Buddha’s Birthplace or Bust

Posted by on Dec 3, 2006 in India, Nepal | 3 Comments

Although I spent a month in Nepal I never felt like I really got into the place. It felt to me like a mix between Tibet and Nepal—but not enough of either to fascinate me. After some time recuperating from my trek in Pokhara I was ready to get to India, but had one last stop.

Lumbini, a small village about an hour from the border crossing to Northern India, has been archeologically proven to be the birth place of The Buddha. The legend goes that after his mother had a good wash in a pool she walked over to a tree, held onto a branch and gave birth to little Siddhartha Gautama. If that isn’t far-fetched enough for you, it might be hard to believe that the little prince then walked seven steps and pointed to the sky. In any case, he set off at my age, 29, on a quest to rid the world of suffering.

The site is quite simple and after spending a night in a three bed room with a nice couple from Belgium and a few dozen mosquitoes I went to see the holy site. The actual birthplace is marked by a stone inside the ruins of a temple which is inside of a building built to protect it. The ruins itself is unremarkable and I find it hard to believe that anyone could possibly pinpoint where Buddha was born. In any case, a stone pool sits next door to the ruins and the pillar erected by the Nepali emperor in ancient times, marking the site remains in tact.

The exact birth place of Buddha? Is it a fossilized placenta or what? Monk hanging by a tree

Many people come on a pilgrimage to the sites where Buddha was born (the only site located in Nepal), where he give his first sermon, where he became enlightened and where he died. I met one woman from Korea who was with a tour group, all carrying dark robes to chant in at the sites. Of course, the chanting had to wait until after she bought her fill of day-glow plastic Buddha figurines and wooden prayer beads in the souvenir market. Seeing as Buddha set out because he disapproved of worshiping Gods and came to the conclusion that worldly possessions was one of the major causes of suffering, I found the entire experience highly ironic.

The Belgians and I decided to forego the parade of temples erected by various nations of the world (I’ve already been to most of the countries and have seen their Buddhist architecture) and head directly for the Indian border. The bus to Varanasi takes 10 hours, so even if we crossed early we would arrive in Varanasi after dark. Instead, we decided that it was best to take a bus into India, stopping at Gorakpur where we could pick up a train the next morning.

At the border I exchanged my last Nepali rupees for Indian rupees and had just enough to pay for the bus, train, hotel and food for the day. The outside of all of the trucks and buses are brightly decorated with highly stylized sayings and decorations—something I saw in Nepal. Almost every vehicle has “horn please” painted on it’s back end and, believe me, people we complying much to my dismay. The horns here are high pitched and resonate like a trombone. Sometimes the horns play little tunes and they are never just one short honk. Most drivers like to honk the horn even when there’s no one in front of them.

Welcome to India Kim on train #1 Indians surrounding us and staring, my bag's in the middle

Our train left early in the morning and we dragged ourselves across the road to the train station before the sun rose. None of us had ever taken a a train in India and were relieved when an official-looking man in a booth confirmed that the train on track 2 was our train. We hopped onto a completely empty sleeper car and hunkered down for the five and a half hour ride. Kim took out her sleeping bag and her boyfriend climbed onto the third-tier bunk to take a nap. We figured we were just lucky. After two hours a conductor finally happened by and casually informed us that the train was not going to Varanasi, that our train had been delayed by thirty minutes and would be following shortly behind.

We got off at the next stop, a station seemingly in the middle of farmer’s fields, and waited for the next train. After a few minutes we were completely surrounded by Indian men. They came from the fields, they jumped across the tracks, they called their friends over… just to stare at us. One man might have asked where we were from but we mostly just sat, surrounded by men staring, for about an hour. We decided that the train was probably coming on the other track and made our way across, assuming we’d eluded our fan club. But because we were now on the platform side of the tracks instead of the side of a field we had a much larger group of admirers. We sat and waited for two more hours before our train arrived.

I’ve tried posting a small video of the experience here, but I’m experimenting with a new plugin. If nothing’s happening at the following link try turning off your pop-up blocker: Indian Staring Contest

This train was much more crowded, but we found an empty compartment to spread out in. Sitting in the sun all morning made us grumpy and none of us had any food to eat. Although there seems to be a lot of food on Indian trains, there never seems to be any when you actually want it. Soon the seats around us filled up with men coming from other carriages to look at us. Sometimes it was just three men sitting and watching us but at other times there was a group of ten standing in the opening of the seating area with other men crawling up onto the bunks above us and staring down.

