Monthly Archives: November 2009

Jomsom again

For those of you following our progress, here’s another interim posting.

We made it over the high pass yesterday and spent the night in Muktinath, a pilgrimage town holy to both Hindu and Buddhist religions. To save time and wear and tear on Marcia’s knees, we took a jeep the rest of the way down to Jomsom, the regional center where we ended the Dolpo trip. This time it’s less of a culture shock because the Annapurna trek is far more developed and more frequented by travelers, mostly European.

This time Jomsom is the midpoint of the trek, not the end. We will continue by jeep down the Kali Gandaki valley to Tatopani, where we will again leave the road and head up into the mountains. If weather permits, we will go up into the Annapurna Sanctuary in the last days of the trek, and then we will descend to Pokhara, arriving on December 4 or 5.

From here on, it is unlikely we will have internet access, so my next posting will be at the end of the trek when we arrive in Pokhara. Pictures and full details will probably need to wait until we return to the US on December 13.

Now in Manang and moving on toward the pass

Here is another quick interim post to keep you up to date on our progress.

We arrived in Manang yesterday afternoon and have been enjoying a rest day with improving weather. Manang is the largest town in the east-west valley just north of Annapurna, and now that we’re getting at least some sunshine, we’re getting some nice mountain views.

We’re both in good health, though I had a spot of diarrhea this morning. Cipro seems to have taken care of that, so it’s all under control.

We leave tomorrow for the 5400-meter pass that we have to cross to get to Jomsom. We had some concerns about the snow that fell earlier in the week, but it seems people are getting across now that the weather is improving. We’ll make our next posting when we get to Jomsom in about four or five days.

Interim posting from Chame

We have just finished the fourth day of our trek around Annapurna and we’re staying in a town with internet access. They advertise broadband, though that’s a bit of an overstatement for this service, which I think comes by satellite.

So far, the trip is going fine although the weather has been cloudy and even rainy, which is unusual for November. The clouds seem to be lifting now, and we are hoping to have good weather in the high country and over the pass when we really need it.

Marcia and I are in good health and enjoying ourselves. Staying in guesthouses is so much easier than camping, and the hiking has so far been reasonable. After Dolpo, this is really an easy trip!

Full descriptions and photos will have to wait until December when we return to civilization. Return to Pokhara is still expected around December 5.

On to the next adventure

Now that we have recovered from our trip and posted the blog entries, we are leaving tomorrow for our second big trek.

This one is to the much more traveled and civilized Annapurna region, where there are lodges and teahouses everywhere and many fellow travelers. There is no need to bring tents, food or a large staff to carry everything. There are many services including medical clinics if we need them. We will be led by Sonam, our excellent cook from the previous trip. He has experience as a guide and knows the area well.

We will be mostly off internet and cell phone coverage for the whole 24 day period until we return to Pokhara around December 5. There is a chance I might get to post a message before then but no promises. We will save up any detailed postings until we return in December.

So long for now!

Summary of our trip to Dolpo

We’re back from Dolpo, and what a trip it was.

I am back-posting daily notes for those of you who want the details, and I’m afraid it’s many pages. The notes go back to October 10, the day we flew up and left contact with the internet. Although they are all posted with today’s date, I have tried to arrange them so that they display in chronological order. To see all the entries, you will have to click the “Older Posts” link when you reach the bottom of each page.

For those of you who don’t want the details, here are the statistics:

• 25 nights mostly in a tent
• 4000 photographs
• 100 blue sheep but 0 snow leopards
• 300 kilometers walking
• 7 passes over 5000 meters (16,500 feet)
• 6 courses of antibiotics for digestive problems
• 1 strained muscle but 0 serious illnesses or accidents

Our trip went through all the major parts of Dolpo, one of Nepal’s most backward but interesting regions. The civilization and language are Tibetan, and much of life still revolves around the short growing season and the long yak caravans.

