Category Archives: Nepal

Final Thoughts

So now I’m on my way home, flying over the Pacific as I type. I honestly can’t believe how quickly these past few months have passed, but on the other hand, I feel so fortunate to have experienced so much in such a short period of time. I just finished watching a movie on the plane – a nice, no-brainer chick-flick and there was one line it that really resonated with me. It basically said that life is half what you do with yourself and half about who you spend your time with. I can’t iterate enough how much my personal experiences were shaped (mostly for the good) by the people I was with. Had I done this trip completely alone, it’d have been awful. But as I’ve said before, and I’ll say again – that’s the best part of traveling – meeting people.

In the past 109 days, I’ve taken 2 overnight plane flights, camped on a beach for 2 nights, spent 5 nights on bus, took 2 overnight train rides and slept in 59 different beds (yes, I counted). I’ve taken 18 separate flights (well, by the time I get back to Chicago). I can’t even count the number of buses, tuk-tuk rides, rickshaws, motorbike rides, etc that I’ve taken. I walked 150 miles in 14 days, trekked to 5416 meters, rock climbed in Thailand, surfed in Bali, climbed south east Asia’s tallest mountain, white-water rafted in Bali, saw orangutans in the jungle, climbed a sulfur-spewing volcano in Sumatra, experienced new cultures, met amazing new friends, saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets, relaxed on the beach in “paradise,” did yoga in India, discovered new food, and through it all, had such an amazing time.

My time over the past 3.5 months was divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Nepal, India and Thailand. I think it’s interesting to note that the 3 wealthiest countries (that I visited on this trip) are Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. I noticed a few differences between the wealthier countries and the poorer ones. For one, the wealthier countries tend to have more cars, whilst the poorer ones either rely more on motorbikes or foot for transportation. The other difference, which I find quite notable, is that in the wealthier countries, women play a very visible role. They have jobs and interact with the public. They are seen out at night – sometimes even alone. In Indonesia, Nepal and India, local women are seen from a bus window, or seen in groups, or seen with families, but they don’t run shops, they rarely interact with tourists and they’re hardly ever seen after the sun goes down. In most places, it’s ok being a western woman (sometimes alone) at night, but India, it just doesn’t feel safe. That’s probably due in part to the “staring” culture that’s more noticeable than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s just interesting, because I believe that women play a vital role to a country’s development and to me, I’d say that the developing countries should work on making a women’s role in everyday life a more visible and vital one.

As I’ve mentioned, the people that I met made my trip what it was. From meeting an aspiring dominatrix from Montreal to a chain-smoking Jordanian man in Singapore who had his passport confiscated and was contemplating escaping from the country to a British man nearly in tears because his Muslim Indonesian wife ran off with their two children to a tattooed British man who constantly reeked of alcohol and cigarettes, but knew great magic tricks and was a former member of the Iranian mafia who spent time in a Malaysian prison for human trafficking, I’ve met a few characters to say the least. Best of all are the friendships formed and the memories that I share with those people.

My top moments of my trip were:

Tubing down the river in Bukit Lwang with (Indonesia)

Reaching the Throng-La pass at 17,769 ft (Nepal)

Catching waves in Bali (Indonesia)

Motorbiking to deserted beach after deserted beach in Lombok (Indonesia)

Watching the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kinabulu (Malaysian Borneo)

Rock climbing in Railay (Thailand)

Relaxing on the paradise island, Gili Trawangan (Indonesia)

Other cool moments include:

White water rafting for my first time in Bali (Indonesia)

Doing yoga (India)

Seeing orangutans in the jungle (Indonesia)

Climbing an active volcano (Indonesia)

And the only two low-lights that come to mind were:

Sleeping on the filthy floor of an over-crowded Indian train

Getting sick with stomach issues

But, I wouldn’t trade those “bad” experiences for the world, because it’s all part of the experience. Plus, I love that so much of what I experienced can’t just be seen on the Discovery Channel or from the view of a car window. I had to work to get to these places (especially on the Annapurna Circuit!), but that made the satisfaction all the more worthwhile.

And now that I’m nearly home, there are definitely some things that I’m looking forward to, and others that I’ll miss dearly. I can’t wait for consistently hot showers. I’m glad that I won’t have to carry my own toilet paper everywhere I go, but crazily enough will miss public squatters (though not the spraying on toes part of it – yeah, I think it happened every time). I’m looking forward to drinking tap water once again and not buying another bottle of water for a really long time. I’m happy that I’ll get a fair price when I walk into any store (and not the “white price”), but will miss the overall cheaper prices. I’ll be glad that when someone yells “hello” at me, it’s because they want to actually say hi to me and not because they want to lure me into their store… or in their taxi… or to their bedroom. I’m happy to have a diverse selection of ethnic cuisines available to me again, but will miss the amazing street food (especially Indian food). I’ll be sad that rent for my future apartment will cost more than an entire day’s activities. And I’ll most certainly miss the under $10 massages.

