A short summary of our trip (written, along with the journal, by Brian):
The original plan was to fly to Kathmandu, Nepal beginning on November 7, 1998 (via Los Angeles, Tokyo and Bangkok; we flew frequent flier on United Airlines as far as Bangkok and Thai Air to Kathmandu), do the ~21-day 165 mile Annapurna Circuit trek from Besi Sahar to Pokhara, then return to Sacramento with a 2-day layover in Bangkok on the way.
After 9 days of trekking (the last two in heavy snowfall) we reached halfway point Thorung Phedi at 4500 meters (14,850 feet), the last overnight stop before Thorung La (Pass) at 5416 meters (17,900 feet). Unfortunately, the combination of heavy snow and ice on the Pass, along with Lilliana's declining health, forced us to turn around. Lil ended up riding on horses approximately halfway back down. We returned to Besi Sahar on November 29, flew back to Bangkok on December 2 and arrived back in the United States on December 4.
We had three Nepalis accompany us on the trip (we paid each of them 150 rupees per day, plus we supplied them with clothing and supplies and also paid their food and lodging). Ang Babu was a friend of a friend (who became a close friend of ours by the end of the trip!), had excellent English skills, and acted as our guide. Two friends from his hometown, Keshab and Ram, were also along as porters. None of them guided or portered professionally.
Why so many companions? Lil's high altitude capabilities were unknown, so we decided to have someone carry the majority of her gear leaving her with a light day pack. Having someone else carry my clothing and toiletries let me bring along more camera equipment than would otherwise be possible, plus I could carry some or all of Lil's day pack contents if she got tired. Unlike some other trekkers who were oblivious to the needs of their porters, we made sure our 'boys' had plenty of warm clothing, sleeping bags, sturdy shoes and other supplies for the trek, all of which took up lots of space (I estimate that roughly half of what they carried was their own gear). Finally, we agreed with some of the trekking guides we read, which recommended employing help to put a few more outside dollars into the local economy. Next time, though, I'll probably reduce the amount of my photo gear, lug along a few less books, and therefore carry my own full pack.
So how was the trip? Well, with the exception of my wife's health struggles, it was excellent. The scenery was outstanding, and by going 'on our own' instead of with an organized trekking company, in combination with my wife's impressive grasp of basic Nepali phrases, we experienced what I suspect was a greater-than-normal level of cultural immersion. Ang Babu and his friends were super trekking companions, and I think we all benefitted from the rich exchange of information throughout the trip. And as you'll see from the writeup below, I absorbed some lessons which will hopefully guide me and stay with me for the rest of my life.
Warning: the condensed-from-original journal entries that follow, originally entered on my Compaq Windows CE palmtop (pen and paper weren't a realistic option, thanks to my nearly illegible handwriting) don't contain excellent grammar. You'll have to pardon me for the shortcuts in English, but have YOU ever tried typing on a WinCE keyboard? They may be somewhat difficult to follow unless you've got a Nepal map open in front of you as you read them. Unfortunately I'm not aware of a detailed Nepal map on the Internet, and I don't want to violate any copyright laws by scanning one of mine and putting it on this website. If anyone knows where one exists, or if you have any questions about trekking in Nepal, please email me.
p.s...one other comment. The Monday after returning to the States, I started getting sick, and after a week of feeling pretty lousy I decided I'd also gotten giardia. Four big pills seem to have wiped it out of my system, and I've gotten both a greater appreciation for what Lil went through in Nepal and a healthy respect for just how much she pushed herself in spite of how she felt. (and no, she didn't make me type this! ;-) )
Sunday, 8 November
A smooth trip so far; the biggest struggle was getting out of Sacramento (long line, insufficient UAL ticket counter personnel). We weren't able to stay at Louis' Tavern hotel in the airport because we had to pass through passport control in order to retrieve our bags (since we flew United here, and will be flying Thai Air to Kathmandu). Ended up getting snagged in the airport lobby by a tourism group and stayed at Abina House (2575 bhat or ~$75 US, including round-trip airport transit and breakfast.
Monday, 9 November
We made it! After a good breakfast at the hotel in Bangkok, we got on the hotel transit van and headed back to the airport. The gate was full of trekkers of various ages, which made for good people watching. A nice Thai Air flight included a good meal. When the pilot announced that the Himalayas were visible, everyone rushed to the right side of the plane. They WERE clearly visible, including Everest to the east. What an adrenaline rush!
Visa lines were long but we finally made it though after about an hour delay. Note: the only place where I was asked to open my carry-on luggage due to the lead film bag was in Sacramento, and they didn't even make me open the film bag to verify its contents. Also in Japan we had to again run our carryon luggage through the x-ray even though we were just changing planes.
As we exited the terminal, the hotel representative, along with our trekking guide Ang Babu, was standing there with a sign (along with many other hotel and travel agency representatives). A group of boys, who I thought were with Ang Babu, grabbed our luggage and put it into the car, then demanded $10 U.S. to be divided among the group. Lil gave them 50 rupees, around 80 cents.
We are staying at Hotel Karma in the Thamel district for ~$11 U.S. per night. The hotel is ok (hot water!) although the street outside is noisy. After unpacking, Ang Babu, Lil and I walked to Swayambhunath, the 'Monkey Temple', and then to Boudhanatha (both are large Buddhist stupas). We had a good dinner of dal bhat (rice and lentils, along with other vegetables) at Ang Babu's small but cozy apartment, which he shares with his friend Ram (we met Ram and two other friends, one of which, Keshab, will be a porter along with Ram, at Swayambhunath). Back to the hotel for a restful sleep in spite of the jet lag, assisted by earplugs and sleeping pills.
Neither of the porters has previous high altitude experience, which has me a little concerned. Warm clothing and boots are also in short supply; we'll need to rent gear here.
Wednesday, 11 November
As I write this I'm in Dumre, waiting for the bus to Besi Sahar. We decided to take 'tourist' buses instead of 'local' ones..$4 versus $3 per person but they are more comfortable and make far fewer stops.
Yesterday was kind of a crazy day. We had breakfast at the hotel, dropped off Shoe Goo at Peter Owens' room at the very nice Patola Guest House (a favor for Bob Pease), then dropped off more stuff for friends at Mike's Breakfast. We were supposed to meet Ang Babu at Mike's but we were running about 1 hour late. We finally hooked up with them at the trekking permit office.
The gates opened at 10:30, but the line had started to form at 9:00. We got there at 10:45 and finally got to the front of the line at 2:00 PM. We turned in our paperwork, bought some postcards and waited till 4:00, when the permits were ready. There was a thriving black market all around us which 'might' have sped up the process but at a high cost (then again, they could have just taken our money and disappeared). The trekking permits were $10 each, plus Annapurna Conservation Area permits at $10 each. The black market folks wanted an additional $10 each. Part of the reason we didn't use the bribe shortcut was because Ang Babu didn't like the concept (fix the system instead of bypassing it) and we didn't want to offend him. The other part was because we didn't want, by our actions, to degrade the Nepalis' opinion of Americans ('they'll toss money around for their improved convenience').