The scenery is astounding, though mostly high desert rather than the spectacular mountains one normally associates with Nepal. Although we did see some classic Himalayan views such as Dhauligiri and Lake Phoksumdo, much of the trip was on the north side of the Himalayan crest, where the terrain resembles the high deserts of Tibet and the American west. Wildlife is sparse in these desolate regions, but we were able to see Himalayan blue sheep (bharal), vultures and golden eagles.

Dolpo has always been difficult to reach and travel in, and it was virtually off limits for most of this decade, as it was the center of the Maoist uprising that decimated this poor country until a few years ago. Trekking infrastructure is minimal and even food is limited, so we had to bring in most things from Kathmandu in a full camping trek. Although the food and company have been great, the camping took its toll and we are happy to be back to the city, at least for a bit.

More details in the daily postings. At least look at the pictures!

Day 1 – Oct 10 – We made it to Dolpo!

As I predicted, when we finally got to Dolpo, the postings would stop for almost a month. For a week in Nepalgunj, we had nothing better to do than write notes in a relatively modern internet café. But in Dolpo, we were suddenly back 50 years and by tomorrow we will be in the 14th century. Some people in this town have email by satellite but it is very slow and expensive. So from now on, I am writing notes on Marcia’s cell phone and posting everything in order once we return to something resembling civilization around November 6.

After 7 days of delays, our departure from Nepalgunj was almost an anticlimax. We got up at 4:15, ate breakfast and left for the airport at 5. We were delayed a few minutes at the entrance gate because the Yeti Air staff hadn’t arrived, but once they did, everything was in order. The district manager Mr. Bimh was waiting to shake my hand as I came in, and he assured me that our party was all on the first flight. Apparently I had scared him so much that he had told Kathmandu that he was being held hostage until they brought us a plane! Several other group leaders thanked me for being enough of a jerk to make something happen.

The only catch was that it was quite foggy. So after the security check (men and women separate), we had to wait nervously for almost two hours. The plane was loaded with our bags and I was ready to lead a group out on the tarmac if they started to unload them. But we knew that the flight had to leave by 10am or it would be too late for yet another day. While we waited for the fog to lift, the Yeti Air ground staff drank tea under the tail of the plane.

Finally, a little after 8, the fog cleared and the staff opened the doors. Mr. Bimh was out there himself and shook my hand again and gave me his email address. He seemed happy to hear that we are going back a different way, and he won’t have to fear my return. All 19 passengers strapped on seat belts and the Twin Otter took off at 8:20 for a beautiful trip across plains, foothills and mountains.

If the takeoff was routine, the landing was as thrilling as any I’ve ever had. Nepal has several mountain runways that are built on a slope because they would otherwise be too short. The plane looks like it’s flying right into the mountain until the last second when it pulls up and makes a quick stop uphill. We could see rocks about 10 meters off our right wingtip. But stop the plane did and we all got out and watched the plane take off downhill.

And then, we were suddenly on the trail we had been dreaming about for a week. This first day’s walk was an easy 3 hours downhill past soldiers and villagers to Dunai, the largest town in Dolpo district. The scenery was spectacular, with snowcapped peaks across the valley. It was hard to imagine that these aren’t even the highest range in the area. In fact, we’ll be crossing passes almost as high as those peaks. But if this scenery is any guide, we are in for a fantastic month.

Dolpo is very poor and isolated and we are a curiosity. Children seem happy just to hear us say Namaste, and not one has begged for anything even though they are the poorest of the poor.

Dunai is the regional capital with about 100 Tibetan-style houses. Some of the newer houses had steel roofs rather than the traditional mud. There is one stone-paved path through town. Mule pens line the edge of town – some of these will be our traveling companions. An occasional goat or rooster walks through town foraging for whatever bits they can find.

In Dunai, our guide and cook went about town to adjust our trekking permits for the week’s delay, to buy food, and to assemble a staff. By dinnertime, they had fixed a huge spaghetti dinner but were apologizing that they hadn’t had time to fix anything fancier.

