Monday, October 27, 2008


Nepal, the land of ups and downs, highs and lows. It's figurative and literal... To get here, we flew into Kolkata, India, and spent roughly 36 hours on trains and buses to cross to Chitwan National Park. That was definitely a low, and I must say a bad way to train for trekking at 5,000+ meteres! It was relatively unmentionable and went smoothly, even at the border. By the way, show up at dusk and the Nepal border patrol will process you double quick because as soon as it's dark they're working by candle light!

Upon arrival in Chitwan, we quickly found a room and headed for the river where we were close to miss the "elephant bathing." It really consists of the elephant riders taking the elephants into the river where they do bathe, but the real attraction is they'll let you get on top of the elephant where it repetitively bathes YOU with a trunk full of water. We have excellent pictures...

We stayed there two nights, saw some local dancing, did an elephant safari where we saw a wild rhino and it's baby, and walked a few kilometers out to the Elephant Breeding Camp which wasn't as impressive (slightly depressing with the chained legs) as we'd hoped. It was really an elephant extravaganza, and when it was done we caught a bus to Kathmandu.

Busing in Nepal sounds casual, as it should be, but it's actually what I would consider more dangerous than the most extreme sport. The Lonely Planet mentions the dangers, and the author saw something like 4 fatal bus crashes/rolls off cliffs in a trivially short amount of time. I thought something along the lines of "it's another westerner scared and blowing something out of proportion." Well, I was wrong. Our bus from Chitwan to Kathmandu was supposed to last a mere five hours. On the way I saw the remains of 4 major bus accidents, and there was one whose remains I didn't see. Two of the buses had a head-on collision and were left in one of the lanes in the road. They were passing on a windy mountain road (they're all windy mountain roads). Two of the buses had gone over the edge, probably killing or maiming everyone in the bus since the roof was obviously collapsed flat! The 5th bus had just gone over the edge and so the remains were impossible to see. At the site of the last one, we encountered a major delay whent he locals decided to stage a demonstration. Dasain, the largest Hindu festival of the year was fast approaching and the local people (about 50,000) had been severely affected by a flood. As a result, they were blocking the road so that they could hopefully receive relief funds from the government so that they could afford to celebrate the festival (which means buying a goat and slaughtering it for dinner). The delay was over 8 hours, and the result was us rolling into Kathmandu around midnight, but at least we were alive!

Kathmandu was completely deserted, it was really bizarre. A few vendors on the way home, essentially no taxi drivers, and ALL the shops had the steel doors rooled down making the city into a rather claustrophobic maze. We quickly realized that essentially all of the hotels were closed and locked as well! Uh oh.... Luckily, after a few streets we found one down a back alley that had a courtyard-ish thing out front and had a security guard awake manning the gate. He opened it up, and woke up the guy the guy who ran the guest house and luckily, we weren't sleeping in the street!

The next two days were spent preparing for our trip up into the Himalayas. We needed airline tickets to Lukla, down jackets, thermal underwear, information, permits, and more. We wandered Kathmandu, which was mildly amusing at first, but quickly became a traveler's hell. Everyone in the street asking you to buy something from a ride in a rickshaw, to musical instruments, to tigerbalm, and more. And if you say no to their first offer, then half the time it's quickly followed by a much quieter, huskier, question, "smoke?" or "marijuana?" The whole time, no matter where you are, it's hard to walk 10 meters there are so many cars and motor bikes all blocking the road (there are no sidewalks to speak of) and they're all honking. It was like Vietnam but there were more touts and obscenely worse air quality. One minute in the street and you're coughing. I think that this trip has probably shortened my lifespan by a few years. Sometimes I think smoking is healthier than travel...

However, we managed to land enough knock off brand clothing and equipment to reasonably get us up the mountains (Nath has a new "North Face" down jacket for around $40), and we headed to the airport for our flight to Lukla.

The domestic airport in Kathmandu is a thing of nightmares. Most places we've been can be described as organized chaos. The airport is just plain chaos. As soon as we walked in the door I realized that we were in trouble. Many airlines, even more lines, and none of them moving. Our flight was for 9:20am and our hotel recommended we show up around 8, which we did. However, the sheer number of people already there and the massive piles of expedition and group trekking gear was daunting, almost reaching to the door. I resigned myself to doing my best and we started talking strategy. It was obvious we were at a disadvantage because we were without a guide (a sign of things to come). The guides just walk behind the counter and talk to the airline representatives, get their clients on the next flight out even if they aren't booked on it. Somehow we managed to wander our way up to the front of the line, probably since we were some of the only people there who weren't with a group in the entire airport. All the other people in line were westerners patiently waiting for their guide to get them on the next flight, while we stood at the front of the line completely and utterly ignored for over two hours. There was one other independent trekker who was in the same situation who had been there before us. However, I had a trick up my sleeve. I had just finished reading "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie, the day before and I put the principles to practice! After a few tries, the guys behind the counter started to warm up to me and eventually we made it on a flight over two hours after our scheduled departure but ahead of the other independent trekker who had been trying since the day before! Thanks Dale Carnegie! :)

I'd heard stories about the Lukla airport from accounts in mountaineering books, but I'd forgotten til I saw it looming in the window ahead. Our little prop plane was flying right into the hillside! The pilots only get one try, since the runway is angled up the hill with a small cliff at the back. Awesome. I watched as the plane flew in, touched down, and stopped insanely quickly as a result of the hill. I was glad to have a good pilot.

