My original 1999 vacation plans, to travel to Argentina and climb a ~7000 meter mountain called Aconcagua (in the Andes near the Chilean border), were scuttled when my climbing partner backed out in mid-August due to work commitments. So I decided to return to Nepal on the 11 month anniversary of my first trip, documented here and pictorially represented here.
In fourteen days on the trail, and after several changes in plan, I first completed a three-day roundtrip trek from Nayapul (near Pokhara) to Ghorepani and Poon Hill with my Kathmandu-resident friend Caroline. Traveling solo (note; but with porter) for the remainder of the trip, I flew from Pokhara to Jomsom, then trekked north to Muktinath, south to Tatopani (thereby completing the Annapurna Circuit, minus Thorung La crossing, that I began the year before), east to Chomrong, north to Annapurna Base Camp (the Annapurna Sanctuary trek) and back south to Nayapul and the trek's conclusion in Pokhara.
The remainder of the 3.5 week vacation was spent in transit, both to and from Nepal and between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and in exploring both cities. I gained a far greater appreciation for Kathmandu than the opinion I held at the conclusion of last year's trip, where due to lack of available time I didn't stray far from the tourist district, Thamel. Similarly, this year I spent all of my Pokhara time in the city's 'Thamel equivalent', Lakeside, and look forward to gaining a more complete and balanced perspective on the city during future visits.
Although I covered a lot of ground on this trip, I returned home with much more than memories, photos and other momentos of the varied and spectacular scenery. This was my first significant solo 'for-fun-not-work' travel experience, neither accompanied by friends or spouse nor shielded (or, from my perspective, blocked) from growth opportunity experiences by the business travel comforts of expense account, taxi, Western-style hotels and restaurants and the defacto language of business worldwide, English.
My journey also included a substantial spiritual element, granted a pale imitation, but nonetheless reminiscent (at least to me) of those detailed in books like The Snow Leopard and A Journey In Ladakh, and one whose impact I didn't predict in advance. Since returning from last year's trip, both my wife and I have begun educating ourselves in and exploring, various Eastern philosophies, specifically Buddhism, and have incorporated practices such as meditation and a vegetarian diet (back) into our daily lives. Visiting Buddhist sites in cities such as Muktinath, Pokhara and Kathmandu had a profound impact on me.
Even more significant, though, were the numerous Nepalis and Westerners who I encountered and with whom I shared time, situation, insight and opinion. The opportunity to experience their inner God presences (or depending on your preferred terminology, inherent Buddha natures) has left a lasting impression on my heart, mind and soul.
I welcome any and all questions and comments; please feel free to email me. Also, I hope you enjoy viewing some of the pictures I took during my travels. As with last year's trip journal, I make no apologies for either shortcuts in proper English grammar or for typos; have YOU ever tried typing this much on a Windows CE handheld PC with a teeny tiny keyboard? I suspect there are as many different versions of spelling for Nepali landmarks, holidays and other words as there are different maps and trekking books, so wherever possible I've tried to standardize on the versions found in Bryn Thomas' excellent book Trekking in the Annapurna Region.
Namaste and Suburaati,
Brian Lyn Dipert
October 29, 1999, 5AM PST
Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, en route to San Francisco
Thursday, October 7
The morning of day two finds me on the shuttle bus headed to the Norita airport in Japan, from the Marroad International Hotel where I spent last night. A long but pretty uneventful day of travel yesterday. I took the 6:30AM Amtrak from Sacramento to San Jose, arriving at 10:30AM. My friend Ann picked me up there and drove me over to San Francisco Airport for my 1PM flight. My airplane seatmate (I had a window seat) was a Thai teenager returning from a 1 month US visit to see her sister and boyfriend. I had forgotten to specify a vegetarian meal so she and I traded my chicken for her tufo appetizer and biscuits (her idea, how nice!). In-flight movies were The Mummy and October Sky; the latter one very good. Got a couple of hours sleep on the plane.
Had vegetarian fried noodles with chop suey for dinner last night and mixed Japanese/Western buffet breakfast this morning, both at hotel. Slept well after taking one melatonin...7PM to 4:30AM with a brief wakeup at 1:30AM. Talked to Lil briefly last night before bed on a pay phone (access number wouldn't work from hotel room phone) and left a message for her this morning before leaving the hotel (couldn't dial her cell phone...the calling card wouldn't accept the number). Hard saying goodbye to Lil yesterday morning, and wonderful to hear her voice on the phone; I am SO lucky to share my life with her and have plenty of room for improvement in mindfully appreciating her and paying attention to her on a continual basis.
A bit of a confusing checkin at the airport this morning. In SFO they refused to check my baggage beyond Delhi (which I later found out is standard operating procedure...why, I don't know) but then they couldn't comprehend why I didn't have a visa for India. Same discussion this morning; I finally convinced them that if I needed to pick up my bags in Delhi I'd need to go through customs, which would require a visa I didn't have or need. So they say they've rerouted my bags to Kathmandu...we'll see if they arrive.
Finished reading the book Catch 22 in the hotel last night, which I'll give to Caroline. Finished reading Thich Nhat Hanh's book Being Peace while waiting for the Norita-to-Delhi flight to depart; ditto. Watched another good romantic movie; Notting Hill, which of course made me long to be with my Sacramento sweetheart. I'm now in Delhi. A helpful airport rep was waiting for me when I disembarked; he found my checked luggage, says he routed it to my flight to Kathmandu and escorted me to the waiting lounge.
Saturday, October 9
An interesting few days! When I arrived in Kathmandu (Boeing 757 jet, which was delayed 45 minutes) I made it through customs/visa and baggage claim just fine. But no Ang Babu Lama or Caroline waiting for me! A hotel representative was there, though. My confusion still wasn't completely over, however. Caroline had said that I'd be staying at the Tibet Rest House, but this person was from Lhasa Rest House. Since Lhasa's in Tibet, I figured they might be the same. Ends up they weren't. This place is very nice. Carpeted floors, clean bed, private bath with good hot water, ceiling fan and very friendly, helpful staff...everything that Hotel Karma wasn't last year (and cheaper too...$8 per night for a single with private bath, $10 for a double, $4 for a single with shared toilet).
There had been a Communist party-driven city-wide strike all day, so taxi and other services were just a few hours earlier put back in place. At nearly midnight, with soldiers patrolling nearly every corner of the dark deserted streets, it was kinda creepy. When I checked in I found a frantic 'where are you, I'm worried' note from Caroline, which again was confusing because I was running only a few minutes behind the schedule I'd earlier sent her. A quick phone call to her apartment sorted it all out.
She'd transposed two lines of my itenerary email and thought I was arriving at 3:10PM. There were no Nepali-only taxis operating, so Ang Babu, Ram and Pasang walked all the way from their apartment near Bodhanat to Thamel, then they all took a 'special taxi' to the airport. After waiting for several hours (Ang Babu wasn't allowed to go inside the airport, and Caroline received incorrect information when she inquired about my flight status) they gave up and headed home to wait and worry.
Caroline's not able to take three weeks off to do the Circuit; I'd also realized just how tight my schedue was, and heard from someone at the airport in Delhi that the monsoons had not yet ended. I was concerned about weather delays that would force me to go faster than I wanted, possibly even skipping an acclimatization day in Manang. Plus, Lil and I could always come back, fly into Jomsom and do the second half of the Circuit together another year, and frankly I wasn't thrilled about the (admittedly remote) possibility of running into the shady characters we'd hired a horse from last year. So I decided to do the Annapurna Sanctuary instead, an option which would let Caroline and Ang Babu join me for the first few days to Poon Hill, at which point they could turn back and I'd go on.
Spent yesterday early morning with Caroline after getting up at 4:30AM and calling Lil around 7AM. We walked around Thamel a bit, had breakfast, did a few emails (Lil had sent Caroline a shopping list for me) and went to her apartment for a quick tour. Then she went to work and I got down to shopping for my wife's belated birthday presents (understanding soul that she is, she's letting me miss her 35th birthday).
Had very good Pad Thai at the Third Eye restaurant. Spent more than a few rupees at Pilgrims Bookstore....a bunch of Thich Nhat Hanh books (much cheaper here than in the US due to Indian printings), two books on Buddhist and Hindu symbolism, two singing bowls and book on same, a vajra (also known as a dorje), a bell, a set of tingshaws, a copy of the book Siddhartha for Caroline (ends up she'd already read it, so I gave it to Ang Babu) and some postcards and stamps. Also bought a Buddha/om medallion from a street merchant.
Came back to the room and took a nap. Mid-afternoon I shook off the cobwebs and walked to Kathmandu's Durbar Square. Many of the buildings were under repair but the architecture was still very interesting, as were the 'fake' sadhus. More shopping. Bought a clay Buddha statue from a lovely old woman who pressed a free medallion into my hands as I departed. Bought a metal Buddha statue from a sweet and persistent girl who said her father had just died 7 days earlier (was it true, I know not, but the story worked). Bought a set of small prayer flags. And bought two finished wood strikers for the singing bowls.
On the way back to Thamel I finally got my souvenir t-shirt; two cool ones actually, one with a sitting Buddha image on it and another of a mountain. Caroline came over at 6PM, followed shortly thereafter by Ang Babu (who hasn't changed a bit from last year) and his friend Pasang. I had purchased two tourist bus tickets for this morning to Pokhara, but Caroline decided she couldn't go trekking due to work and Dasain holiday commitments so I offered the extra to Ang Babu. At this point Caroline began waffling, and after she changed her mind a few times over the next few hours I offered to delay my departure from Kathmandu one more day if she'd commit to going (so I didn't waste any more money on bus tickets) and use the extra time to tie up loose ends. She agreed, at which point Ang Babu admitted that he also could also use the extra day. Pasang will also be joining us.
This morning, Ang Babu, Ram (who also hasn't changed), Pasang and I met at 7AM. I'd wakened at 2:30AM and couldn't get back to sleep for an hour (wrote in my journal), then slept through my alarm (which anyway was still set to Delhi time, 15 minutes behind Nepal), so no time for shower, meditation or breakfast. We walked to Swayambhunath, which I particularly enjoyed this year because I better understood the symbolism compared to last. Next I took a taxi to Patan, ancient city and site of the earliest temples. Was immediately accosted and adopted by a young waif in the 11th level of school who swore he only wanted to learn English then attempted to steer me to all his friends' thangka shops. We visited the golden temple of 9,999 Buddhas and a small stupa (also called a chaitya and, in Tibetian, a chorten), and I gave him my American change (he showed me his foreign coin collection) for his troubles.