Next project: rent equipment. Keshab is wearing my low-cut hiking boots and Ang Babu will wear the boots he got last year when trekking with our friend Barbara. We couldn't find rental boots small enough to fit Ram, so we bought him new Hi-Tecs at 1700 rupees. We rented one coat and one sleeping bag at 35 rupees/day each, and everyone got one pair each of new socks and gloves.
Last night we had a good dinner at the North Beach cafe (ravioli and lasagne). After packing we got to bed at 10:30. Lil woke up with cramps and chills at 12:30 and stayed awake until ~2:30, then fell back asleep. We woke for good at 4:30, both had hot showers, met the gang at the hotel at 6:00 then off to the bus station after tea, coffee and bakery goods. Lil's feeling better now but still not 100%.
The bus rides weren't near as bad as I expected they would be, esp. after the 1996 Africa road experience! The 'tourist bus' from Kathmandu to Dumre was 250 rupees each; Dumre to Besi Sahar was 200 rupees each with 10 rupees off the total for 'group discount'. I rode on the top of the bus after the second permit check point between Dumre and Besi Sahar. The scenery was spectacular, mountain peaks occasionally appeared from amid the foothills and clouds, and backpacks provided sufficient cushion against bumps in the road and occasional river fording.
We are staying the night at the Himalayan Hotel; two free rooms in exchange for eating meals there. Mountain views are already amazing; there's a big peak and jagged ridge directly to the north of us. We traveled through flat agricultural land to get here and saw many people harvesting rice. It's good to be out of the crush and pollution of Kathmandu and I hope that the combination of fresh air and a good night's sleep will improve Lil's physical condition and mental confidence.
Thursday, 12 November
A really great first trekking day. I awoke at 5 AM to intense stars, followed at sunrise by clear views of Lamjung Himal that led to clear skies all day. Dinner last night was vegetable/egg/cheese macaroni for me and dal bhat for everyone else (and I ate from Lil's dal bhat plate, whose price usually includes free refills). We left Besi Sahar at around 9AM after tea and coffee; Lil had the last of the pastries bought in Kathmandu while I had two hard-boiled eggs.
Mountain views for much of the day were dominated by Ngadi Chuli and its neighbor to the south, Himalchuli. Ram and Keshab hiked ahead of us most of the time, stopping to wait at towns, etc. Most of the day was flat, with a 400 meter climb to Bahundanda from just north of Ngadi (where many trekkers stopped for the night).
We crossed four or five major bridges, ranging from modern steel structures to old bamboo-and-rope ones. We stopped for dal bhat at ~10:30 in Khudi (it wasn't cooked when we arrived so we had to wait around an hour) and at 3:00 for sodas just before Ngadi. Arrived at Bahundanda just as the sun was going down, and stayed at the excellent Mountain View hotel.
San Miguel beers are now 115 rupees; our room was 80 and the Nepalis' room was free. Their dal bhat was 35. We ordered cheese Tibetian bread, fried vegetable potato, fried vegetable noodles and pumpkin soup. All the food was excellent. Keshab and I ordered beers; Ram and Ang Babu put beer in their coke and Sprite. The latter was actually quite good; I didn't try the former (but recommended they try beer and tomato juice sometime). Off to bed at around 8PM and up for a freezing cold shower at 5AM Friday (note: in the future, shower at night when you can benefit from either the solar cell or cook stove-generated heat!) followed by tea, coffee and Tibetan cheese bread.
Friday, 13 November
Another day filled with perfect weather, spent trekking along the Marsyangdi Khola (river) and enjoying the many spectacular waterfalls. Compared to yesterday, we started much earlier (7AM) and consequently arrived at our destination, Chamje, at 3:30 much fresher than last night (the sun-shaded valley we hiked in at the end of the day also helped).
We stopped for dal bhat at Syange, just before 10:30. The food was already cooked this time so we didn't have to wait long. I encountered a group of cranky Israelis who had been waiting for bread for almost an hour. I reminded them that Nepalis have a more relaxed sense of time and that unless they adjusted themselves THEY'D have a lousy time....I doubt it did any good but I tried! These same Israelis were our Nepali guys' noisy neighbors last night. (Note: the Israelis are actually a good bunch though; we continued to run into each other all the way up to Thorung Phedi and had some pleasant conversations)
Several interesting conversations with Ang Babu today...possible roots of Israeli aggressive personalities (WWII and the Holocaust, Middle East tensions), the differences between Judaism/Christianity/Islam and the meaning of the expression 'you snooze, you lose'. Funny story of the day...Ang Babu said 'namaste' to two teenage girls and one told him in her local dialect to 'eat stools'....it took me a few minutes to translate this as 'eat shit'.
Lil did much better today. She seems to have ditched her cold, her strength and endurance are better, and we took weight out of her pack and put it both in my pack and one of the duffels. I'm carrying more weight than I planned but feel fine so far (and hey, it's still lighter than a full backpack!). I felt really good going up the incline past Syange, where I even 'smoked' Ram and Keshab.
We're staying at the Tibetan Hotel, by far the nicest place in town. Dinner will be at 6:30 (it's 6:15 as I write this). Beer is 120 rupees. The thin, short Nepalis carrying cases and cases of beer and other goods on their backs using a namlo (piece of woven fabric that attaches on both ends to the package on the carrier's back and goes around the carrier's forehead) are absolutely amazing. Took lots of pictures, mostly of kids.
Saturday, 14 November
Today Ang Bau and I continued our interesting conversations with an explanation of Democrats, Republicans and Communists and the Bill Clinton 'Monicagate' controversy. He is impressively current on world and US events; he even knew that the Democrats picked up 5 seats in the recent election. I also taught him Solitaire, and the boys (I'll refer to Ang Babu, Keshab and Ram as 'the boys' in the future to save keystrokes) were mesmerized by chess on the palmtop (apparently the 'easy' setting is harder than it is on the computers back in Kathmandu).
Lilliana's not feeling too well. She woke up mid-last night with congestion and ran a low-grade fever all day. We didn't hike too far; began at 7:30 and stopped in the quaint town of Tal at around 10 AM. We had dal bhat at the Manasalu Lodge and moved to the Paradise Lodge for dinner and overnight accommodations. Had a lukewarm 'hot shower' (still warmer than the one two days ago) and did some laundry (which hasn't really dried much in the last few hours).
As I write this it's 5:30 and I'm in pants with tshirt, flannel and fleece on top, and kids are running around shoeless with sleeveless tshirts and shorts. Unbelievable. There's a nice waterfall with Buddhist shrine at its base just behind the hotel. Lil seems determined to at least make it over Thorung La to Jomsom, with a flight from there to Pokhara. This is a non-ideal but realistic compromise; she could rest up in Pokhara while Ang Babu and I go into the Sanctuary. We'll just have to see what happens.
Sunday, 15 November
Today was a much better day. We began hiking at 7:45 with a long flat stretch which helped Lil get her second wind. Last night was cold but not terribly so, but awful windy (it DID help our laundry dry though). Got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and was treated to a wonderful display of stars....Orion, the Big Dipper, etc. are almost impossible to pick out because so many other bright stars surround them. Lil's in better spirits although still running a low-grade fever, cough, etc.