Some men got bold and pushed our bags aside to sit next to us if we weren’t paying attention and let our guard down long enough for it to happen. Of course, I don’t mind if people sit next to me, but I do mind when the rest of the seats on the train are empty and the man’s sole purpose is to get a better look. The worst part is these men wouldn’t stop. They pushed papers into our faces, tried to take our books away, played annoying ringtones in our ears to get our attention and generally were extremely annoying. Nothing we said or did would get them to leave and they would perch on the edge of the bench, where I’d left four inches of space next to my bag when a six foot long empty bench was one compartment over.

    My first Indian train experience taught me a few things:

  • Never expect to arrive (or leave) on time.
  • Bring food in case you’re stranded, surrounded by Indian men staring at you for 3 hours.
  • Always have reading material to help you to pretend to be busy.
  • Trying to rationalize with the people tormenting you only makes it worse.

Eventually we arrived in Varanasi in horrible moods and took two cycle rickshaws to the old town to find a hotel. Our drivers dropped us off on the far edge of town, giving the touts enough time to catch up and ensure they would get a commission just by walking next to us when we arrived at a hotel. Althoguh I had emailed ahead, the first place we tried was full and had no record of my name. We followed a man through winding alleys and stairwells to another hotel which turned out to be fine, with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the river. We finally got some lunch around 5:30 and managed to catch the sunset over the old city while we settled into India.

End of The Jomsom Trek: Three Thousand Stairs

Posted by on Dec 2, 2006 in Nepal | 5 Comments

Day 4: Marpha to Ghasa
In the morning shiva apologized for his bravado the night before and was back to his quiet self. He didn’t drink the rest of the trip, probably out of fear of losing his tip. I hadn’t thought about tipping him until other Americans started talking about it. You just don’t tip in most countries but there’s enough Americans in Nepal that the locals have come to expect it. When Shiva told me he accepted this job because I’m American and he likes trekking with Americans I put it together. He was a nice guy, but porters and guides are usually looking to Americans for a big tip and possibly a marriage proposal. At least two of his friends have gotten out of nepal that way.

The landscape starts to change after Marpha. It’s still a little windy but trees start to spring up everywhere and the path is even muddy in some places where the sun never reaches. The towns along this stretch are getting more touristy and show no signs of Tibetan influences. We also start to see more trekkers. I’m starting to fall behind Shiva, with my blisters and photo stops. I take as many photos of horses and donkeys as possible. I hear porters going in the other direction ask where we’re heading and being surprised that we’re going as far as Ghasa. I’m worried that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

Beautiful valley Sign for trekkers Animals are bridge-trained

Learning from yesterday I had vegetable noodle soup and a coke for lunch. We stopped at a cute little town after climbing up through a muddy, rocky cliff. The restaurant had rooftop seating (many along the trek do) and I missed the gang of female Maoist soldiers passing through town. Shiva explained that every Maoist has an assignment—these were promoting a cultural show—so not every soldier collects money form tourists. I hoped that we wouldn’t run into any money-collecting Maoists now that they have been accepted into the government.

I limped into Ghasa early and was the first into The Florida Guesthouse, so I managed a good hot shower. The only problem with hot showers is that the air surrounding you is not hot and the room is never sealed enough to keep the heat in. So whatever part of your body is not under the hot water is freezing. By now I’ve stopped bothering paying an extra dollar for an attached bathroom and my room is squarely under one dollar a night.

Sitting outside in the flower-filled garden I watch the other trekkers stroll into town, many are carrying their own bags. It’s always nice to have people to talk to, but once you get over ten people in any guesthouse it gets a little crowded come dinner time. After walking seven hours no one wants to wait an hour for food.

Fellow trekkers at dinner Porters singing and dancing

Taylor and Maury show up and we have a good representation of Americans from Colorado, California, Oregon and, of course, Illinois. One of the trekkers used to live and work very close to my home town and we all exchange travel stories. I’m pretty hungry after the small bowl of instant soup for lunch so I splurged for the “chicken steak.” I’ve had really bad luck with food for the past two months and that doesn’t change when I’m served a rubbery chicken leg for dinner. I ate my french fries and finished my glass of San Miguel beer.

After dinner Drew’s friend’s porter came in from the kitchen and announced a performance. Another porter grabbed a drum and he began to sing porter songs in Nepali. He was so happy, smiling and dancing and other porters joined in. Shiva promptly left the room to avoid being asked to sing. We all talked about our strategy for tomorrow’s hike and the hot springs at Tatopani.