When I went into the Patan Museum, he vowed to wait for me outside even though I said this was unnecessary. The museum was really amazing; Hindu, Buddhist and other artifacts dating from the 6th century, tantric documents, and pictures of Kathmandu from 1900. Since I hadn't eaten yet, I had daal bhaat at the musem's cafe. I thought I'd ditched my young friend when I exited the museum; he wasn't there. I wanted to see a large ancient (3rd century BC) stupa in the outskirts of town. Four stupas surround Patan, one at each main compass direction, and the south 'Ashoka Stupa' was the largest of them (Ashoka being the Indian king who, through his Buddhist conversion and subsequent support, assured the infant religion a long, fruitful life and helped bring it to what are now Nepal and Tibet).
As I sat consulting the trekking book, another young Nepali struck up a conversation. His approach was much more low-key and I enjoyed his company very much; he was in the seventh level in school and had excellent English skills. We chatted about America for a few minutes, and I asked him to guide me to the Ashoka stupa. He first took me to a smaller (incorrect) one I'd already seen, then we went to the museum to consult the stupa display and find the location. On the way in we ran into my 'friend' from the morning, who followed us around, threw a temper tantrum and demanded half of any earnings the other Nepali would receive.
On the way to the stupa and back my new young friend and I had in-depth Buddhist discussions; he was very knowledgeable and plans to be a monk after finishing 10th level of school. The stupa was very simple; a brick wall-enclosed grass hill with the 'eyes' on top. I took a moto-rickshaw back to Thamel, where Caroline and Ang Babu met me at around 4PM. We took the public bus to Bodhnath, which was a really magical experience hearing and seeing the evening puja, the monks, all the faithful chanting and doing clockwise walking meditation, etc. Then had daal bhaat dinner at Ang Babu's apartment (Ram is an excellent cook) and got back at around 10PM. Ang Babu and Pasang will no longer be coming along; they need more shopping time prior to the Dasain holiday. So regardless of what trek Caroline and I do, I'll be hiking back to the trailhead with her before striking out on my own, to make sure she gets back to Pokhara safely.
Sunday, October 10
Woke up early, took the 7AM tourist bus (250 rupees per seat) to Pokhara and arrived at around 1:30PM. Considered a number of trek options and decided to stay with the original 2-day up, 1-day back Poon Hill trek; I'll accompany Caroline back to Nayapul and then will take a taxi to Beni for the beginning of my Sanctuary visit. We are at the Noble Inn; we were told at the bus station (by someone with a Tranquility Lodge business card) that the Tranquility Lodge was full, then found out (as we already suspected) that it wasn't when we delivered a gift there for my friend Eric (his friend,who owns the hotel, was away in Kathmandu anyway, and the rooms there were the same price as at the Noble Inn).
Caroline and I arranged for a taxi to the trailhead (800 rupees) and had a great dinner at Mike's Restaurant on the lake (bean and mushroom enchiladas, a shared San Miguel beer and cheesecake for dessert). My allergies were real bad all night, probably due to the lush vegetation caused by the close proximity to an usually long monsoon season. Apparently last year's season in contrast was unusually short (less than 3 months).
Monday, October 11
Hiked from Nayapul to Ulleri today. The second half made for a really rough first day of trekking, culminating in a 400+ meter climb (the guide book claims there are over 3,800 steps). A very warm day; I soaked both my pants and tshirt in sweat and was moving very slow (out of gas) by the end. Once we got here we realized we'd gone one town and one big climb beyond the Lonely Planet trekking guide recommendation, a sobering thought given that just a few days earlier I was considering blowing off Lonely Planet's Annapurna Circuit schedule recommendations.
I've changed my trek plans again. On Thursday, when Caroline returns to Kathmandu, I'll catch an early morning flight to Jomosom ($55). Originally I thought about going up to Muktinath, but that takes 2-3 days, and after considering today's poor performance, I'll probably just head south, with side trips to visit Buddhist sites and the Dhaulagiri Icefall, then across at Tatopani and into the Sanctuary. Unfortunately I made this change in plans after leaving Pokhara this morning (the taxi driver's brother runs a travel agency, so he'll set everything up while we're gone), so I had all my cold-weather gear with me, which really weighed me down. Will probably leave some stuff at this hotel (the Annapurna View Point) tomorrow morning, to pick up on the way back down. Daal bhaat twice today.
Lots and lots of goats and sheep on the trail, headed down from Tibet for the Dasain holiday slaughter. Someone told me that 40,000 will be killed in Pokhara alone. And some folks wonder why I'm a vegetarian...
Tuesday, October 12
Today went much better. We hiked from Ulleri to Ghorepani and are staying at Hotel Snowland, the last lodge of the upper village on the side trail to Poon Hill, which Lonely Planet recommended. It's very nice, and we got here in just over 4 hours (started at 7AM). Today we decided to have breakfast (chapatis with jam and peanut butter) before starting out. I left the following items at the lodge; obscenely heavy bag of M&Ms (44 ounces!), cold weather clothing, extra batteries and flash unit for camera, and three-book Lord of the Rings set. Caroline was actually the one dragging a bit today (she was very patient with me yesterday) and I stuck close because the forests outside Ghorepani are reputed to be particularly crime-prone. Speaking of the forests, they were very beautiful; moss-covered trees and rocks, streams and waterfalls. I should be back here in around 1 week. They're supposed to be even more spectacular in spring time when the rhododendrons are in bloom.
Thursday, October 14
Wow, yesterday was tough. We got up at 4AM at the recommendation of our Nepali hosts, although the 400-meter-higher summit was clearly visible from the lodge. Climbed in the dark and made the top in less than 30 minutes. Sunrise was over an hour away so we sat and froze, and got hot coffee and hot chocolate from an enterprising early-morning merchant. As the mountains came into view they were spectacular; from Machhapuchhre on the right to Dhaulagiri on the left, across the Kali Gandaki Khola (river).
Now to get down. The hike from Ghorepani to Ulleri wasn't too bad; picked up my stuff and we had potato rostis for lunch (had chapatis for breakfast at the Snowland after coming down Poon Hill). The stairs down to the river were murderous, though, and by the end Caroline's knees were wasted, with several hours left to go before we returned to the taxi spot. Somehow, I don't know how, she made it. Stubborn lady....
When we got to the Noble Inn, and after splitting two beers and taking a shower, her good spirits began to re-emerge. To add insult to injury, the town's scheduled power outage (which of course we didn't know about in advance) began just a few minutes after we arrived and lasted until 8PM. While Caroline rested, I left Lil a message at work and went in search of yet another San Miguel beer, this one as cold as possible (some of the lodges and restaurants have private generators), and the best pizza in Pokhara. Fortunately, I found both.
Slept like shit last night, ironic given how tired I was. Didn't zonk out till way after midnight...realized at some point after rereading the label that Sudafeds kept you awake, they didn't put you to sleep (as I, in retrospect for some baffling reason, thought, they're mild amphetamines, after all!). I coughed much of the night. We woke up at 5:15 to pack and catch her 7AM bus back to Kathmandu and my 6:30AM flight to Jomsom.
Coincidentally, a weird transformation is taking place. I've only had one coffee, my first afternoon in Kathmandu, and am drinking Nepali (milk) tea like crazy. Actually I'm drinking water mixed with Gatorade powder like crazy, too, quarts and quarts of the stuff. At least I'm well hydrated! At this point my health is holding up nicely...some sniffles, a congested cough, but that's about it.
Today was just magical. It began with the flight; I'm not sure if I've spent a better $55 in my life. Gorkha Airlines, with an overhead-wing plane that in size reminded me of the Intel shuttle between Sacramento and Santa Clara. I was first on the plane so selected a right hand window seat. Actually, everyone had a window, but I got some amazing Annapurna views! The other side 'only' got Dhaulagiri. We were probably flying at 6000 meters or so, right up the Kali Gandaki, and the right wing would seemingly brush the side of a mountain every few minutes. What a hard landing in Jomsom (apparently I missed the trickiest bit though...when the wind is blowing a certain direction through the Kali Gandaki the pilots must overfly the airport and do a tight 180 degee turn before landing)!
By the way, they weighed my backpack at the airport in Pokhara....23 kilos (50.6 lbs) without water bottles, my camera, my climbing pants and gaitors (which I gave to Caroline to hold for me), the dreaded M&Ms (also to Caroline) and a paperback copy of Living Buddha, Living Christ which I finished last night (ditto). I estimate that I dragged 60 lbs or more up the hill to Ulleri the other day. With this fact in mind, and especially considering the 'low' elevation, my gut feel that I might not have been able to summit Aconcagua seems even more plausible. What can I say; I'm only a 60 kilo guy.
In the back of my mind had still been the idea of first heading north toward Muktinath instead of south, but my thighs and calves were sore so I knew I'd need help. This problem was nicely solved when Mansing Rosalie accosted me at the airport. For 500 rupees (he'll take care of his own food and lodging) he's carrying my backpack from Jomsom to Jharkot and back, plus he'll guide me to and around Muktinath. He's quiet but helpful (I've already gotten several Nepali lessons from him) and we hike at a compatible pace. I'm so pleased that for 500 rupees more I'm seriously considering hiring him to take my stuff as far as Chitre, where he can then go on to Ghorepani and hire on with someone else. Or maybe I'll just blow off the Sanctuary and head south at Tatopani; we'll see how I feel in a few days and what my pace and leg/lung strength are then.
This side of the Circuit is exactly what I imagined it'd be..barren windswept hills terminating in snow-capped 7000+ meter peaks. I saw a number of trekkers headed down towards Jomsom, including one middle-aged Russian couple who'd started in Jomsom and gone over the Pass twice! Not many other Western trekkers heading my way, however, and the few I recognized from the airport this morning were riding horses.
Muktinath was amazing, though at first glance it's rather humdrum. Some trees with leaves changing color in the fall season, a lot of chortens and prayer flags and a few temples. However when my hand touched the sacred water emanating from the first of 108 cow and elephant head-shaped spouts, an intense emotion welled up inside me and I had to fight back tears the whole rest of the time I was there (reminds me of Caroline's story re. the Rimpoche's question at Bodhnath...'why are you crying'?). Weird and wacky stuff; the effects of the altitude, or something more? The Hindu temple had Buddha imagery in it (Hindus view Buddha as a manifestation of one of their gods), and when the guardian found out I was a Buddhist practitioner he let me prostrate in front of it and gave me a tikta and red cloth necklace (but I still could not go inside).
There was also a Buddhist gompa (monastery) there, with very ancient statues and drawings, The temple containing the 'magical' natural gas flame superimposed on holy water had primarily Buddhist themes, and a monk was reciting sutras (I sat and meditated for a few minutes). Had a nice short conversation with some Europeans who were asking questions about the prayer flags, etc. and saw me prostrating. Lots of vendors selling items on the trail between Muktinath and Jharkot, including what were alleged to be sacred Tibetian Buddhist texts, probably stolen from a monastery (or maybe just clever artificially-aged fakes).