Speaking of 'bathroom' I seem to have developed a case of diarrhea, not too surprising as the same thing happened on Kilimanjaro. Can't believe we got almost 12 hours of sleep last night (note we averaged at least 10 hours of sleep a night for most nights on the trek). Let's see....stopped for brunch at 10:00 at the Kangaroo Lodge in Dharapani, and for the night at the Mountain View Hotel/Restaurant in Lattemarang.
The hike was spectacular. It combined the best of many of the most beautiful places I've previously visited in one location....the waterfalls and granite walls of Yosemite (the best one just beyond Dhanakyu), mosses and ferns of Redwoods, rushing water and polished rock of Zion, limestone spires of Bryce Canyon, etc. It's 4:45 PM and although not windy it's getting cold; we're bundled up in several upper layers and have hats and gloves on. All this at just 2360 meters! I wonder what'll happen when things get REAL cold. Funny story of the day; the old man with cane (I dubbed him Yoda) on the trail leading to Dhanakyu who sweetly asked us to take pictures with him and then indignantly demanded rupees (we gave him 5 in spite of his complaints for more).
Monday, 16 November
Last night I started a near-riot at the hotel when I started taking pictures with the digital camera. The ability to take a picture and then share it with the subject(s) via the LCD display on the back has proven to be quite popular and a good ice-breaker. Now if I could just remember to take off the lens cap before taking a picture...;-)
I counted at least six kids in a pretty small village, including a little boy with a scab on his forehead who couldn't keep his pants on, and an adorable little girl with Down's Syndrome. All the kids have snot running out of their noses, and many of the trekkers are sick too, leading me to suspect that I may be the odd one. My diarrhea is much better, thanks to a couple of Cipro. (Note: aside from minor diarrhea on a couple of occasions, my health throughout the trip was excellent and even though I decided not to take Diamox this time as I had on previous mountain climbs, I had no high altitude symptoms)
We started trekking at 7:30, and had brunch in Chame. Lil really struggled in the afternoon; we stopped for the day in Bhratang and are at the Maya Hotel. It continues to get colder...it's 3:30 PM as I type this and I'm wearing ski pants, turtleneck/wool sweater/fleece and hat/gloves. I wonder if I'll take a shower until after Thorung La.
Frankly, I also wonder if we'll make it over Thorung La at all given Lil's condition. The trail was smooth and pretty flat today, and still she labored. Such a contrast from Kearsarge Pass in King's Canyon NP with full pack and much higher elevation just a few weeks ago! Obviously she has a cold, and perhaps an afternoon nap and good night's sleep will help. However, prolonged exposure to increasing cold and altitude is undoubtedly degrading her condition. By the end of today I was carrying not only my stuff but also her fanny pack, water bottle and the camera case; all she had was her coat and hiking poles. We'll have to see.
Had my first unobstructed views of Annapurna II today and what views they were! Clouds moved in by mid-morning and at this point we're totally overcast. The Buddhist influence is more and more apparent; monuments, strings of prayer wheels (including a cool water-powered on just outside Bhratang). Signs of Hinduism are almost gone.
Ang Babu made a girlfriend at last night's hotel; a feisty 18-year old (maybe) named Neema Lama. He has good taste; she was very pretty and had a rare independent personality; unfortunately we don't know how well she kisses as she wouldn't give him a chance. Ang Babu is definitely a 'smooth operator'; yesterday I playfully accused him of picking hotels not based on price but on the presence of pretty girls.
Today's conversations with Ang Babu included the Iraq blockade, the meaning and cause of shooting stars and black holes, geography (plate tectonics and the Himalayas), religion (we both agree that all world religions basically worship the same Higher Power but in different ways), birth control (taught in school) and education (less than 50% of population is literate, main determinants of whether a child will go to school include size of village, family income and number of children, and gender).
There's a big struggle with Nepali couples between having few children (to better amortize income) and more (to take care of parents in their old age). Ang Babu was a little surprised that Lil and I weren't planning on having children but was aware that things were different in the West; 'old people can take care of themselves'. Big culture shock for me when I discovered that one of the reasons Keshab and his wife (Ang Babu's half-sister) had a second child was 'in case the first one died'. Keshab is also planning on taking the earnings from this trek and buying chickens...he currently raises rice and other staples as a farmer.
I also talked with Ang Babu about how although cable TV, computers, per-house telephones and the like might seem glamorous and desirable, like anything else they had a dark side....the way they isolate people from each other (he couldn't believe that many people in the U.S. barely know their neighbors). I admire simple things about Nepali life like the common 'namaste' greeting (the god in me welcomes the god in you), the prominence of religion in everyday life, the heartfelt references to everyone as 'brother' and 'sister' and the way that total strangers share tea, local beer and spirited conversation and quickly become friends.
I don't want to lay it on so thick that I sound hypocritical (rich American with wallet stuffed full of rupees yearns for the simple life) but I think Ang Babu understands. He had a good quote yesterday; 'Nepal is a rich country full of poor people'. It's one thing to intellectually comprehend the advantages of a simpler lifestyle, and another to viscerally experience them. Every day I see Nepalis with obvious sickness, bad teeth, dirty hair and broken bodies, but with huge smiles, glowing eyes and an inner radiance that shines through. Something to think about......
Final note, I talked for a while with an Australian named Joel last night (he and we seem to end up at the same hotel every night) who is 45 years old and has been to Nepal 30 times (the Circuit alone 10 times). Quite a testimonial and endorsement of this beautiful country.
Tuesday, 17 November
Lil seems to be alternating good and bad days, because today she was comparatively quite strong. She started out slow and unsteady, picked up momentum till early afternoon, and faded around 3:00 (fortunately by then we had topped the ridge separating Lower Pisang and Hongde, and had a downhill and then flat trail awaiting us. We are spending the night at the Marsyangdi Lodge, as there were insufficient quarters for the boys at the slightly nicer (but more crowded) Airport Hotel and the Maya Lodge wanted 130 rupees for a 3-bed room and 80 rupees for a 2 bed (with no Nepali discount) We are paying 60 rupees each for the two rooms. Food and drink prices have significantly dropped; I suspect due to the presence of the airport.
Another cloudy day and night (I think we'll unfortunately miss the meteor showers that occurred last night and tonight). More great mountain views, including Annapurna IV (summit unfortunately obscured by clouds), Chula East and West and 6000 meter Pisang Peak (which actually looks climbable). Thorung La lurks 'just round the corner'. We met a really neat German couple who just got married and are celebrating their honeymoon with a 3-month backpack trip through Nepal. They are a couple of 'animals'; have summited many peaks in the German, Austrian and Swiss Alps. He has climbed Denali and took a 7-week expedition across the Arctic. They gave me a good idea for a 7-day hike around Vancouver Island.
Wednesday, 18 November
Another short day, this time to Bryaga. Lil decided that a rest for the remainder of the day was in order, despite the objections of myself and the boys (who wanted nothing more than another day of leg-stretching). We got a 120 rupee room at the Hotel Buddha (the boys are in the dorm room at 40 rupes per bed).
This place is pretty nice, I guess; a lukewarm shower, reading room with fireplace, dining room with VCR and Western movies, and laundry service. I confess though that I was beginning to enjoy the retreat from 'civilization' and this place is just too plush for me. Lil seems refreshed this afternoon, though she's still coughing. I hope a rest day will make her stronger for the Pass.
