Monthly Archives: October 2009

Finally, Tom and Marcia have arrived in Dolpo

This morning I got a call from Tom's parents in Pennsylvania, who had talked with Tom a few minutes before. There is also a text message on my cellphone, which I quote:

“Made it to Dolpo. Trek starts tomorrow. No Internet until ~Nov 6. Please post this on blog because we can't.”

So, it seems that Tom and Marcia's 100% chance did indeed come through, and they are now finally in Dolpo. The weather, reportedly, is beautiful.

If I get any more text messages or other communication, I'll post them here. Have a great trek, T&M.


100% Chance!

Well, the airplane situation continues to change but Yeti Air still has not gotten us to Dolpo.

To begin with, yesterday’s plan to drive to Surkeet last night was reversed within an hour, allegedly because the plane was too small to carry both us and our baggage. But the airline assured us that there was a “100% chance” we would go out on the first flight today.

So we packed all our luggage again today and went to the airport at 7am. No plane. At 8am, I joined our guide, went upstairs and talked with the manager. The plane was in Kathmandu overnight and left at 7:45 to fly to Simikot (in the far west) and would come immediately after. We will fly at 10:30am.

We sat and sat, and nothing happened. Finally, at 10:30, I went upstairs to join several other furious group leaders. The story now was that the flight left Kathmandu at 9:45 due to weather delays, has to go all the way to Simikot, stop a few more places, and won’t be here before 1pm. And that’s too late to fly into the mountains where the winds will be heavy and the runway too short. (That last part was actually true.)

At this point, I lost my temper in a measured way. You can’t yell in Asia – if you raise your voice you have permanently lost the argument. But I made it clear that I was not going to leave the manager’s office until he got us a plane. I offered to sleep overnight on the plane, an idea that another group’s sherpa guide thought was brilliant. So I just sat there with him for hour after hour until he stopped making up stories.

Finally his story crystallized that it was indeed too late in the day to fly to Dolpo, so they had diverted the plane to several other airports that had people who needed to get out. It would arrive around 3, spend the night in Nepalgunj and then we would be on the first flight tomorrow morning. “This time I finally have the airplane under my control.” (So why did he tell all the other stories if he didn’t?) To demonstrate his seriousness, he weighed our bags and issued boarding passes for tomorrow.

I continued to shadow the manager. He finally invited Marcia and me for lunch at his house, which turned out to be the Yeti Air company housing back in town. He was actually very nice, serving us dahl-baht (lentils and rice), an omelette and some delicious cucumbers. He turned on the TV and we watched tennis and cricket news on Aljazerra. At the end of lunch, he assured us that the plane was now 30 minutes away from Nepalgunj and would be not go anywhere else today. He did admit that he has four planeloads to take and they won’t all go tomorrow. But our group is small and we were the earliest, so we definitely have the first flight. He instructed us to come to the airport at 5:30 tomorrow morning and we will take off at 6:30am. 100% chance!

Since Yeti Air’s airplanes seem as rare as their mascot, I insisted on riding back to the airport to make sure it was true. Amazingly, two planes landed in rapid succession. The first reboarded passengers and flew back to Kathmandu, but the second was actually the one we had been waiting for. 17 people got off, just as he said, and the pilot did a final check and shut everything down for the night. The plane is now sitting there with its wings tied down, so maybe we’ll have a Yeti tomorrow morning after all.

Meanwhile back in town, it is so hot that even the animals are wallowing in whatever puddles they can find. Marcia and I have our same room with both AC and hot water, and we have high hopes of getting out tomorrow morning. 100% chance!

Drying out

It finally stopped raining yesterday afternoon, and today dawned clear though a little foggy. And the satellite photo shows all the rain moving to the east and clear skies all the way behind. So it looks like the monsoon is finally over, two weeks later than usual. The washer man in this picture looks like he’s happy to dry out, too.

There were no flights to Juphal today, though, because the mountain airstrip is still muddy. But with a full day of good weather, the airplane people say it’s 100% chance we will fly tomorrow morning.

