Archive for November, 2009

Climbing the Circuit

Monday, November 30th, 2009

(Photos are up for this post now, click on the photos tab at the top)

It was late for us, closing in on 8pm. We’d just agreed on a time to meet for breakfast the next morning. Four. The snow had been falling all day, and would probably keep on into the night. The guides and porters had us convinced: The snow, maybe getting worse, yes? The wind strong later in morning, we get over pass by nine. Leaving four, four thirty is best. If the snow and cold were bad here, how much worse would it be a thousand meters up, at 18,000 ft? People looked worried, scared even. Many of them had next to no experience in snow or real cold. I was woefully unprepared, with my warmest layer a hoodie and no waterproof gear at all. But it wasn’t until right as we were all saying our goodnights, with final words of encouragement for each other, that someone let it slip. Tomorrow is Friday the Thirteenth.

The Annapurna Circuit is one of the most popular treks in Nepal. (No, it has nothing to do with Spock or Picard, a ‘trek’ is the word the Lonely Planet (and therefore everyone else) uses for multi-day hikes in the mountains). The route loops around the Annapurna Massif; an enormous cluster of mountains vaguely in the center of the country. With a peak of 8091m, about 750m shorter than Everest, Annapurna is the eighth tallest mountain in the world. Needless to say, the views are a big reason the path proves to be so well trodden.

Yes, there is no shortage of gore-tex on The Circuit. Tourists from all over the world flock here for some strenuous walking mixed liberally with relatively luxurious living conditions. Instead of camping in flapping tents and huddling around fires, the entire trail is lined by lodges with walls, toilets, beds, blankets, wood stoves and solar-heated water (hot showers!). I had a (half-decent) pizza at 4400m. The tour groups can be a little much, sure, but I enjoyed the comforts as much as anyone.

We began in a steep sided valley at around 1000m. At first I was with three Americans, but the young couple from Washington State were keeping a very slow pace so a Chicagoan and I pressed on alone. Through forest and village we walked uphill and along the east side of the massif for several days. The further we got from the road, the more expensive food and drinks became, as everything is carried in by porter or pony train. The people were of Tibetan heritage so Hindu temples gave way to Buddhist gompas (monasteries) and bamboo pole mounted prayer flags sprouted from every rooftop.

There were also many signs of Nepal’s ongoing political struggle. Maoist flags – red with the hammer and sickle – flew prominently in a few villages. Spray paint scarred cliff walls, demanding an independent Himali state or trumpeting support for the Maoists. Two years ago the rebellion ended (for the most part) when the Maoists were granted amnesty and allowed to form a democratic party. They shocked everyone by winning the election last year.

And yet the mood of the people was refreshingly light. Locals were either outgoingly friendly or pleasantly indifferent to our presence. Even up here, isolated from so much of the world by the difficult terrain, interest in our culture dominates. I think I saw two men in Avril Lavigne t-shirts on the mountain (bringing my total in Nepal to five). Two youngsters approached me in one village and began showing me stickers of wrestlers from the WWE. They loved that I knew the names of some of them (Yes! John Cena, yes! Yes! Shawn Michaels!) and rewarded me by finding me a bamboo walking stick that some foolish soul had cast off. This stick would later prove very useful.

The further we climbed, the more impressive the scenery became. The forest turned from broad-leaved to needled, the mountains grew taller and more wonderfully snow-capped. Rounding a bend on day four we were confronted by an epic curving slab of rock, arcing 1500m (about three CN Towers) above the riverbank. It looked like one side of the halfpipe in a skatepark for the gods. Owing to the pre-Buddhist animist traditions of the area, locals refer to it as the Swarga Dwar – the Gateway to Heaven – based on the belief that the postmortem soul must ascend it after leaving the body.

That night we slept in yet another little family run lodge. We were in the upper part of Pisang, perched above the main part of the riverside village. Directly above us was Pisang’s gompa, gleaming thanks to a recent restoration and home to a handful of monks. We sat down for a quiet dinner of dhal baat (Nepal’s national dish and some damn fine hiking food: lentil soup, vegetable curry, rice, papadum, and spicy chutney are all brought until you can eat no more). Right as we were mopping up the last drops of dhal with our third helping of rice, the horns began to blow. It was the evening puja, an offering of sound and light made by the monks.

