“The mountains are calling and I must go.” — John Muir
When I was first looking into the Fulbright scholarship the first consideration I had on my list was to go somewhere as exotic as possible. Actually, the first place I researched going to thoroughly was Nepal. It was a very small, very different corner of the earth that I probably would never have the opportunity to go to again, and I had always dreamed of going to, in part, to try and quench the thirst I have for the majesty and mystery of the Himalayas. When I first spun the idea of going to Nepal to a couple of other ETAs in during orientation the trip seemed a little too out-there. But slowly, with the help of one ETA that had studied abroad there for a year, the idea began to gain some momentum. None of use had a lot to work with while we were trip planing for the year and the romantic idea of visiting the country seemed to slip away at times, but a couple months ago two other guys and I decided we couldn’t go wrong by pulling the trigger on Nepal: booked our flights, and immediately triggered a cancellation on my debit card and an even more immediately, frantic call from Dan Blauw. (The man is amazing)
The idea was somewhat foolhardy, but we figured it would be perhaps the only time in life when we would be able to go to such a place, and again, perhaps the only time that we could visit the country and really do what we wanted: backpack through the Himalayas for a week. Logistically it wasn’t too hard to figured out where we should go exactly and by what means. Hiking is the lifeblood of the Nepali economy, so services and information are pretty available online. However, finding really reputable help and a website with comprehensible English took some work. But after some less-than-diligent planning sessions we had come up with a basic itinerary for the 10 day trip and after contacting some guiding “companies” we felt pretty comfortable with our move. We would fly into to Kathmandu from KL, fly immediately afterwards to Pokhara on a small, nearly legitimate prop-airline called “YETI AIR” (PERFECT), stay one night in Pokhara (Nepal’s other city), and then start trekking into the Himalayas, spend four nights in tea houses as we hiked the Poon Hill circuit overlooking the Annapurana range, then fly back to Kathmandu, spending the day there until we flew all the way back to KL.
Honestly, many things could have and maybe should have gone wrong in this plan. During our time in Nepal however, we without a doubt experienced a logistical miracle–everything that could have gone wrong, didn’t. Arriving in Kathmandu from KL was one of the most exciting fly-ins I’ve ever had. The flight was about 4.5 hours on a very packed AirAisia flight but the view of the mountains was breathtaking, almost as breathtaking as the following flight. Once we landed in Kathmandu we had to deal with some shenanigans in the customs line for a visa. After a few hectic moments we were able to weasel our way to the front of the line on the excuse that our next flight at the adjacent domestic airport was about to leave. The fact of the matter was that we had no idea whether that was really true or not. We didn’t have tickets for the next flight (YETI AIR was not at the online booking level yet). All we had was an email from a guy and a promise that he would meet us outside of the airport where he would give us the tickets for a flight in exchange for 13,000 Nepali Rupee (or about 100 USD). We put a lot of trust in this man, but after maneuvering our way out of the airport there he was. As we walked to the domestic airport I noticed that many men where doing something similar. But as we walked through the construction, rubble and some weather torn faces of eager cab drivers; a very wary feeling came over me, and as we stepped just outside the door to make our exchange I think I got a very real sense of what blind trust looked like. We gave him the contents of our wallets and he gave us a piece of paper with highlighter on it. He assured us that it would be alright and we walked through security that consisted of a man asking what was in my bag, me saying “nothing dangerous” and then walking forward. To my relief, the person at the Yeti counter checked me in and directed me to a bus, then she walked me to a plane–engines running and ready to take off as soon as I got on-board. Perfect timing.
This flight to Pokhara easily gave me the best views of any flight I have been on. First, the initial view of Kathmandu was staggering. It was a wide sprawling city that was much larger and much less sleepy then I had imagined. It consisted of a seemingly regimented series of four-story buildings that all fit the same make and model; all about the same decrepit age, too. A real world Lego-land if I had ever seen one. The real views started above the cloud line, however. As we pushed our way through the silky sheen of billows a very distinct purple and heavenly bright white became clear. There, into thin air at nearly 26,000 feet, and quite a bit higher than we were flying, stood the tallest mountains on earth–the rooftop of the world. Piercing the densely draping cloud cover to scrape the sky–these were monuments of the Father, God’s cathedrals. It’s one thing I suppose to see a mountain from below, as you should, but to look upon it level, as if looking it in the eye, is something else internally. It reminded me of the opening scene from Hercules, where you find Zeus and Hera on Mt. Olympus high into the heavens. To my disappointment though, I was unable to see a cartoon animated Hercules with Pegasus, no mater how hard I tried–these were the real heavens.