Ang Babu and I had another interesting set of conversations today. He admitted to me that it was not uncommon for Nepali husbands to regularly beat their wives. We then talked about the reasons for this; Nepali men's frustration with their life situation (no job or menial job in spite of education) and pressure as sole 'breadwinner', women's lack of education and consequent lack of mobility and lifestyle options, and the generally accepted status of women as inferior in Nepali society. Ang Babu is a very enlightened 20 year-old Nepali who doesn't at all accept these practices and also doesn't agree with other common Nepali customs such as one-husband-many wife marriage (but of course not the other way around) and same-caste-only marriage. I hope that he's indicative of a trend within his country.
I continue to be haunted by the vision of the young girl with baby on her back (I assume her sibling) outside of Lower Pisang. She followed us almost through the whole town, first focusing on Lil and then me. At first she gave us the standard begging litany of 'school pen, balloon, rupee' but then I just spent some time playing with her and taking her picture. At the edge of the village, when she clung to my hand and tried to pull me back to town, I think she didn't want a gift but simply just wanted to keep our attention (I wonder how much of it she gets from her family). I wish I could have gotten her name so I could send her and her family some money or otherwise help her. I wonder how her life will turn out.
On to lighter news. After dropping off Lil at the hotel this morning to rest I wandered up to the town of Manang, which didn't impress me too much (views of Annapurna IV and Gangapurna, the huge icefall between them and the glacial lake at icefall bottom were nice however). Another mostly overcast day with occasional mountain glimpses and periodic rainshowers. Now looks like we'll go over the Pass on Saturday morning.
Saturday, 21 November
It's been an interesting three days. Wednesday night Lil and I had an argument; she proposed spending another 'day or two' in Bryaga. I wanted to move on. She thought it was because I was doing the typical 'driver-driver personality' 'must-get-to-top-of-mountain' thing. In reality, ok, it was a little bit of that, but it was mostly because:
Thursday morning we both awoke with cooler heads and decided to take off. Soon after climbing out of Manang, it began to snow and soon we were in a blizzard (the weather patterns are really weird; it can be snowing in one valley and blue-sky-sunshine in the next). Actually was a nice hiking day; the snow was wet and sticky, although we couldn't see the scenery around us. We had tea in Tengi (there was a large swastika on the wall supposedly to ward away evil spirits), lunch in Gunsang and stayed the night in Yak Kharka at the Yak Hotel and Lodge. Pretty good place; they put metal containers full of hot coals under the tables to warm the feet. Lil seemed to hike pretty strong, although she faded as soon as the Yak Hotel came into sight.
Friday morning we awoke to partially clear skies for the first time in days, although by Ledtar the snow had reappeared. Lil has progressively lost her appetite and at the Ledtar tea break she didn't eat lunch (she did however eat a few cashews when I wasn't watching-nuts are a no-no at high altitude-which she proceeded to burp up the rest of the day). We climbed a great deal this day, I estimate to 4800 meters overlooking Thorung Phedi at 4500 meters (3.3 feet per meter).
The old trail to Thorung Phedi, following the west side of the river and shown on all the maps, is now closed. The new trail climbs high over the river on the east side, then drops to the river and the first Thorung Phedi lodge (closed for the season by the time we arrived). Lil was totally wasted by the time we hit the incline to the second lodge, which would take 5-10 minutes on a good day but took us over 30.
Friday night was a long one; amazingly a completely starry sky appeared by 9 PM. Lil spent a great deal of time in the kitchen trying to get warm and threw up 3 times, with multiple diarrhea trips to the toilet. Her dry air cough was virtually uncontrollable, and we both feared cracked ribs if it continued too long. As if that weren't enough, sulfur-smelling burps indicated probable giardia infection. She didn't eat or sleep much that night and I didn't sleep at all (to make sure she was still breathing....she was having some weird dreams judging from the bizarre moans she was making).
At 7:30 AM Saturday, Lil departed back down to Manang on a horse (3000 rupees). A bit disappointing as the 'good weather hole' had appeared; skies were blue and the pass was clearly visible and seemingly easily attainable, but I know we made the right decision (I confess that for a split second I considered either doing a rest day in god-awful-cold Thorung Phedi or hiring a horse to go the OTHER way over the Pass...but due to icy trail conditions a horse up wasn't an option anyway). It was a long day; we stopped for tea in Ledtar and lunch in Gunsang and arrived in Manang at 2:30. By late morning the bad weather had reappeared and I suspect that although Manang valley may be clear in coming days, Thorong La will be seeing snow for a while and we won't be the only trekkers turning back.
Went to see a doctor at HRA who was very helpful and diagnosed high altitude bronchitis and giardia, with a touch of high altitude sickness (the minor headache she had). Codeine should hopefully knock out the cough. She (the doctor) confirmed that we'd followed a reasonable acclimatization schedule and that the logic behind my desire to press on at Bryaga a few days earlier was essentially sound, which greatly reduced my guilt factor.
We are staying at the Thorung La Hotel (if you can't go over the Pass, you might as well stay at the place named for it). Unfortunately the hotel owners attempted to put the boys in a total trashed-out room (a room different than the one they showed me when I checked in; I'd move out in protest except Lil's not going anywhere now that she's here and tucked into bed), and refused to rent them a real room, so they're staying at the Annapurna Hotel a few doors away. None of the other hotels in Manang would rent them a room either unless they brought trekkers with them...Nepali treat their own in an 'interesting' way in this region. You'd think it was because the porters comparatively don't spend as much money on food...but why leave rooms unoccupied? It was late enough in the day that the hotels probably wouldn't fill up with foreigners.
Sunday, 22 November
We're back at Hotel Buddha in Bryaga, and I've gotten my first shower and change of clothes in four days. Lil slept through the night last night and the codeine seems to have knocked out her cough (although when it wears off it gives her a hangover headache).
We left Manang at noon. Lil slept in (I brought her tea and a roll in mid-morning and she fell back asleep) so I awoke to totally blue skies and went up to the 3rd floor for breakfast with the boys (dinner was excellent last night by the way; I had minicorn-and-mushroom pizza and mashed potatoes with milk and cheese). Afterwards the boys left to explore the town and I stayed upstairs to take pictures of Annapurna II/III/IV and Gangapurna from the balcony and finish reading Thomas Merton's 'Seven Storey Mountain'.
I alternate between periods of feeling bummed that we didn't cross the Pass and enthusiasm at being able to see the sights a second time, stop in towns we didn't stay in on the way up, etc. I guess that in prime Buddhist tradition this is a good lesson in impermanence; nothing can ultimately be counted on or forced, and you'll ultimately enjoy life more if you just live in the moment and 'go with the flow'. Merton's book spoke of this and also had an excellent discourse on poverty but 'real' life in Harlem as a contrast to the fake opulence of the rest of New York City, quite timely as I experience the poverty of Nepal. Question of the day; how does the Western world bring 'improvements' to this country (hydro power, widespread education, equal rights for women and all ethnic groups) without spoiling all that is so good here with our corresponding 'evils'?