They blew eight foot long Himalayan horns, as well as smaller horns, and banged on gongs, cymbals and drums. I sat on the flagstones in the cold wind, watching them play the ancient music out over the village and the river valley below. The awesome Himalaya, drenched in snow, lined up on the other side of the valley to listen. Prayer flags whipped in the wind. The next morning the puja was repeated, and so I scaled the few steps behind my lodge to watch and soak up the atmosphere. That morning I struggled with the idea of leaving.

But leave we did. We arrived in Manang, a veritable hub town with an airport and cinemas and internet access. There we spent an extra day to acclimatize to the altitude (we were a little over 3500m) before climbing toward the pass. Dinners of spaghetti and enchiladas, games of yaniv (an Israeli card game) and chess all ensued. We climbed 400m up the valley wall to a small cave cum gompa, where a 93 year old monk blessed our impending attempt at crossing the pass. We left rested and ready to head uphill.

Two shorter days followed, allowing our systems to adjust to rapidly thinning air. Yaks grazed lazily above the path. On day eight we were in Thorung Pedi, which means The Foot of Thorung. A thousand meters above us was the Thorung La, the 5416m pass we were to cross the next day. We had woken to snow that morning, and it had gotten progressively heavier as the day wore on. People were suffering early signs of altitude sickness – headaches, nausea, fatigue. Hikers from warmer climes were frightened of the very idea of walking in snow, and my assurances that it wasn’t a big deal didn’t seem to have much effect. I guess the fact that I hadn’t brought anything waterproof or windproof didn’t lend to my credibility. Two Californians decided to head back. When this news came out I saw several others waver. The whole Friday the Thirteenth thing didn’t help.

But the next morning we set out. The snow was still falling, though lightly now, and the low clouds added an imposing closeness to the darkness. Lines of bobbing headlamps zig-zagged their way up the steep mountainside ahead of us. Apparently 4:15am was too late for some people. We had amalgamated our smaller groups of young backpackers into an international conglomerate of four Aussies, two Kiwis, three Americans, two Germans, and singles from Northern Ireland, Holland and Canada (me). Between us we had three guides and two porters. Almost immediately we were separated.

The Chicagoan I had been with since day one was sick. An Aussie couple, a girl from South Cali (who had originally been walking with the two who turned around) and I stayed with her as the rest of our fellowship pressed on. We arrived at a base camp of sorts, four hundred vertical meters above our starting point, and she told us to go on without her. I objected, but she insisted, so only ninety minutes in we were already one down. The other four of us climbed slowly through the snow, the only sound the crunching of snow beneath our feet.

Ascending further and further, I found it increasingly difficult to breathe. This manifest itself in two ways, neither of which was particular pleasant. The first was an inability to order my body parts around with the reckless impunity I usually enjoy. Unzipping my camera case for photos of huddled hikers or entirely white landscapes became a battle. Even convincing one foot to fall in front of the other was difficult. The other was a lightheaded dizziness that was, eventually, frightening. Closer to the top I would have to stop every five or ten steps and lean on my bamboo stick to catch my breath. More than a few times I thought I was going to pass out.

Yet on we went. A false top presented itself with a few lonely prayer flags and I cursed my gullibility when I saw a line of people climbing even higher beyond it. Some people were doing terribly at this point. A few ponies went by with breathless or puking foreigners bouncing in the saddle. I don’t want to know how much they paid for the ride. One of the Aussies was suffering immensely from nausea and headaches. There was a moment of inspiration, however, when the sun came out.

It was difficult to call anything ‘perfect’ at this point, but the clouds parting to reveal two immense peaks separated by the prayer flag clad pass was as beautiful a sight as I have ever seen. One peak was brown and rocky and rugged, while the other domed in ice and snow. The sun warmed my back and encouraged me on (but only five steps at a time) toward the windy pass with it’s celebratory sign (CONGRATULATION FOR THE SUCCESS!!!). A few foreigners were doing handstands and posing for endless team photos, but we snapped a few shots with each other or with the sign then quickly began the descent.