In sum, I can’t reiterate just how fantastic of a time I had on my trip. But, I think I’m also leaving at just the right time. I’m not jaded by traveling yet and really, really excited to see my friends and family that I haven’t seen in months! I’m looking forward to being in a home again, and not changing a bed every few days. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m looking forward to the food… and to cooking and baking – good thing it’s Christmas! I’m also excited about the winter ski season – I’m moving to Colorado this winter at the very least to ski for the season while I focus on my job search, but will also be looking for work permanently there, so I’m looking forward to exploring a new region of the country and establishing a new life for myself there.

Thanks for reading y’all! Your comments and happiness for me definitely meant a significant amount and kept me going during those harder moments that I might have glossed over. Have a great holiday season! J

Nepal and India

Leaving Kathmandu, we woke up at an ungodly early hour for Erica to catch her flight back to the states and for Niki and I to catch a bus to the Indian border. Our bus ride took the majority of the day, but we passed over to India without incident. We met some other travelers who had hired a jeep, so we hopped in the back and made it to the Gorkaphur train station. Once again, we didn’t have reserved beds, as all beds were booked on all trains from Nov. 27th ‘til Dec. 7th. So, we went ahead and bought unreserved tickets ($3) and crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor like we did on our way to Nepal. Our train was supposed to depart shortly before midnight, but was late, so we didn’t depart until 2-something in the morning.

So, we sat for hours waiting for our train. Indians are used to these train delays as they bring an assortment of blankets and plop down on the platform to catch a few zzz’s until their train arrives. Niki and I just huddled on top of our backpacks and staved off the cold and tiredness. Once the train rolled in, we hopped on and found two empty beds, which we quickly claimed. Who knows if they were meant for someone else or not, but we got to sleep peacefully throughout the night. Our train finally arrived in Delhi around 7:30pm the next day.

We made our way to the backpacker area, ate a delicious dinner and feel asleep watching “Friends.” It’s one of the few places that had a TV in the room, which is a nice luxury. The next day, we ran some errands and made our way to the Sagat neighborhood, where we stayed with a friend of Niki’s, an American ex-pat who is working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His home was such an oasis from the madness that is Delhi – it was clean, comfortable, he had a huge collection of DVD’s, it was heaven. We ordered Dominos and did laundry, and spent a massive amount of time on the internet. It was just the recuperation that we needed.

The next day, I said my goodbyes to Niki – it’s crazy to think that we traveled for 2.5 months together. Never would I have thought that I’d find such a great travel partner, and for so long at that! I already miss her, but headed north to check out Rishikesh, the “yoga capital of the world.” Now, my view of yoga can basically be summed up by that Jimmy Buffet song, Pina Colada, in which he says “if you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain.” I just don’t have the patience for it. But, I figured it’d be a good challenge for me, and I’ll admit, all the massages that are also advertised lured me.

On the 9 hour bus ride to Rishikesh, I was treated to a near constant cacophony of horns as buses and trucks blast their horns to signal that they’re passing. A motorbike hit a pedestrian who then (maybe) was hit by a truck. I can’t say for certain, but as we passed the scene of the accident, I saw an old man, literally just a sack of bones being lifted off the road. The only indication that he was still alive (barely) was that I saw his eyes roll around his head once. Also on the way, they were repaving a section of the road, so rather than close the road and re-route traffic, we just waited while they laid asphalt and rolled it smooth. Once that was done, we drove on.

People come to Rishikesh for months on end to stay at ashrams, much like Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame. There are definitely a lot of dread-locked, linen-clothed, patchouli types here, which I wouldn’t say describes me per se… The first day I just walked around and ended up spending the majority of the day in bed. I got a cold at the start of the Annapurna Circuit and I think the altitude just never let me heal properly, because it’s still lingering. Finally, I got all feverish, so just needed to sleep it off. I momentarily thought I had Dengue Fever (also known as bone-breaking fever) because my body ached all over and I have a few other symptoms, but I think it’s just a culmination of over-exertion and my lingering cold or maybe just a flu.

The next day, I treated myself to a massage. I got the deep tissue massage, which is supposed to be a combination of ayervedic and Swedish, but basically the woman just slaps tons of oil all over you and rubs vigorously for an hour. I can’t say it’s the most pleasant massage I’ve ever gotten, but it sure beats a Thai massage.

Alright, so now I’ve done yoga. I took one class and it was ok. I’d done yoga only once before – in Chicago and I can’t say I was exactly enamored with it. I did it with my sister and a friend and my favorite part was the end where you lie down. I enjoyed it so much that my sister told me that I was even snoring! Well, this 2 hour class focused on breathing (which was a bit of a struggle as I’m still coughing from my cold) and had bits of meditation interspersed. It was enjoyable enough for me to do again, but I can’t say that I’ll start doing yoga at home. I just don’t get it. Maybe I said my chants incorrectly, held my poses in the wrong manner, but I really just don’t get why yoga is all the rage. Moreover, people stay in places like Rishikesh for months on end. My problem is that I just don’t understand what they do all day. I’m was here for 3 full days and at the end of it, I was ready to move on. I asked a girl I met in my yoga class what she does when she stays at an ashram and she told me she spent a lot of time meditating and reading spiritual books. I guess at the end of the day, for me, while it’s fun to attempt dabbling in yoga/meditation, but it’s not my cup of tea – and certainly not for months on end. I’d rather do “nothing” all day on a beach in Indonesia than in an ashram in India. But hey, that’s just me.