As we landed on a prompt and safe flight the biggest variable was now out of the way. Well, almost. We still had the matter of walking into the Himalayas and figuring out what to do from there for the next 5 days. Once in Pokhara though, we got a quick cab to the lake front where the center of town is. Pokhara was much different than any other place I have ever been. From the air, this city of about 200,000 was noticeably third world. Plenty of semi-urban decay and attempted construction, but animals such as cats, dogs, goats, chickens, and plenty of cows roamed the streets freely, making their bed any where they pleased as foot and car traffic had to adjust to their sleepy schedule. As we weaved our way down the nearly paved roads to the touristy area along the lake front we found shops selling every single kind of handicraft imaginable, all trying to placate the wants of travels pinning to take back very cheap, very unique gifts from this remote part of the world. It was a gift givers paradise, especially considering that the exchange rate for US dollars in nearly 90 to 1. Also, discount NorthFace gear for the last minute trekker was sold on every street, and for really, really cheap ($7 for a winter jacket). It’s safe to say that perhaps the only place with more NorthFace gear per person then East Grand Rapids or Hope College is probably Pokhara: home to the original NorthFace Lodge.
We settled into a pretty nice hostel with hot water and two beds for just 3 USD for the night. Our original plan called for us to get a guide that would take us through the mountain range for a couple of days, but as we arrived in Pokhara we decided to forgo that idea and do the trek on our own. We did this for 4 reasons: 1) that we had the fitness and trekking experience we thought was necessary 2) we found the guides to be just a little too pricy 3) we found that with some planning we would be able to handle the relatively well marked trails and 4) this would probably be the only opportunity we would ever have to just walk into the Himalayan wilderness and hope for the best. This could have been a disastrous decision, but as I expressed earlier, it seemed that the heavens seemed to smile upon us for our journey. With the help of our very friendly hostel owner, Raj, we spent the majority of our night pouring over our maps and studying our possible routes, all while eating Mo Mos (DELICIOUS Nepali dumplings made with buffalo meat). We felt ready for our days ahead.
After the brief and horrendous setback of setting our alarm four hours too early to start the mornings trek, we promptly shared some sharp words with the guilty party and still started our day with the sun. We started by paying a cab driver to take us to the trail-head, about a one hours questionable drive up the mountains to where we reached a point that could be more accurately described as a place where the road stopped, rather than a trail starting point. We actually didn’t reach our destination though until we were stopped about midway there by a downed tree on the road. We waited a couple of minutes as we watched the local people come out and dismember the tree gratefully with axes and saws. Finally there, we then took a quick photo with the daring cab driver that drove us there and then started winding our way along the rocky footpath.
It wasn’t long on the path that we realized that perhaps the most strikingly vibrant and interesting aspect of our trek would not be the mountain vistas, but rather be the people we met and observed along the way. We wandered into a place that was a harsh and troublesome living environment for human beings and just about anything else that chose this dry and rocky place to call home. People didn’t merely work in this strange and lost place caught somewhere between India and Tibet, people lived–almost nothing more. People were trying to survive every day in an unforgiving place. I have to admit I had never really witnessed firsthand people practicing subsistence living, and it was both intoxicatingly romantic and unsettling at the same time. These were harsh and hardy people that have somehow managed to teach themselves to eek out a living amongst the stones over the past few thousand years all while being nearly untouched by the outside world. People were weather beaten, glassy eyed, and deliberate with how they went about there day, not out of want but out of the necessity, the necessity of survival. Though the years of growing grain and raising livestock and families on their terraced hills have taken their toll, people still muster a pleasant glance, (though smiles and laughs were rare) and offer a Nammaste, which literally means “I salute the divine within you”. (Which really makes me feel guilty for ever saying “what’s up” to anyone, ever).
As we walked though we took in the sights and sounds as well, which on the first day were pretty striking, or so we thought until we went a little further on our journey. Actually, the first day of our trek was probably the most difficult. We climbed nearly 600 meters 4,000 hand made stone steps on a part of the trail that the people called “The Stairway to Heaven”. I felt pretty tough until we passed a gaggle of elementary school students walking to school on the same trail. That was a a very eyeopening sight to see. Even though I still didn’t have any chocolate no mater how many times they asked, just talking with some kids made the march much more bearable for me, and for them too I hope. To redeem ourselves we made a human tunnel for them (a tradition that we kept every time we saw some students for the remainder of the trek) as they reached the top at the village of Uleri.They forgot all about the chocolate immediately afterwards every time). Uleri was our first stop and it didn’t disappoint. We got three beds at a tea house with good food and an absolutely breathtaking view in the morning–all for just $3.