Day 5: Ghasa to Tatopani
Downhill. I was told it was all downhill. There was some downhill but there was also uphill. But by now my definition of uphill was changing and I stopped noticing short rises in the road. Early on we passed through some cute towns with stone paved paths surrounded by walls and wheat fields. We saw more children playing outside, terrorizing chickens and hitting other children with sticks.

It was a shorter day, a little over five hours, and everyone was desperate to get to the hot springs in Tatopani. We stopped for a drink and apple strudel in front of a beautiful waterfall and when Shiva wanted to stop for lunch an hour later I made him push on. I just wanted to get there. He refused to eat unless I did, probably because he would have to pay for his food.

World's deepest gorge? Traditional Nepali game

The road became more of a small dirt track after an hour and we passed workers creating a road along the trekking route by hand. They split boulders with chisels and piled loose rocks onto the cliffs to create the edge of the road. Right now you only see the occasional motorcycle, which can only go a short distance because roads are really just dirt tracks and stone steps. But the government is slowly pushing a road into the hillside and within a year or two the entire Jomsom trek will be accessible by car. This will put all of the donkey trains out of business and change the face of these small towns.

I followed the firefighters into Tatopani and got a room on the top floor looking out onto the mountains. I was just glad to have a window after the first few rooms I was shown. After changing into my swimsuit I sat down for a big lunch and headed down to the river. The hot spring turned out to be a cement pool with a big rock in the middle. Still, the water was warm but not too hot and helped my legs muscles relax. Because the firefighters had been carrying 35 pound backpacks the entire trip they were more sore than me and covered in huge blisters. They were beginning to come around to the idea of getting a porter for tomorrow’s huge uphill climb.

Maury, Taylor and Megan in the hot spring Blisters under calluses, great!

I sat in the pool for over an hour, watching the skinny porters drink beer in their underwear and European trekkers flirt with each other. The local women who came down were totally covered in saris and I was glad I had kept a t-shirt on. When I got out there was no way I was going to walk uphill to town in only my bathing suit bottoms. I only had a hand towel so I slipped my one pair of pants on over my wet suit, hoping the huge underwear-shaped wet spot would dry by morning.

Day 6: Tatopani to Ghorepani
This is the day we had all been dreading, more than 3,000 stone steps uphill without a break, and I had to do it with wet pants. From day one Shiva had started trying to convince me that it was best if we bypassed the main route after Tatopani and headed downhill to Beni, where a road had been built to Pokhara. I insisted that I wanted to see Poon Hill, above Ghorepani, which is supposed to have the best views of the entire trip. I didn’t understand his motives, since it meant he would earn less money. The probability of him picking up a better paying gig by arriving back early wasn’t good since it was the end of the season.

After embarrassing himself with his drunken mutterings in Marpha he gave up on Beni and began to suggest I make the trip to Ghorepani in two days instead of the usual one. I was open to this, since I really don’t like walking uphill. But I had been keeping up with the other hikers—beating them even—the entire trip so far. The only reason he had for thinking I was slow was because I had made a point of telling the agency that I was a slow hiker and didn’t like uphill. Everyone else I had been spending time with, the firefighters, Drew, the other Americans, thought this was silly and I could make it up to Ghorepani. I knew I could make it in one day but I wouldn’t like it.

I started out in the morning thinking that I would probably take two days, but that it would be nice to climb up to Poon Hill with everyone I had met along the way. After half an hour through the gorge with gradual ups and downs we hit another registration post where I entered my permit information. I laughed when I saw that Maury and Taylor had passed through fifteen minutes before and naturally written “firefighter” under the occupation category. The funny thing was that everyone after them, maybe ten people, had just made dashed lines under the category, leading someone to believe that more than ten firefighters had just passed through the valley, all in a row.

After a few suspension bridges we were confronted with a steep step of stone stairs. Only the stairs are just boulders on top of one another, at varying heights and smoothness so I had to pay attention to each step I made. The path was covered with a canopy of leafy trees and the temperature cooled down considerably. The steps were pretty steep and each step took effort and, although the path curved a bit, there were no flat sections or switchbacks. This constant stepping lasted over an hour and when I finally reached the top Shiva was waiting and, for the first time, had a drop of sweat on his forehead.