Marcia and I walked up the hill to a Tibetan-style stupa. One child was sitting there and helped us over the wall. He then rang a bell and about 15 more kids came running, along with a young man who spoke quite good English. This was a Bön temple and school, he explained, opened only last year to try to teach the old ways to the next generation. Already the Bön language is almost lost, with only a few people knowing the old words but not their true meaning.

Bön is the original religion of Tibet. When Buddhism came over the mountains from India, it eliminated animal sacrifices and other things, but it mostly absorbed the existing Bön practices into techniques like Tantrism that are now characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism. But the descendents of Bön remain in isolated places like Dolpo, practicing their own religion. The Dalai Lama recently accepted Bön as the fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism even though it differs in certain ways.

On the way back to town, we passed a more standard Tibetan Buddhist temple, which also included a school. These are among the few schools anywhere in Dolpo.

We slept the night in the last guesthouse we are likely to see for a while, listening to the sounds of the river.

Day 2 – Oct 11 – On the trail

We knew we would be getting a late start today because our guide had to pick up our adjusted trekking permits from the administrative office. Nepal government offices are closed on Saturdays, and while we did find the official and got him to make the adjustments on the holiday, he couldn’t stamp them until 10am today. So we spent the morning walking around town, got our things together, had an early lunch, and then left.

Our team consists of Marcia and me, our guide Kinna Sherpa, our cook Sonam Sherpa, three kitchen men Mahendra, Deepak and Gopal, two mule boys Hari and Danjeet, and five mules. They use mules in this area because human porters are in short supply and unreliable, and yaks are too valuable. Kinna and Sonam are not related: all members of the Sherpa ethnic group use Sherpa as their last name. They are true Sherpa, coming from villages in the area around Mt. Everest. Built like fire plugs, the Sherpa are renowned for their strength and faithful service, so much so that mountain guides from other ethnic groups often call themselves sherpa (lowercase s) even though that is not technically correct.

Today was another short day of three hours of easy walking up a canyon that reminded me of the inner canyon of the Grand Canyon. But the Himalayan mountains are more rugged and the canyon deeper.

We stopped for the night at a small campsite that our guide had reserved at the park office. Unfortunately, another group of 13 arrived with no reservation just before dark, and we had to share the site. So we now have about 10 tents pitched wall-to-wall in this one small area. That’s not uncommon in these parts, since Dolpo is too backward and unpopulated to have lodges and flat camping places are in short supply. We may have similar problems for the next few nights, but the crowds should thin after that.

Dinner came just after dark, always too much food because the staff is happy to eat our leftovers. Tonight we had popcorn as an appetizer, chicken soup, very tough local chicken, french fries, two vegetable dumplings like samosas, and fruit. We don’t really need this five-star treatment, but it’s just the way it is done. At least our staff is supposed to be better trained than the locals on how to cook in a way that won’t make foreigners sick.

We were in our tent by 7:30 with nothing to do but write these notes and go to sleep. We’ll be up with the sun in the morning.

Day 3 – Oct 12 – Up the canyon

Today was a long day because we needed to catch up the half day we lost in Dunai. The morning ritual began with tea at 6:30 followed by hot water for washing and then breakfast at 7. We were on the trail at 7:30.

Today’s trail followed a river valley uphill. We gained about 800 meters of elevation but had to climb a lot more than that because the trail frequently climbed high above the river over a rock wall then dropped back down. After four hours of this in the morning and another four hours after lunch, we were ready to find our campsite.

If yesterday’s terrain looked like the bottom of the Grand Canyon, today’s reminded us of the Sierras. Very suddenly we passed from low desert shrubs into a stand of juniper and pine trees, and the forest kept up all day. The river raced down the canyon in a long series of cascades.

In Dolpo, it is hard to escape reminders of the Maoist revolt such as this symbol painted on the rocks. The revolt, modeled somewhat after Peru’s Shining Path, began just south of Dunai, and for years much of Dolpo was controlled by the rebels. Nepal’s corrupt government had ignored these remote regions for years and created a fertile ground for this People’s War, which ultimately impoverished the country and the people it was trying to liberate. The situation resolved itself into an uneasy truce in 2006 when the king was forced to step down and the Maoists engaged in a political solution. Attempts to form a new constitution are still ongoing, but for now at least the country is at peace. Among our party, the three kitchen men used to be gun runners for the Maoists, but they like their new job with us because it pays much better.