The way down was much, much more dangerous than the ascent. With the fresh snow the path was slippery and, lower down, muddy. It was steep and often traipsed precariously along sharp drop-offs. At one point it was a tight-rope walk along the edge of a cliff, with the snow packed down into ice by previous boots. My Aussie friend, still feeling like he’d drank ten times too much Nepal Ice beer the night before, gladly accepted my bamboo stick for the rest of the day. Now without my prop, I just let gravity take over and basically ran down the side of the mountain.

That night we were all gathered around a fireplace eating pizzas and drinking beers. It had seemed out of place at first, but now the Bob Marley Hotel and Rasta Restaurant was home. Around nightfall, our Chicago amigo, lost to us so early in the day, strolled in. She had crossed the pass three hours after us, after a drastic improvement in her condition. Celebrations were now even more called for. The next day we simply hung out in the town for a rest day, exploring some nearby Hindu and Buddhist holy sites.

From there, our walk was over. Many people chose to spend another week walking back down the other side of the massif, but there are roads on the west side and so we chose the four wheel option. We spent a night in Tatopani, which translates directly to ‘hot water’. There we sat in the natural hot springs drinking locally made apple brandy and beer (and listening to some sweet Nepali pop).

It was, all told, a wonderful experience. The fact that it was far more difficult than I had anticipated just added to the sense of accomplishment. It also renewed my patriotism somewhat, as even though I had far less gear than pretty much everyone else up there, I handled the temperature better than most. There are some moments, I guess, where it pays to be Canadian.

Stay tuned for some upcoming posts, where I’ll discuss sleeping in a bank and crashing my beautiful motorbike into a man and his wife on their bike. At over 50km/h. Wheee.

Into Nepal

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Well, sorry for the vanishing act again. I’d like to blame Nepal’s IT infrastructure issues, but really it’s my fault. I’ve been enjoying myself here and can’t be bothered to sit and write for hours. I understand that you’ve probably lost interest in my site as a result. This is especially unfortunate because of how much fun I’ve had over the past few weeks. I wish you were here.

From Rishikesh, the site of my last post oh so long ago, I drove for three and a half days to the Nepal border. I spent some time in smaller places generally void of tourists. The road was in the mountains so wonderfully curvy. It was fun but slow driving, especially considering how often I stopped to admire the views. Highlights included the always entertaining conversations with local men about my bike, my trip, and my opinion of India. One evening was spent drinking vodka-Fantas and watching an Australia/India cricket match with the hotel owner, his son and brother on the reception desk TV. Their English was good enough for us to discuss cricket (which I now appreciate as a decent, if slow-paced, sport), motorcycling, and the sporting culture in Canada (i.e. “No, in Canada we play ice hockey, you know? Yes, very cold. No, no cricket.”)

And on into Nepal. Crossing the border was fairly painless. The Banbassa-Mahendrager gate is so little used it’s almost comical in its laid back-ness. Indian immigration was just a couple of old desks under a concrete awning. The desks were lazily draped in purple felt to lend an air of officialdom, but it seemed more like signing up for the three legged race at the company picnic than checking out of the world’s largest democracy. After crossing the purgatory that dwells between nations, I drove right past Nepali immigration because it was, again, a little concrete shack down off the road with very little indicating I was supposed to stop there. The police had to stop me at the gate and point me back to the “office,” otherwise I would have driven right into the country with no visa. The bike had to get a visa as well, at a cost of 113 Nepali rupees (75 Indian rupes, or about $1.65) per day. The customs guys who looked over my paperwork were very interested in the bike, but more out of personal rather than professional motivation.

Yes, she is pretty. I finally had her painted and put on a new seat. She also has a name, now. More on that in another post.