After that morning we watched the sun crawl over our first good view of a snow-capped mountain: Annapurna Shaw. We quickly ate our breakfast of porridge and set off on the trail again. Day two was a little bit lighter and the scenery was absolutely different. Where the first day was dry, rocky and consisted of us walking stone steps in the unrelenting sun, day two provided us with some substantial shad cover, brilliantly green foliage marked along a trail following an alpine stream, and our first glances at the Nepali national flower: the Rhododendron. The higher we climbed the more and more Rhododendron flowers we saw, to the point where the forests in the valleys themselves seemed to be roiling and rolling with these radiant reds, pinks, and purples. The higher we climbed, yet, the brighter they became as well, making the forests seem to be bursting with exclamations of vivid color. In such a welter of color, it looked as though it was not real–like a 5 year old school girl was asked to draw a forest and decided that the simple greens would not do, so she proceeded to use whatever colors she pleased. Simply sublime.
After walking for a number of hours with our necks craned up towards the floral covered canopies and stopping for pictures just about every 100 feet, we had climbed our way to Ghorepani, the point where we would spend our most important evening and morning: next to Poon Hill, for which the trekking circuit was named. We stopped and ate lunch, some dried fruit and nuts we had bought in KL, and then decided to spend the afternoon walking the extra couple hundred meters to Poon Hill since we figured we would like to see it in full day light. Though the mountains of the Annapurna range were veiled in daily alpine vapors it was still extremely powerful to be at such an altitude by ourselves, and it made the following morning all the more powerful.
The following morning lived up to everything I thought and was just as clear, crisp and fresh a morning as I could have dreamed. After an evening of eating some Dal Batt (Dal bean with rice) and talking with some German and Austrian trekkers around the fire at our tea house (which was turned into some kind of international beer lodge), we woke up around 4:30 AM and started our chilly assent to the top of Poon hill for the sunrise. It was colder than I thought, but with the help of a Yak wool hat that I bought from a woman on the trail the day before, I was quite warm. Once at the top we were joined by a few dozen other groggy souls and patiently awaited the sun to make it’s appearance. What ensued was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. As the sun drowsily crept its way above the horizon and eventually over the the mountain peaks and foot hills, the entire spectra of all light, every shade, every tone, every hue was on display for us to see. Each passing second presented a new presentation of the mountains and sky, each second all the more bright and brilliant then the last, and exceptionally quick to change its mood. The momentous mountains, complete with their swirling snow-caps that were so beautifully veiled only hours before, were now unleashed into a crystal clear bluebird sky, stretching ceaselessly upward. There is something about a place that draws the eyes to the heavens that makes one feel the might of the world around you, the perfection of nature, the humility of existence, and the wonder of the creator. It was a powerful moment for me.
We were certainly reluctant to leave such a place, but we had our longest day of trekking ahead of us. So we said a bitter goodbye to that rugged patch of earth and continued down for some breakfast, and the following re-assent over our highest pass. After a quick rest we reloaded and started our climb. This climb gave us a some views that were debatablely just as stunning as the ones earlier in the morning, and as we stretched over the pass, the air thin in our lungs, we turned constantly to soak in the majesty as if it were to go away at any second. It never did. There are some things that you can get accustomed to over time and exposure, they lose their luster after a while of you becoming acclimated to them, but this is certainly not the case with the Himalayas. They never got old, they never lost their luster, no matter how many times I stopped to stair or how many photos I took, or how many times I turned and said, “WOW, those are so beautiful!” They were eternally awesome.
From that point though, the road was down–easy on the feet, and even easier on the eyes. We made our way across some gentle alpine streams and followed them through some kindly villages. We stopped to take photos, of course, but what really drove us down was our conversation. We talked just about most things as we made our way passed mossy trees as monkeys were swinging from limb to limb, wild flowers, children playing and more Rhododendron forests. We stopped for water breaks and lunches, and then again for the night in Ghandruk where they were celebrating the annual Hindu festival of Holi, or “the festival of light”. The holiday primarily consists of people painting each others faces and bodies by hurling brightly color powders at each other or smearing them forcefully on faces. After being briefly attacked by locals with colors we cleaned up, made our bad and slept. The next morning we ate some more porridge and headed out for a day of constant ups and downs and an overall drop of about 700 meters. The day was clear as always and the morning especially gave us an abundance of spectacular views, more wild flower sightings and casual meetings with the people of the mountain.