After Rishikesh, I headed back to Delhi. On my final day in Delhi, I did some shopping (bought a TON of spices) and went to check out the Ba’hai House of Worship, more commonly known as the Lotus Temple. I’m currently reading Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead about the modernist architect Howard Roark, so checking out the Lotus Temple, which doesn’t fit in with the rest of Delhi definitely made me think of the book and how his designs don’t fit in with what the rest of the world deems as acceptable. I had dinner with the guy I bought my spices from and a girl from the Czech Republic. She was interesting – she had fallen in love with a baba, her guru. Babas are religious men – perhaps self-anointed as such; I’m not quite sure. And hers basically looked like an Indian version of Brian David Mitchell – remember him? Elizabeth Smart’s captor. Anyway, she wanted to marry him, but didn’t have the funds. I’ve heard enough horror stories about cross-country marriages (not saying they can’t work), and I hate to say it, but hers seems (if they ever actually get married) destined for ruin. Her guru was currently living in a cave and wanted to build a house for her before they married. Not quite what I’m looking for in a future partner, but hey, different strokes for different folks, right? It was a weird dinner conversation, but interesting.

I caught a few winks and then headed off to the airport. I landed in Bangkok and after some time in India and Nepal, this place feels like home – almost. I can’t walk 10 feet without tripping over a white person, the city is clean (relatively) and the cuisine varied. I can walk down the street without getting stared out; it’s a welcomed change.

In sum, India is amazing and difficult. It’s most definitely a land of contradictions. For some reason, I found it really exhausting to travel there this time, whereas I adored my first trip to the sub-continent. Perhaps it’s the 3+ months of travel that are starting to wear me out. For instance, waiting in line to use the bathroom in the Kolkata airport, I queued by the door for the next available stall. Well, an Indian woman pushes past me and goes and stands directly in front of a stall door. OK, so we don’t form an orderly queue – we pick our stall and hope our line is the fastest. I can adapt to that, for sure, but come on lady, it’s pretty obvious I was waiting for a stall!

Next update will be about the last leg of my trip – Thailand!

Annapurna Circuit continued

Photos are of our group finishing the trek (relieved to be done!), me crossing a bridge, photographers at the Poon Hill sunrise and me showing some pictures I had taken of them to some local children.

Day 11: We woke up for what I think was our longest day of hiking – 15 miles! Poor Dean got sick overnight – stomach issues and Mat wasn’t feeling great either. In spire of that, both continued on like champs! Today, we walked through desert a bit more, then into a river valley gorge. We walked for what seemed like hours across loose rocks into a headwind that just wouldn’t quit. I found it to be exhausting just because we seemed to be making little to no progress. Eventually, however, we strolled into the town of Marpha, which was adorable with it’s narrow alleys and white painted buildings. Large quantities of wood sat on the roofs of homes and stores – a family’s wealth could be determined by how much wood they had on their roof.

Day 12: We walked from Marpha to Kalopani, which was another long day through river valleys. Today we went through evergreen forests that made me think of the American northwest. We ended the night in Kalopani, which was possibly our most scenic night as the mountains surrounded us on all sides and the sunset was incredible. We also stayed at our nicest guest house and ate the best food that we’ve had along the trail.

Day 13: This trail is incredible – in the past five days, we went from snow to desert to evergreen forest to jungle. Today, we mostly waked on a road (they’ve built a road on the west side of the trail nearly all the way to the pass and are now starting to do it on the east side of the trail, one of the reasons you want to hike this trail before it becomes one big road!). As we walked into the jungle, the sounds were noticeably different – up high, in the snow, it was dead quiet, but down here, you’re reminded of life again as all the animals and insects of the jungle announce their presence. We ended the day in Tatopani, which was super relaxing as they’ve got natural hot springs here. So, we all excitedly ran down to the hot springs and soaked our weary bones and muscles for a few hours.

Day 14: Today was straight uphill to Poon Hill. We gained 1600m, or 1 mile in elevation today. We stayed at our worst place along the trail – I think the walls were made of cardboard and the guy running the place wanted me to place food orders for Erica and Niki before they even arrived! And then, he asked for a tip, which just rubs me the wrong way. First of all, tipping isn’t customary in these countries and secondly, you never ASK for one. It’s like my white water rafting guide in Bali tried telling me that often Americans tip him – and I just responded with, “Oh, that must be nice.”