Stamps and handshakes and forms in triplicate later, I roared into the country. The main highway burned east dead straight and flat. Southern Nepal is mostly level, hot plains much like central India. I immediately noticed a few differences, however. The people are much more Mongolian in their facial features – resembling Tibetans or Bhutanese rather than Indians. On the plains, however, they maintain the dark, rich skin tones of their southern neighbours. The people are, in a word, beautiful. Cruising on a motorbike on a busy roadway (buses and tractors and goats, oh my) is dangerous enough without gaping at a group of young women double-riding rickety bicycles. They giggled to each other when I smiled at them and I swerved around a cow I saw at the last second.

Nepal is also much, much poorer than India. Simple shacks dot the rice fields, water buffalo roll in muddy pools, and little half-naked kids run out onto the roadside to wave to me as I pour past. Enfields are rare in Nepal, especially in the poorer south of the country. When the kids hear one coming, and there is no mistaking that sound, they know it must be a foreigner and so come running out of their shacks and up onto the raised roadway. My wrist was tired from waving.

I spent my first night in a small safari style bungalow operation on the edge of Bardia National Park. There I met an American guy who was doing NGO work in the isolated mountains in the north. The next day we went tiger/rhino/elephant spotting in the park and, except for a semi-domesticated rhino that hangs around the park entrance, saw none of the above. We stumbled into plenty of rhino and elephant tracks and took photos of the tiger claw marks and prints we saw all around us, but no actual sightings of the animals. Still, a great day walking in the jungle.

The next day I flew east toward Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. It was another long, hot day counting kilometers and hoping I’d get there before dark. I didn’t. The last hour was spent anxiously watching the sun dip behind the rice paddies. As the sky darkened, it filled with bugs. It was like driving through the rain only, you know, with bugs. Above me flew fruit bats bigger than crows, silhouetted against the pastel purple of the late evening sky. It was a frustrating, beautiful, hilarious scene. I couldn’t wear my sunglasses because of the darkness, so bugs were flying into my eyes and mouth and, when I’d look up in awe at the massive bats, nose. Every so often a big one would bounce off my forehead or cheekbone like a bullet. I’d swear loudly and scare some villager carrying a load of straw down the road.

But I got to Lumbini. The next morning outside the temple built directly on the auspicious spot, I sat down under a tree to meditate. Soak up the energy of the place, etc. Ten minutes later a tour group of a hundred Indian Hindus showed up and ended my meditation session. As with the Buddha, who is revered in Hinduism as an incarnation of Vishnu, the Buddha’s mother, Maya Devi, is worshipped as a goddess in her own right.

I spent the day riding my bike around the site, which is dotted with Buddhist monuments built by the governments of Buddhist countries. The whole place had this unfinished feeling, as if the Nepali government had only just last week realized the potential tourist gold mine it was sitting on. Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims aside, there really wasn’t much in terms of visitation to the area. It made my time at some of the temples quite special, as here were these massive monuments and temples lying empty in the hot sun. A few times I was the only one strolling the grounds or examining the murals. I met a young Thai family in the Royal Thai Wat and luckily remembered my sawadee kraaps and sabai dee mais.

From there, I sped back along a busy, intense highway toward the hills that make Nepal famous. Eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are at least partially in Nepal (Everest, the world’s tallest at 8848m, is on the border with Tibet and Kanchenjunga, the third tallest at 8598m, is on the border with Sikkim in northeast India), making it easily the most ridiculously mountainous country in the world.

In these hills I would join the reams of travelers who trek for weeks beyond road and rail (though, as I would find out, not beyond WWE wrestling) and into the snowy peaks. Where multicoloured prayer flags flutter above French tour groups clad in gore-tex. Where bearded hippies dodge herds of yaks. Where the temperature drops, the air thins, and people who have never seen more than inch of snow cross an 18,000 foot pass in a blizzard on Friday the Thirteenth.

More soon. I promise.

Diwali! (and movement)

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Sorry about disappearing there. Had a good time in Rishikesh and have spent the last week making my way into Nepal. Some pretty rural places along the way, so no real internet. But I went tiger spotting (without actually seeing one) in the Nepali jungle and am now in Lumbini, the birthplace off the Buddha. More on this soon. Here’s a post on a religious festival in India).