That next night we spent in Dhampus, were we stayed with a charming family and they made us without a doubt the best food we had in Nepal. Part of this was because, like all places we stayed at, everything was fresh and grown right next to their tea house. This night, however, I made the mistake of asking for chicken curry, where from that point on I watched the husband go down into the field, catch a chicken, kill it, clean it, boil it and then hand me my meal. It was BY FAR the freshest chicken I have ever had I’m sure. The next morning we made our hasty descent to the bottom of the trail where we finally met the road. This quick day of trekking gave us some clouds, but we were still able to clearly see the “fishtail mountain” that makes Dhampus famous. Once finally at the road we knew that we had done it, we survived. We then took the most crowed and hectic bus I’ve ever been on (at least I was lucky enough to be in the bus… some people were on the roof) back to Pokhara. From Pokhara we then hopped back on our Yeti Airlinner and made the 40 minute flight to Kathmandu.
Our plan was to stay in Kathmandu for one and a half days and two nights to hit the main highlights of the city. I’m glad we did exactly that because I wasn’t sure if I could take a ten day vacation in Kathmandu. I’m not sure what I expected, but the city was totally different than what I thought. Paved roads didn’t really existed, heaps of rubble lined the streets, everything seemed to be in a perpetual state of disrepair or demolition, and driving was essentially like bumper cars (road rules and traffic lights didn’t exist, people merely drove on the road, that was the only rule–hitting things didn’t cause a second thought). It was wild. The chaotic streets and birds nests of loose wires reminded me of pictures of 1890’s New York City just before the turn of the century. It was a wonderful experience to walk the streets and observe the people for a couple of days.
We also saw some really cool sites. Our first day in Kathmandu we spent most of the day temple hopping and site seeing at the timeless but ancient city of Bhaktapur. For hundreds of years this city of antiquity has served as a citadel for the Hindu faith in Nepal. What was most remarkable about this bustling town just outside of Kathmandu was not it’s ancient temples, buildings and wood carvings (though they were extremely impressive), but what was even more impressive was that all the town was still alive, with people living and working out of these time-tested buildings made hundreds of years ago by their ancestors. Walking into such old buildings and houses to look at the handicrafts made by the families was really a different kind of practice, one that I was not used to, but one that had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. With it’s endless sea of trinkets and homemade goods, such as clay pottery, singing bowls, religious icons and idols, and art of every kind, it was just like I was infiltrating some yet unfound place that had refused to change with the times. If I had ever walked into a place that seemed to be stuck in time, it was Bhaktapur.
We finished our day with a sun set over Kathmandu, a smoke clouded and dusty city, but beautiful none-the-less. We walked our way to the top of the Bodnath Stupa, a massive Buddhist temple filled with song and persistently canting monks, as well as a few ill tempered monkeys. It was a wonderful moment and a great way to end an exciting day. The following morning we woke up rather early so we could do some final exploring before our flight left in the afternoon. We then made our way to Pashupatinath, a World Heritage Site that is supposed to be one of the most holy Hindu cremation locations in the world due to the fact that it starts the headwaters of the Ganges river, the most holy river in the Hindu tradition. Here we watched the crisp blue sky fill with a dark smoke that we could only guess was the remnants of human beings. It was a strange, mysterious and unsettling feeling as one walks though billows of smoke that used to be other living, breathing human beings. But it was certainly worth the experience as it was something completely novel to me. And I especially enjoyed the conversion that I shared with one man as he described rules and conditions for reincarnation. I am starting to look forward to these kind of conversations. I am finding that it is a great way for building mutual understanding.
But shortly after this extremely interesting scene it was time to leave Kathmandu and Nepal altogether. We made our way to the airport and had a very smooth transfer back to our airplane. It is always a pretty lukewarm feeling going back home from a trip, but this time I realized that even when I am going back home this year, I’m going back home to Malaysia. I figured that was pretty cool. I then spent a short night’s sleep at a hostel and woke up the next morning for an Easter service. The Church that I attended was nice and gave me a true sense of what a real international service was like as it was filled with people from every corner of the world, all together to worship,giving me a soothing reassurance that this is my Father’s world, without a doubt.
A quick couple of weeks then have brought me to this post today. In those weeks I have of course had classes, but also meetings in other cities and a number of English camps. So much traveling makes me feel kind of like I’m living the consulting life style as I travel for work, and it also makes me very tired as well. In other exciting news though, my boys that I’ve been coaching on the Under 15 soccer team has won SMK Maran the Championship for our entire district last week, and I hope to have a repeat with my Under 18 team this week. So, another soccer tournament and another English Camp next week means that I will be a busy person still, but perhaps there is some relief in site after the season is over. Either way, I’d wager that things couldn’t get much better on my end, and it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon.
So, looks like you made it to the end. I now realize that this is unrealistically long. Congratulations though, I definitely would not have done the same. You probably should just take the rest of the day off, hit the showers and take a nap. I promise my next post will not be as long. Until next time…
“The mountains, the forest, and the sea, render men savage; they develop the fierce, but yet do not destroy the human.”