Shiva had explained somewhere along the way that he preferred to hike with native English speakers because he was more likely to learn new vocabulary. I took this as a challenge and taught him words like frost and dew. He even used “dew” correctly in context later in the trek, thanks to my awesome example of “Mountain Dew.” I saw a little light go on when I mentioned the soft drink and the name’s meaning. At the top of the steep hill a boulder was covered in graffiti, including “abacadabra.” When I explained the meaning Shiva and I agreed that it really wasn’t a word he needed to know.

The firefighter's porter Shiva contemplates the meaning of Terraced valley

From the top of the hill we got a good view of the valley we needed to walk around. The mountains were covered in terraced fields and dotted with small villages. On the way up we had passed little kids walking to school, trying their luck at selling small oranges to trekkers. On the other side of the valley we ran into the older kids heading back from school (the day is split into two ages so more kids can fit into the schools). The valley was beautiful but all I could think of was Shikha, the town Shiva wanted to stop in for the night.

We arrived in Shikha around lunchtime but Shiva dragged me to the far end of town, an additional thirty minutes uphill, to his favorite restaurant. A large tour group was eating lunch and I squeezed in to order soup, fries and a coke. The food had surprisingly gotten worse the closer we got to civilization, and a lot of it was even more expensive. We had a long wait and I sat and took pictures of the kids begging nearby while my knees remembered they were attached to my body.

Kids coming home from school Girl running down to see her photo on my camera (this is the non-steep part!) Backpacks at a resting spot

Shiva was happy once he got his Nepali food and I was feeling better with the much-needed calories. After lunch we began to walk, the decision to head on having been made somewhere without talking. Within ten minutes I stumbled upon Drew and the other Americans and saw the firefighters heading off in the distance. I had assumed they were hours ahead of me and seeing them gave me the last burst of confidence I needed to keep going. So I kept walking and with each step got slower and slower until I was in the company of the porters carrying the heaviest weight. Just imagine climbing a stairmaster for over eight hours on the slowest setting and you will begin to have an idea of how I felt.

We took lots of breaks on the stone resting platforms built along the trail but the terrain only became more steep the closer we got to Ghorepani. We were in forest again and I started to get crabby with the porters laughing and joking around me. The would wait until I started out, then chase after me and coming up right behind me. If there’s one thing I learned on this hike it’s that I hate people walking behind me. Each time I had to stand aside and beg them to pass until we repeated it again a little further along. Looking around I realized that all of these porters were carrying other people’s bags, and more importantly their shower gear. Maybe I wouldn’t be the last to take a shower after all!

With numb legs I dragged myself into Ghorepani and into the second floor room overlooking a massive wall of white haze. So much for the beautiful views of the mountain range. Downstairs the other guests sat around a wood stove, drying their clothes and drinking congratulatory beers. I ducked into the outdoor shower with my coat on, because we had hiked back up to 2860 meters and even before the sun set I could see my breath. Carefully taking off my clothes and hanging them on nails I decided that I would rather have wet sandals than frostbite and saved myself from standing on the icy concrete floor. I quickly turned the faucet marked “HOT” and waited for the hot water to kick in. It didn’t. The sweat had dried long ago but I desperately need to wash my hair so I leaned forward, carefully contorting my body so that only my head got wet. Once the shampoo was over I quickly splashed some water in strategic places and threw my clothes on.

We had been going to bed early the entire trip, and most of us hadn’t been sleeping well. But this night everyone was in bed by 7:30 to get some sleep in before the early morning climb to Poon Hill. The walls were so thin that every cough was heard across the hotel. I didn’t need to worry about waking up the next morning.

Day 7: Ghorepani to Pokhara
I woke up at 4am to the sound of singing and saw a large group of hikers walking below my window with their headlamps shining in my window. Looking up I couldn’t see any stars, a sign that it was clouded over and we wouldn’t be walking up to Poon Hill that morning. I went back to sleep, not sure if I wanted it to be clouded over or not.

By 4:45 it sounded like everyone was up and I decided it was time to go. If everyone else was getting up the view must be clear and I was going to have to climb another one hour uphill to Poon Hill. While I was typing my shoes I had a sudden flash of Portillo’s hot dogs and desperately wanted to be eating Chicago-style dogs instead of climbing uphill in the dark. Downstairs I waited for Shiva with my tiny flashlight and a sour mood.