This morning we moved back to the Hotel Batika, the “four-star” hotel that appears to be the only place with a room that has both air conditioning and hot water. They also have the best food in town. The manager showed up with a bicycle rickshaw, the main transportation in town, and used it to transport our bags. We elected to walk, since it’s not far and we need the exercise.

But now we need to move again because the situation has changed on where we will fly from. As of this morning, we had a 7-seat chartered plane waiting for us at Nepalgunj airport where we are now, but I just got a call from Kathmandu to say that we need to move to Surkeet, an airport 3 hours away by bus. So I need to finish this quickly and pack to move hotels once again.

Another day in paradise

We got up at 4:30 this morning to go to Nepalgunj airport, since our chartered aircraft was supposedly there and ready to fly at the crack of dawn. We knew it looked unlikely as it was still raining, but once we got to the airport, the rain actually stopped for a bit and showed us a patch of blue sky. We started to have some hopes of flying until we learned that the airstrip at the destination Juphal was too muddy to be used today. And then the blue sky “sucker hole” closed up and it began pouring harder than ever.

There are now at least five groups in town trying to get to the same mountain airport. One French climbing team wanted to know if we’d share a helicopter, but that would have been ridiculously expensive and probably impossible anyway, since Nepali helicopters are devoted to rescues and food deliveries. And with deadly landslides happening elsewhere in the country, they are sure to be occupied. So we went back into town, driving through several inches of water in some places. Because of crowding, we’ve moved to a yet another hotel called Dreamland. It is somewhat better than the one last night.

Some of the groups are giving up, including the Belgians who we’d hoped to share a plane with. That’s bad news because without a charter we are back depending on a scheduled flight, which may or may not exist. Our organizer wondered if we also wanted to fly back to Kathmandu and do something else, but it would be a terrible waste after all this effort and our expensive restricted area trekking permits are non-refundable.

So we continue to wait. The weather forecast predicts good weather in Kathmandu from Friday on, and the satellite photos suggest it may arrive here even earlier. If so, the airstrip should dry out and we might be able to fly as early as tomorrow morning. There is still some concern that the high passes might have been closed by snow, but we think it will not be a big problem since it will be at least a week before we get to them and snow melts and packs quickly in this season.

I suspect we will have at least one more day to wait in the internet cafe, but if we succeed in flying, our blog entries will stop for almost a month with little or no warning. Don’t worry if that happens. Rest assured that we will not do anything stupid or put ourselves in harm’s way. We have a very good guide and we will keep ourselves safe above all.

Failure to communicate

While we’re waiting for the rain to stop, I thought I’d add a bit about another aspect to travel in Nepal: communication.

In the developed world, we take communication for granted: cell phones, text messages, internet, etc. Living the last two years in Japan, we were highly connected with iPhones that could receive messages, tell the weather, and translate Japanese into English. We could call anywhere in the world for nothing using Skype.

Being a communication junkie, I spent about $8 on a prepaid SIM card for my mobile phone, so that I could have a local Nepal number and call the US for only $1 per minute instead of $4. It works surprisingly well, and I can buy recharge cards as often as I want.

On our first full day of delays in Nepalgunj, all the phone lines went out just as everyone wanted information on delayed flights. All the phones except my local mobile phone! For most of the day, all the travelers were borrowing my cheap little phone as the only way to communicate with Kathmandu.

Some of my communication problems came from the other side of the world. I realized I had forgotten to schedule a loan payment at Bank of America. This would have normally been routine, but BofA’s website insisted on sending a code by text message to my US-based iPhone before it would let me into its website. And my iPhone had no reception in Nepal! Calling the bank’s customer service would have meant spending $50 in the middle of the night, because their offices were always closed at the times when I could use Skype at an internet cafe. Finally, I was able to get AT&T to reprogram my phone to get text messages through a local carrier.