Day 15: The last day of the trek and the one that made my legs shake the most…. We descended 1900m (and the crazy part is that there were people going the other way). We actually started today at about 4 in the morning so we could make the 45 minute hike uphill to Poon Hill, which supposedly had some of the best views of the hike. The sunrise was, of course, beautiful. At one point, the round bulb of the sun peaked out through the clouds and the crowd went wild – seriously, it made me laugh… But then again, there were many more Japanese on this part of the trail, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Dean got cold and went back to our hotel and I think he said it best when he said that he got back to our hotel, looked to where some Germans were snapping photos and saw the same damn view as at Poon Hill. He couldn’t have been more right, but we didn’t know that beforehand. So, we hiked down three thousand something steep, stone stairs which is just brutal on the knees and toes. Lunch was a welcomed respite, and even more so, was completing the trail! I’m proud that we finished the trail in 15 days and walking the whole thing and carrying all of our stuff the entire way! Definitely a big accomplishment (if I do say so myself)!

Half of us took a taxi back to Pokhara and the cheapies (Niki, Erica and me) opted for the bus. We settled into our awesome hotel, showered and made it to dinner. We decided upon a nice, large steak dinner to celebrate our finishing the trek with some friends we met along the trail (Rob from Canada, his local friend, Gocool, Andreus and Florence from Switzerland and Mat from NYC).

One other side note I forgot to mention is some goals that we set out for ourselves from the beginning. Initially, Niki and I wanted to eat only dal bhat for dinner (I think we ate it 3 times in total – oops); we wanted to completely eschew alcohol (when we got to Marpha – the apple capital, we broke down and tried some apple cider and apple brandy – and changed our goal to no beer – check!); we wanted to go the entire trail without showering (the longest I’d ever gone before was a week and her a few days – we then decided that we could shower once we got over the pass – which we happily did in Muktinath… so we made it 10 days instead of 15 days – much to Erica and Dean’s chagrin). So basically, we failed on every goal that we set out to do, but I’m ok with it J

We spent the next day relaxing in Pokhara – we all kind of did our own thing. Much of my day was spent on the internet catching up on a couple of weeks of emails. I also decided to have some fresh squeezed juice, which was amazingly delicious (pomegranate, orange and apple juice), however I wanted it to go, so the guy emptied out an old water bottled and poured my juice in that. I think that was a bad idea, as a few hours later, I started not feeling well. I lost my appetite and to put it politely, ended up having stomach issues. We left Pokhara the next day and took a 6 hour bus ride back to Kathmandu, which isn’t the most pleasant thing to do when you’re nauseous. Fortunately, my bug passed within 24 hours and before I knew it, I was right as rain again.

Dean, Erica, Niki and I headed to Bhaktapur with Gocool, who we met along the trail. We did a walking tour through the medieval city and the best part was just seeing the daily life and the rituals at a couple of shrines. We then went out for a delicious dinner of water buffalo momos (Tibetan dumplings) which is maybe one of the best things I’ve eaten in Nepal. For desert, we had the local specialty – King Curd, which is a thick, yummy, yogurt cooked in an earthen bowl. Again, one of the best things I ate in Nepal. In general, the food in Nepal wasn’t amazing (India takes the prize on good food), but this meal was fantastic.

The next day, Niki, Erica and I accompanied Gocool to his village while Dean stayed behind to do some thanka shopping. We took a bus ride to Nagarkot, and then walked an hour and a half downhill to his house. It was fantastic! His parents were so sweet and his mother seemed so happy to have us in her home. She made dal bhat for us – traditional Nepalese food (rice, lentil soup and potato curry). After a couple of hours, we began our walk back uphill and took a few buses back to Kathmandu. We met Dean at a local pizza place, where we had our Thanksgiving meal and all went around the table saying what we were thankful for. It wasn’t turkey, or a big feast with family, but it was nice to spend the meal in good company and with some comforting western food J

The next day, Erica and Dean went to see some more local sights, while Niki and I met up with Heather and Maika for lunch and shopping. We bought some pashmina scarves and it was so nice having a local who speaks the language as it helped eliminate some of the hassle of negotiating and now I’m sure that we got real pashminas. It’s hard to tell, as some of the knock-offs feel really nice. But, the man seemed honest, so I was happy with my purchases.

Then, we went out for our final together as a foursome. Dean treated us to a nice 6-course dinner at one of Kathmandu’s nicer hotels. The setting was superb and it was really nice to escape from the madness that is Thamel and the rest of Kathmandu. The meal was good, the wine better and it was the perfect way to end this portion of the trip.

My Annapurna Don’t Want None Unless You Got Buns, Hun!

Niki and I arrived in Kathmandu and were on the go pretty much non-stop from the moment our bus dropped us off. We ate a delicious dinner of pizza and wine for me and beer for Niki. The next day, we woke up and had a really great breakfast then met up with Dean, my former co-worker from Cushman and Wakefield. The 3 of us set off to get our permits for hiking the Annapurna Circuit before rushing back to meet my sister, Erica. We also met up with two of my high school friend Claudine’s friends, Heather and Maika. They were awesome and took us around shopping. Kathmandu is like heaven to me – it’s like REI on steroids – I literally want to shop in every single store. There are knock-off Patagonia, North Face, Mountain Hardware, etc, etc, etc clothing everywhere. Heather’s been living in Kathmandu for 7 years and took us to a good shop where we got some really good discounts. I spent about $150 USD and got hiking poles, a down sleeping bag, a down jacket, zip-off hiking pants, sunglasses, thermals, a couple of shirts, a fleece, hat and gloves. It was a very exciting shopping expedition!