I bought a Tibetian good luck charm below Muktinath; a dragon icon. We also visited the gompa in Jharkot, built in the 14th century and containing, among other things, two enormous Buddhas. Next door a group of young schoolchildren were saying their evening puja with a teacher; I stuck my head through the doorway and wished them a silent namaste but didn't stick around, not wanting to disturb them. We spent the evening at the quaint Himali Hotel; I was the only Westerner there, although a family of Hindu pilgrims arrived after dark. In bed by 7:30 PM.
Friday, October 15
It's lunchtime as I write this first bit, and we're back in Jomsom. The whole way down from Jharkot this morning I saw helicopters, every 15 minutes or so, buzzing up and down the Kali Gandaki valley, and was reminded of Andrew Stevenson's book Annapurna Circuit: Himalayan Journey, where he admitted to having snuck into Mustang for a few days and saw the helicopters shooting overhead, looking for him, just after he returned to 'safe' territory.
I've decided to put my ego on the shelf and hire Mansing for the entire trek. Will make it far more enjoyable to have someone else carrying at least part of my gear. 1500 rupees total (see the October 25th entry for the mistake I made in calculating his salary) for 11-12 days of trekking and who knows how much mileage; he's covering his own meals and lodging throughout and has gone to get his cold weather gear. Considering I'll be gobbling up nearly half of his fall trekking season business opportunity, I don't think I overspent (and even if I did I don't much care).
Wow. Left the Himalayan Hotel in Jomsom, where I had daal bhaat, and called Caroline to see how she was feeling, ask her to drop a happy-birthday-and-I'm-still-alive email to Lil and let both of them know I'd gotten a porter. One minute down the trail I realized I didn't have my camera (to which I'd of course attached my altimeter watch and baseball cap). I was furious. But I couldn't remember if I had the camera with me when I left the hotel (which would have meant I left it at the telephone office) or not. If at the hotel, I thought either that a member of the restaurant staff or one of the Germans at the next table lifted it from my seat after I left.
What an opportunity to practice non-attachment.....we went back several times to both the hotel and telephone office...where of course everyone denied knowledge of the missing items. Within 15 minutes or so of leaving town my red-hot anger had subsided and I realized several facts:
As I write this I'm sitting in front of Hotel Dhaulagiri in the lovely town of Marpha. I carried both my backpack and daypack the rest of the way here, and Mansing has gone back to Jomsom to hopefully retrieve my missing items and, if not, to file a police report. I've succeeded in apparently getting the last remaining double room in town, which I'm sharing with an Aussie living in London named Darren (whose wife is also back home), and Mansing has a dormitory bed. Two horses are getting re-shoed right in front of me, and one guy just got knocked on his butt by a hoof-kick.
By the way, on the way down to Jomsom this morning, Mansing and I passed a Tibetian-looking man and woman, and Mansing talked with them for a few moments. Afterwards I asked him who that was, and he said 'oh, the head lama of Mustang district'!!!!! I've asked him, if he should encounter other auspicious folks such this in the future, to please let me know. We also got serenaded by a woman and her two daughters on the trail down to Ekliabhatti (where I had daal bhaat both going up and coming down and also left dirty clothes for laundry service and to pick up on the way back to Jomsom). The mother wanted to know if I had a 'shri mati' and then, when she found out I did, thought it might be a good idea if I had a Nepali or Tibetian wife too! All this entertainment only cost me a 15 rupee package of biscuits.
It's now 7:30PM and I am so lucky. I'd left the camera at the hotel toilet after all, and a guide from another group picked it up intending to, unless he came across the owner before then, turn it into the lost-and-found in Pokhara. Upon entering Marpha he heard about my predicament and presented me with my camera right before I took my shower. What honesty! Especially considering how many thousands of rupees he could have gotten for them in Kathmandu. I split a beer with Mansing to thank him for going back to Jomsom (he filed a police report although they wouldn't give him a copy), but the guide refused my offer of monetary reward, accepting only my 'thank you'. I hope to be able to buy him a nice inner back in Kathmandu, or to use him as a guide during a future trip, to better show my appreciation.
Visited the local gompa this evening...most of the trekkers are headed to the Yak Dance Club (from where, when I walked by a few minutes ago, Bob Marley music was emanating). I'm vegging out here instead; am about to start reading Lord of the Rings vol. 1. Dinner was very tasty (mushroom lasagna and tomato soup) and the warm shower felt good, but the overall experience is a bit too Western for my tastes. Too much electricity, too many intense trekkers. To sleep at 7:45 PM. Didn't even hear Darren come in.
Oh, before I forget, a few more stories and observations. At the lodge in Jharkot there was a stack of eggs in cartons...probably a dozen dozen of them. I asked Mansing how long they'd been there and he guestimated '6 or 7 days'. This was of course AFTER I ordered and ate the egg chow mein. It tasted fine and the egg was well-cooked; I can only hope that in the absence of refrigeration the cool natural air sufficiently preserved them!
The wind up the Kali Gandaki kicked in at around noon. Although the gusts were quite strong between Jomsom and Marpha, they weren't the sandblasting that I expected.
Saturday, October 16
Another really nice day today. We left Marpha at 6:45 AM (I did most of my packing outside the room to avoid disturbing Darren). Last night I bought myself a ring, which I realized midday today was no longer on my finger (I hope it fell off in my sleeping bag or backpack), and a wooden engraved portable prayer wheel. This morning the vendors sucked me in again in spite of myself; I bought a set of 108 meditation beads and a Tibetian necklace and earring set for Lil (including a free coral bracelet since I was her first customer). The vendor philosophy is interesting here; it's bad luck if they don't make at least one sale per day, and they'll sell below cost if necessary to make this happen. Best times of day to buy, therefore, are the first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon (for the so-far unlucky vendors, at least). I don't think I've pushed the bargaining position so far as to cause someone to lose money, however...it's rather silly to quibble over a few US pennies!
Stopped for breakfast at Tukuche. Although the gompa in Marpha was supposedly active, I couldn't find any monks, and I really wanted a real-life blessing, so we set off in search of the Tukuche gompa (which was also active, according to my trekking book). The main gompa (there are four in town) was pretty impressive; lots of dusty statues and elaborate wall paintings. But no lama. I'm persistant; I asked the folks who WERE there (including one junior lama who looked to be about 10 years old) and found out that the head lama was down the street. Turns out he was in the middle of puja with a half-dozen junior monks and two also-shaved-head female nuns. We were allowed to enter and sat quietly while sutras were recited, drums beaten, conch shells and horns blown, etc.
Then they took a break and, after taking off my shoes, I was allowed to approach. I know I looked like a dolt...no prostration or other rituals, no white scarf, etc. He was in his 50s, I'd guess, and regally clothed in tennis shoes, blue pants, a white shirt and red nylon windbreaker. He knew no English, I knew little Nepali, but eventually I got across that I'd like a blessing. I bowed my head and he tapped it with one of his sutra sheets. A little anticlimatic but oh well. I went and sat back down at the end of the room and we made small talk for a few minutes (where are you from, so you're an American Buddhist, etc) and they offered me tea which I accepted (thought of giardia but figured that declining tea from the lama would have been much worse). Excused myself after drinking and heard puja start up again as I stepped outside....apparently they were politely waiting for me to leave. Oops
Had daal bhaat in Kokhethanti, and it was a blast. I think I really surprised the locals. First I ordered daal bhaat. Then I sat inside with Mansing and the rest of the porters instead of outside with the trekkers. Then I started asking the kids their names and ages and playing games with them. Then I ate the daal bhaat with my right hand instead of silverware. Don't think they'd ever seen such a sight. Ended up learning (and of course mostly forgetting) some Nepali, but I'm again and again realizing that the retention is a secondary concern. Simply making the effort, and opening yourself up to looking like an idiot in the process, is sufficient to separate you from the trekking hordes, and the locals are (in general) so very friendly and patient. If you're going to screw up the local language, I can't think of a better place than Nepal to do it.
Heard the other (and I'm sure, accurate) side of the camera story this morning, by the way. Apparently the 'friendly guide from Kathmandu' was in fact somehow affiliated with the infamous Himalaya Hotel in Jomsom. Someone (not clear who) found and decided to keep the watch and camera, until Mansing brought the police from the Jomsom post down to investigate, at which point the Himalaya Hotel staff got nervous and decided to return the 'borrowed' goods. For anyone reading this and thinking about going to Nepal...I do NOT recommend staying there.
Wonderful, but long, trek today that lasted until 4PM. Spectacular views of Dhaulagiri to the west with its icefall, and of the Annapurna mastiff to the south-east. Kalopeni would have been a nice town to stay in but we decided to press on. Surmounted a tricky river crossing, at the junction of the Kali Gandaki and Pangu Khola, heading up to Titi Taal (lake), because a landslide had wiped out the lower bridge and the upper bridge route would take too long. Thought of how freaked out Lil would have been about scrambling about on the near-vertical dirt cliff. Weve been hiking and hanging out with some of Mansing's friends from his village, who are portering a group of American women. They're nice and funny guys. Don't think, though, that their employers are too happy that they're walking day-after-day with us instead of them.
At the northern outskirts of Ghasa is the Bimala Hotel. It's on the Bryn Thomas Trekking In the Annapurna Region book map but not mentioned in the text. It has no electricity (the lodges in town do) and no hot shower. Perfect! Plus the single room rate is only 25 rupees, although I just noticed there's no lock on the inside of the door (will sleep tonite with money and passport inside sleeping bag and without earplugs). I'm the only trekker here, though a nice Swiss lady stopped by for tea earlier (she had gone from Thorung Pheti all the way to Kagbeni in one day, including a 3 hour rest in Muktinath, showed no altitude symptoms whatsoever and didn't even have a rest day in Manang) along with her Nepali guide who spoke flawless English and Swiss-Italian. He's been to Switzerland and prefers the scenery there to that in Nepal!
Had a great vegetable chow mien (70 rupees) and dinner plate-sized apple pie (45 rupees) and split two small pots of milk tea with Mansing. My fears of offending him yesterday by sharing a beer with him were unnecessary; he polished off two glasses of rakshi before dinner and is quite the loopy fellow as a result! He's been as high as Dhaulagiri Base camp at 6,000+ meters, while portering the 'around Dhaulagiri' trek, without ill effects, which makes me feel better about his probable altitude performance at Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). It's 6:30PM and the first candle is about to blow out....am I really going to bed this early? Makes me glad we trekked all day and I didn't roll into a lodge earlier. Oh, and my good luck continues....the ring I bought and lost was in my backpack!