Internet calling services like Skype have taken over all international calls in Nepal, since they are basically free vs. $4 per minute for conventional telephones. The only problem is that internet service is often so bad that Skype is unusable – and unavailable several hours per day when the power goes off.

So despite our fancy tools, we are back in the 1950′s here, when a local call was a challenge and an international call unheard-of. It’s kind of nice, but also a reminder of how dependent we have become on instant communications.

Flashback to Kathmandu

I promised to add some notes about the first few days of our trip organizing things in Kathmandu.

Most Westerners who do a trek as ambitious as ours plan things for months or years in advance with an agency in the US or Europe. That is expensive and the results are often terrible, as people end up with unknown guides in a large group with others who may be incompatible. Ironically, altitude sickness is much more common among organized groups, since people developing symptoms feel compelled to cover them up or be left behind on an overly aggressive schedule.

Marcia and I do things differently. We work at the last minute – almost a necessity this time since we only decided to come here a month ago. We travel by ourselves so that we can call the shots and travel at a slower pace that keeps us healthy and happy. And we meet our guides face-to-face before we commit to a trip.

Although we made a few contacts by email beforehand, we delayed any decisions until we arrived. We had appointments with two people – a trekking company named Mountain Tribes recommended by our neighbor Larry and Ngima Sherpa, the brother of the Sherpa guide who led us in the Everest region ten years ago. I spent the better part of two days walking around the tourist ghetto talking with other well-known operators who seemed to have experience with the more obscure area of Dolpo.

By the evening of October 1, we had to make a decision. The only flight to Dolpo was scheduled to leave on October 3, and we needed at least a day to arrange permits and plane tickets. By the middle of that afternoon, we had narrowed the field to three possibilities – the two we already knew and one other operator who initially impressed me. The decision would come on meeting the guides, who are the people who would actually be on the trip (as opposed to the slick office people in Kathmandu).

We liked the guide and cook presented by Mountain Tribes. The guide was shy and had only been to Dolpo once, but the cook spoke good English and had been several times. We knew we would be fine with them. As a sidelight, they mentioned that another group of UK people (maybe Tony Blair?) was considering a similar trip and asked if we wanted to join up, but they were fine when we said no. We later learned that “Tony Blair’s party” was none other than ourselves, as another company had been coordinating with them on our inquiries!

We next went to the operator I had just met that day. In five minutes, we ruled him out because he presented a guide who had not been to the region in 10 years and didn’t know what he was doing. The operator suggested another guide could meet us that evening, but we declined, since he clearly showed bad judgment even presenting the first.

At the very last minute, our friend Ngima Sherpa called to say that he had an excellent guide named Kinna he wanted to bring over. Marcia and I liked him immediately. He was proposing a more ambitious trip, but he suggested enough rest days that we could know we’d be okay. He clearly knew the area, having led many trips there, and we liked his easygoing, personable ways. Marcia and I agreed to go with them, even though it would be a bigger risk going with an independent operator.

The next day was a whirlwind of banks, permits and shopping. A Dolpo trip is expensive because it requires camping and special “restricted area” permits. Because Ngima doesn’t have a real company, he had to take us to the bank to get cash through our credit cards. That proved challenging due to credit limits and restrictions on banknotes, which are currently in short supply due to the dysfunctional Nepali government. Finally we scrouged enough from banks and ATMs to pay the upfront costs.

Ngima handled most of the three permits, but we had to go in person to the Annapurna Conservation Area office. It was interesting to see that the largest number of visitors was from China, from which there had been none ten years ago. Chinese was also springing up on tourist signs around town.

While we waited, I went to look for a boot repairman, because my favorite hiking boots had almost worn through their vibram soles. Surely there would be a specialist at such things in a place like Kathmandu. No luck. Because of a big festival, even the regular cobblers had closed their shops and no one had hiking-boot soles. In desperation, I went to the North Face store and bought new boots, hoping to be able to break them in before the trek gets serious. So far, they are working well.