It would be a played out travel-writing cliché to call India an exciting melange of the ancient and modern. Every stupid culture is a blend of old and new (except, perhaps, for those isolated indigenous tribes that have yet to discover the world of fridge magnets and R. Kelly). Even relatively infantile countries such as Canada and Australia combine old European perspectives with fresher (mostly American) influences.

In India, however, the word ancient actually applies. This is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, centered around its longest running major religion. Hinduism developed over 1500 years before Christianity, and the famously Buddhist concepts of karma, reincarnation and liberation from the cycles of rebirth are actually appropriated directly from it. Hindus consider Siddhartha, the Buddha who began teaching the Path to Enlightenment 2500 years ago, to be one of the ten major incarnations of Vishnu. Buddhists disagree, of course, but seemingly without anger. Big surprise, there.

Considering the origins and longevity of the tradition, it was with some excitement that I considered where to be for Diwali, the widely celebrated Hindu festival of light and renewal. Much like back home for Christmas, locals hang strings of coloured lights from their homes and businesses. They light candles and release floating lanterns down rivers. Garlands of (real, so often wilted) flowers are strung up everywhere, and people are generally happy and wishing each other a Diwali Dhamaka!

Based as much on time and distance as auspiciousness, I decided to stay in Rishikesh. It’s position alongside Ganga endows it with some holiness, and its mountainous surroundings provide some scenic background as well as cooler temperatures. It still reaches thirty in the afternoons here, though the evenings are pleasantly cool. Asking locals about the celebrations, however (Lanterns? Singing? Candle lighting?), I was met consistently with a single word: fireworks.

Of course. What other direction could modern Indians take the celebration of light conquering darkness? What better way to symbolize knowledge overcoming ignorance than with explosions? And I mean fucking explosions! These aren’t the piddling Roman Candles you stupidly fired at your friends when you were fourteen. Nah, the locals here can get their hands on some of the big fellas you’d trust only with trained professionals. Locals like the pack of preteens in the alley behind your guesthouse.

Hilariously, the most popular option seems to emit little to no light at all. They’re just little cylinders of gun powder designed purely for maximum pop. The blast easily registers an eleven on Spinal Tap’s dial, and if you’re close enough you actually feel the concussion wave. There’s nothing quite like watching three Israeli girls jump six feet in the air, spin around with death stares blazing, only to see two sheepish six year olds giggling behind them.

Yes, the absolute lack of safety precautions which makes life in India so exciting becomes even more obvious during Diwali. Instead of stepping a reasonable distance away, the locals seem preoccupied with ducking their heads. I guess as long as only your back and shoulders get singed you’re doing well. A spinning disc unit that throws off ankle-level sparks was danced around by three kids about four or five years old. Much to our shocked amusement, they all lifted their pant-legs, as if scorching their feet and ankles was fine but holes in trouser hems would be unacceptable.

It was a much rowdier celebration that we had expected. The staff at our guesthouse restaurant didn’t close up until 11, which meant we had fireworks exploding in front of our third floor balcony until midnight. At least you could brace yourself for the sound of artillery fire thanks to the bright glowing light that filled the room as the rocket ascended to eye (and ear) level. The police and army stations that are ubiquitous in every tourist town were understandably on guard. Bombs and gunfire could have been going off all night without them having any idea.

It was quite the party. It lasted three nights of adventurous walking in dark streets and laneways. Dodging cow, horse, dog or mystery shit is a normal part of pedestrian life here. So is avoiding the aforementioned animals, semi-drunk young men on scooters, maniacal jeep drivers trying to dump their loads of tourists, and truck drivers with questionable brakes.  It’s been fun adding flaming projectiles to the mix. One group of locals started firing rockets into the river. Some of them bounced off the surface and careened onto the opposite bank, where other groups of locals were sending off their own barrage. I watched a South African friend get saved by a rickety fence as a runaway rocket struck it and bounced to the ground before exploding.

India, the land of near misses.