Boudhanath Prayer Flags - On Halloween Night...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Annapurna Circuit #3 - Karte, Dharapani, Donakyu, Timang, Chame

After enjoying the local "bunny emporium" in back of our guest house, and saying goodbye to our kind hosts in Tal, we strolled out of town. From now on we'll be passing under Kani arches, walking alongside Mani Walls, and spinning prayer wheels on the exit and entry of every settlement we pass. The sheer cliffs around Tal are pretty famous for waterfalls, and we had a bit of a Mist Trail to walk through as soon as we headed up canyon.

Now we are in the heart of one of th
e deepest canyons on earth. With two 8,000+ meter peaks on e
ither side of us (Annapurnas just to the West, and Manaslu looming to the East), we are something like 6,000 meters below the summits... 20,000 feet down?! Amazing topography! This astounding gorge cuts straight North-South through the Himalaya. The river predates the major Himalayan uplift, and
was downcutting at a faster rate than the mountains were rising. Thus the Marsyangdi cuts thru the main Himalayan chain, and we benefit by following it "gradually" uphill across the mightiest mountains on earth. In just a few days we'll have walked clear through the range, and be north of the main summits, in a bit of an arid rain-shadow. But for now, we justkeep on climbing, crossing wacky bridges, visiting with smiling locals, and enjoying marvelous views.
Ate a Fine dalbaht in Dharapani, then passed through Bagarchap to finally find a lodge in "Donkey Cute." Actually it's spelled Donaque or Donakyu, but we're so fond of donkeys ....

Karen found a massive chunk of chocolate in her pack, and there was MUCH rejoicing! Our wonderful host family invited us into the kitchen all evening to sit by the hearth, "help"them cook, and also help them quaff several mugs of locally distilled rakshi.
We slept well that night!

A fine walk the next day, up
UP Uphill towards Timang. The old trail down low, through Latamarang, is now being destroyed and buried by the road blasting, so a new town on the new route is being built up with an overabundance of hotels and tea houses.... We met some wonderful kids along the trail, and Timang did give us our first killer views of an 8,000+ peak.Manaslu rose up into the clear blue sky... the 8th highest peak
on earth! From now
on, we'll be seeing stunning snowy
peaks every day, dripping with glaciers and icefalls! Around another corner, and ZOWIE, there is Annapurna 2 towering to the West. After the steep climb up to Timang, we traversed and enjoyed the rolling trail, met a few cute chickens at our luscious lunch spot, and continued up to Chame. This is the district headquarters, but more importantly, it is also the home of a nice hot spring, right beside the raging Marsyangdi River. A nice soak at the end of the day? ahhhhh..... and the next morning, at sunrise, Eliza rolls over in bed and says, "hey Dad, is that an avalanche?"

Sure enough.... morning avalanches on Annapurna 2.
What a nice way to start the day!

Halloween in Kathmandu

While there are plenty of scary things in Kathmandu (festering garbage heaps, crazy traffic, constant "turd alerts," mangy packs of roaming dogs, etc.), our girls were really worried about missing a "real" Halloween. In fact they had raised this concern waaay back in June or July when we were starting to make packing lists for the trip... We assured them that we'd find some "American" type of event in Kathmandu, so the pressure was ON to deliver! Fortunately we met some US Embassy employees a couple weeks ago during our trek (in Kagbeni of all places...), and asked them about expat life in Kathmandu.... especially Halloween celebrations. Erica and Jason were kind enough to invite us to the exclusive American Club for a spoooky evening of fun.
We worked much of the day to create costumes, visiting local
cloth shops, tailors, and managed to create Dracula and 2 "Dementors." Then we made our way downtown, across the street from the old Royal Palace, to the fortress-like compound. As we approached the heavily guarded security check, metal detectors, and X-ray machine, I suddenly panicked... "Karen, do we need our passports!?!?" Egads what a disaster this would be if
they were required! But we were ON the guest list, and no passports required... phew! Once inside, our girls were pretty pleased to suddenly be surrounded with kids from the US, Europe, and Asia, all decked out in costume. There was a parade, a spooky walk in the dark, a festering witches cauldron with many gross animal parts (quite authentic here!), and trick or treating all around the gated razor-wire compound. We had a yummy dinner, enjoyed the first "real" beer in 2 months
(a Guiness & a Red Hook ESB), and met some really nice American mom's who had organized the whole event. Our girls even got partake in one of the most critical Halloween rituals; sorting, counting, and trading their candy!