Had a slow walk down to Bryaga, followed by lunch and, a few hours later, a very slow walk up to the local gompa. It contained hundreds of ornate Buddhas and Boddhisottvas of all shapes and sizes, ceremonial masks, drums and hats, etc. One of the rooms was off-limits to women because they were 'unclean'. I got some good pix with the digital camera (we forgot batteries for the Pentax's accessory flash which contains a supplemental IR autofocus, and most of the rooms were too dark for the ZX-5's built-in AF) and a tikta (red dot on my forehead). I really hope that Lil's strength returns tomorrow...it'll be a long climb between Hogde and Lower Pisang otherwise and we'd both really prefer to not have to get her another horse.
Monday, 23 November
We're going to try to get Lil on a 'Nepali' flight from Hongde to Pokhara tomorrow morning; the boys and I will trek down to Besi Sahar and meet her in Kathmandu. The regional airport system is quite interesting here; there are a few 'Nepali-only' flights that run during the week (weather willing) and a 'tourist-only' flight on Saturdays. 'Nepali-only' flights work on a lottery system with numbers picked many weeks in advance and winners selected the afternoon prior. Tourists are allowed on a waiting list, subject to airplane captain sympathy (keeping in mind that one foreigner passenger and luggage weight equals 1.5-2 Nepalis) or a humerous alternative, if a bigger plane than expected shows up (the intra-Nepal planes are all prop jobs like the commuter planes between Sacramento and SFO).
Ang Babu and I walked to Manang this morning to get an official doctor's letter requesting that Lil be added to the flight, from the HRA. I also decided to get her a horse from Bryaga to Hongde at a cost of 1500 rupees. If she can't get on the plane tomorrow (probability is low; she's 11th on the wait list), we may need to get her yet another horse.
I had a nice solo hike today to Hongde in blue-sky weather (where was this a few days ago?). In mid-afternoon I was in a tshirt, but as soon as the sun dipped behind the Annapurnas the temperature plummeted. This time we're at the Airport Hotel and Lodge, the place we would have stayed at on the way up if they would have had room for the boys. Food and room are both great, and there is a very pretty approx. 21 year old girl working here (a member of the family who runs the hotel) who speaks excellent English and has captured Ang Babu's heart (big surprise).
Ang Babu and I are already planning our next trip together; perhaps beginning in Jomsom (he's never been on a plane before and would probably be thrilled by the trip!) and going into the Sanctuary, or maybe to Everest Base Camp. He says that if he can bring his school books with him, he can skip a few weeks of classes (he's studying economics and English in university now, with an eventual plan to major in English and become a teacher). I'd really enjoy the chance to travel solo with him. He's already proactively told me that next time, we'll travel as friends, not guide/trekker, so no need to pay him a salary (though I think I'll still pick up the tab for his food and share a room with him).
Tuesday, 24 November
This was a day of some frustration. We got to the airport at ~6:45AM and waited, along with a number of important-looking government officials and other Nepalis, for the plane. About 9:45 we gave up and went back to the hotel, and about an hour later other returning folks told us the flight had been canceled due to fog (it was coming from Kathmandu). It was highly unlikely that we'd have gotten Lil on the flight anyway, it was only a 16-seater (minus seats used for extra baggage) and there were at least that many Nepalis waiting. Interesting how Nepali government officials get priority treatment (seats) with only an official letter of request and no advance notice.
Plan B: a horse. After much negotiation we found one from Hongde to Besi Sahar for 9000 rupees (4000 down payment, owner responsible for his own food and lodging). Our horse owner is an 18-year old named Kanchha; a nice guy who (no surprise) has hit it off with the rest of our crew.
We started at noon and made it to Bhratang, where we're staying again at the Maya Lodge. Instead of hanging out with the trekkers in the dining room, we spent the evening in the kitchen with the extended family (seven sisters and two brothers plus THEIR children). This evening really was a lot of fun; it's great watching Lil converse with the Nepalis and a little bit of effort is a great icebreaker. I think I'll be borrowing her language tape prior to my next trip! One man appears to be slightly retarded and another is deaf; the result of small town inbreeding? For dinner I had very good fried rice with egg and cheese and apple pie (sort of like a McDonalds apple turnover) and Lil had potato curry (this place has an extensive menu).
I'm actually beginning to really enjoy the backtracking; it's letting me experience and enjoy things that I may have missed on the way up. For example, the hike down the canyon to Bhratang, with the sheer rock wall now on the left side, was very reminiscent of El Capitan in Yosemite (something I overlooked when the rock wall was on the other side of the trail I was going UP). Also, the sunset on Phungi with Manaslu behind it (I think, it might also have been Ngadi Chuli or Himalchuli) lit up the mountain blood red; a quite spectacular scene. And of course backtracking has let me find out the name of the little girl who captured my heart in Lower Pisang: Karma Dolma Gurung.
Wednesday, 25 November
Just when I thought things couldn't get more aggravating, they did, but the day ended up all right in the end. Early this morning, Ang Babu told me that the boys had forgotten their binoculars back in Hongde. We thought it would take just a few hours for Ang Babu and Ram, without luggage, to run back and retrieve them (they didn't trust the hotel owners to ship them) so Lil on horse named Collie, Keshab, Kanchha and I headed down to Chame to wait for them.
We left at 8:30 and made it to Chame about an hour later. Then we waited. And waited. About 1:30 Kanchha informed us that there was no food for the horse in Chame, so they'd have to spend the night in Dhanakyu. So that's where they and Lil are tonight. Ram and Ang Babu finally showed up in Chame at 4:15 PM (too close to dark to continue); apparently we'd all underestimated how long the trip would take.
We ended up (all the boys) having a really nice dinner, where I described traditional extravagant US weddings and Lil and my simpler wedding (Lil had previously showed Keshab our wedding photos) and they described traditional Nepali weddings (including brides being occasionally killed by grooms' families for insufficient dowries).
After dinner Ang Babu and I again discussed various economic and political systems. A spare piece of fur lying on the table led to a comment about scalping and then a long discussion on American Indian origins (ice bridge to Alaska from Asia) and history/current status of Indian/'white man' relations. He has such an impressive thirst for knowledge.
I'm at the Sunrise Hotel at the center of Chame. Room was only 30 rupees (20 for the boys) and it seems fine; warm and wind-proof but the boys report lice on the bedsheets in their room. I don't see anything on mine but just in case I think I'll use my pillowcase. The hotels on the west end of town, across the river, look much nicer but they're off the trekking route and I was worried that if I stayed there I'd overlook Ram and Ang Babu coming down the trail. Chame is a pretty nice town; in addition to the eastward-looking mountain views mentioned yesterday, there's also Lamjung Himal to the south and Kang Guru to the north.
Lil is doing MUCH better; her appetite and humor have returned, she woke up without coughing this morning and she even did some walking today. Since she appears stronger, and since the majority of the remaining trek will be steep downhills and stone steps (where the horse won't accept a rider anyway) we may say goodbye to the horse tomorrow morning
Thursday, 26 November
Geez, what a day. Today I had my first, and hopefully my last, run-in with the Nepal mafia. Turns out that our horse rider's 23-year old brother Palden, who Ang Babu previously expressed vague misgivings about and referred to as 'Modern Man', is specifically a widely-feared 'strong man' of the Manang region, from a powerful family that owns many of the district's hotels. But I'm getting ahead of myself......