We ran some more errands – like my camera lens wouldn’t retract, so I had to have that repaired and bought toiletries and other sundries for our hike. We had dinner, stopped by a bar briefly and then rearranged our packs for our hike. The next day, after a somewhat of a slow start, we took at 6-ish hour bus ride to Besi Sahar, the start of the Annapurna Circuit. The bus ride went through some amazing scenery – the white-capped Himalyas with the rice terracing in the foreground is just absolutely breath-taking and most definitely awe-inspiring. We made it to Besi Sahar, showered, ate and went to bed. The next day, we were up early to start our hike!

The Annapurna Circuit is famed for being one of the world’s hiking crown jewels – if you google world’s best hikes, it’s always high on the list, if not at the top. Doing this hike was what I built my entire trip around, so naturally, I was very excited for this portion of my trip. It’s about 250km (roughly 130-150 miles) and starts off at 790m above sea level to the highest point, Throng-La at 5416m (17,769 ft), which is one of the world’s highest walkable passes. Each day promises to get better and better.

Day 1: We hiked from Besi Sahar (820m) to Ngadi where we had lunch by the riverside. In the afternoon, we made it to Ghermu (1130m), where we had our first meal of dal bhat – traditional Nepali food (rice, lentils, potatoes and chard or collard greens – I’m not really sure… some green vegetable). The day was long, but the hike not too difficult and the views pretty impressive as you could see the white mountains far in the background. At one point along the way, a little boy in a village that I was passing came out and ran next to me, clinging to my legs. Then, his half-naked brother came and we held both boys – just adorable!

Day 2: We hiked from Ghermu (1130m) to Chamche where we had lunch overlooking a stunning waterfall. The views today were slightly less-impressive in my opinion, if only because the white-capped mountains were hidden. We then stopped in the town of Tal for the night.

Day 3: We hiked from Tal (1600m) to Dharpani for lunch and then to Timang (2350m) for the night. The last hour and a half was a really steep ascent, and the altitude of Timang is 2350m, so we can start to feel the altitude ever so slightly. Basically, walking uphill is slightly more of struggle as our bodies require the same amount of oxygen from the oxygen-deprived air. It’s hard to believe that we’re at roughly 7,000 ft and that we have over 10,000 ft more of elevation to gain! The locals here are noticeably more Tibetan in their facial features.

Day 4: We had a short day – basically a rest day. We hiked for about 2.5 hours to Chame, which is quite developed! There are even a few internet cafes (which we’re not using). Shops sell all the clothing a hiker could need. We arrived before lunch, did a bunch of laundry, went to check out some disappointing hot springs and spent the rest of the afternoon reading and napping.

Day 5: We hiked from Chame (2670m) to Lower Pisang (3250m) and it started raining, which was unfortunate on the one hand as our views weren’t as spectacular as they might have otherwise been, but there was this one point where the low-hanging clouds formed a line against a beautiful huge, nearly vertical, slab of rock, and by huge, I mean a couple hundred meters long and tall. We met a guy named Mat from Brooklyn who ended up hiking with our group for the rest of the hike. We also hiked a bit with a feisty British couple, Tana and Graham, who had been traveling for the past 13 years! Tana was even egging her husband on to get it on on the trail! Apparently when she was 16, she first saw Graham and before even talking to him, told her mother that she had met the man she would marry. Shortly thereafter, they went on their first date, got engaged on that same date and also on that date planned to marry 2 years later, have a boy 2 years after that and then a girl 2 years after that and after a life of raising children they would travel the world. They had quite the prophetic first date. We enjoyed an evening around the fire with them.

Day 6: We hiked from Lower Pisang (3250m) to Manang via the Upper Pisang route. This took nearly twice as long as if we had just walked along the lower route, which closely followed the river. I am SO glad that we made this decision as it turned out to be the most amazing views of the entire hike in my opinion. I literally have never seen anything more spectacular in my life. Every vista was more amazing than the first and as the sun shifted in the sky, the views seemed even more stunning than a minute before. When we finally rested for lunch, the five of us couldn’t talk about much else other than how stunning the sight before us was. After a few more hours of hiking, we finally made it to Manang (3540m), which was so exciting as Manang is the town where everyone takes a rest day to help with acclimatization.