We hopped off the plane, packed our bags, and headed out. It was already afternoon, and we hadn't had lunch, so we stopped for food and drink at a few tea houses on our way to Phakding (2610m).

The next morning, we woke to beautiful blue skies, and for Nathalie's birthday (Oct 7th) we got to see our first views of a beautiful snow capped peak in the distance! For Nathalie's birthday, we had one of our most gruelling days ahead of us. It wouldn't have been bad a few months ago, but too much travel and not enough exercise had us both relatively out of shape. We shouldered our packs and started slogging up the hill to Namche Bazaar located farther up the valley at 3440m. I had a headache by the end of the day, and Nathalie was exhausted. We had made it to over 10,000', and as usual I was feeling it. After much searching due to lodges being full (this would be a trend to come) we found ourselves in quite a nice little place with great food. We settled in for the next two nights to do the recommended acclimitization.

We shopped a little, I rented a down jacket for about 65 cents a day and we both bought some crazy hats for the cold awaiting us above. While I was shopping for the jacket, we heard that one of the Yeti Airlines planes (the company we flew with) had crashed killing all passengers. The runway is dangerous... Having bought a Time Magazine in Kathmandu that had many pages devoted to our financial worries, I had a rather funny experience of sitting in a satellite internet cafe in Namche Bazaar selling off stock. The internet usage was expensive, but when we got back to "civilization" I was very glad to have made that decision!

The next day we hiked up to Tengboche at 3860m. We missed the last restaurant and had to do the last two hours of uphill with no food or water, unfortunately. It went pretty quickly though, and we ended up with hours to spare lounging around looking at an almost 360 degree view of beautiful mountains including Ama Dablam and our first peak of a sliver of the summit of Everest. We found a room easily (because of some bizarre political thing going on banning porters in Tengboche) and visited the monastary.

In the morning, we attempted to see the monks performing their morning prayer/chant, but they started late and we ended up leaving without seeing it. We were slowly working our way up in elevation, and this was the first place that it was truly cold. I pulled out the down jacket I'd rented that morning.

Once we hit the trail, it was more uphill. We were detouring a little off the beated path to check out a valley to the east of the main valley. The side excursion was off to the Island Peak Base Camp. Island Peak is a 6200m peak that is many, many, many people's introduction to mountaineering. We ran into endless numbers of tourists who were doing this peak. It consists of hiking for about 1000+' uphill, then there's about 200m of snow/ice and only about 80m is technical (60 degree now/ice) which every single "climber" we met just jugged up on fixed ropes. Needless to say, it didn't appeal. Especially when the permit cost around $350+ for a team and a guide was required! Mountaineering sure has changed... Anyways, the real appeal was extra acclimatization at elevation since the base camp was over 5000m and the views were unbelievable. On the way we stayed the night in Dingboche (4410m) and then hiked up to Chukhung (4730m) for another night. By this time we were really getting up there in elevation. I had trouble sleeping in Dingboche and kept waking up with the feeling of suffocating, but the day to Chukhung was pretty easy and I felt pretty good after that. Our day hike out to Island Peak gave us wonderful views of a new valley that included the truly vast south face of Lhotse, and a new perspective on Ama Dablam. There were also innumerable other beautiful mountains, and a nice glacial lake. Our day topped out around 5100m, close to 16,000'! When we turned around, we headed back down to Dingboche for another night to get back on the main trail to Everest Base Camp (EBC).

The next day we followed a sherpa porter for a group across a mountain shoulder to meet up with the main trail and made it to Lobuche (4910m, over 15,000'). Lobuche was a nightmare. We showed up early, but all the lodges were "full." This means that they didn't want us as customers because we were hiking without a guide. It was really bizarre. As far as I could tell, they made more money off of us, but still sometimes we couldn't even get rooms even if we showed up before people had checked out! We went to all the lodges and only one would let us sleep in the dining room with the Sherpas. It was crazy! The lodge was empty! As we waited throughout the day (you really don't hike far some days due to the elevation) sherpas would come in the door, dump obscene quantities of bags on the floor, and then tourists would show up 3 hours later and happily take their packs to their rooms. We were pretty annoyed. There were other things that got us pretty worked up too, but I can skip it here... In the end, we woke up around 4am with the Sherpas and set off up the hill to Gorak Shep.

Now, I don't know how many of you have spent much time in the mountains, but hiking at 4:30am around 5000m in the middle of October is rather cold. On the plus side, watching the sunrise on Nuptse and other mountains made it quite worth it and even enjoyable. We showed up in Gorak Shep (5140m) around 6:15 and got a room and dropped our packs. We were so happy to leave Lobuche we hadn't had breakfast so we headed into the dining room and splurged on some breakfast AND tea. By this time, resources were so difficult to get up the hill, that all food and drink were starting to be ridiculously expensive. We had both taken out as much money as we could from the ATM before we flew, but we quickly realized that we were running low and would have to conserve... It's a bummer when you often can't get some hot tea when it's cold enough to freeze your water bottles outside and you can't feel your hands.