We then walked through a clean organized well-striped parking lot with SUV's and shiny cars, and exited through multiple blast walls and security checks back into the streets of Kathmandu.
Eliza exclaimed, "Whoa! Look where we are!
I almost forgot we were in Nepal!"

Karen's Bird List... Now updated!

Karen has been birding like crazy... See her lengthy list of amazingbirds by clicking down on the LEFT SIDEBAR, or right here:
Oh yeah.... here are a couple photos for your pleasure! Try to IDENTIFY them if you can!!!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Buddha’s Descent from Heaven to Earth

Tonight was a lovely and auspicious night! We met up with a Swiss family, whose father Olivier has also been volunteer teaching (PE) at our school. In our hungry search for a specific restaurant, we fortunately took the long way around, and passed by the great stupa. Much to our surprise, it had just been covered in strings of lights! Tonight is “Lhabab Duchen” the anniversary of Buddha’s descent from heaven to earth. Many thousands of butter lamps and candles are being lit all around the stupa, and the crowds of worshipers walking the kora were extra thick. Monasteries are open later than usual, with special prayers being recited… Our family was welcomed and waved inside by the monks to sit and listen to the chanting, praying, and rhythmic horns & drumming. After dinner we walked a few circuits around the stupa, enjoying the festive yet reverent ambience. The kids lit a few butter lamps, spun the massive prayer wheels, and gazed up at the warm glowing lights on the stupa. Even our guest house building was decorated with hundreds of candles while we were out at dinner. A warm and lovely welcome back home!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Annapurna Circuit #2 - Walking to Tal

We finally were done with bus and jeep rides, and were thrilled to begin trekking! To leave the road noise and high velocity behind, and settle into a human-speed rhythm of daily hiking... Marcin had been in an incoherent delirious state for 24 hours, but the magic of Cipro was phenomenal! He awoke the 2nd morning, and said, "let's go trekking," so we began!

Our "trail" from Syange to Jagat and eventually Tal began with bulldozers and backhoes. They are pushing the "road" up this amazingly steep forested landslide-prone canyon, and so we had to deal with road construction for much of the day today... Walking along the battered boulder-strewn road-bed wasn't very pleasant, especially as it was fully exposed to the sun. The construction seems haphazard and careless, and all vegetation is decimated, so you get to walk in full sun. On the occasional sections where you cross the river to the "non-road" side, the old classic trail is exquisite!!! Bamboo groves, tall oaks draped with moss and vines, cool creeks and waterfalls jumping down mossy chasms... a real trail that winds and climbs and descends based on human legs and knees, not the width and grade requirements of a jeep....

Even when you are on the "other side," however, the road intrudes on the experience. Across the canyon there is a gash of white rubble where handfuls of courageous workers cling to the vertical slope, drilling, blasting, and knocking rocks down the cliffs. Everything below the road cut is trashed... obliterated... a white and gray rubble heap of constant rockfall and destruction. All vegetation is gone, and the old winding trails and some settlements are now buried. It's pretty sad.... and dangerous! Occasionally the trail actually runs below the construction zone, and it is NOT an OSHA approved operation! Boulders get launched off, and you had just better be really aware and careful before crossing one of these shooting galleries. No one is there with a stop sign, or a flag. No one radios uphill to say "trekkers on the trail, stop the blasting." There are no signs or warnings of any kind. Just the occasional truckload of rocks and dirt blazing down across the trail. Look out for shrapnel! Being from Yosemite, and having led groups of kids in rockfall prone areas, I was pretty aware. A few times we rounded a corner, and thought, "OK, this looks sketchy." You'd look uphill, watch for any movement, and scurry across really quickly. Once we actually saw a guy a few hundred feet above, and heard some loud pounding and drilling sounds. He waved frantically to us. Didn't know if that meant GO or STOP, so we waited.... watched... then scampered across the rubble zone. Safely across, we turned back to see some more trekkers approach. They stopped directly in the middle of the rockslide to take photos! I guess with all the carnage, there weren't any trees in the way, and the view of the canyon and river was really nice. We were screaming and waving, but the river sound was too loud... What finally got their attention were a few baseball sized chunk that zipped by their heads! Then then ran... One of them had been grazed by some bits of rock or dirt, and was holding her cheek when she approached. Nothing bad, but what a wake up call for her! So lucky!

