wide that year, and every where we went we were some of the only tourists, and almost always the only Americans. Because of this many of the guest house and people that worked in tourism gave you a little extra attention, and when the fact that we were American came up it always got condolences passed on to us. I even remember a man in Fiji who couldn't speak English, he just mimed with his hands, one vertical and one horizontal, having the horizontal hand crash into the vertical one and topple it over. After this he hung his head and shook it to show sadness. There were also the uneasy moments, which were much less frequent, like seeing an Osama Bin Laden silhouette sticker on a pick up truck in Malaysia or a picture of OBL imposed on the burning towers on the shirt of some kid in southern Thailand.

The most memorable moment though was when we arrived in Jordan and went to our hotel in Wadi Musa we sat down to have tea with the hotel owner and some of his family as well as our fellow travelers. When the subject of our nationalities came up it went around in a circle; British, Argentina, and then us the two Americans. Upon hearing this one of the men at the table stood up reached across the table and kissed our foreheads saying, "Thank God you people are traveling again! We have all been so afraid that you all thought we were like Bin Laden." This happened in less dramatic fashion constantly. People everywhere are just people, with essentially the same aspirations and wants in life. People completely filled with hatred for other people are fortunately  a rare breed world wide it seemed.

That is the thing about actually traveling to places, is that you get to actually meet and talk to people and form informed opinions about places and the people there without relying on the distorted images that are fed to us through major media groups. While 9/11 was indeed a great tragedy, a greater one was that in the end, America has turned inward and we gave up some of the freedom that defined us as a country in order to achieve an illusion of safety. It has reinforced the notion that everything beyond the edges of the first world are scary and full of people that hate us "because we're free". A quick trip around the world and a little interaction with the vast majority of people out there will reveal that most people are just like us, and it's not such a scary place after all.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Returning to Everest

Back in 2002 I made my first trip to Nepal, and I had no idea really what to expect. It was part of a trip where we spent about nine months circumventing the world. Kim had really wanted to go to Thailand and India, and while looking at the maps, I decided that Nepal looked like it could be very interesting, at least I figured it would be a good chance to see the Himalaya. That is about where my knowledge of this country ended, I knew it had the largest mountains in the world. So when I arrived here with plans to spend about a month I had no clear Itinerary, except I knew that at some point we would head south to India, and on the way I really wanted to stop in Chitwan. On the plane ride over I saw that Everest was in a National park. Huh...you must be able to drive to the entrance I thought. Yes I was that naive.

So on a little reading it became clear that in fact you could not drive to the entrance. Not only that, the nearest road was a good week long walk just from the Khumbu valley and then another week to get to base camp when you included the acclimatization days. Still the prospect of going to see the worlds tallest mountain really was something that once I got it in my head was hard to let go of. So I found some other traveler to head out that way with and took the bus to Jiri, the trail head for those who choose not to fly into Lukla.

Here I am at Tengboche Monastery, Everest and Ama Dablam in the Background

Last time I headed up that way my digital camera took floppy disks, and due to its expense and fragile nature I had to bring a disposable camera for pictures. I had these pictures transfered from the original film to a digital format. Nepal at the time was still recovering from the royal massacre which had taken place only about eight months prior to my arrival, and America was still in shock from 9/11. I was still a youthful 24 years old and I was even still single...though not for much longer. The Maoist insurgency was just starting back up in earnest and just a few weeks prior to my departure they had bombed the tower at Lukla airport, an event that caused a lot of negative reaction due to how it had scared off many tourists. 

Rhododendrons in Bloom with the Himalaya in the Background

So it's been quite some time since I've been up that way. In some ways though I remember that trip best of all my Himalayan treks. While I had found something very charming about Kathmandu, that most people fail to appreciate, I really fell in love with Nepal on that trek. I had never in my life spent time in rural villages that were days from the nearest road, and the experience of being so far away, but at the same time being able to sit converse and have tea, was just something I fail completely to be able to describe. The terraced hillsides on these huge mountains are just something you don't see any place else on this planet. It was the first time i had seen gompas and mani walls on a trail, and it was something so different that it really stuck with me.

The Amphitheater Shaped Village of Namche Bazaar

Once up into the Khumbu valley there was some really breathtaking stuff to see. Although you go up there to see Everest, the mountain that really has stuck with me is Ama Dablam, as I really do think it is the most beautiful in the world. The high valleys, the decorated yaks, the weekend market at Namche Bazaar, and visiting places like Tengboche monastery that I had seen in movies was something special. On my way back, the night before my flight to Kathmandu I stayed at a guest house that wasn't even officially open. My room in the upstairs was unfinished, and I was told I was their first guest. Ispent the evening dining with this Sherpa family, and the in-laws even stopped over for dinner, it was fried momos and this amazing sauce for everyone. Really great experience that sticks with me to this day.

Tengboche Monastery

So next Monday I think I will head back up that way again to see how things have changed, get some up to date photos and visit one of my favorite parts of the planet. While flying out off Lukla is scary, I'm even more reluctant to fly into it. Besides, I find that some of the most memorable parts of the hike, and certainly the less touristy part of it, came on the way to the Khumbu valley. I may or may not try to fly out of there, depends what the back log is, and what the price is on tickets. Even back in 2002 I remember there was internet access (!!) by satellite at Namche, so I can easily e-mail Kim my intentions from there. 

North of Namche, Looking Toward Everest.

I may even try to swing up and see the Gokyo lakes, but I haven't really started doing any research on the exact route I'm going to take. The worst thing I could try to do is recreate exactly what I did last time. Things change, people change and the experience changes too. On a trip like this it's important to try and not recapture the past but to make sure that what you are setting out to do is something new, even if it retraces a little familiar ground. It's always a little different, and this time won't be an exception. I'm looking forward to being able to bring back some pictures from this place, though despite their higher quality, they'll never replace these crappy old ones I've shared on this post today.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

When Are You No Longer A Tourist?