Sunday, October 17
Now THIS is the life. It's 2PM, I just took a wonderful cold shower and did some laundry, and I'm sitting here with hot french fries and an ice cold San Miguel at the Dhaulagiri Lodge (seems every town has a lodge named this) in Tatopani. Nice hike today through the ever-narrowing Kali Gandaki gorge; we started at 6:45AM after a chapati breakfast and stopped for lunch at 9:45AM in Rupse Chhahara. Arrived here at just past 1PM. I saw the french doctor (female) mentioned in the trekking book who married the hotel owner; she had a baby slung on her hip. Not sure if this owner is the same guy mentioned in Stevenson's book. My Nepali language skills continue to get (slowly) better; I can now count to 10 (whoooo) and surprised another bunch of Nepalis this morning by ordering daal bhaat, chatting with them in my pathetic Nepali and eating with my hand.
This place really is quite magical; cabins by the river for large groups and 30 rupee single rooms. I splurged at lunch and bought both of us orange Fantas (the price finally dropped to 40 rupees..had been 50 ever since Jomsom). Butterflies (huge, beautiful ones) flutter about and the insects in the trees make their hypnotic music. Mansing just walked by without recognizing me; I have my contacts in my eyes instead of glasses for the first time since Pokhara so maybe that's why.
Weather's balmy, there's a nice breeze, and the chocolate cherry cake in the dining room looks incredible. What a contrast from the abject poverty I've seen this trip; yet another reminder of how amazingly lucky my life is. I'm absolutely delighted that my health has held up so well, at least thus far. Sleeping well though the overly warm sleeping bag, barking dogs, voices from room next door, etc. wake me up periodically. I've been very careful about iodine-treating the water, even the supposedly ceramic-filtered stuff (which the trekking book says does nothing to make it safe to drink, though it does remove visible particulate matter). Am quite pleased that I got a porter, and specifically with Mansing. If my daypack's still holding up I'll give it to him in Pokhara; he's also taken a liking to my Nepali for Trekkers book. A nice dinner is probably also in order, along with a letter of recommendation.
Monday, October 18
Had a really great time last night. I never would have thought that I'd find a vegetarian burger outside of Thamel, far from in Tatopani, but the Dhaulagiri Lodge came through. Wendy, the American working in Bangkok who, along with her friend Chris, I'd met a few days earlier in Marpha, limped into town late in the afternoon. After a dip in the hot springs and a shower revived her, I fixed up the worst of her blisters and left her with a set of sock liners, some bandages and a sheet of moleskin. They are taking a rest day today and then taking two days to get to Beni. We sat around and BS'd till 9:30PM and they even bought me a beer. I bought another tshirt and a small dorje for my necklace; saw many more 'antique Tibetian and Nepali texts' for sale too. Only one thing marred the evening; someone stole my towel off the clothesline.
A long but decent climb out of the Kali Gandaki this morning; we left at 7AM (I was ready to go a half hour earlier). Had the last piece of chocolate mocha cake from the bakery plus a cup of mik tea before setting out. Fortunately the day was mostly overcast so it wasn't as hot as it could have been (this side of Ghorepani Pass is more exposed than the one I did at the beginning of the trek). Wasn't very hungry so I skipped lunch in favor of a PowerBar (have been dragging these things around for two weeks and, with the exception of the day we climbed up to Ulleri, haven't eaten any). Had some boiled potatoes and a cup of salt tea when I finished trekking for the day.
The New Dhaulagiri Lodge in Chitre, run by the Pun Sisters, is a nice place. We pulled in just after 2PM. I'm 140 pages into vol. 1 of Lord of the Rings and really enjoying it. Also wrote postcards. The base of Dhaulagiri is wreathed in clouds but the summit is exposed. If the bad weather doesn't break (the high Himalayas have clouded up every afternoon so far) I'll turn south at Chomrong and head back to Pokhara. No point hassling with rain and snow just to NOT see mountains in the Sanctuary (reminiscent of my '96 Glacier Train experiment in Switzerland with Lil). Speaking of which, we hiked for quite a while with the Swiss-Italian lady from Ghasa and her guide, Neema Lama. Nice folks, and she's an impressively strong hiker.
A few porters just arrived and have erected tents right in the middle of the dining yard. Lovely. This side of the Circuit sure has a different (and, overall in my opinion, inferior, crowded and Western) feel compared to last year's. The price you pay for the amazing scenery, just as Trekking in the Annapurna Region described it would be. Overheard a conversation a few minutes ago that really bugged me, although I'll probably wimp out and not say anything (because I don't want them to think I was intentionally eavesdropping). One of a group of girls mentioned to another that she caught two of the porters, who had become good friends through the course of the trek, holding hands as they walked earlier that day, got all upset and told them that they were being 'bad', etc, etc.
This is so typical, to not bother trying to understand that men over here don't have the hangups of guys back in the States and frequently hold hands, put their arms around each other, etc with no sexual connotation whatsoever (and even if there was a attraction between the porters, what business is it of hers?). 'I'm paying your salary so I feel justified inflicting my culture's sense of right and wrong on you' is apparently her attitude. Disappointing. I remember Stevenson describing a similar scenario in his book, involving trekkers making crude remarks as they passed him holding hands with a young Nepali friend.
This was the first day I didn't trek either alongside or counter to Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims on their way to Muktinath. Some of these folks have walked all the way here from India, and many of them are very, very old, poorly clothed and with little or no foot coverings. Their faith and devotion is quite inspiring. Probably their last chance to visit this second-holiest Hindu shrine before they die, at which point they probably also hope their corpses will visit, and be cremated at, the holiest site Pashuputinat. Wonder where Mt. Kailash is on the list? I read a story about especially devout pilgrims who prostrate themselves all the way to, around and away from this holy mountain.
Just met a really neat couple, probably in their late 60s, who have visited Nepal the last four years in a row (him, she missed last year). Last year he did the Circuit all by himself (along with a porter) and this year his wife's joining him, over Thorung La and all.
Tuesday, October 19
Drip, drip, drip. This was a wet but fun day. But first last night.
The four women I mentioned before turned out to be a 16 year old high school graduate and her mother from Marin County and two teenagers from San Francisco. They hooked up at Besisahar. This is mom's (who looks much younger than her years) first time out of the US, and her daughter's (who looks much older than her years) second trip to Nepal. Daughter was actually pretty cool; last year she attempted the Circuit (in the middle of the summer monsoon!) and made it over Thorung La but got nailed by giardia and flew back to 'civilization' at Jomsom.
This time she's taking a year off before college and is teaching English in Kathmandu. We both agreed that we preferred the eastern half of the Circuit though I found her reason ironic; 'because the local people are warmer and friendlier there' (of course, it's because there's less trekker-induced cultural change there!).
I spent dinner, and a good chunk of time afterwards, talking to the British couple I mentioned in yesterday's entry. Cliff is 69 and ran his first marathon at age 54. His wife Mary is 64 and says she feels like a wimp because she took a horse from Thorong Pheti to the top of the pass (they made it all the way down to Jharkot that day). It's the second marriage for both. What a sweet couple and storytelling duo! He regularly gives slide shows to various community groups and brought along a bunch of photos taken last year to give to the people who were in them. I gave them a book list (they hadn't read The Snow Leopard), they gave me their address, and I hope we stay in touch. I also met an Australian couple earlier in the day (they looked to be in their early 50s); he'd already been retired for 10 years and they were sailing around the world, docking whenever the mood suited them. An inspiration for Lil and my retirement years.
We left this morning at 7AM; I was ready to go an hour earlier but Mansing slept in. A really nice hike through muddy, mossy forest, flat at first then steeply climbing to Deurali. My legs felt pretty heavy although I'd had chapatis and jam for breakfast, but two hard-boiled eggs and a Powerbar (plus a leg-stretching downhill to Banthanti) revived me. It had been cloudy all day, though Dhaulagiri was clear (folks at Poon Hill this morning said that the entire Annapurna mastiff was in clouds) and just before Banthanti it began to pour. I pulled on my parka, and Mansing grabbed my baseball cap, and the hike was actually quite pleasant, reminiscent of last year's trek in heavy snow from Manang to Thorung Pheti (which Lil didn't enjoy near as much as I did).
We dropped down to the Bhurungdi Khola and then climbed up to Tadopani; the climb was not at all a big deal for me but on the other hand I didn't have much weight on my back either. I was up for going on when we reached Tadopani but Mansing wanted to stop, which is ok. We're sharing a room for the first time; I spent quite a while teaching him to use the combination lock (and I'm probably not done with the lessons). I followed a gal down from Deurali who has the same backpack and watch that I do, and she's ended up at our lodge (the Tadapani Guest House). She works for REI in Berkeley and immediately gave me a 'I hope you shop at REI in Sacramento' when she found out where I lived (good chuckle....leave your work behind, girl!). The fog was rolling in but right now appears to be lifting, and it's stopped raining at least for a while. Whoops, I just looked up and it's raining again, and here comes a fog bank.
Wednesday, October 20
Before I begin, here's some vital statistics on Mansing (did I mention that he's 23 and the only son in the family?). Highly recommended by the way, for anyone reading this who's planning on going to Nepal and looking for a porter:
Father: Shibir Rosalie (59)
Mother: Mhitima Rosalie (54)
Last night was really a blast. The fog and rain never went away so a bunch of us huddled around the dining room table with charcoals underneath for warmth. The gal from REI, Karin, is indeed into mountaineering and has climbed a number of peaks in the Cascades. Thorung La is the highest she's been and she gutted it out without Diamox to see how her body would respond. She's interested in climbing either Aconcagua or Denali. She's traveling with a guy and gal; he fled Iraq about 10 years ago (had a week trip to Germany that he never returned from) and he got his masters in EE from Michigan State. Worked for Motorola in Arlington Heights, IL for a while and now works for Philips in Sunnyvale, CA. Note the lodge is also great; very friendly and funny ladies run the place.
Two other gals also joined our merry party. Julie, from Kansas City, is over here for a short visit. Her friend Scotti, a CPA from Phoenix, is here for eight months. They both were at Poon Hill this morning and will be back in Pokhara in two days; Scotti heads off to do the Annapurna Circuit the 26th. A really interesting duo; both runners, Julie was reading a Carl Jung book and Scotti had The Snow Leopard, so I knew right away we'd hit it off. Actually, swapping good book recommendations was one of the things we all did throughout the evening. Daal bhaat dinner for the second night in a row. Julie and Scotti's porter, a real character, has been trying to fix them up with various members of a group of Chinese trekkers that've been following the same route. His idea of the perfect life (a refrain that's supposed to rhyme which, with variations in country, I've heard before) is:
Four Israelis, two guys and two gals, completed the group. With the exception of the fact that two of them were loudly talking outside my door at 11PM last night (and didn't apologize this morning) they were a good bunch (Israelis, as I mentioned in last year's journal, generally have a less-than-favourable reputation both with the Nepalis and other trekkers). Like the group in Ulleri who cooked their own food in their lodge room, these folks had restrictive kosher diets. Among other things, they manually inspected the rice and hand-sifted the flour to remove worms (you should see how much hair and other crap they also sifted out). They were also doing some elaborate ritual involving chanting while having leather straps wound about their arms, this morning when we left.