The afternoon improved quite a bit! The canyon got steeper and more vertical, the road construction was therefore much more difficult, and we got to walk on trail most of the way to Tal. Here the Marsyangdi River cuts an amazing gorge, and the side canyons and waterfalls are spectacular! Steep, green, and vertical with crazy suspension bridges (many built with tech support from the Swiss), and lush vegetation oozing down the slopes. At one point we could see palm trees on the ridge above us, and pine forest on the ridge across the canyon! Wild diversity of life zones here, and the sheer verticality of it all is mind blowing! A few canyons looked like something straight out of the Misty Mountains, and we expected hobbits or dwarfs to come trotting around the corner heading for Rivendell....

Wandered through Jagat, a lovely town high above the river, with a long pause to play with local cats and chickens. These rest-stops became quite a theme for the entire trek, and we sometimes had an extra hour of cute baby animal time in each village... It was certainly one of the highlights for our girls!!!

The wonderful residents were always entertained and thrilled to see our girls trekking! We have become very proficient in "Family Nepali." We can now speak quite fluently about "these are our 3 daughters; they are small, medium and large; they are 6, 9, and 12 years old; No we do not have any sons; yes they are carrying backpacks; yes this is my wife; no we are not staying in this village; yes we will try to cross Thorung La; our girls are very strong; don't worry we will turn back if our daughters have altitude problem..." Constant repetition works wonders for language acquisition!

Delicious lunch of endless dahlbaht in a cute little shack in Chyamge, then continued on towards Tal. It was a spectacularly beautiful, but very long day, and the little tea house just before the last big hill was sure a welcome sight! A cup of warm sugar and caffeine does wonders!

Finally arrived at Tal at dusk, and crossed under our first "Kani," an archway at the entry and exit to these predominantly Buddhist towns that offers protection and blessings to travelers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Today was our daughters' First Day of School!

First Impressions of School from Lupin, Sylvie & Eliza:

· I made a new friend named Passang. She sits next to me, and is really nice, friendly and helpful…

· It was sooooo fun today. I met a friend with a really long name, but her short name she said was, “Linda!” Can you believe that? Linda!? Other kids were calling her Linda, and I thought it was really funny name for a Nepali or Tibetan girl!

· The lunch food was REALLY good, and you get refills, and the bowls were huge… so I got stuffed! They come around to give you more dahl with huge silver buckets and a scooper. I loved the dahl...

· The food was really good! There are these HUGE pots of dahl and rice in the kitchen that are almost as big as a bathtub. All the kids help serve and set up tables in the courtyard of the building. The older kids help the younger ones, so I ended up feeding a small girl who was about 3 or 4 years old. I had to feed her carefully and scoop the dribble off her chin, and make sure it wasn’t too hot. It was kind of weird in school, but she was really cute kid.

· I didn’t really like it sooo much, but the kids were really nice. I could tell some of them were whispering about me. Tenzin asked me “will you be my friend.” And I said “of course.” The other younger Tenzin wanted to know what music I liked, and asked if I liked “TeeLo Sweet?” I figured out that she meant Taylor Swift!

· Another girl helped me out a lot, and gave me her eraser when I needed one.

· I’m surprised how small my classroom is, and that there are only 19 kids! We stay in the same room, and have to stand up and say “hello Ma’am” just like in India.

· We have to stand up on our little chair and say, “good morning Ma’am!” It was also so funny whenever people answer questions they sing the answers every time! When they read out loud they also always sing it like a song! That’s weird…

· I just sat through Tibetan class, because they are all so advanced; talking and writing stories in Tibetan. The writing is SO pretty, but I obviously can’t read anything!

· My classroom has awesome windows, and I can see the whole Kathmandu Valley! We are up really high, and can see the snowy Himalaya all day…

· I already know that I’m gonna miss my new best friend when we leave Nepal.

· Today was better than I thought it would be. I was so scared for just about everything, and I was feeling awful about how much work I’d have to do; from both Nepal AND Mariposa. It wasn’t that bad though, and the kids were pretty nice to me…. And, yes, I could see the Himalaya from my classroom.

· The morning assembly is really long and confusing. They stand in lines, have long prayers, and also some songs, and everyone in my class plays piccolos and flutes. I’m NEVER gonna learn all those songs!

Here is the official Manosarovar Academy School Photo from this year: (click it to enlarge, and be sure to notice the boy in the front row who is fast asleep in his lap!)

(ps. More Annapurna trek installments will be coming soon!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Annapurna Circuit - Part 1 - leaving Kathmandu

We awoke super early to catch our 7am "tourist bus" towards Pokhara... The kids were sad to leave their beloved Dragon Guest House, but they were also thrilled to be a starting a trek in the Annpurnas.... I don't think they realized how much transportation was involved just to get to the starting point.