Near the end of the afternoon, I was just thinking that we would be very fortunate if 6 days delay in Nepalgunj was the worst thing that happened to us, when suddenly I tripped and found myself falling forward. It was a downward slope and with no chance to brace myself, I fell flat with a pretty heavy hit on my head. Fortunately, I fell right on the trail on a place with no rocks, so I was not badly injured. My eyeglasses took some scratches but might have protected me from much worse. This was a good reminder how careful we need to me in this rugged country many days from the nearest hospital.

Day 4 – Oct 13 – Unscheduled acclimatization day

Marcia and I both had digestive problems during the night at our campsite, ironically named Rechi. Mine seemed to be routine reactions to a change in food, but Marcia had the more serious problem of nausea, one of the symptoms of minor altitude sickness. We got up and had breakfast, though neither of us had much enthusiasm for it.

The morning’s trail was only 2 hours, though it seemed longer because of the continued climbing and descending to avoid outcroppings. Finally we reached a monastery and boarding school, where the children were lining up for outdoor activities. 15 minutes later we reached our lunch spot, a traditional Tibetan medicine clinic built by the government to keep the art alive. Marcia and I took naps waiting for our lunch.

I spoke with our guide Kinna and we agreed to spend the night here at the elevation of 3100. If we had followed our plan of climbing to Phoksumdo Lake at 3600 meters, we ran the risk of turning Marcia’s minor symptoms into more serious forms of altitude sickness including cerebral and pulmonary edema, which are life-threatening. The only cure for those is immediate descent, which would mean an end to our trip. We had plenty of time, so we could just wait.

We are taking all the standard preventative measures. We are taking Diamox, which prevents and relieves both minor and severe altitude sickness. The locals swear by garlic soup, so we’re sipping that as well. And we are making sure to drink at least 3 liters of water per day. All of this means a lot of trips to the bathroom, but we hope it will make it possible to ascend tomorrow.

I was feeling pretty good after lunch and a short nap, so I took a few walks up and down the valley. It is much drier than even last night’s campsite, because it is in the rain shadow of two chains of 5000-meter peaks. The brush was almost desert-like and the weather spectacularly clear. Gone were the afternoon clouds that had been a daily occurrence further south.

We are spending the night in a room in a small lodge so that we can get a good night’s sleep and recover. It’s primitive but more comfortable than a tent.

Day 5 – Oct 14 – Up to Lake Phoksumdo

We both felt okay this morning, so we began the big climb to Lake Phoksumdo. It was a long climb, but it felt better to know that we would just keep going up rather than dropping back down around the next bend.

At the top of the final climb we were rewarded with a view of 200-meter-high Phoksumdo Falls, the largest and highest in Nepal. We could also see a small piece of the lake where we would be spending the night. Between us and the lake was a forested slope just starting to turn colors. We walked down through it and reached our lunch and camping spot at 12:30.

Lake Phoksumdo is a deep blue that varies from azure to turquoise depending on the light. It is very deep and exceptionally clear because nothing lives or grows in it. On each side are high peaks, including a 6600-meter summit of Kanjiroba, Dolpo’s highest mountain.

We had the afternoon off to explore the nearby monastery and the town of Ringmo. The monastery appeared empty – perhaps the monks had already descended to a lower altitude. The town was more lively, with numerous teams of goats and yaks passing through. One large team of about 30 yaks arrived on the trail from the north just before dark. It could be that the fall migration to lower altitudes is already underway. Dolpo herders used to take their flocks into Tibet for the winter, but after the border was closed in 1959, they had to adapt and use warmer areas at lower altitudes within Nepal.

Back in our camp, our cooks had bought and slaughtered a goat. Although both Tibetans and Nepalis are mostly vegetarian, a little meat is helpful at higher elevations. We had goatburger for dinner.