I was the picture of grumpiness on the way up. Each step brought about a flash of pain in my legs and before I was half way up the sky began to lighten. At the top I was confronted with huge crowds of hikers noisily waiting for the sunrise. We all flashed our photos, many with full-size tripods, while the sun crept over the horizon. Although the sky surrounding the foot of the hill was cloudy, the mountain range peeked out of the clouds, catching the first orange rays of the sun. It was certainly a beautiful Thanksgiving morning.

Megan atop Poon Hill at sunrise The gang on Poon Hill --Scott, Drew, Taylor, Megan & Maury Shiva and Megan

After an hour on top of the frost-covered hill we all headed down for breakfast. I quickly packed and headed out, as Shiva was determined that we could make the usual two-day trip to Pokhara in one day. Today sounded good—all downhill. What I didn’t bargain for was downhill steps, which defeated my knees in the first hour. Below Ghorepani was a wet forest with waterfalls and moss. It would have been beautiful apart from the wet rocks that I slipped around and eventually fell down. Shiva was on a mission today and ran off ahead with his porter friends, leaving me to trample over the wet rocks alone.

From here until lunch I don’t remember much. I think I went into some sort of zone of concentration trying to get downhill quickly. The entire mountain was stairs and even the open, dry stairs were horrible on my knees. This is the day I really could have used a stick or some poles because with each step my entire body weight slammed against my knees. By the time we got down to the lunch spot I was totally out of it. When the others started talking about the beautiful waterfall I just said “what waterfall?” I hadn’t even seen it coming into town.

!#@** stairs Corn storage and a rooter house

Shiva promised that we had finished the stairs and the trail would start evening out down to Naya Pul, where we could catch a taxi to Pokhara. The firefighters decided to head on to town today, much to their guide’s dismay, and I headed out before the others to get a head start. The scenery this low was lush and green but the overcast day left little inspiration for photography. It was soon clear that Shiva was full of shit when I was confronted with another hour’s worth of stairs.

The trail did eventually even out a bit, with the usual ups and downs, and fewer stairs. We followed a river down to Naya Pul past farmers hand tilling their fields. At the end of the last town we crossed a bridge and walked right into the Maoist’s booth. If the Nepalese government can’t stop the Maoists from setting up a booth at the end of it’s country’s most popular trail then I don’t have much confidence in it at all. I wanted to walk on but Shiva had arrived earlier than me and drawn their attention so I was stuck paying their “donation.” I asked Shiva to tell them I had gone up to Ghorepani and back over two days but he wouldn’t and agreed to say it had been a four day trek instead of seven, costing me a little under $6.

There's no stairs after lunch? Jerk! The gang's porters !#@** Maoists

Walking by I noticed a sign declaring “the new communist people’s government of Nepal.” I have a suspicion that The Maoists think that they are now The government, rather than just a small part of it. Considering I already paid the Nepalese government $30 for the privilege of killing my knees around The Annupurnas I was pissed to be paying the “new government” again. It was a long walk to the next town with a scramble uphill to the hill where taxis were waiting to take us back to town. Of course, they had to just get that last little hill in to put my legs over the edge.

I’m glad I headed back on day seven instead of eight, and a few of us met up at a steak house for a celebration dinner that night. It has taken the entire weekend for my legs and feet to heal enough for me to get downstairs without a death grip on the banister. Overall I am glad I went on the trip, if only to say I’ve seen a little more of Nepal. The Tibetan areas of the trek early on were a disappointment after spending time in the real Tibet and the beautiful mountain scenery toward the end was often clouded over during the trek. I think that Nepal is a magical place, but perhaps is a better place for beginning travelers than for someone like me.

No Time To Wait

Posted by on Nov 28, 2006 in Nepal | 3 Comments

The second installment of my Jomsom Trek is all ready to go, I finished yesterday. Unfortunately, the internet connections here are not making the photo uploading process easy. Tomorrow morning I leave for Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, before getting out of this country! I’m ready for something new—India.

The update will be showing up here as soon as I find a suitable internet connection. In the meantime, I managed to upload the majority of my photos from the trek in the gallery.

Beginning of The Jomsom Trek: Windy Tibetan Outposts

Posted by on Nov 27, 2006 in Nepal | 5 Comments

Day 1: Pokhara to Kagbeni
Last Friday morning I woke up at 5:30 with a feeling of dread—I was flying to Jomsom to start my seven day trek around part of the Annapurna Circuit Trek. Most people would be really excited to trek in such a beautiful environment and to see Nepali village life. But all I could think of was walking uphill and downhill for hours and hours every day. I left my beloved iBook with the reception at my hotel in Pokhara and stepped outside into the darkness where my porter, Shiva, was waiting with a taxi to the airport.

