Ok - I have a quick update since my last blog. Apparently, the Muslim dude from Tajikistan is a legitimate person. He asked to be my friend on facebook and his profile page checked out. Either that...or he is one hell of a con artist :) So...with that said, perhaps I may have over reacted a tiny bit when I was with him. But given the circumstances and the dodgy characters around that area of town, I think it was pretty understandable for me to have my guard up. There is no doubt that the other men that approached me where touts of some sort.
I just really hope the Tajikistan guy never finds my blog.....because, well...that would be a bit awkward.
Let me first begin with saying that Nepal is awesome. I will be as bold to even say that I think it is my top favorite country....tied with Ecuador of course. This will not be the last time I visit, there is so much more that I need to explore.
My guide's name was Nyrma. It was really nice to have him along for the hike because there were certain parts where I did not see other people for awhile. However, turns out I paid a lot of money for an "English" speaking guide who admitted to me (well along on our trek) that in fact, he does not speak very much English and actually studied French. So....that was a bit frustrating for me since the whole reason I hired him was to teach me about the culture and chit-chat along the way. Nonetheless, it was good to have someone around. Plus, he carried my bag the entire way.
We started off our hike in a small town called Naya pol. As I mentioned in my last blog, there was a Hindu festival taking place. Goats were sacrificed and most of Nepal, besides the tourism jobs, were on a 3 week holiday. Within the first 15 minutes of walking we came upon a small crowd. I peaked through and saw that there was a headless goat laying on the dirt pathway. One man had a blow torch and was burning the hair off of it. It was a startling sight for me. I met a girl once in Laos who watched villagers butcher and take apart a cow in the middle of town. I asked her if it freaked her out and she responded nonchalantly with "You should be able to kill the animal that you eat." I agreed with her statement and admitted that my knowledge of meat was reduced to sanitary packages at supermarkets. Sure, during my travels I have visited open markets where I have seen meat hanging on hooks in 100 degree weather. I have also seen large pigs roasting over a fire while people peeled off the skin to eat. But the blow torching of a headless goat in a pile of dirt was a new site for me. I quickly made a mental note to stick to a vegetarian diet along the trek. It actually wasn't going to be difficult to eat vegetarian. The primary meal for the Nepalis was a dish called Dal Bhat. It consists of a heaping portion of rice with a side of fried potatoes, spinach, and some sort of chutney. Then there is a bowl of watery lentil soup that you pour over the rice. If you order this dish, you can have all of the dal bhat that you can eat. It is what the porters live off of and is actually quite tasty. Since meat is rarely eaten, the people get most of their protein from lentils. It is a good high energy meal. For curiosity though, I did try a piece of goat later in the trek. It was fatty and tough. I also had soup one night and commented on how good the sun dried tomatoes where....only to find out that I was eating dried yak meat. But for the most part, I stuck to a vegetarian diet.
The trekking routes weren't open to tourism until the late 1950s. The routes were basically "super highways" that the porters and villagers used for trading. Still today, these routes are filled with porters and pony caravans carrying supplies from village to village. Most of it now is catered to tourism, but it is neat to know that there is so much history in the steps that we were taking.
Later on in the day, we came across a Nepalis family coming down a steep hill. They were taking a break on the side of the path. I noticed a large basket tied to the back of one of the younger man. The older mother was tending to the basket. As I came around the family I looked and saw that in the basket was a grown man who appeared to be physically and mentally disabled. They cut out the front part of the basket for his legs to hang out. This family must have been heading into the city, perhaps to celebrate the Hindu festival....and they were carrying their grown son in a basket the entire way there. Physical or mental disabilities are a life changing struggle for families anywhere in the world. In America, though, we have resources and government help (handicap accessible areas, community programs and schools etc.) In the Himalayan villages, there are no such programs or help. How difficult it must be to live each day with those sort of problems. My admiration went out to the family carrying their son down the steep steps of the mountain.
The first few days of hiking, we crossed through the low level mountains in areas of lush green and rushing rivers. It was beautiful, however, the weather was a bit cloudy and I still had not seen any mountain peaks. It was 2 weeks before the height of the hiking season....and the rainy season had dragged a bit longer then usual. I was really hoping that this wouldn't ruin the mountain views I had ahead of me.