The family cat came right up to me after dinner and the sweet little thing fell asleep on my chest for about a half hour. I got to bed around 8PM; the Nepalis in the hotel next door were having a whale of a good time dancing, singing and (from the sound of it) pounding on water containers and other impromptu percussion instruments. Almost went over there for the entertainment but the pounding rain deterred me. Awoke at 6AM to clear skies (at least for a few minutes) and great views of Annapurna South and Machhapuchhre. Started off at 7AM after tea and chapatis, and saw a large group of monkeys (a dozen or more) in the forests just below Tadopani.
A steep drop through the muddy, slippery trail to the town of Chiukle (where two Nepali ladies told me I looked 25…this has been a debate that's lasted through the whole trek as I call folks 'younger brother' and 'younger sister' and they amicably protest) and the Kimrong Khola was followed by a note-quite-so-steep ascent to Chomrong. We had daal bhaat at the Heaven Lodge where Mansing re-sewed my daypack's straps (he jokingly said he was going to charge me 1 rupee; I bought him a Snickers bar instead). I bypassed the posh new resorts filled with Westerners at the initial, upper part of town and we dropped down via a really nice stone staircase to the older part of town and the highly-regarded (by both of my trekking books); Captain's Lodge.
We've been on new territory for Mansing (i.e. places he's never been before) ever since leaving Chitre, and I think he's enjoying the adventure as much as I am. We're sharing a room together for the first time tonight (he ended up sleeping in the porter room in Tadopani), and although we've been calling each other 'younger brother' and 'older brother' for days now, he said 'let's go, friend' for the first time today. In spite of the weather (it's rained on and off ever since mid-morning, right now it's raining in the hills a few hundred feet above where I'm sitting and the way ahead looks equally damp) we'll probably push on tomorrow instead of heading back toward Pokhara, as much to give him the chance to see the Sanctuary as me. Could we be going further or longer each day (we only trekked till just past noon today)...sure. But he's reinforced lessons of patience and the value of slow, steady ascents and frequent breaks (unfortunately, often inspired on his part by cravings for 25-rupee-per-pack cigarettes) and made the contrast between ourselves and the fast-paced marathon-distance ego-driven folks around us more noticeable. On the one hand I'd love to walk all day. On the other hand this isn't real practical (due to the large number of trekkers, the lodges fill up by mid-afternoon) and I've been able to do lots of per-day writing and reading.
The Captain is described in the books as having a brusque, gruff personality, and he does, but as I suspected before even meeting him there's a warm caring nature just under the surface. One daughter lives in New York City and the other runs another lodge in town. He's just strolled off with Mansing under one arm in search of warm clothing for the days ahead; Mansing wasn't entirely truthful with me in Jomsom about the extent of his 'cold weather wardrobe'. I've just chatted with a group of Belgian girls right out of high school who are doing a year's worth of humanitarian work in Chitre and are on their way back from trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary as part of their first month's culture and language orientation classes in Kathmandu. Took a lukewam (!!) shower and changed clothes (including, yes, underwear) for the first time in three days, did a little laundry (that may not dry till Pokhara; its raining again) and am looking forward to sampling the Captain's cooking this evening.
Some of the people (all ages and both genders) of this town sport something I haven't seen anywhere else; tiktas made from colored pieces of rice somehow glued to their foreheads. Found out a little more history of the Captain's Lodge from the cook, Sudan. 'Captain' (there doesn't seem to be a Mrs. Captain) was a captain in the British Guerkas (there's a picture of him in the dining room from 1964) and opened this lodge, the first in town, in 1973. The electricity came on at 5PM from the generator at his 'modern' lodge, the Garden Villa, 5 minutes up the hill (where some rooms have private baths and tiled floors). Looks like Mansing and I will be the only ones at the Captain's Lodge tonight; I feel a little bad doing this to Mansing because there are no other porters for him to hang out with but the alternating social/antisocial ;-) night schedule is working out well for me. He's a fairly quiet, private sort anyway; bypassed the party next door last night in favour of sleep.
Dinner was absolutely outstanding; tomato soup with homemade bread (toasted) and swiss cheese rosti. Throughout this trip I've really enjoyed watching, and interacting with, the children. In Ulleri I observed a young boy outrageously amuse himself for over a half hour with just a stick and the fabric loop from a table covering. Tonight, as in many nights (Marpha, Tadipani, etc), I hauled the dozen or so snot-nosed, dirty neighborhood kids around on my back, arms, legs, etc. I'm reminded that the photos from my website of last year's trip that folks tend to remember the most are the ones of the children.
Thursday, October 21
Another great day. Last night it started raining very hard at 6PM and was still going when I fell asleep (for the first time) at 7:30. At 8PM Mansing (who I hadn't seen since early afternoon) stumbled in, smiling and happy, soaked to the skin, roaring drunk and reeking of alcohol. Yesterday was the last big day of Dasain, and he'd wandered to the upper village, hooked up with friends and drunk his dinner of raikshe, chang and beer. Woke up this morning at 5:30 to clear skies, stars and amazing views of Annapurna South and Machhupuchhre.
Considering his condition last night, Mansing hiked amazingly well today. We left at 7AM after I ate the excellent apple pie with custard that I was originally going to have for dessert last night. I also rented Mansing a down jacket (30 rupees per day) and stocking cap (10 rupees per day) from the Captain. We stopped for lunch at the Bamboo Lodge, where the young couple running the place had a sweet little baby boy.
Met up with a 23 year old Russian guy named Sergey mid-morning, and hiked with him much of the afternoon. He's on such a tight budget that he's been sleeping in local homes and skipping breakfast and lunch (I tossed him a Powerbar for lunch today), and he's never been higher than Poon Hill. I'm worried about him and will keep a close eye. When he saw the dorje on my neck he asked if I was Buddhist; turns out he is too (apparently the areas close to Mongolia practice Tibetian Buddhism, although he's from Moscow where Russian Orthodox is far more common). He graduated with a degree in computer programming and is taking a few months off prior to looking for a job. Just came from India, where he spent 1.5 months.
Raced up here (Himalayan Guest House) after lunch and secured the last 6-person dorm room at 1:30 PM. I'll doll out beds to Mansing (even though he's technically supposed to sleep in the porter room), Sergey, Noel (a New Zealand guy I first met in Chitre) and a friend of his. Also offered two beds to a Japanese couple I met at lunch, but the lodge owners refused to guarantee them blankets. The 'monopoly factor' is definitely at work here; the staff is cocky and sarcastic; only two lodges exist in this village, other lodges are two hours up (Deurali) and down (Dovan) the trail. There's more competition at Machhupuchhre Base Camp (MBC, where if all works out we'll be tomorrow night), although the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) has similarly limited each lodge to 7 rooms.
Friday, October 22
Last night was a lot of fun. My dorm-mates ended up being Noah (a guy I'd first met in Chitre), a friend of his, Sergey, a guy from England and one from Germany (there was a bed left over for Mansing, but he decided to crash in the dining room with the rest of the Nepalis). Until dinner I curled up in a corner of the courtyard with a book.
Noah the Kiwi (New Zealander) and I shared a bench at dinner (we were both eating daal bhaat) and had an enjoyable conversation. He's 20, and turns out he's also into mountaineering. His poor-condition running shoes (no hiking boots) were already tattered in Chitre, and by Himalaya they were in pieces. I donated some dental floss for use as thread, the same stuff that Mansing and I used to again fix my daypack at lunch.
After dinner I returned to my book and headed inside when the light grew dim (soon afterward the rain started coming down in buckets and was still doing so when I fell asleep). A large group of Italians were also staying at the lodge (on their way down from ABC), and the one sitting next to me had bacterial (I think, her English was minimal) diarrhea for 6 days counting. I tried to advise her as best I could, but her proposed medications weren't in my trekking books and their instructions were in Italian.
Earlier that afternoon I'd struck up a conversation with an American one bench over who was reading The Snow Leopard. His friends were running late and if they didn't make it to Himalaya (they finally did) he was going to surrender his triple room and take a bed in mine. He joined me inside after dinner and we had a really interesting chat. He'd recently finished a two-year Peace Corps stint in Eastern Europe and had just come from India. In spite of the horrible sanitary conditions, he was very enthusiastic about his experiences there because of the spiritual undertone to everything. Among other things, he did a two week yoga-and-meditation course. We're both big Joseph Campbell fans, and also had chats about Buddhism, Hinduism, Reike, good books and around, oh, two dozen other topics.
Six guys in a room and, believe it or not we all went to bed at 8:30PM, woke up at 6AM and nobody snored (at least that I heard). I slept like a log. I'm a bit worried about Sergey; unfortunately we left before he did this morning so I wasn't able to keep an eye on him. He spent all afternoon and evening by himself in the dorm room bundled up in a sleeping bag, though he swore he was fine every time I came in and checked on him. He also skipped dinner.
Totally blue skies this morning; we hit the trail at 6:45 AM and one hour later we were in Deurali. At this point I had a idea; why drag all our stuff up 1200 meters, take a chance on bad weather tomorrow morning and battle over precious limited hotel space in MBC and ABC? We dumped off the backpack at the Shangri-la Hotel in Deurali and continued with only a light daypack and camera, arriving at ABC at 10:00AM (a trip that was supposed to take 6 hours).
The Sanctuary was absolutely magical; the most beautiful place I've ever been, Annapurna I and Annapurna South on the western end, Annapurna III and Machhupuchhre on the eastern end, and other 6000+ and 7000+ meter peaks all the rest of the way around. We had daal bhaat outside, perhaps the best I'd eaten the whole trip, and I spend the next hour or so wandering aound in a daze staring at the peaks, the chortens with prayer flags and the memorials to fallen mountaineers (there was a touching tribute to Anatoly Boukreev in the dining room of the lodge where we had lunch). Around noon the first whisps of clouds appeared, moving north from the Modi Kholi valley, and by 1PM most of the peaks were obscured.
