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.