The next morning we woke up at 4:00am. There was a viewing at the top of this place called Poon Hill. It was supposed to be outstanding for sunrises. I strapped on my headlamp and we began the 1 hour walk up the steep hill. The whole way up, the sky was filled with clouds. I was really disappointed inside....was I really not going to see any mountains on my Himalayan trek? I spoke to the mountain, cloud, and sun gods as I hiked up. I just told them to give me a view....the tiniest view and I would be happy. When we arrived to the top it was still dark and you couldn't see much. After a few minutes, Nyrma pointed out into the valley and when I turned my head I saw my first mountain peak. It was a dark shadow against the slightly lighter sky. The clouds appeared to be rolling off the mountain like a wave in slow motion. I had the biggest smile on my face. It was day 3 and I was seeing my first glimpse of the almighty mountain range. I sat on a tree stump and watched for the next hour as the sun made its way up and the clouds slowly descended from the sky.....it turned out to be an extraordinary view. As the sun rose you could see the light hitting certain edges of the mountains and they appeared to be glowing. Hello Himalayas! (there are pics on Picasa of the views)
When we returned I ordered a yummy pancake with peanut butter on top. Half way through eating it I came across a fly that had gotten stuck in the batter. In fact, most of the meals I had, contained strands of hair or pesky little insects in them. We used to joke in Ecuador that it wasn't a genuine Ecuadorian meal unless you found a strand of hair in it. It is much the same here in Nepal. Everything is cooked to order in these small kitchens with gas cookers. The Nepalis woman have long dark manes of hair and some of the houses have no windows to block anything from coming in. The meals were good and hearty, but you always had to have an inspection before eating.
As we continued walking this day, I noticed that my breathing was getting harder and harder. We were now around 3000 meters (almost 10,000 feet). The previous days I was pretty impressed by my fitness level and how good I felt walking. But on this day, I was not as cocky....the altitude was making it a bit more difficult.
At this point I was walking with a Finnish and Australian guy. They both had guides as well. We stopped in a little down for a rest. There was this little baby monkey sitting on the chair. Unfortunately, the locals probably bought the monkey to use as a way to get the tourists attention. I went to pet the monkey and give it some love as I rested. When I sat down, it climbed into my lap and fell asleep....it was so sweet. There were a few kids in the town and I practiced my Nepalis phrases that I had studied. I asked them how they were and what their names were. They just giggled and laughed at me.
To help Nyrma practice his English, I tried to ask him questions as we walked. One day I asked him if he had a girlfriend. I thought it was a reasonable and normal thing to ask. He turned really red in the face and laughed and then told me that he had a wife...not a girlfriend. "Oh that is fantastic....do you have kids?" I replied. He laughed more and conversed with the other Nepalis guide that was near us. Then he looked at me and in broken English said "My wife told me not to never trust other women."....then he started walking faster and I was a bit confused at the sudden awkwardness. The Australian's guide spoke really good English and told the Aussie that my guide thought I was hitting on him. Which is not at all what my intention was and I didn't think that I gave the slightest hint to that idea. As it turns out, many of the Nepalis guides sleep with the foreign woman on the treks. This was news to me and I thought it quite hilarious that my guide thought that I was pursuing him.
Nyrma may have been good to his wife, but the Australian's guide on the other hand was what we would call a "player". He had local girlfriends in most of the small villages and a fiance back in Kathmandu. I guess those type of men live all over the world :)
For a few days the Australian guy hiked with me. Unbeknownst to me, there were hand signals and secret conversations between him and our guides about him trying to hook up with me on the hike. After several days of walking together, the Australian guy told me that our guides were surprised that we hadn't slept together yet. This statement took me by surprise and I just sat there staring at him and wondering why in the world he was saying this to me in the first place. He went further on about how he could tell that I wasn't interested in him, though. I still stayed quiet as I wasn't sure what type of response he wanted...he was right, I was not interested in him like that. A few moments later he went on to say "In fact....I am not interested in you either. You seem like a nice girl, but I probably wouldn't sleep with you. I'm sure you don't hear that very often from men, do you?" At this point I was really in shock by the ridiculousness of this Ham of a man. He went on...."But you see that Chinese girl over there? I could seduce her in 10 minutes I bet."
Uhhhhh was this guy serious? He was also right again. Most men don't tell me after knowing me for 2 days whether or not they would sleep with me. I don't think that is a very normal conversation to have. I just gave him a weird smile and walked to another table and sat down. What a class act this guy was...it was when I realized that you can get stuck on these treks with the most unusual people. Here I was trying to be "one with nature" in the Himalayan mountains and somehow it turned into Sex Trek 2009!
I had decided to keep walking and doing my thing. I was not going to converse with this guy unless he started the conversation. He was really beginning to annoy me. But for some reason he trotted along next to me and continued to talk as if the prior conversation was nothing awkward or weird for him. I gave him one word answers and tried to concentrate on my steps.
When we arrived to the town where we were staying the night, the lodge was full. It turned out that I was going to have to share a room with the Australian and another Finnish guy. I was pretty thankful there would be 3 of us in the room. This lodge was packed with people from all around the world. There was a Korean family, a Romanian couple, a Spanish man, 2 German girls, the Finnish, the Aussie, and me. We all sat around a big table for dinner and had fun playing cards and chatting with one another. The Australian wasn't annoying me as much now that we were in a big group and I had other people to talk with.