At 7 AM, the boys and I left Chame to meet Lil, and I arrived in Dhanakyu at 9:30 AM (good thing we didn't press on last night; the trail was pretty tricky especially right before Dhanakyu where we were basically walking down a waterfall). Lil stayed at the Trekker's Hotel, where she and two Irish guests were treated to an over-hour-long singing and dancing show from the owners and children! Sorry I missed it. Lil was feeling fine, the trail ahead was mostly downhill and steep (no riding possible; she'd walked half the way from Chame to Dhanakyu) and she was becoming more uncomfortable riding versus walking, so we decided we no longer needed the horse's services.
I estimated that at Dhanakyu we were less than 1/3 of the way from Hongde to Besi Sahar, although at 4000 rupees we had paid more than 1/3 of the 9000 rupee total. So Ang Babu told Kanchha 'thank you and goodbye, this is the end of the line' and....Kanchha refused. He first stubbornly tried several times to get Lil on the horse, then demanded the full 9000 rupee payment before he'd turn back, and finally he informed us that he was heading to Dharapani to call his brother. At this point, Ang Babu finally and fully explained who Kanchha's 'modern man' brother really was. Had we known this earlier I would have handled the situation differently; we probably wouldn't have gotten the horse in the first place (there were other offers, but for shorter distances and/or higher prices), or I might have just paid Kanchha off.
When we arrived at Dharapani, a crowd of ~30 men (who by now had already heard Kanchha's version of the story) had gathered in front of the police station/trekking permit office and Kanchha had roped his horse across the trail so that 'none shall pass'. Apparently the police had blocked him from calling his brother, preferring the 'impromptu town meeting' alternative for resolving the dispute. Apparently too, Kanchha had stretched his story a bit, claiming that after we rejected his demands for the remaining 5000 rupees, we wouldn't even give him enough rupees so that he and his horse could be fed and sheltered during the 'two-day's journey back to Hongde'. In reality, he was responsible for these expenses from the beginning, the trip back to Hongde would take only a few hours by horse, and compensation for food and housing was never an option he proposed during the debate back in Dhanakyu, but I digress.
After much debate conducted between Ang Babu and the town representatives solely in Nepali (Kanchha was either not able or not allowed to speak) we agreed to pay an extra 500 rupees (since they claimed we were nearly halfway to Besi Sahar) plus 100 rupees for misc. expenses. Our willingness to do this totally ruined Kanchha's story and with it, any chance for him to get the extra 5000 rupees (although before we arrived, he had apparently convinced a significant percentage of the town members that this was the proper solution). The police also agreed to watch out for Palden and attempt to detain him should he dispute the decision and come after us.
Through it all Ang Babu remained cool and calm, and he greatly impressed me. Over lunch in town (workers were dynamiting a new trail above ours beyond town, so we had to wait anyway) we heard many other fantastic stories. If Paldin and his friends came down a knife-fight with potential casualties was a genuine possibility. Paldin used derogatory forms of the word 'you' even when refering to elders (we discussed the word 'bully' with them, and they commented that such bullies were more effective in lesser-educated villages). Also, the town council asked if we were Israeli. If we were, I think we would have had to pay the full 5000 rupee balance. Israelis seem to have a terrible reputation here. I heard a story (who knows if it's true) about an Israeli who paid his porter only 100 rupees per day (from which the porter was responsible for his own food/clothes/lodging) and when the Israeli got back to Kathmandu, he had the nerve to complain to some official group that the porter was lazy and got better food and lodging prices than he did. We also heard a rumor about a bunch of Manangis tracking down and killing a tourist in Kathmandu. Then again, early in the trek Ang Babu told me a story about a Yeti (Abominable Snowman) who had abducted a female trekker for a few days...
We stayed at the Manaslu Guest House in Tal, arriving at around 3:30 (the place we stayed at on the way up was pretty full and the boys' accommodations would therefore have been pretty shabby) and had the vegetable 'special' for dinner (which wasn't very special, although since it contained pumpkin I suppose it was appropriate for Thanksgiving; two Israelis who had ordered the special the night before ordered dal bhat instead..which ended up being the special on rice)! The Israelis had both come down from Manang; one passed out during the HRA 'altitude sickness' lecture!
Here's another good story. At the beginning of the trek, on the bus from Dumre to Besi Sahar, I met a friendly couple from New Zealand. He'd done the Circuit once before, and was now taking his fiancee around with the goal of a wedding in Pokhara. She had bought hiking boots for the trip, but in spite of her partner's warnings had only briefly worn them twice prior to trekking in them. Well, by the end of the first day she had quarter-sized blisters on both heels, and she hiked in sandals from that point on. Last I saw them was in Manang; they were attempting to get on the Saturday tourist flight. They must not have succeeded, for the Irish couple we met saw them heading back toward Besi Sahar; she in sandals claiming that she sold her boots for more than she bought them for. I propose three possible explanations:
Lil's pet name is now 'Godiva' courtesy of her horse-riding experiences, and the whole group's calling Ang Babu 'Romeo' after his habit of chasing after cute girls in every town we go through. I went for a spontaneous shower in a good-sized waterfall just north of Tal. Just as on the way up, the lights in the hotel (and in the whole town) went on for a few moments at dark, then did a strobe-light flicker and turned off for the night. The locals keep blaming a dirty hydro power plant at the waterfall at the north end of town; why don't they fix it?
Friday, 27 November
A long day of trekking. We left Tal at around 8:15AM and trekked on a trail that was both longer and more 'up' than we remembered. Stopped for a brief dal bhat break at the Tibetan Hotel in Chamje (the place we'd stayed at on the way up) and made Bahundanda at 5:15PM.
By 4:00, Lil was tired and had sore feet and knees from the long downhill stretches. To the hotel (the Tibetan Lodge, not near as nice as where we stayed on the way up but no long stone stair-climbing required to get there) and straight to the sleeping bag for Lil. Fortunately she later drank water and ate an egg roll.
Saying of the day (from Stephen King's 'The Stand' which Lil has been reading):'Man proposes, God disposes'. Quite appropriate theme for our trip, I'd say.
Here's a bit of irony: The other day when Ang Babu and Ram went back to Hongde for their binoculars, they traded their flashlight (ours with the headband attachment) for Kanchha's, since his was bigger and had stronger batteries (they thought we were going all the way to Tal that day and they'd therefore be hiking after dark). When they learned that we'd stop at Chame, they gave Kanchha back his flashlight but forgot to get ours back. So Kanchha didn't get the full 5000 rupees from us, but I wonder how much he could hock our flashlight for? I really did admire Kanchha's spunk in trying to get more money out of us, and he was a nice kid (esp. compared to his jerk brother). I hope he doesn't get beaten up when he gets home. And one positive bit of news; no visits on the trail from the Manangi mafia today.
Saturday, 28 November
After yesterday's tiring day for Lil and considering that a trip to Pokhara would involve a great deal of hassle and net us only a short amount of time there....we decided to spend today about 100 yards from where we were last night, back at the Hotel Mountain View. A day of lounging and reading and a shower have restored Lil's good spirits. I finished my 'Undaunted Courage' Lewis & Clark book, regained my goatee from what turned out to be a pretty full 3-week beard and did my first body washing and change of clothes in a week.