I reluctantly said goodbye and as I descended toward MBC, the ABC lodges disappeared into the mists. We arrived back here in Deurali at 3PM. My roommates are Mansing and a Brit named Martin, who's done the Circuit along with two British gals, Sarah and Hannah, and is now headed into the Sanctuary. Fried noodles with veggies, cheese and egg for dinner along with a famous fried 'Snickers Roll' that the trekking books rave about (I'll split it with Mansing). A few words of Nepali, along with the handheld computer as an initial attraction, have endeared me to the lodge owner and staff; we've shared names, ages and pictures of pets, spouses and children, and they as always are pleased when I notice om symbols, prayer flags, prayer beads, etc, inquire if they're Buddhist and reveal that I am too.
Saturday, October 23
I had a really enjoyable time talking with Hannah last night; we chatted continuously for over 3 hours. I'd noticed before dinner that she had a bible study guide, copy of the NIV Bible and copy of the New Testament, and asked her if I could borrow the New Testament at some point in the evening because, since I'd begun studying Buddhism, I'd wanted to go back and reread it.
Prior to dinner she moved over next to me on the bench, and our conversation, which began with spirituality, eventually covered a wide range of topics. She's a nurse (here along with her two trekking companions on a 3.5 week charity project) and a born-again Christian, a conversion that began when her father passed away this past March. Happily she's neither one who takes the Bible literally, word for word, independent of cultural context, nor one who is close-minded to other perspectives.
I think I probably shocked her with at least a few of the things that came out of my mouth, such as:
Pretty heavy stuff, but she took it well, and we happily agreed to disagree on a number of topics. I drew a number of parallels between Buddhism and Christianity for her further reflection:
We also talked about her job and its conflicts, her childhood, her relationships with family, friends and trek-mates, and the state of the health care system in the UK as it compares to the US. About 8:30PM a familiar pattern emerged; one person decided to get up from the table and head to bed, and within 5 minutes the entire dining room was cleared out. I slept till 6AM again, interrupted a few times by brief moments of consciousness (Martin was snoring for a while, but not all night, I'd get hot in the sleeping bag, etc). I've been dreaming like crazy this whole trip (and some pretty wild and wacky dreams too), which is seemingly very unlike me but I'm not sure. Maybe I don't normally dream this frequently or strangely, or maybe I just don't normally remember because I sleep straight through the night.
By the way, it appears that Mansing is making just barely enough on this trip to cover his expenses (including those damn cigarettes). He's getting free lodging, but his daal bhaat is averaging roughly 2/3 the 'trekker price' (which has ranged from 80 to 150 rupees depending on location). He's already been promised my daypack when we get to Pokhara, and I've also offered him the spare bed in my hotel room the two nights I'm there so he can find other trekker business to finance his 4-day trip back to Jomsom. A nice dinner or two is probably also in order, and I'll also buy him a new pair of shoes if they're not too expensive.
We left Deurali at 6:45AM and got back to the Captain's Lodge in Chomrong at 12:30, including a stop for daal bhaat in Sinuwa. Dozens and dozens of cascading rapids and waterfalls (one section of the trail is holy, complete with temple, because it's supposed to have 108 waterfalls during monsoon season) made for a very beautiful hike, with the last hour or so in direct sunshine. Looks like our call to day-hike yesterday was a good one; cloud patterns suggest that Annapurna 1 and South were probably obscured above all day, though Machhupuchhre was clear until noontime. A beer shared with Mansing (first since Marpha, and I realized afterward that I'd committed a cultural faux pas by sharing the bottle with him instead of getting two glasses), serving of apple pie with custard, yet another first-in-3-days cleaning and clothing change, plus my first shave since leaving the US, have me feeling refreshed. An early turn-in, and an early start tomorrow morning, should have us into Nayapul by mid-afternoon and Pokhara by dinnertime (I hope to ride atop the local bus instead of taking a taxi this time). I very much look forward to hearing Lilliana's voice again.
I've been happily amazed at the diversity of countries represented in the trekker population (including the expected high percentage of Israelis but also numerous Japanese), and the number of families with children, senior citizens and solo or groups of females (the latter almost always, and wisely, traveling with guides, but many carrying impressively large backpacks) that I've seen. I'm reminded first of the ancient pilgrims headed to Muktinath, and of the very old Western couple cresting the steps-from-hell at Ulleri. Saw Cliff and Mary from Chitre headed up the trail to the Sanctuary this morning.
I also met a 72-year old man coming down the trail this morning; we chatted over lunch and we're both at the Captain's Lodge tonight. He's originally from Holland and owns a home in the Black Forest of Germany that he rarely visits. Comes to Nepal every fall and spring, and spends the rest of the time in southern India. Has done the Sanctuary 14 times since the early 80s, Langtang an equivalent number of times, and the Circuit a half-dozen times (the last time last year). His favourite expression 'No wife, no problem' is not one that I think Lil would appreciate, though! He's about 6 feet tall, in amazing-looking shape, has quick reflexes and wit and sets an impressive pace on the trail.
One thing disappoints me a bit, though; the number of trekkers I've seen wearing Walkmans (and, I suspect, NOT listening to Nepali language tapes). Call me judgmental if you want, but can't they stop clinging to these Western trappings while they're here? And look at what they're missing; the sound of wind blowing through the trees, of water cascading over rock, of childen happily playing, of adults debating politics...;-)
Just saw Sergey walking down the trail. He stayed at MBC last night (I guess the whole Sanctuary was clear this morning after all), and as expected is almost out of rupees. He's off to search for a local home that will take him in and if not he'll crash on my floor (and yes I'll buy him dinner if he'll let me). Have given him my last few Powerbars. He'll also hike back to Nayapul with us, which will give me another chance to get some food into him.
Sergey just came back and will be staying in my room, and I'll fill him up with daal bhaat on my wallet. Just heard from some folks in a room down the way that we missed a hell of a moonlit night last night at the Sanctuary; apparently the moon rose right behind Machhupuchhre.
Dinner was again incredible; tomato soup with homemade bread (again) and excellent mushroom pizza (after countless daal bhaats I've splurged my last night in the wilds). I've just spent the last hour or so chatting with a British gal named Karrie who's here with her boyfriend. She's just come back from 4 weeks of charity work on a farm in Ladakh, India, the area I'd like to visit someday. Sergey's passed out in the next bed after dragging his huge pack (with, among other things, a tent and cook stove) all the way down here having had no food since yesterday morning, followed by three plates of daal bhaat for dinner tonight.
It's a magical night. The full moon is rising, partially obscured by swirling clouds that create bizarre patterns across the sky. Annapurna South and I are illuminated, while Machhupuchhre is still in near darkness. The stars are so clear and bright that I can seemingly touch them. And the Nepalis rush about at their various tasks, seemingly oblivious to the eye-popping scenery that surrounds them. But who am I to talk; I too take for granted the countless examples of the beauty of creation that I daily encounter.
Sunday, October 24
Last trekking day (sniff). Last night I also spent some time chatting with Karrie's friend, a British-born Chinese gal (her parents emigrated from Hong Kong) who's extensively traveled and worked in the US during summer breaks from university, including (horror of horrors) in Fort Wayne, IN. I slept terribly last night, with my impending return to Pokhara prompting all sorts of unwelcome thoughts and worries about life back home....are Lil and my/her parents ok, how much work is piled up waiting for me, etc. The smell of Sergey's feet/socks/boots and dirty clothes didn't help much either, and a music presentation for a group of tent trekkers at the lodge next door delayed sleep for a few hours as well. Wandered outside a few times during the night to enjoy the mountain views by moonlight.
Set off this morning after a quick cup of coffee at 6:30AM. The stone-formed stairs that link Lower Chomrong to the river, and the upper and lower halves of the city, really are amazing (though tediously long!). So smooth and well-fitted together that they are the equal of any 'artificial' stairway I've seen. I bought a simple beaded Tibetian necklace in Jhinu Danda (didn't visit the hot springs, and bade farewell to Sergey here), we stopped for daal bhaat at New Bridge at 10:30 and arrived in Nayapul at 2:30PM. Long, hot (but slightly breezy) day but mostly easy trail. A steep descent to the river initially, and a few climbs back above the river; another drop through Suryle Bazaar to the river (where we both had a Fanta), and a pleasant stroll along the river to Birenthati.
Decided to take the bus back to Pokhara instead of the taxi; much cheaper (35 rupees per person, vs 600 rupees) and more fun (Mansing and I rode on top). Carried my own backpack the last few switchbacks to the road, to Mansing's amusement. We shared a very refreshing beer before climbing on the bus. Taxi from the Pokhara bus station to Lakeside was 150 rupees, and I got a double room without private bath for $6 at Eric's friend's (Hem Raj Pahari, who, with straight face, claims that my Nepali is quite good!) hotel, the Lakeside Lodge.
I called Lil right away when I got to the hotel; all is well and it was wonderful to hear her voice. I woke her up (it was 4:30AM there...they are 12 hours 45 minutes behind Nepal) and gave her my hotel number, then she called me back (200 rupees per minute adds up quickly on my end). Tried to call Caroline but no answer; left her an email with my plans. Wrote a lengthy, glowing recommendation letter for Mansing.
Requested taxi and bus reservation for the morning of the 26th from Hem Raj, and Mansing and I shared another beer. Then set out in search of boots. Found some quite nice size 7 Hi-Tecs made in Korea...Mansing handled the price negotations and did an impressive job. The husband was not too happy when he found out what deal his wife had negotiated but honoured it; I suspect he sold them below cost. Now for dinner; we went back to Hotel Snowland for pizza and two more San Miguels. Wandered Lakeside a bit; I went back to the hotel while Mansing wandered on for a while and we got to bed at ~9PM. The Buddhist stupa known as the Peace Temple is beautifully illuminated on the hill across the lake; would like to visit it but have a sneaking suspicion that my motivation for the several-hour one-way hike up there tomorrow will be non-existent.
The return to civilization in Pokhara isn't as shocking as last year's return to Besisahar was (maybe having gone through the transition once already I had already mentally prepared myself for it). Afterwards note: The culture shock didn't descent full-force till the weekend I returned to the US, when Lil and I took some friends from Seattle to the Sierra foothills for winetasting. I inadvertently wandered into a group of 40- and 50-something pretentious yuppies who were sitting around talking about 'bouquets', the importance of the proper wine bottle cork and their mutual fund portfolios, and within minutes I ran screaming from the scene.
Monday, October 25
This was 'Brian is a dumbshit' day. We woke up at 6AM and Mansing decided he was going to take the 8AM bus to Beni and head back to Jomosom instead of trying to get trekker business in Pokhara (apparently this is very difficult to do here unless you are affiliated with a hotel or agency, and I'm sure they probably take a percentage of any earnings). He'd been running so tight on cash that I wondered how he'd cover the bus fare, far from meals during the 3-day subsequent hike.