Apart from the new Chinese tourists, Kathmandu has seen other changes in the past ten years. Gone are the tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled mini-taxis with motorcycle engines that spewed blue smoke all over town. The government of Nepal might be a total disaster, but at least they took this step to improve air quality.

The political situation remains tense but better than a few years ago, when there were shootings in the royal family and a full civil war between the ineffectual government and Maoists in the countryside. The king has stepped down and turned his palace into a museum. “Royal” is eliminated from state-owned enterprises, sometimes just covered with duct tape like the name of [Royal] Nepal Airlines at the airport. And while there are still threats, the Maoists are generally engaged with the other parties on establishing a democratic constitution.

Some changes are less attractive. Thamel, the tourist ghetto, seems more commerical than ever with disco music playing until almost midnight. Some people apparently come to Kathmandu just to smoke dope and party, with no interest in the culture or mountains. We will stay in another part of town when we go back.

Rainy day in Nepalgrunge

We had high hopes of getting out of here today, because our organizer had banded together with the company of another group to charter a flight for us to fly the 30 minutes to the mountain airstrip at Juphal. Our flight was supposed to take off at 8:45 this morning, and we’d be on our way.

Alas, when we woke up at 5:30, we could hear heavy rain, which only got heavier. We packed our bags and went to the airport anyway, but we knew this was just an exercise to let the tourists feel the locals were doing something. Sure enough, the only airplane flying anywhere was the large one flying on instruments back to Kathmandu, and after 4 hours waiting, we went back to the hotel, whose front lawn was now a swimming pool.

More bad news. With more people arriving and none leaving town, our hotel was now fully booked and we had to move to much less comfortable digs. Lunch was pretty basic (dahl baht = lentils and rice for Marcia and boney chicken for me) but probably still better than what we’ll have in the mountains.

Nepalgunj is definitely not a place to be stuck for 3 days (and let’s hope it’s only that). The name apparently derives from the local word for the traditional crop grown in the area – marijuana. The town itself is a dusty, now muddy grid of streets that serves the local farmers and border posts. One traveler suggested the local hotels conspire with the airlines to delay travelers, though they can’t have arranged the torrential rains.

Delays aren’t such a big problem for us, since we have plenty of time at the other end (unlike most other parties who are on a fixed schedule to get back to work). If we have to wait out a late monsoon, we’re better in a humble hotel than in a tent – or an airplane. We do worry, however, that these rains could mean deep snows on the 5,000 meter passes in the mountains. But if so, the snow may still have time to melt or pack down in the week before we get there.

So for now we just wait.

Waiting for Transport

It is late afternoon of our second full day in Nepalgunj waiting for transport to Juphal and the beginning of our trek. Tom and I recall now that “waiting for transport” is an experience we’ve had before while embarked on a rough and ready tour. Most recently in Kaktovik, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean, pinned down by bad weather, we waited patiently for a flight back to Fairbanks.

Even though both the temperature and humidity are high we set out from the refuge of our hotel to have a look at Nepalgunj. It is one of Nepal’s largest cities. The streets are crammed with bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, horse-drawn carts carrying people or freight and tractors pulling loads of bricks or lumber.

Women are wearing colorful saris or the pants and overdress salwar kameez. A few women are in full black burka. Men are wearing a wide variety of traditional clothing. Many, especially younger men, wear western clothing. Though the loose fitting traditional garments appear more comfortable for the climate.

While walking around, we saw one other western couple. But western foreigners are rare here. Even our Sherpa guide and cook are foreigners here. The locals love to stare at us. Only the young and old are brave enough to risk interacting with us. Young boys and girls offer a shy “Hi” or “Hello” and seem tickled to get a response get in English. A very old sari-clad woman made a big point of vigorously waving to us from across the street and gave me a wide toothless grin when I waved back.

Stuck in Nepalgunj

As we feared, there were no planes today. Apparently there is a small airplane in a town nearby, but it has engine problems and no estimate on when they will be fixed. And alternate planes are hard to come by because this is the busy season and they are all making more money taking tourists to see Everest. Our organizer in Kathmandu is pulling all the strings he can, but until they find or fix a plane, we will be here with nothing better to do than blog posting.