A nice room for the boys cost 50 rupees (ours was 40, and after finding out that we were footing the bill the owners were immune to Ang Babu's protests that the boys got a free room last time we were here), but that's ok, they deserve it. Tomorrow Besi Sahar, and then back to Kathmandu.
Our descent the past few days has coincided with the birth of countless baby goats and the hatching of many chicks (kept protectively close to their mothers, often under wing). I'm sure our attention to the animals is quite odd to the Nepalis (for whom this event is a commonplace occurrence) as we stare and coo over the newborns. The baby goats are adorable and remind me of our dog Scarlett (can you tell we miss our 'kids'?), with their nimble movements, stiff legs yet wobbly bodies, high-pitched cries and sweet faces....no semblance of horns yet.
Sunday, 29 November
So here we are, back in civilization in the hustle and bustle of Besi Sahar. I can't help but feel regret and more than a bit of 'culture shock'; I haven't seen a gasoline-powered vehicle, or experienced 24-hour electricity, in 2.5 weeks. As I type this I'm sitting here coughing from the exhaust fumes. It's interesting to compare the Western-values-measured prosperity of this area, derived I assume from the road under construction before me, with 'poorer' regions just a few miles down the road. However, ironically we could tell we were getting closer to Besi Sahar by the increasing amounts of trash on the trail....
This town is much changed from the one we left just a few weeks ago. Road construction has advanced dramatically, as has the brick-constructed building across the street. They've chopped down a beautiful old tree across the street from the hotel on a corner, probably for road widening or space to build another building. I'm disappointed, yet I also understand why they're doing it. I wonder if anyone will regret the decision in a few years (or even remember the tree). We took a different route back than the one we took when leaving the city and saw much more of the city as a consequence....it's much bigger than I thought (there were even Pentax K1000 and Cosina cameras for sale in a photo shop).
Lil hiked quite strongly today, on a trail that was mostly flat (a good way to end the trek). I had some good conversations yesterday and this morning with Nick, a 'kindred spirit' artist from Amsterdam who's ignoring his expiring trekking permit and hanging out in Bahundanda for a week. Nick started with the Annapurna Sanctuary trek and then headed up the Circuit clockwise. He said that the eastern half was by orders of magnitude his favorite, and in fact referred to the rest of it as the 'Coca-Cola trek'; very little Nepali culture left, hordes of trekkers, etc. He also said that the eastern half was much more scenic. Makes me glad that if I could only do half, it was THIS half.
By the way, in Bhulebule (where we stopped for lunch) the trekking permit office folks estimated we'd walked halfway around the full Circuit and back. If so that means I walked ~160 miles/260 km, and I estimate that (subtracting out the horse rides) Lil walked around 120 miles. Not bad. I wonder how much weight I've lost (I've gotta be below 130 lbs). My calves and quads are like rocks, as are Lil's.
The noise of road construction outside the hotel is deafening (they've just run a huge Ingersoll and Rand leveler past three times), and the fumes are stifling. I feel that if I wasn't concentrating on my writing, I might go slightly mad from all the overstimulation. Can't wait for Kathmanu...(hah). Talking with Nick about the 'Coca Cola trek', I was reminded of a passage from 'Undaunted Courage'. Lewis and Clark found that the less the previous exposure to white men, the more pleasant, friendly and generally enjoyable to be around the Indians were (I don't think they meant the Indians were more easily manipulated....and I'm not referring to any stereotypical 'savage' labeling of the Indians in comparing them to the Nepalis, but simply their status as 'native people'). The more previous Western exposure the Indians had had, the more shallow, manipulative, materialistic and generally unpleasant they were. I can't help but fear that the same scenario is being played out in front of my eyes.
The last two days we've been greeted by numerous 'Hello Choruses' and 'Namaste Choruses' as we pass by groups of children. One adorable litle 'dirt clod' had a grin from ear to ear that was the most infectious of any I've seen on this trip, and he followed us all around Bahundanda.
Monday, 30 November
Back in Kathmandu; amazing how fast my allergies returned! We took a 7:15 AM express minibus (for Nepalis, not just tourists) that arrived at 2PM after a morning break for tea and 11AM half-hour stop for dal bhat. We have a much nicer room at Hotel Karma this time; a single large bed and cleaner bathroom (and yes, as much as I might otherwise be experiencing culture shock, the hot shower felt great).
Had an excellent dinner at the Nirmala Vegetarian restaurant and walked around Thamel. Lil bought sweaters and cashmere scarves. We also spent quite a lot of time at the excellent Pilgrims Bookstore (the Powells of Kathmandu) with an outstanding book selection plus oils (I bought some patchouli), candles, crafts, etc. I also bought books 'The Ascent of Rum Doodle' and 'Stones of Silence' and a French translation of 'The Snow Leopard' for a friend, and Lil ended up buying a number of books and other things. Retired for the evening at around 8PM...I was still wide awake and would have liked to go listen to the music at North Beach Cafe next door but Lil was wiped out from the bus ride.
Tuesday, 1 December
Today Lil and I conquered Thamel. I awoke at 6AM, decided to go for an early-morning walk, and by 7:30 had:
We bought numerous things today, some large and some small. I decided to get a down sleeping bag (made in Korea and supposedly rated to -20 C) for 4500 rupees. At $70 US, that's at least 1/3 of what it would cost in the US. Even if the temperature rating is a bit inflated, it's still a good deal and it seems pretty well-constructed. I also priced ice axes but they really weren't any cheaper than in the US.
Lil also picked up a couple more sweaters, two nice drawings for the house (one a landscape, the other a scene of people harvesting rice), a few picture mats and other misc. items, and I finally got my official AYH patch at the local office. Ram and 21st birthday boy Ang Babu met us at the hotel and we went out for excellent pizza at 'Fire and Ice' restaurant (second time eating pizza for Ang Babu, first for Ram). Keshap didn't join us as he had to get back to his village for the harvest.
An early evening; Lil woke up without a voice and I had allergy attacks from dust in the room. Before saying goodnight, I took the boys down to the local cyber cafe and logged onto the Internet (5 rupees per minute...I don't know what the connection bandwidth was but it pulled stuff off U.S. servers much faster than I expected) to show them my home page and a few pix. Ang Babu's eyes bugged out of his head; again I'm tangibly reminded of how much I take for granted. Imagine if he ONLY saw the number of books and CDs in our house (ignoring for a moment all our other toys).
I heard from a guy downstairs in the hotel lobby that 33.6 ISP access (which rarely exceeds 19.2 in actual usage) in Kathmandu costs 6700 rupees per year, plus 3-5 rupees per minute (time-of-day dependent) connect charges (and of course the charge to have a phone line in your residence). Pretty steep; US-comparable fees for folks on a Nepal income. However prices seem to have gone down; Lil's friend Eric who was in Nepal just a few years ago reported that then, email was 50 rupees per KByte.
Wednesday, 2 December
This morning I got up at 6AM after a night of poor sleep (we both had allergy attacks throughout the night, and a crowd of noisy people was gathered outside a convenience store across the street from our hotel room window until almost midnight). I went for an early-morning walk around Thamel and had a cappucino and slice of apple pie; returned to the hotel and got Lil. We went for a very good breakfast at the Northfield cafe, owned by the Mike's Restaurant folks but more conveniently loated within easy walking distance of our hotel.