Day 7: We took a welcomed rest day in Manang. It was nice to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast since my sister, Niki and I weren’t exactly notorious for our timeliness in the morning, much to the chagrin (I’m sure) of Dean and Mat. We did a practice hike, as the advice with altitude is to climb high and sleep low, so we hiked to a nearby glacier. Then we went to an informative talk about altitude and then we went to the “movie theater”! We saw Into Thin Air, the movie based upon the Jon Krakauer book. Halfway through the movie, they brought out tea and popcorn. It was cozy and really fun to watch a movie (even though it’s a horrible movie and you should read the book in lieu of watching the movie) so high up in the mountains. The greatest thing about Manang is that we discovered a drink that is AMAZING – seabuckthorn juice. Seabuckthorn grows in the high Himalayas and some other parts of the world and is one of the highest anti-oxidant berry in the world. The juice from this thing is perhaps some of the best juice I’ve ever had in my life – it’s absolutely delicious.

Day 8: Today was a short day as we hiked just a few hours from Manang to Yak Kharka (4000m). I was super excited as I saw my first yaks today. I know these are the Himalayan beasts of burden and I’ve seen them plenty on the Discovery Channel and Planet Earth, but it was nice to see them in person. They sometimes look like a combination of buffalo, cattle and a bear to me. We got to Yak Kharka around noon and had lunch. The rest of the afternoon was spent either napping, reading, or hanging out around the fireplace (the place is heated with a yak dung fire). We met a great couple from NYC, Allan and Nicole, a pair of friends from Colorado, Keith and Diane, and Sean, an Australian. The environment was communal and warm and I think we all enjoyed our various conversations that night.

Day 9: We had another short day as we hiked from Yak Kharka to Thorong Phedi (4450m). The past two days were so short as it’s advised that you only climb a few hundred meters (for sleeping) once you get above a certain elevation. We hiked the entire day in snow, are well above the tree line, and at about 14,600 feet, this is the highest I’ve ever been in my life to date and definitely the highest elevation I’ve ever slept at. Our day was spent indoors once again. A large group of us huddled around a table, had various conversations, played cards, ate a lot and drank a lot of water as we tried to stay hydrated. It was utterly freezing outside though and actually snowed most of the late afternoon/evening. As a result, we were worried about what the conditions would be like for our climb over Throng-La the next day. I think our night at Thorong Phedi was the coldest night of my life – thank God for down!

Day 10: We woke up at 4am for our summit bid, err, our climb over the pass. We started hiking a bit after 5 and seeing the stars (yes, we had clear weather – phew!) disappear as the early morning light started to crest over the mountain tops was stunning. The first hour was dominated by silence and the slow steady pace of putting one cold foot in front of the other. We stopped for tea and the continued on our way. After about 2 or so more hours of hiking, we finally made it to the pass! It’s amazing how hard breathing is up this high. At one point, there were 4 men walking excruciatingly slowly in front of me – now, I was walking slowly too, don’t get me wrong, but they were just unbearably slow. Erica, Niki and I all made a move to pass them, but had to walk off the trodden snow and picked up the pace to pass them. Doing this literally took all my energy, because as soon as we passed them, we had to stop to put our hands on our knees and catch our breath – the tiniest act takes much more effort. At this height (5416m, or 17,769 feet), the amount of oxygen in the air is 50% of what it is at sea level.

Dean, Niki, Erica, Mat and I all celebrated our arrival at the pass with hugs and high-5s and plenty of photos. It might sound silly, but reaching the top is a pretty emotional ordeal. I mean, we’d been so focused on getting there for the past 10 days and to finally reach it – carrying all of our own stuff and with our own two legs is a really satisfying feeling. I had thought I might have to get a porter to help me for the last few days near the pass, but I’m really happy that I was able to do it without one. After spending some time at the top, we began the LONG ascent down to Muktinath (3800m). On the descent, I started getting a pounding headache – one of the symptoms of altitude, no doubt. The landscape pretty quickly changed from a snow-covered mountain top terrain to high-altitude dessert. It’s amazing how you can wake up in the morning and trudge through snow and end the day after hours of walking through a desert.

I’ll write about the next half of the Circuit in my next blog entry.

Whirlwind India trip and bus rides to Kathmandu

First picture is of a crowded Indian train from Delhi to Agra, and the second is me just posing with a cow in Varanasi.

As I write this, I’ve now been traveling for a good number of days. First, a day long bus commute from Singapore to KL, then a whole day of flying from KL to Bangkok to Kolkata to Delhi. Then, a 4 hour train ride to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is). Then an exhausting overnight train ride to Varanasi (India’s holiest city). Then, an all day local bus ride to the Nepalese border. Then, an all day bus ride from the border to Kathmandu. Basically, that’s nearly 6 days straight of transit of some sort. I’m definitely exhausted from it all.

I arrived in Delhi around midnight and was happy to have my driver waiting for me as I exited the airport. He drove me through the deserted streets of Delhi and I was reminded that I was in India as soon as I saw the cows lounging amidst the heaps of rubbish strewn about. I met up with Niki at our hotel and we were both so excited to see each other; we talked for hours catching up about our respective time apart.