At least I seem to have found a better internet cafe. The computers actually work and the keyboard is cheap but not bad. I haven’t tried Skype yet, but there’s even some chance it might work.

Our hotel is okay, actually quite nice in some ways (see picture). It is in a large garden with a balcony, though we wouldn’t want to sit out there in the heat. Our room has air conditioning, which works as long as there is electricity, which usually goes off in the evening when we need it most. Hot water doesn’t work in our room, but they happily brought us a couple buckets from another room. Our sherpa guide says it’s a four-star hotel, which is probably sherpa humor (deadpan and never quite sure if he’s serious).

Nepalgunj itself is just a flat, undistinguished town on the Indian border. The map says it’s at 152 meters elevation, though my iPhone’s GPS reads a little lower. It’s hard to imagine it’s in Nepal since we can’t even see a hill, though roughly half the country (and all of the usable farmland) is in the plains. Whatever it is, it’s hot.

I’ll finish this posting here, though maybe later I’ll add another to talk about our days in Kathmandu. As long as you keep seeing postings, it means we’re stuck. Once they stop abruptly, it means we’ve found a way out.

Kathmandu to Nepalgunj

We did in fact find an internet cafe in Nepalgunj, the first overnight stop on the way to our trek. Nepalgunj is a hot, flat city near the Indian border that serves as a transit hub for all flights to western Nepal. This cafe boasts the “fastest internet in the city” which is pretty pathetic if true. The keyboard is so worn that I have to fix one or two letters per sentence.

Last night was a very late night, because we found out at 6pm that we would be leaving at 7 the next morning. We have way too much stuff because we couldn’t ship certain things such as medicines from Tokyo, and we just brought too much stuff period. I finally got to sleep about 4am after filling two bags to leave in Kathmandu.

Kathmandu’s domestic terminal was actually the whole airport until they built the relatively modern international terminal about 30 years ago. It’s what an airport would have been like in the middle ages if they had been flying back then – a single big room with tables for check-in desks, piles of luggage everywhere and locals and tourists mingling with porters jockeying for tips. We were thankful for our guide and cook, who managed moving our caravan’s 10 or so bags, including our backpacks, sacks of cooking equipment, and all their own stuff. The last time we passed through here we were on our own, and it was up to me to navigate the gauntlet.

It was raining all morning in Kathmandu. The locals blame global warming for extending the monsoon, but our guide Kinna Sherpa observed that this was the second year in a row that it had rained the day after the Dasain festival, a fifteen day event marked with animal sacrifices. Kinna is Buddhist like most sherpas, and he seemed to feel the gods wanted to wash the blood off the streets.

Whatever the explanation, it was sunny when we landed in Nepalgunj, and we could actually see the tops of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. Our plan is to walk for a few weeks in the high valleys to the west of Dhaulagiri, then cross several high passes to the north of that massive mountain and then come out at Jomosom in the Kali Gandaki valley, one of the most visited places in Nepal. It will be people shock for us then, because the previous weeks will be spent on the edge of the Tibetan plateau where only nomads and a few crazy trekkers go. In the past, traders used to bring loads of salt down from Tibet, but political changes and dropping prices have cut that to a trickle (see Eric Valli’s great 1999 movie titled Himalaya – also sometimes Caravan – if you want to know more about life in this area).

Anyway, first we have to get to Dolpo. The only airport there is a short-takeoff-and-landing airstrip with bumps like a roller coaster, and the airlines tend to cancel flights and move airplanes to the more lucrative tourist routes in the high season. Despite our confirmed reservations, there is a good chance this will happen to us tomorrow and we will be back in the internet cafe until we get on a flight. And our cook says there is internet in the next city too, though if it’s any slower than this I may not bother.

Anyway, that’s all for now. If you don’t see any more posts, it means we got on a flight and we are off on the trail. We’ll be back online when we can, probably early November.