My backpack weighed in at just under 10 kilos (the limit for my porter, I was told) and was inspected by hand. I was also inspected by the thorough hands of a female security guard before being sent out onto the tarmac to walk to the plane. This plane was similar to the plane I flew in Tajikistan, but with a few less seats—about 14. We were allowed to walk up to the open cockpit to take photos out of the front window of the plane but there wasn’t a great change in scenery during the twenty minute flight.

The difference in temperature between Pokhara (884 meters) and Jomsom (2713 meters) was significant. Looking around at the other tourists bundled up I realized I hadn’t seen my winter hat when I packed for the trek. We stopped for breakfast (I had a coke), registered my $30 trekking permit at a check post and started walking out of town. We were soon overtaken by a crowd carrying flowers and playing horns and drums—a wedding party. The bride and groom rode small white horses and wore terrified expressions. The bride’s veil was red with gold sequins and the groom wore a green turban. We waited at the groom’s family house where a banner and streamers hung. The two were ushered inside while a band played, men threw flower petals and old women danced and sang.

Flight to Jomsom Wedding procession in Jomsom Wedding party in Jomsom

The trail headed out of town, across a river bridge and along the rocky riverbed. The canyon was dry and reminded me of the American Southwest with rocky formations towering along the sides of the mountains. Kagbeni is a town located at the enterance to Upper Mustang—the restricted part of the provence that borders Tibet. It was beautiful, but the more the more I travel I realize that The United States has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

I stayed at a hotel that was formerly the local monastery’s library. The restaurant walls were covered in old murals and the building had a nice Tibetan feel to it. This part of Nepal is heavily Tibetan but the architecture doesn’t have any of the great details that you see in Tibet. The town itself had some interesting mud buildings, stupas and an endless parade of donkeys passing along the narrow stone pathways. At the edge of town, where upper Mustang begins, a route of prayer wheels lead into town.

Upper Mustang - off limits My first glimpse of the Overlooking Kagbeni in the afternoon

We only walked three hours the first day, which I appreciated. The last thing I needed was to be dropped into a seven hour hike after two weeks of inactivity while I got over my cold in Kathmandu and Pokhara. In fact, I had just finished a course of antibiotics the day before and I prayed that the winds whipping through the canyon and cold weather wouldn’t bring on a recurrence of the bronchitis or sinus infection I had.

Day 2: Kagbeni to Muktinath
As we walked out of Kagbeni I was prepared for the worse—a seven hour uphill hike. At dinner the night before I met a woman with a three year old. She had carried the girl up to Muktinath herself, taking seven hours. Another middle-aged woman told me the trip took her six hours. The average time to Muktinath is five hours, so I figured I’d fall somewhere in-between a middle-aged woman and someone carrying a 40 pound child. I didn’t have much confidence in my hiking ability.

I felt the altitude a bit, but walking uphill has never been easy for me, altitude or not, so I took my time getting up to the ridge overlooking the wheat fields below. We saw groups of travelers on ponies and I wished that I had hired a horse for the day. A small road had been dug from Jomsom up to Muktinath and we were occasionally covered in dust by passing motorcycles. We walked we passed dry mountains covered in caves and got a small glimpse at Upper Mustang before continuing on a high ridge toward the next town.

The path up in this part of the trek was dotted with stalls set up by Tibetan women selling jewelry or yak wool scarves. The locals also built resting platforms out of stones for hikers and porters to take a break. We stopped at one in front of a restaurant where we saw Drew, an American from Northern California. I ran into him in the airport the day before and hit it off so we continued up to Muktinath together along with his porter, Mohan, and Shiva.

Restaurant along the trail Drew, Mohan and Megan at the entrance to Muktinath

The beginning of the day turned out to be the steepest part and I surprised myself and Shiva by making it to Muktinath in four and a half hours. This gave me plenty of time to take a solar-heated shower and make my way up to the monastery above town. Looking up toward the climbing, whitewashed wall around the monastery, I had second thoughts about walking any more that day. I was pretty tired from the hike and just wanted to relax. Of course, that’s when I see Drew and Mo and the decision is made, I’m going up.

The walk up wasn’t as bad as I thought and the views over Muktinath and two other towns we had passed were stupendous. The temples themselves are unimaginative and totally uncamparable to the temples in Tibet. There was interesting feature—one of the temples was surrounded on three sides by horse head-shaped water spouts used for ritual bathing. Even in the summer the mountain water running out must be freezing—there was ice on the ground surrounding the water route.