Leaving in the dark, with headlamps, we wandered the alleys north of Boudanath, then emerged in the pre-dawn light at the Great Stupa. Grabbed a taxi downtown to meet the huge line of buses waiting on Kantipath. "Uncle Shankar," our long-time friend and all-around travel agent, ticket meister, fix anything guy even popped by with his son Anshu to bid us farewell... Marcin flew in a couple of days ago to join us for the trek, and had the advantage of jet-lag to help him get up super early!

Our comfy bus took us up a few hills and out over the rim of the Kathmandu Valley, then plummeted down steep slopes to meet the Trisuli River.... The highway, MUCH improved over the last 10 years, winds downstream along this gorgeous canyon for a few hours, then follows the Marsyangdi River upstream to Dumre. The last time I did this trek (1996 during the summer monsoon), we started walking in Dumre! The ridiculous impassable mud road is much improved now, paved almost the entire way... So we switched from our "tourist bus" to a 2-hour jam-packed sweaty local bus. It was so overcrowded that the best seats are actually on the roof! I'll try to post the video of our kids riding on the luggage rack, hair blowing in the breeze, with brilliant emerald-green rice paddies all around. What a blast! Now they ONLY want to ride on the roof!

A couple of hours later, we arrived in Besi Sahar, which served as the trailhead for awhile... The new road construction has pushed further and further uphill, eating away at the trek year by year. In the "old days," the trek began in Dumre, then in Besi, then about 10 years ago Khudi became the "end of the road." Now the road has pushed deeper, bypassing Bhulbhule and Bahundanda, and making the typical starting point Syange (which used to be about day 2 or 3). We opted to do all of our transport in on long arduous day, so we could wake up early and trek in the cooler morning.... So we found the jeep in Besi and headed up to Syange... and what an insane ride it was!

Karen's journal puts it like this: "Arriving in bustling Besi Sahar, we all agreed (especially Eliza, "I don't wanna stay here tonight!") that we'd get the transport over with today, and then nothing but trekking for 3 glorious weeks. So we worked on getting a jeep, even though it was late afternoon. We really could've used a meal, but the mystery jeep suddenly materialized! So we quickly sipped our sodas and resisted the many pleas/offers/threats of nowhere to stay in Syange, and went with the vehicle. We met our driver, "Ram", and I couldn't help but being struck by the appropriate dual meaning of his name. When we arrived at our destination, much later, exhausted and sore (I felt like I'd just come out of surgery), but ALIVE, it was only by the grace of God and Ram's aggressive confident driving skills. NOT because his jeep worked well...

He had the hood up every time we stopped, even for a minute or 2. The lights barely lit the way on our rutted, muddy, slippery, boulder strewn, cliff-hanging road. He had to keep putting some fluid from a reused 'Squeeze Parkay' bottle into the vehicle just to get it into gear. Roll starting, backwards AND forwards was exciting, as was pumping the clutch constantly and piling out to help push us off a boulder or two. That was all fine, especially with Ram at the wheel, but dang if my knees were wedging between the seats again... OUCH!!! It really hurts, and they're still hurting! No matter the pain, we survived, as did the sweet Polish family jammed in "sitting" beside us (Lukas was beside me, also with lengthy femurs)."

Yup, it was a crazy 4-hour jeep ride, mostly in the dark, sliding and fishtailing in steep muddy ruts and over huge boulders. We drove through several creeks, and even a waterfall that splashed all over the "road" and windshield. And then it started to rain... I guess it was better in the dark, as we couldn't see crazy narrow road & the horrifying cliffs dropping hundreds of vertical feet down to the river below. So I was also quite relieved to arrive safely with our kids in Syange. Never again!!!! (I gave Ram a huge thank-you and a fat tip!) I'd skip the jeep & walk the Bhulbule/Bahundanda section...

The next morning was bright clear and lovely, but Marcin was delirious... Really incoherent, feverish, and woozy... He'd quaffed some sketchy water the day before, and it hit him hard. So while Marcin slept and began Cipro, we spent the day exploring the area, checking out the many waterfalls and crazy bridges, dayhiking up to rice-growing villages, visiting with local farmers, sipping cups of chai at tea-houses, and observing a crowd of locals "electro-fishing" with a huge extension cord, bare wires, and scary home-made fish zapper... (Didn't their mom's tell them to keep electric appliances out of the bath?)

Karen's big consolation for the delay was the many stunning moth and butterfly species that live in this area!

We'll start trekking tomorrow! ( long as those appealing beds allow us a good night's sleep!!!)