Ang Babu and Ram arrived at 11AM, and after yet another typical debate between Nepalis over taxis (which ended up with us paying a 210 rupee hotel charge plus a $5 US bill for a minivan that the hotel rep ended up forking over only 200 rupee for) we were off to the airport. The boys presented us with white prayer scarves, which I was genuinely thrilled to receive, and the looks on their faces when we said our goodbyes have me appreciating them all the more and looking forward to my return.
We made it through immigration smoothly and waited from 11:30 to 1:20 before boarding. The plane left at 2PM and arrived in Bangkok at 6:20 PM (local time). After a smooth trip through immigration and customs, we ended up renting a luxury Mercedes Benz taxi (interesting how quickly I re-embrace materialism.....) for 650 bhat. Traffic was extensive (the Asian Games are going on) but virtually smog-free and the taxi's comfort was appreciated as we didn't arrive at the La Residence hotel until almost 8PM. What a culture shock awaited me compared to where I was just 24 hours earlier...
This hotel is amazing; a very nice modern-style suite with attractively-styled furniture and separate living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom for 2750 bhat per day (about US $76 at the current exchange rate of 36 bhat per dollar....not quite as good as ~50 bhat per dollar at the height of Asian Flu panic but better than the 25 bhat per dollar quoted in the early-1997 published version of Lonely Planet Bangkok city guide that I have). Oh by the way, we changed money at the Bangkok airport...the guy beside us in the next line tried to exchange Nepali rupees into bhat but was refused (I'm glad we used up all our rupees before we left Nepal).
We had a pretty good prawn-and-shrimps dinner at the restaurant downstairs at the hotel then headed for the notorious Patpong area. It was a pretty pathetic place (although I confess I bought a pair of sunglasses and Lil bought several pair of silver earrings). Patpong contains hundreds of stalls selling watch and clothing (jeans, polo-type shirts, etc.) name-brand counterfeits, as well as video game clones (PC games were under the tables...counterfeit music was surprisingly absent). Surrounding this was the skin trade....sidewalk barkers luring you into go-go clubs where girls in bikinis with numbers on them (think about it) danced listlessly on stage to pounding music and lights, while upstairs unmentionable acts that might even shock Mitchell Brothers (San Francisco) occurred. An obscene mutation of capitalism....
By 10PM we'd had enough...back to the hotel, clean sheets and fluffy pillows, to sleep.
Thursday, 3 December
What a day (wait, haven't I said this a few times before?) and a fitting conclusion to this 'memorable' trip. Lil woke up with diarrhea and upset stomach this morning, so we had breakfast in the room and hung out there for a while. I decided to pop in my contact lenses for the first time in almost a month, and about 11AM I went for a walk west on Surawong past Patpong (more tame in daylight) to Rama IV, and back via the the Silom Road shopping district. Big spender that I am; I bought contact lens solution (it IS nice to be in a country that knows what contact lenses are!) and a copy of Utne Reader magazine.
When I returned to the hotel, Lil said she was feeling better, so we went downstairs to the restaurant to eat (she had only white rice, I had an excellent spicy thick/wide noodle dish with shrimps and bay leaves). We walked 10 blocks or so to the ferry pier, where we took a boat up-river for 6 bhat each.
The ferry ride was uneventful, but boy was the river filthy. I saw some pretty cool looking narrow boats called 'long tailed taxis' with what looked like car engines bolted above the back end, holding a dozen or so people max. The engine was mounted on a tilting base, the drive trains ended in propellers, and the driver controlled speed and lifted the prop into and out of the water via control levers at engine front. Lil and I visited the quite impressive and ornate Temple of the Emerald Buddha (inside the main temple building-no pictures allowed-the Emerald Buddha was on an elevated pedestal surrounded by dozens of other Thai-style Buddhas and tons of gold..outside there were Boddhisatva-looking statues which I thought was strange for Theravada 'Lower' Buddhism) and the Royal Palace grounds. Lil wasn't feeling very well by the end, so she waited in a park across the street from the Palace grounds while I walked to Wat Pho and saw the massive Reclining Buddha.
Now to get back to the hotel. Our attempts to procure a taxi were unsuccessful; the distance to the hotel was long and at 4:30 PM the traffic jams were impassable. So back to the boat ferry. Along the way we picked up a bunch of bananas and an Asian pear. By the time we reached our pier Lil had cold sweats, was pale (almost green) and I thought she was going get sick right in front of me. A taxi driver saw our situation and, knowing an easy buck when he saw it, quoted us 300 bhat EACH for a trip of maybe 1 km. He settled for 300 bhat total (still a ripoff) although he claimed lack of cash and only gave me 160 bhat change for my 500 bhat note....but we made it back safely.
At the hotel, Lil initially complained of pain in her abdomen (I immediately thought appendicitis) but had no fever (ironically I was running one of 99.7°F). However, some dry clothes and an hour or so of bed rest had her feeling better. I had a seafood pizza from Pizza Hut next door for dinner and we watched two movies on the hotel's free in-house service; 'Fargo' and what could have only been a pirated copy of 'Saving Private Ryan'. To bed at 10:30 PM...an early morning tomorrow up at 4:20 AM, out the door at 5:15 to make our 7:25AM flight to Tokyo.
Friday, 4 December
As I begin to write this we're on initial approach into Sacramento after a pretty uneventful set of flights. Lil's health and spirits have improved with every mile closer to Sacramento, which is welcome news, and a phone call to Lil's parents from LAX confirmed that all's well at home.
We made our Bangkok outbound flight with no time crunch, and I had just enough spare Thai money after paying the 500 bhat each airport usage tax to buy a fish sandwich combo meal at the airport KFC (an interesting breakfast). The movie selection on the flight to Tokyo was pretty ironic (and pretty lame); GODZILLA! We were able to fly standy on an early LAX-to-Sac flight, lost no luggage and now are waiting for SuperShuttle to whisk us away to our waiting cats and dogs.....;-)
Just glancing at the gift shops at LAX and Sacramento airports left me dizzy; all the Christmas decorations, so much 'stuff' for sale and so conveniently delivered and colorfully packaged that it practically screams 'you need this' (I can't wait to see what happens the first time I enter a grocery store)! What a shock, and I hope the lessons regarding materialism that I've learned on this trip won't dissipate with time. Like I said earlier, although I think that compared to many Americans Lil and I lead fairly materialistically simple lives, we still have our toys and our hangups. Although we can intellectually conceptualize a non-desire-driven lifestyle, it's been quite a lesson to immerse ourselves in it for a few weeks (to the extent that we did, we were still 'tourists' after all). Now that I'm back in the States, filled with bratty spoiled kids and image-driven adults, I wonder how much different this country would be and how much more we'd appreciate our opportunities, our possessions and each other if each American were to spend just a few days truly LIVING in a third-world country (not just observing it through the windows of a taxi or a Hilton Hotel), filled with its own blend of strengths and shortcomings.
URL For This Page: http://www.bdipert.com/nepaljrn.htm.
This page was created on December 9, 1998. It was last updated on August 10, 2009.
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