After a (too quick) breakfast, we were out the door a little after 7am to make our push for Kala Pattar (5545m, or over 18,000'). Many people told us you had to be up there by 8am or there would be clouds in the way. We made good time until the last few hundred meters. Unfortunately, we didn't drink or bring enough water and we became dehydrated. I felt it worst, getting a headache and feeling completely exhausted as the altitude sickness struck. By the time we headed down, Nath was feeling it as well. What was wonderful were the views. The clouds stayed far away, and we managed to get spectacular views of the mountains with a 360 degree view of our surroundings!

After heading down, we pounded around 4 liters of water between us. Shortly after, we felt great again. We had another cold night before heading back up to higher elevations, this time a day hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC). We had heard that it was a hard hike of up to 7 hours round trip, but it ended up taking a mere 4 hours round trip with an hour in the base camp itself. Unfortunately, it was rather uneventful. All but one of the teams had failed due to "deep snow" (what did they expect?) and were gone leaving the sherpas to clean up after them and break down camp. We snapped some pictures, saw a good view of Nupste from closer, and then headed back.

After our last night in Gorak Shep, we started downhill to Dzonglha (4830m) with amazing views of Arakam Tse. We arrived before any other travellers, but of course the two lodges wouldn't give us a room since we were independent. We had to (not) sleep in the dorm with 20 other noisy people. As usual, when there was a down side, something good came of it. We met Dan, a fellow independent traveller and we decided to hike through Cho La Pass together. Cho La is an alternate way back down, turning the trek into a loop which are always better... We had also heard that it was a big day to get through the pass but the views would be spectacular. Setting off early again, armed with a Snickers and some cheese for lunch, we started slogging up the hill. The pass topped out at 5330m and did have amazing views of Gokyo Valley on the other side. Unfortunately, we had to drop down to 4700m over a very long distance. We at our Snickers at the to of the pass and headed out. Many hours later, we finally reached the next town. The plan was to keep going, but Nath was tired and we made plans to meet Dan in the next village, Gokyo, in the morning.

We left Dragnag early to cross a glacier and meet up with Dan. Crossing the glacier was actually a little scary, with a rock hopping section that was quite risky with packs on. I was very glad to have trekking poles, and I can't even imagine how the porters do it... They're amazing. When we met up with Dan in the next guesthouse in Gokyo, we found him sitting with another independent traveller we'd met earlier in our hiking, Doug. The weather was bad, and instead of hiking we ended up eating great food and playing cards most of the day. At the end of the day, when the clouds parted a little, we headed up Gokyo Ri, Ri means viewpoint, a small hill/mountain next to the town. We crushed the hike up to 5360m in barely over an hour, saw some of Cho Oyu (an 8,000m) peak, and took some more good pictures. We have way to many pictures of our trek. We flew down the hill for some dinner, and did the round trip in about the time a lot of people take to go up the hill!

Nath wasn't feeling too well, so Dan Doug and I were planning on trying to hike a roughly 5600m peak the next day. However, despite having reserved the room for two nights the lady kicked us out of the guesthouse because a group was coming! Not only that, but when I went next door to see if they had rooms (it was 8am) the lady followed me and told them NOT to give us rooms! It was almost unbelievable how horrible some of those people were to independent trekkers, and we all had the same experience. We were so over it at that point, that we changed plans and got a late start on Renjo La Pass, a day even bigger than Gokyo Ri. We packed up and were hiking after 9am. Renjo La topped out at 5340m and this time not only were the views better, but there was a group of Isralis who shared fresh coffee and we had a little dance party using an iPod and speakers! Also, since Dan was carrying a guitar, there was some playing and singing. The way down out of Renjo was tame, but long, and we were hiking with headlamps by the end. We could have stopped earlier, but just wanted to get down. But again, a bad experience at the guesthouse lead to us doing another pass which was even better, and we got to have a fun party at the top! Highs and lows...

The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. We saw another monestary, stayed one last night in Namche Bazaar where we left Doug, and had a long day with Dan back to Lukla where we stayed the night for our flight back to Kathmandu. Again, flying was funny. We managed to get a ticket for the next morning since we stayed at a guesthouse where one of the owners had a family member working for the airlines. At the airport, our ticket had no time on it and we literally had to shove our way through the line to get on our plane. They have no idea who is on what flight...

The last thing I wanted to do in Nepal was river rafting. Apparently they have some of the best rafting in the world, and one of the rivers, the Bhote Khosi is continuous grade 3-4+ for hours of amazing fun! I won't say too much about this, but we went with one of the "professional" companies recommended in the Lonely Planet, and they took us on a completely different river which was an hour and a half of easy grade 2-3 rapids. I was done with Nepal. We got out as quick as possible. It wasn't as bad as Vietnam, but almost without exception the business owners were terrible people. It definitely partially ruined my experience in the country. By this time I was starting to be pretty eager to go home... but off to India!


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