We walked down the street for a shared breakfast of apple pie, cheese bread and tea, then returned to the hotel. We said our goodbyes at which point he exclaimed 'but what about the money'? Turns out my nagging suspicion this whole trip was correct. When we originally negotiated the deal he meant 500 rupees per day, not per segment; my attempts to clarify this upfront were held back by the language barrier, I guess. I owed him 5500 rupees total, of which I'd paid 1600. I didn't have many extra rupees on me, and the money changers weren't open yet, so I first had to use the boots I'd bought him last night as partial payment (originally intended them to be a gift) and then partially pay him with a $20 US bill. A few uncomfortable moments but I think he realized it was a honest misunderstanding and we parted on good terms.
How'd this happen? In Bezrouchka's Nepali for Trekkers book there are example phrases referring to, when negotiating with porters, 90 rupees per day rate with load and 30 rupees per day without (Note Mansing didn't charge me for the days it'd take for him to return to Jomsom). Based on these phrases, 500 rupees per trek segment wasn't unreasonable. But, after Mansing left I referenced my trekking book where rates of $5-12 per day were quoted. At $7.35 per day, the wage I paid Mansing was actually quite reasonable.
I'm actually glad this misunderstanding occurred. It's so easy to lose a sense of perspective and get worked up over a few rupees. Had I known I was paying Mansing 500 rupees per day, I bet I wouldn't have been near as casual with the perks I tossed his way (free food and drink, etc) and I probably would have pushed him to go further each day, decreasing my enjoyment in the process.
Grabbed a shower and change of clothes and headed North down Lakeside. I'd seen advertisements last night for daily Introduction to Meditation classes from 10:30-12:00 at the Buddhist Meditation Center. Changed some money, found a small thangka shop with a pleasant Buddhist salesman and decided to splurge on a small Life of Buddha. Many of the other pieces are of exotic Tibetian Buddhist images, bodhisattvas and Taras that, although beautiful, aren't part of the Theravada Buddhism that I ascribe to, and the 'Kathmandu Valley' pieces I've seen are kinda cheesy looking. Also had my second breakfast of the day, a cheese omelette set meal, and bought a replacement.
The Buddhist lecture was great. This small gompa and library is on the quiet north end of Lakeside and also offers overnight accommodations; 100 rupees for a dorm bed, 150 rupees for a single room and 250 rupees for a double. It'd be a great place to stay during our next visit, and I've gotten a contact phone number and email address.
The lecturer, Lhagon (not the head monk of the gompa, who teaches a two-day class every Thursday and Friday) was very knowledgeable and had good English skills. The other two audience members were Buddhist neophytes, though one had read a few Thich Nhat Hanh books. Lhagon was very intrigued when I identified myself as a 1-year Theravada student, and several times asked me to compare and contrast my spiritual path with his Tantric approach. He covered the three diamonds (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path, as well as discussing a variety of meditation forms, the concepts of karma and reincarnation, etc. He kept looking over at me throughout the lecture as if for support and validation; I think he enjoyed having a 'friendly face' in the audience.
Then we sat in breathing meditation for what I estimate was 20 minutes and had a short Q&A. Among the questions I asked him was about Tibetian Buddism's stance on vegetarianism as it relates to respect-for-life. Lhagon was very eloquent in his speech and surprisingly critical of his religion's non-vegetarian stance (they eat meat as long as they haven't killed it) stating among other things that the claim that Tibetians eat meat out of necessity in their otherwise-barren land was a 'copout' and equating it to business and political leaders signing a pro-environment agreement and then going back to polluting (difference between words and deeds). I stressed that my question was intended only to better understand, not to criticize, and pointed out that even as a vegetarian I still killed living creatures each time I drank a glass of water or walked on grass. We all agreed that the point differentiating these examples from eating meat was one of intent.
On the way back to the hotel I comparison-shopped at a few more thangka stores. Struck up a conversation with a very pleasant Buddhist man, not only a thangka seller but also a teacher, who seemed very pleased at both my spiritual path and my fumbling attempts at Nepali. He offered me a much larger, better quality Life of Buddha than the one I'd previously bought, very competitively priced and of superior quality to similar-sized ones I'd seen elsewhere. And after we consummated the deal, he tossed in a black-and-white drawing of an old Nepali woman.
It's 9PM and I've just come back from an excellent dinner of Tibetian food; spinach cheese momos, vegetable thenthels, and Tibetian beer. The latter was 'interesting'; take a large wood-sided container, fill it with fermented millet, pour in unlimited refills of hot water, let stand for a few minutes and drink through a metal straw (presumably with a filter on the other end, as no millet came through). Pretty potent stuff, actually, though an 'acquired' taste. Hey, it was cheaper than the Western beers, and a fun experiment.
Earlier this afternoon I'd joined Hem Raj and his extended family for tea in the hotel back yard (which adjoins the family residence). Worked on journal for a while then went wandering; found a beautiful large rendering of the Tibetian Buddhist Wheel of Life thangka and couldn't resist when the 20-year old Buddhist vendor and I hit it off and he gave me a very good price for it. Then wandered to the southern end of Lakeside...this place really does remind me of 'Thamel on the Lake'...and back to the hotel in time to receive a call from Lil, pay my bill and give many thanks to Hem Raj and his family.
Tuesday, October 26
Caught the 7AM 250 rupee tourist bus to Kathmandu this morning, after strolling down the street to get a cup of tea at a local shop, then hailing a cab and getting another cup of tea and some oranges at the airport.
Met and chatted with a pleasant South African gal with a nice smile named Claire who unfortunately wasn't having a very good trip. She'd done a 5-day trek around Pokhara and her male travelling companion had abandoned her and their porter/guide (leaving her to pay the latter's entire bill) at Poon Hill because they weren't getting along. She'd made the mistake (but gotten an experience she'll undoubtedly never forget) of taking the 200 rupee 'local bus' from Kathmandu to Pokhara, then was talked into taking a plush 680 rupee ($10) bus back. The morning of the departure the bus driver tried to tell her she owed an additional $10. By standing her ground she eventually got them to back down. It's tough for a single woman travelling alone in this patriarchal, chauvinistic society; I give her lots of credit for tackling the challenge and wish her the best of luck in an even tougher India, where she's going next.
We stopped for breakfast at 8:30 (egg sandwich) and lunch at 11:00 (daal bhaat with the Nepalis) and arrived in Kathmandu around 2PM. The bus station was different from the one I departed from, near the Asian Game stadium and 15 minutes walking distance from Thamel. Instead of dealing with the taxi hassle, and since I was stiff from sitting all day, I tossed the backpack on my back, the daypack on my front, the thangkas in one hand and walked to the Lhasa Guest House. Went by 'feel' without map and got there straightaway without asking for directions beyond an initial general 'Thamel-ho?' fingerpoint questioning at the bus station. I have a double room this time, still facing the inner courtyard, and at the single rate.
Turned in my stored luggage receipt to the receptionist and headed upstairs to wait. Promptly fell asleep. When I awoke an hour later I realized my luggage hadn't been delivered; I returned to find the receptionist in a panic. As it turns out the tag had fallen off my duffle; it was there all the time. I inquired as to my ability to confirm my flight over the phone and was told I'd have to do it in person. I thought I was flying Royal Nepali and remembered seeing the ticket office nearby the bus station where I'd earlier been dropped off, so I headed down there.
Halfway there I looked at my ticket and realized I was flying Indian Airlines, not Royal Nepali. I had no idea where the Indian Airline office was, and it was already 4PM. Asking around finally got me there at 4:28PM, two minutes before closing time, where I confirmed the flight for departure in two days.
Got back to the hotel and found Ang Babu, his 16-year-old brother, and Keshab waiting for me. We had some tea and Caroline joined us a few minutes later. We had daal bhaat (with mushrooms courtesy of Caroline!) at Ang Babu's; he and I have the same brand and style of daypack and I liked his green better than my red, and visa versa, so we traded.
Wednesday, October 27
Got up 'late' this morning; 6:45 AM. Grabbed a shower and then strolled down the street to the Gallery Cafe, where a 12-year old boy (who looked much younger) with a constantly-present, infectious smile was my waiter for a set breakfast. I bought a set of large prayer flags and white scarves (the latter for Ang Babu and my upcoming trip to the White Gompa), a John Lennon tape for Ang Babu to accompany the guitar songbook I'd brought him, and three CDs for Lil and I; two of Tibetian chants (recommended by the shop owner) and the A Meeting by the River Ry Cooder CD I'd earlier heard in Pokhara.
Jumped in a taxi and headed for Bodhnath, where I met Ang Babu at Cosmos Communications, where he gets his email. I left eight rolls of film to be developed (turnaround time, 2 hours); this way there's no chance the exposed/undeveloped film would be x-ray-damaged, plus I could leave a set of photos in Kathmandu for Caroline and Ang Babu to enjoy and then send to Mansing. 40 rupees per roll for developing, plus 5 rupees per ~3"x5" print.
When we arrived at the White Monastery to see Chokyi Nyima Rimpoche, there were already ~15 Westerners waiting, including a group of 10 Germans. A monk escorted several of the Westerners in one-by-one (the normal daily routine is 1:1 questions, and he also gives lectures each Saturday morning), but then he had the Germans, Ang Babu and I, and another American (a long-haired guy) in at once.
When I entered (near the end of the line) I got confused and, at what I thought was the direction of the monk. placed my scarf on the table in front of him, instead of handing it to him. He gave me a blessing (hand on top of bowed head) and placed some crushed substance in my palm to eat 'for good blessings' (which I did). Although he asked me what country I was from, he apparently didn't hear my 'America' reply because....
Today he deviated from the usual schedule and gave a lecture on Tibetian Buddhism and meditation, which would have been awesome except....he spoke entirely in Tibetian, and the translator (a young woman who Caroline has met and who apparently has been studying there for some time) spoke only in German. This went on for over a half hour; I did a little meditation and spent the rest of the time watching him, which in and of itself was an enjoyable experience. He's my height but stockily-built in the manner of Tibetians, with a calm yet powerful presence and an infectious sense of humour and high-pitched lengthy chuckle that shook his entire body. I could occasionally follow what he was saying from his hand gestures, such as when he discussed breath meditation via in-and-out hand movements from the nose region of his face.
Thank goodness a group of Americans trooped in at that point, and through them I learned the procedure. Optional prostration, followed by offering of the scarf with rupee donation discretely tucked inside. My scarf was still sitting next to him, and I really hoped to get it back. So I sheepishly jumped into the end of the line, handed him a rupee note and gestured toward my scarf. He let out a big laugh, exclaimed 'oh, so you want to be an American now!' and draped it over me (Ang Babu and I were seated at his right side, in front).