After only a couple of hours of sleep, we packed our bags and headed to the train station to buy a ticket to Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal is. We had thought the train would be only 2 hours so we bought the cheapest ticket possible. Our ride turned out to be 4 hours long, which, as the train got increasingly crowded became more and more uncomfortable. The car we were in had sections that had 4 wooden platforms/beds to a section. We climbed on the top bunk/wooden platform and initially shared our bed with our bags. It was comfortable enough… but we couldn’t stretch our legs out or hang them over the edge, as we would’ve put our feet in the faces of the people below us. The fan in our section wasn’t working. And the train got increasingly crowded with each stop the train made. We crammed a few more people on our berth, but the situation below looked to be far more uncomfortable. Finally, we arrived to Agra and got off our beds. The interesting thing is that all the men jumped up to grab our seats and left the woman standing. As we exited the train, we had to push pass the hoards of people loading the train with no regard for those exiting. I’ve learned that in such populous places, like India and China, pushing is the norm, whereas waiting in an orderly queue will get you nowhere.

We spent a whirlwind afternoon and evening in Agra. We only bought a train ticket to Agra and just figured we’d buy our onward ticket to Varanasi upon arrival in Agra, as the line at the Delhi train station was long and the customer service less than stellar. Well, I’ve been to India before so I should’ve known this, but trains fill up fast and it’s best to reserve tickets as far in advance as possible. Well, once we got to Agra, we learned that all the beds in the air-conditioned cars were full. So, we spent some time trying to figure out other options, but found nothing suitable. So, we decided to head to the Taj. Last time I saw the Taj in broad daylight, this time was sunset. It’s a beautiful building no matter the time of day. We got lucky because it was full moon, so we got to watch that rise over the Taj.

Upon leaving the Taj, we headed back to the train station where we learned we could book an unreserved ticket – which is just a general ticket, which means you have no seat, or no bed, but you just stand/sit/lie where you can. We were told that we could upgrade our ticket from the conductor onboard. Thinking this was a great idea and even better price (less than $3), we excitedly purchased our tickets. We chatted for awhile with two awesome 60-year old German women who were traveling for just 5 days. They inspired us to take a reunion trip when we’re 60. J

So, the train arrives a bit after 11pm. We hop into the 2AC car with the German ladies (2AC is the nicest train car – basically, each section has 4 beds, with sheets, a pillow and blankets, a curtain dividing it from the train “hallway” and air conditioning). We sat on empty beds for awhile and when there were still a few empty beds and the train started moving, we decided to pick two beds and hope to just pay for an upgrade when the conductor came by. Well, not 5 minutes after climbing into bed and taking pictures of our victory does the conductor saunter through our car. He was none too pleased to find us there and we were told to go to the sleeper class. So, with heads hung low, we sling our backpacks on and walk through a couple of cars of 3AC (same as 2AC, but just 6 beds to a section instead of 4) until we get to the sleeper car, which we can’t get to, because a large garage door-type thing made from corrugated metal is closing off the nicer train cars from the riff-raff. Bear in mind that India is not exactly the world’s most egalitarian country in the world and doing something as overt as locking the poor people in their cars so they don’t sneak to the more expensive sections would be considered normal.

We finally get the door unlocked for us and enter the dark, extremely crowded sleeper car. There are 6 beds to a section, no AC, no blankets and more than 1 body to a bed… not to mention all the bodies we walked over on our search for a spot. Finding nothing, we’re told to go sit between cars (where the bathrooms are located and thus the overwhelming stench of urine and feces). We finally find a vacant bit of floor between some beds, so we decide that this will be home for the night. The area definitely wasn’t large enough for both of us to sleep comfortable, so we sat up and literally took turns sleeping in the others’ arms for the next few hours. At 4am, a lot of people got off the train, so we were able to move to actual beds. I ended up sharing my bed with a random Indian dude sitting at the edge of my bed. I woke up to discover that he was using my hip as a pillow. Normally, I’d have swatted a stranger away who was lounging on my body, but it’s India. Men walk down the street with fingers interlaced; they spoon on the floors of train stations; they stand extremely close together – basically, personal bubbles don’t exactly exist.

At 7am, we decided to see if a bed in the 3AC section had become available, and you can imagine our elation at finding multiple empty beds. So, we found two beds where the sheets weren’t overly tousled and eagerly hopped into bed for a few really, really good and welcomed hours of sleep. At the end of it all, Niki and I were both really happy that we a) got to Varanasi when we wanted to b) eventually upgraded ourselves to a nicer bed and c) only paid less than $3 for it. Granted, we did endure a few hours of sleeping on a nasty Indian train floor, but at the end of the day, I’m really grateful for a travel companion like Niki who doesn’t complain when we get ourselves into undesirable situations and just laughs along with me about whatever pickle we’ve most recently gotten ourselves into.