The next morning we were going to do the long walk to the Annapurna Base Camp. We needed to go up 1000 meters. This is the day that a lot of people got altitude sickness so we were going to be taking it nice and slow. Once again, the Australian began his walk with me. I tried to not let him annoy me this next day. He was definitely a true class act and someone I would never be interested in, but all in all he was harmless. In chatting with him, it helped me forget the steep mountains we were ascending. Throughout this day it wasn't the altitude that got to me, but I developed a killer cold instead. My throat got sore and I sneezed and coughed constantly. I think the constant change in temperature and rain and my lack of proper clothing led to my sickness. We arrived to the top of the base camp at 4320 meters (14,000 feet). Because of the weather, you could not see any of the glorious mountains. To make matters worse, the lodge was booked up again. Even the dining halls were booked. It turned out that we would have to sleep in a tent that night. To avoid sleeping in the same tent with the Australian, I got set up in a tent with 2 Korean girls and a Chinese girl. I tried to speak to them, but they were very shy and didn't say much in return. Throughout the night I could hear the wind howling and the mountains roaring. Several times I heard avalanches in the distance...it was if the mountains were alive. Mother nature will you humble you so quickly in these moments.
In the middle of the night I had a weird stomach pain and realized I needed to rush to the bathroom. As I hobbled out of the tent I looked up to see the cloudless sky and the Annapurna mountain sanctuary surrounding me. No one else was around and I could not believe the site. It was astonishing. After I went to the bathroom, I sat at a table for a few minutes and enjoyed the view. Little did I know, it would be the only time I would see the mountain range like that....the rest of my time there would be cloudy.
The next morning was a cloudy sunrise. At certain points you could see glimpses of the mountains but it was nothing like the site from the previous night. Since I was ahead of schedule, I decided to stay another night at the base camp. It would give me a chance to relax and improve my health. The Australian and other people that were hiking the same days as us moved on down the mountain. I walked up to the lookout point to have some time alone and watch the passing clouds. There was a monument lined with Buddhist prayer flags dedicated to all of the people who died in Annapurna. One of the most famous climbers in the world, the Russian Anatoli Boukreev, died in 1997 by an avalanche there. Many people have perished in these mountains. In fact, while I was trekking there was a Korean climbing expedition with 6 men. 2 of the men went missing a few days before I had arrived to the base camp. They were nowhere to be found and it was thought that they were killed by an avalanche as well. After days of missing, they were pronounced dead.
As I watched the mountains come in and out of view, an Austrian man walked by me with a cello case. He climbed this tall rock and set up his instrument. Finally, he began playing the cello. I just sat there staring at the massive mountain range covered in patchy clouds and listened to him play....it was one of those surreal moments in life where you aren't really sure what is real or not. I was alone in the middle of the Himalayas listening to a live session of the cello!
The weather didn't improve too much that day but it was nice to rest and I met some really interesting people. It was a shame to not see the whole mountain sanctuary during the day without clouds, but there was nothing much you could do about it.
Nyrma and I set off down the mountain. What took us almost 6 days to climb, would only take 3-4 days to get down.
There was a bit of drama with my guide because the agency had told me that it would take 12 days to do the entire trek. Well...turns out a blind turtle could have done it faster then 12 days. We would walk for a few hours and then Nyrma would try to get me to stop and stay the night somewhere when it was only 12pm. I told him how I wanted to keep walking until well into the afternoon. Also, he was not honest with me about distances to the next towns to discourage me from wanting to continue walking. If I hire a guide next time in Nepal, I will underestimate my walking time. If I take longer, then I will pay for those extra days. I didn't know anything about the trek an assumed that 12 days would be fine. But at some points I felt as if I were being held hostage on the mountain because Nyrma would not let me do what I wanted. I knew the distances were possible and that he was just trying to keep me on the trek for more days. Finally, I told him that I would be fine to take my own backpack and continue walking without him. With his lack of English and telling me white lies about distances etc, it was difficult at some points of the trek. But, I realized that he was only trying to make a living. And he was taking me on the number of days that his boss had paid him for. Finally, I told him I would pay him for the 12 days but to please get me down in 9. It was a lesson learned on my part and I don't falter him for trying to do his job. Overall he was a nice guide.
The trek was amazing and if I didn't have a tour booked for India in a few weeks then I would extend my visa and do another trek. There is so much more to see in Nepal. Someday I would love to come back and visit all of the small villages where the tourists don't come to. This way I could grasp the culture and the people better.
Now I am in the enchanting town of Pokhara. It is much more chilled out then Kathmandu. Tons of hippies flock here for meditation, yoga, and drugs. The weather hasn't been too good though, so I have spent most of my time reading and journaling. In a few days I will be going on a 9 day river rafting excursion. There will be 8 of us in the raft. Last week 2 people died on the river we will be going on. The company did not have safety kayakers and the raft went down the rapids anyways. The boat flipped and the guide and another person were killed. I was a little worried when I heard about the news, but the company I am using has safety kayakers and the best equipment. It is also a reputable company in Lonely Planet. As my stomach nerves were getting to me about the rafting, I went online and read the news. There was a devastating Typhoon that blew through the Philippines and a horrible earthquake in Sumatra Indonesia. 100s of people died instantly. People die everyday and you never know what could happen tomorrow. I started coming to grips with the rafting....everything will be ok and it will be an amazing experience to raft through Nepal miles away from any civilization.