I'm not asking this question in the sense of how others perceive you, in a homogeneous country like Nepal a Westerner will always be an outsider even if you live here the rest of your life and speak the language fluently. I'm asking the question more on a personal level, as in when do you stop seeing things as a tourist, and come to regard those things that once struck you as so different or breathtaking as just an everyday occurrence?  

For me it seems to have happened around June. I can tell because I try to carry my camera in my pocket all over, and I would take pictures whenever something struck me that I or someone back home might want to take a look at. After May I ended up just lumping my pictures into a folder called "summer" because there just isn't enough of them any more. I mean sure the random cows in the road catch me off guard once in a while, but not like they use to, and I never bother to take a picture any more. It use to be that the Bollywood and Nepal Movie posters would get me laughing out loud at their absurdity and horrible photo shopping, but now only the very worst ones catch my attention. The other day while passing a temple during Krishna's birthday there was an elaborate ceremony and music, and though I stopped for a minute to watch some woman dancing and children running around all dressed up, it again didn't occur to me to take a picture. Every other day here seems to bring a new holiday and Nepali's seem to dance at every one of them!

The point I am getting at is that despite how different a place might be from where you are from there comes a time where it just starts to not seem so exotic and strange. Do I consider myself a local? Absolutely not, but I do consider this my home at the moment and I certainly feel very comfortable around things that many of my fellow countrymen would find quite odd. A country like Nepal especially causes a certain amount of culture shock among people from the west. The food is very different, the mindset of people is very different, the driving is different, the religion is very foreign, the dress codes seem very confusing (Little skin should be shown meets public bathing), the bathrooms are odd, water is heated by the sun and electricity comes and goes. All of this and much more adds up to something that can catch you a little off guard. At this point though, I don't even think about it most of the time. In fact as i write this I have no electricity aside from my little back up battery, but I didn't really think about it much until I typed the previous line.

Sure some things you never really get use to. I still find the skin whitening creams really creepy. Even though it is not meant to be rude, the disregard for lines, and the constant cutting off of people or other actions that are considered extremely discourteous in the west really can at times put you out if you forget where you are. Dudes holding hands and putting their arms around each other still strikes me as rather gay (not that there is anything wrong with that!), even if supposedly it isn't here (although I would submit that there is a lot of homosexual behavior that goes on here and the guys just don't consider themselves gay...just like the middle east). Anyway my point in all of this is that it doesn't all exactly make sense to me, but it also doesn't strike me odd anymore. You expect it, you know what you are in for most of the time.

Maybe in the end that is what seperates the tourist from someone who feels at home. As a tourist you are always waiting to look at and experience new things. The most mundane things to the locals seem like the most exotic and spectacular things to a tourist. There is a quote by Dagobert D. Runes that, "People travel to far away places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home." This is I think true, though it is not just people. It is architecture and landscapes as well. We always fail to see what is around us every day as anything special or amazing. When that sense of wonder at your surroundings fades, you stop seeking out to look at things as a tourist, you walk by them and say to yourself, "Should I go left or right to get around this cow in the road."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Coming from a Nation of Spectators

One difference you immediately become aware of when you come to Asia is that people participate in whatever is going on around them on a level that we do not. People sing, people dance, they do plenty of jobs or activities that they are not "qualified" for.

In the U.S we suffer greatly from a syndrome of "experts" for every thing. While it is not said out loud, there is this perception that pervades our society that we are not good enough to be doing or even thinking about certain things. After all who wants to listen to you sing when we can listen to someone who has devoted their entire life to it, you're not good enough. Who are you to have an opinion on this topic or that, after all you don't have a degree in that field, nor do you sit on some board or belong to some group that supposedly deals with such issues; you're not good enough. This activity is dangerous, best to leave it to the pros, watch how they do it; you're not good enough. This mentality has in many ways stolen the essence of living from us, it has turned us into a nation of spectators that live vicariously through professional athletes, entertainers, explorers, op-ed writers, etc. I remember bringing my brother out to very good restaurant one time and asking him how the lamb was, and he replied; "I'm not sure how good lamb is supposed to taste." It wasn't about whether he was enjoying the experience, he wasn't sure what the critics had deemed "good". In one way we are blessed to have people that are experts in their fields to the degree that they devote their entire lives to a single activity and become very good at what they do. Though through mass media the effect it has on society at large is one that in many ways hampers the average persons self expression.

Nepal, and Asia at large in my experience, does not suffer from this mentality yet. Having a lack of expertise in certain fields can certainly be a hindrance, and watching a bunch of Nepali guys excavating some area drainage and try to piece it together is a reminder of this. Regardless of this, watching average people in their average ways break out into song and dance on occasion is kind of refreshing. There is a sense that everyone participates, they engage life in a way that does not just leave it to those "qualified" to preform such tasks. Nepali's love to talk, and they all have their opinions. They don't let food critics or music critics try and tell them how good things should taste or sound, they have their own opinions and the experts can be damned. In fact all Nepali people I think consider themselves experts on the proper preparation of mangoes, or rice...and almost all seem to have different theories. Nepali people seem to be perfectly willing to get out there and participate in life, they don't watch from the sidelines. That is in all fields aside from politics, where they seem to leave that  job to the same incompetent politicians and then be dismayed at their continual failure...but maybe this is another post entirely.

Coming from a nation of spectators this is a refreshing environment. I remember when I stayed at a small guest house in Langtang and I watched a father singing to his kids and what I assumed was his wife, and the family kind of clapped along. Sure maybe he wasn't the best singer in the world, but there is something there to be envied. No fear or intent to judge, just honest participation in the life that goes on around you.
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