Bob Marley, really? View from the monastery above Muktinath

The dining room was filled with travelers at dinnertime and we all got to know one another around the large communal tables. This was when I first met Taylor and Maury, a pair of firefighters form Colorado who I hung around with during the trek. At these higher altitudes (3710 meters) the tables are heated by open coal pits underneath. With the amount of fires and shoddy wiring in these places I can’t believe the wood buildings have survived. I just leaned aside every time a young girl headed toward me with a shovel full of red hot coals.

Day 3: Muktinath to Marpha
This was a long day. When Shiva told me where we were going and I checked the map I didn’t believe him. We were heading all the way down past Kagbeni, past Jomsom, another hour on to Marpha. The hike was mostly downhill but it was about 15 miles of hiking over the course of almost seven hours. We started out a little past 8am, as usual, and headed quickly down the steep dirt tracks and onto the plateau above Kagbeni.

From here, we bypassed the town and stayed on the ridge, slowly heading down a dirt slope. I got my last glimpse of Upper Mustang and the beautiful riverbed snaking through the valley. Around 10am the wind started and we had to cover our faces from the sand and dirt being kicked up. It was very strong like people had warned me, but not strong enough to cause walking too difficult.

Beautiful scenery passing over Kagbeni Protecting myself against the sandy wind

Local porters passed us carrying lumber, large boxes of beer and other necessities up the steep path. Pony trains with bags of rice strapped to their sides passed as well and I wondered why anyone would carry a huge load themselves instead of putting it on an animal. Shiva told me that many traders bring their goods up themselves to make the most profit.

Porter with lumber Internet ad in the middle of nowhere Evidence that I really did hike

We stopped for ginger tea in the same little cafe we stopped on day one, halfway to Kagbeni. It was amazing that we could cover so much ground so quickly. I was feeling really good downhill until lunchtime in Jomsom. By then my feet were starting to develop blisters and I could feel my quads tensing up. I was starving and had a veggie burger, fries and salad for lunch which just made me want to go to sleep. After Shiva got his Daal Bhaat (the Nepalis have to wait until Westerners are served to eat), we took off for the last hour or so to Marpha.

After a good rest my feet start to stiffen up and it usually takes a good 15 minutes to get them back to “normal.” Somewhere along the way I could feel my blisters break and start to slide around in my shoes. Shiva kept going at our fast downhill pace while I limped along through the empty rock-filled riverbeds toward Marpha. The town was cute, with narrow alleyways and stone houses. Buddhist temples and stupas hung above town on the rocks of the mountain. The stairs leading up to the sites past houses and business looked interesting but the sun had already passed behind the nearest mountain and I sat down to assess the damage to my feet.

Shiva forging ahead Rocky lanes of Marpha

Drew, his friend whom we met up with in Muktinath and I were the only trekkers staying in our hotel that night. Usually the porters suggest a place to stay (where they have friends or get the best/cheapest food and accommodation themselves. But Shiva’s suggestion in Marpha looked like a prison cell. The hotel nextdoor was just as cheap at 50 rupees (70 cents), and had a cute little courtyard garden so I decided to stay there instead. Luckily I spotted the others when they arrived after me, otherwise I would have been in the place alone and been forced to entertain Shiva.

With Shiva paling around with the other porters I had a good chance to talk to the 23-year old girl working there. The youngest of four daughters and two sons, she was the only girl left unmarried and was totally responsible for running her parent’s business. Her English was excellent and she even spoke with a hint of sarcasm, something many second-language speakers don’t pick up. She wasn’t sent to upper levels of school because her parents only had enough money for the boys—boys get preferential treatment over girls all over Nepal. It was sad to see such a bright girl stranded in this tiny town with no hope for leaving. All of her friends are married with kids and she can’t talk to them about things she’s interested in. Because she grew up alongside Westerners she has taken on a lot of the same views, which are not accepted in Nepalese society.

I asked her why she wasn’t married and it turns out she wakes up every day in fear that it’s the day her parents will announce to her she’s been paired off. Arranged marriages are still commonplace in rural Nepal and she only get four days notice! Although she longs to live in Pokhara or Kathmandu with her brothers, her parents have forbidden it. And considering all of her sisters have been married to local men the future doesn’t look hopeful for her.