We finally arrived in Varanasi and got to our guesthouse, took a MUCH needed shower and set off to see the sights. After devouring a large lunch, we ran into the German ladies again, so the 4 of us set off to see the burning ghats. Varanasi is India’s holiest city as it’s located on the holiest point on the Ganges River, which is India’s holiest river. About 300 people are burned in Varanasi each day, 24 hours a day. It takes a body 3 hours to burn and I forget how many kilos of wood are required. Bodies are burned with sandalwood, which is fairly expensive and the elderly are required to buy their own wood for their own cremation, which costs roughly $3 USD per kilo. As such, you have a plethora of very old people in Varanasi, literally waiting to die and begging for money for their cremation. The Hindus believe in reincarnation and that you are reincarnated to the same caste as before. The reason people come to Varanasi to die is that they believe if you are cremated in Varanasi, you can escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha, or nirvana, ultimate enlightenment. No caste is discrimated against during cremation, and as such, there are many Dalites (the Untouchable caste) who hope to die and be burned in Varanasi.

At the burning ghat, I took 2 photos, which you’re not supposed to do, out of respect for the dead. Oops. But, I was trying to be discreet about it, but I guess I wasn’t that discreet, as a local man cum guide seeking money consequently demanded payment for that privilege. I apologized and offered to delete the photos, but he would have none of that. He wanted money, claiming it wasn’t for him, but for the elderly to buy their wood for their cremations. After a lengthy altercation, I finally paid him a portion of what he demanded and we went on our way.

We went to the main ghat and watched the sites there for a bit – a bit less activity than the early morning bathing, laundry and praying rituals, but still just as gross to see women dousing themselves in river water and the swallowing it. Ew, ew, ew. Not only are ashes of the deceased dumped in the river each day, but there are 5 types of people who can’t be burned in Varanasi – children under 12, pregnant woman, those with leprosy and I forget the other two types. In lieu of being burned, their bodies are tied to a rock and dropped off a boat in the middle of the river. And that’s not even why the river is as dirty as it is – there is a sewage plant a few kilometers upstream that dumps heaps and heaps of sewage into the river, unnecessarily polluting it. Varanasi is one of India’s most fascinating and disgusting places to see. I’m intrigued by it, but also equally disgusted and happy to be on my way.

The next day, we left Varanasi early in the morning and caught a local bus to the Nepalese border. This was an 11 hour affair. Our bus stopped exactly twice this whole time. Towards the end, there were about 8 people begging for a bathroom stop, which was repeatedly denied. Finally, we were granted our wish and got to pee in a garbage-strewn field behind a chai shop on the side of the road. We crossed the border into Nepal with ease. I had forgotten to sign my Indian immigration form and the officer looked at me and said “what, do you expect me to sign this for you?” I thought he was joke-being-an-asshole, so I laughed and said that I would sign it. And he wobbled his head and said, “no it’s ok – I’ll sign for you” And he scribbled my signature for me. Ahh, the security of it all – so different from the western world.

We crossed to Nepal and made it through immigration with equal ease and finally found a restaurant in which to eat, as we were starving, since only 4 samosas comprised the bulk of my eating for the day (we were on the bus that just didn’t stop…and when we were at the stop where we got the samosas, the bus driver nearly drove away without us – he was on a mission!). We shopped around at a couple of hotels and finally settled on a $4 room, as it had an en suite bathroom with hot water. Given that I did nothing but sit on a bus all day, I was filthy – my body was absolutely clad in dirt. My hair felt thick with grime and my pants, which were clean in the morning had a visible layer of dirt and grime on them – all from just sitting on a filthy Indian bus all day.

So, our room was good enough. We showered and as we were sitting on the bed – I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I look again and hesitate to tell Niki that I had just seen 2 cockroaches, as the night before, in Varanasi, I was typing away on my computer in bed and looked up to see a mouse staring at me at the head of our bed. I’m not super squeamish or disgusted by bugs and the sort, but a mouse in my room is not cool. That night (in Varanasi) we were able to change rooms, though the men running the guest house thought we were crazy as they’d come to find us standing on our bed and squealing about the mouse. This room in Nepal, however, was MUCH worse than the one in Varanasi. We talked about it and decided that cockroaches weren’t that bad – they exist in this part of the world. All was cool until we saw a mouse scurry along the wall. And before settling in for the night, Niki wiped some bugs off of her pillow. This place was disgusting, but the town was dead – the stores literally all shut down by 8pm and the other places we had looked at weren’t much better. So, we sucked it up for the night and went to sleep in our cockroach and mouse-infested room.

So, now it’s been quite a few days of traveling – I’m currently on a bus from the Nepalese/Indian border to Kathmandu – and I couldn’t be more excited to do a load of laundry and to sleep in a clean-ish bed and to not take a bus or a train for at least 1 day. I know I’ll get my wish. Tomorrow I meet up with Dean, my boss from Cushman and Wakefield and my sister. Shortly thereafter, we’ll head off for 3 weeks to hike the Annapurna Circuit, where we’ll have no access to internet the entire time. I’m really excited about the hike as I built my trip around this hike specifically and have been wanting to do this for quite some time. In our three weeks of mountain fresh air, we’ll reach 17,769 ft at the highest point – the world’s highest pass! – and circumnavigate some of the world’s tallest mountains. So, Happy Thanksgiving to all – I won’t be in touch ‘til after the holiday has come and passed.