He then gave a slighly abbreviated (I think) review of his lecture to that point, then continued on mostly in quite good English, occasionally switching to Tibetian with the translator converting to English. Lots of funny stories, and I enjoyed his explanations of the three types of mind needed for good practice; calm mind (no distractions), kind mind (unconditional love) and clear mind (knowledge). Good analogy of the meditative experience to a vacation spent staring at an ocean, mountain or forest (versus a vacation spent shopping in Thamel). His description of unconditional love discussed 'friends', 'enemies' and instead of 'strangers', 'tourists'. My favourite quote is the one he used to invite questions, which I paraphrase; 'if you don't understand something, don't think that it's because the lesson is imperfect. The Dharma is sound, but this teacher (and here he gestured at himself) is imperfect, so please if you don't understand something, let's discuss.
Someone asked him why prayer necklaces had 108 beads, to which he replied 'because 108 is a lucky number for us, like 13 is an unlucky number for you'. I was hoping for a more indepth explanation (i.e. why is 108 lucky) but maybe that's his point....I don't know why 13 is considered unlucky either.....Someone else asked him for advice on how to have an effective practice in the hectic, temptation- and distraction-filled West, and he replied that as-constant-as-possible mind awareness was most important. I humbly think he thought the most, and the most seriously, about the answer to my question, of whether empty-mind meditation was as effective as that of single-minded concentration; on breath, on a mantra, on a deity image, etc. His response (which I again paraphrase); 'this is a difficult question, one that we could discuss for many hours and one that Buddhists have pondered for many years. The simple answer is that thinking of nothing is not much different than thinking of one thing, because in both cases you're still thinking, but....' And here he trailed off and asked for the next question.
They've got a big retreat center in Denmark, and have just purchased land for one in the United States.....in Leggett, CA, in one of my favourite hiking areas! He'll be there sometime next year, and it'd be neat to do a retreat with Lil, led by him. I picked up a newsletter and a copy of the first chapter of his latest book Indisputable Truth in German, which I hope to computer-translate to English. I prostrated the Rimpoche after his lecture (he granted us a 2+ hour audience!) and was tickled too see that Ang Babu did the same.
Although Ang Babu had professed in the past to being a Buddhist, this was the most visible expression of his spirituality I'd ever seen, and his fluid motion (in contrast to my clumsy fumbling) indicated that this wasn't his first time. The Rimpoche spoke in simple terms that Ang Babu clearly understood, and the experience obviously touched him. He'd previously thought that the only way the Rimpoche would see Nepalis is if foreigners were along, and he's excited about attending future lectures with and without Caroline. I'm glad I was there to share the experience with him. Stopped back at Cosmos to tell Ang Babu's friends there what happened, and I bought a CD of Nepali and Tibetian music made by one of their neighbors.
We were starved, so first stopped off at his apartment (after riding there on the back of a friend's tractor) to leave a note for the rest of the guys then headed to a 'local' restaurant down the street, where predictably my presence and eating habits caused a minor stir. Shot some photos of owners, kids and customers (including several girls who wouldn't let me take their picture unless Ang Babu was also in it). Then we jumped in a moto-rickshaw and headed for Thamel.
The three of us, plus the rest of the gang (if they got the note and arrived in time), planned to see a French-directed movie about the Dolpo region called 'Caravan' at 5:30 that evening, so I picked up tickets. Then we briefly visited my hotel (after picking up an English<->Nepali dictionary for Lil and I and a simplified version for Mansing), after a quick detour to a barber shop where Ang Babu got a pretty significantly shorter haircut just like mine! ;-) Apparently his mom was pretty unhappy with his shaggy hairdo when he went home for Daisan, and he felt bad about rejecting her request to get it cut at that time.
Back to the theater to meet Caroline; the semi-orderly line collapsed as soon as the theater doors opened and there was much silly pushing and shoving for what ended up being more than enough available seats. The movie was outstanding and lasted almost 2.5 hours including a 10 minute intermission. Afterwards I treated the three of us to a scrumptious dinner at Mike's Breakfast; potato-skin-and-mushroom appetizers, egg salad sandwich for me, spaghetti with pesto sauce and chicken for Caroline and Ang Babu's first cheeseburger (which he greatly enjoyed, though given his past prodigious daal bhaat consumption it filled him up surprisingly fast). Took a taxi to Caroline's where we saw her safely to her apartment, then we walked back to Thamel and Ang Babu crashed for the night on the extra bed in my room. The reality that I'd soon be leaving hit me during the walk; I wasn't being a particularly good Buddhist at that moment because not only was I fixating on the future instead of the present moment, I was grasping for something that was slipping away. Before turning in Ang Babu listened to his John Lennon tape while I sorted the photos into two sets of copies.
Thursday, October 28
My last day in Nepal started quite early; we woke up at 6:15AM, grabbed a quick cup of tea outside the hotel and jumped in a moto-rickshaw to see the famous Hindu temple Pashupatinath. I couldn't enter the temple grounds because of my non-Hindi status but peered in through the entrance gate, and we also viewed the ghats (burning sites) from the bridge, where two bodies were being prepared for cremation. I stood with a big python draped around my shoulders and staring at me from a his-to-my eye distance of a few inches, while a sadhu stood next to me holding a cold-therefore-thank-goodness-sluggish cobra with open hood. I also made a donation at the center there run by the Sisters of Mother Theresa.
Next, a bus to Ang Babu's for a quick hello and daal bhaat breakfast. Before we left, the boys all shooed me outside for a minute and I figured they were planning on getting me a small going-away present like last year's scarf, but I wasn't prepared for what eventually transpired....
Back to Thamel where I showered and packed while Ang Babu wrote letters to Eric and Lilliana, both of whom he misses very much. To the airport in a taxi (with just enough money left in my wallet for the 600 rupee non-Nepali departure tax to India-to elsewhere it's 1000 rupees) where we met up with Ram, Ang Babu's brother, Keshab and Pasang. All five of them presented me with scarves, at which point I of course broke out into tears. What wonderful, selfless people! Got through check-in and customs just fine; unfortunately I saw a Westerner bypass the airport tax line by paying the 600 rupee charge directly to the ticket agent as a bribe. The departure from Kathmandu was delayed because of a sick passenger on the plane; we sat in our seats for a hour while they decided whether or not to let the person remain onboard (final decision=yes). I'd also had an older man pass out right next to me in the airport lobby right before we boarded; couldn't see if they were one and the same or not.
Am now in Delhi, where the transfer agent took my baggage tag info but (I found out later) inexplicably wrote that it was in my possession, not checked in Kathmandu. Fortunately the same 'angel of kindness' man who helped me in Delhi on the way out ended up with my paperwork, found my bags and forwarded them to San Francisco, checked me in for my Japan Airlines flight and got me a bulkhead window seat (and was ever so apologetic that the aisle I asked for was unavailable). Great quote at the end, delivered with a smile; 'My work here is now done'. A Japanese Buddhist monk warmly exchanged smiles and 'namaste' hand greetings with me at the gate; perhaps he saw the pendants around my neck, or maybe the big Buddha image on my tshirt was the tipoff. I'm now on the plane which is pulling away from the gate as I type this......
Friday, October 29
It's just past midnight in the United States on the last day of my journey, while here at Norita airport, Japan, it's after 4PM. My 7 hour flight, which was uneventful and contained two good meals (and a few hours of sleep) arrived just past 6AM. I gave Lil a phone call right after visiting the transfer desk, and found out that the Napa Valley half marathon scheduled for tomorrow is full and we therefore won't be running in it. That's ok, it'll make for a less hectic weekend and I can spend some much-needed time with Lil while my friends Sherlock and Kate from Seattle explore the Sierras and foothill wineries (ends up all four of us went).
My layover here is almost 12 hours, and I've spent a fair bit of it horizontal, sleeping on the comfortable chairs in the waiting lounge. I'm still quite hungry; had a greens-and-tofu salad, hard-boiled egg and coke at the restaurant at 10AM and some meatless spaghetti and 2/3 of a can of Pringles at 1PM (and the remainder at 6PM). I've reordered my photos according to the corresponding negatives, finished volume 2 of the Lord of the Rings series, begun volume 3 and am enjoying the trilogy very much. Assuming my luggage arrives in San Francisco with me and I find Sherlock and Kate without difficult, it 'should' be a trouble-free rest of trip. The plane just arrived at the gate but was late, so we'll be departing at 7PM, not 6PM.
I've observed a wide range of human behaviours and emotions on this trip. On the one hand there's the kindness and selflessness of the Rimpoche, of Ang Babu and his friends, of my 'guardian angel' and others who helped me at Delhi airport, of numerous lodge and restaurant owners and workers, and of a number of trekkers whose acquaintances I was fortunate enough to make. But on the other hand?
I've experienced utter and complete rudeness and contempt, partially through Caroline's translation of venemous Nepali words that I'd otherwise be oblivious to. I've had taxi drivers try to overcharge me, currency changers try to give me too few rupees for my dollars, and several vendors claim they couldn't give me change when I knew they had it. I've seen people disregard requests to stay in their seats until sick and elderly people were removed from airplanes. I've been pushed out of the way by people frantic to get a 'slightly better seat' in a theatre, and been cut in front of by people frantic to get on the plane as soon as possible, no matter that the plane won't leave until everyone in line's safely aboard.
From the Nepalis I'm, out of desire to not be a hypocrite, at least partially willing to excuse the bad behaviour, because some of it comes out of a striving for material possessions that I have in abundance and take for granted. It's also a reaction to the poor manners that I see many Westerners; flaunting their wealth and possessions about with equal or greater arrogance and contempt, and self-righteous 'pity' for the 'poor third-worlders' coupled with ridiculously aggressive bargaining for every last possible rupee price reduction on everything. I've seen Western men walking about shirtless in speedos, and women braless in string tops and short-shorts. I've seen Westerners bribing Nepalis and Indians, and taking photos of religious sites and relics with very obvious 'do not disturb' signs on them. Wonder how they'd feel if a bunch of Nepalis strolled into their church back home in the middle of Mass, barefoot, in soiled native dress, smoking, loudly talking, roaming at will and snapping photographs?
Can I change my fellow visitors' behaviour? Not directly, only by example of my hopefully more culturally sensitive alternative. And in doing so I'll hopefully also open my Nepali hosts' minds to the idea that not all Westerners are idiots. I return home even more baffled by the human condition than when I left.
URL For This Page: http://www.bdipert.com/nepal_journal_1999.htm.
This page was created on November 12, 1999. It was last updated on August 10, 2009.
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