Shiva and Mo came back, drunk on apple cider. They broke into a speech about how wonderful Shiva is, with his 11 years of experience. Mo wanted to make it clear that even though, at 32, he was four years older than Shiva, he was not nearly as wonderful as him. Shiva mumbled that being a porter was beneath him—he hadn’t carried a bag in years! I started to get annoyed because I hired a porter and if Shiva didn’t want to be a porter he didn’t have to accept the job from his agency. When I offered him cold medicine he was insulted and said “you don’t understand! I’ve been at 6,000 meters!!” I just laughed at him and rolled my eyes.

Walk No More

Posted by on Nov 24, 2006 in Nepal | 2 Comments

I’m back home! Some other travelers laugh when I refer to my most recent long term (more than 3 days) residence as home, but that’s my life at the moment. In fact, today I’ve been recognized by at least three locals, welcomed back and asked about my trek. This morning I shocked the waiters at Mike’s resturaunt by ordering two bannana pancakes and home style potatoes and eating it all. Europeans just don’t know how to put it away.

I finished my trek in seven days instead of eight, partly out of peer pressure from the other trekers and partly because I was sick of walking. I figured that the faster I walked, the sooner I could stop walking. I am glad I saw the small, picturesque villages along the way but, personally, I thought neither the villages or scenery compared to Tibet.

On day six I walked up about 3,000 uneven stone steps over the course of eight hours. I barely made it into the guesthouse that night. Yesterday I had a dream that I beat up some female maoists before waking up at 4:45 to walk up 1,000 feet to see the sun rise from Poon Hill. While I was lacing my boots I started thinking about Portillo’s hot dogs and wondered why I was doing all this.

Guilt Trek

Posted by on Nov 16, 2006 in Nepal | 3 Comments

I’ve been in Pokhara for six days now and it’s time for me to do something. You see, I’ve avoiding the paragliding, the bike rides, the temple hikes and boating here very successfully. In fact, the closest I’ve come to doing something is walking down to the Western resturaunt overlooking the lake for apple pancakes. You don’t understand… they have syrup! After five months I can appreciate syrup, even if it’s a little off.

Most people come to Pokhara to hike the Annapurna range. The classic route takes you over a 5,000+ meter pass and takes around 18 days to hike. I’m sure it’s beautiful, but I might die of boredom hiking for that long. If you haven’t figured it out yet, hiking’s not my thing. So, I sat around here for a week feeling incredibly lazy for not booking a trek. Sui, the woman I’ve been traveling with since Lhasa, decided that she wanted “a challenge” and set off today on the Anapurna Base Camp trek.

It took me one extra day to decide to stop being a wuss and just go somewhere. So I picked The Jomsom Trek in reverse. The route is actually the second half of the entire Annapurna Circuit Trek but instead of heading up from Pokhara I’m flying to Jomsom and then hiking down. Hiking down sounds much better than hiking up and this way I’ll still get to see the beautiful scenery and small villages—the “real” Nepal.

A new law came into effect very recently which requires everyone trekking to either have a guide or a porter. This means I have to fly my porter out with me tomorrow morning at my own expense. I’m taking comfort in the fact that he’s named after a Hindu God, Shiva, and seems pretty agreeable. Even though most people say the route is very easy I’m happy to have a porter to keep me from getting lost and to carry the three Toblerone bars I bought today. I can only hope he’s a good cartwheel photographer.

Quickly Through Tibet

Posted by on Nov 1, 2006 in Nepal, Tibet | 10 Comments

After thirteen hours today spent between a landcruiser, minibus and bus Sui and I made it to Kathmandu. The past seven days have been an amazing set of highs (the temple art and Everest) and lows (everything about our French travelmate and the beggars).

We had dinner tonight that was not Chinese food and I just bought a diet coke and Toblerone. I’m going to go back to our hotel tonight, eat my chocolate, drink my coke and watch some Prison Break on my computer. We’re both excited to have single rooms after sharing for over two weeks, including the night at Everest Base Camp where all four of our group had to share one room. It was if there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room for all four of us. And it just got stranger when the French guy started eating cheese at 3am.

Let’s just say that the “twinkle” I noticed in Frenchie’s eye when we first met turned out to be the twinkle of insanity. Between dodging his ciggarette smoke, ignoring his incessant tapping and muttering and finally breaking down in a screaming match by day four, I was pretty busy.

Despite that, I spent a night near Everest Base Camp and watched the tallest mountain in the world glow in the afternoon, turn orange at sunset and cloud over in the morning. How did you spend your Halloween?

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