annapurna trek
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And now onto the trip

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Things started uneventfully enough with a short flight from San Diego up to San Jose where I met up with my fellow trekker, Colin. That was Friday, September 4th, and the following morning, we boarded a plane for Narita, Japan. Some 11 hours later, we landed and gratefully left the plane for a three hour layover before boarding a plane to Bangkok, Thailand for another six hour flight. We arrived late and wisely decided to forgo the joy of sleeping on the airport terminal floor for a nearby hotel and 5 hours of rest. The following morning, we hopped on a plane for our final leg of the journey to Kathmandu.

Having finally made it to Nepal, we thought the worst of our travel behind us, how wrong we were! After a day spent in Kathmandu arranging our trekking permits and bus fare, or to be more accurate, paying a hefty bribe for someone else to take care of these things for us, we boarded a bus that defies description for a trip that similarly defied description. Suffice to say that the trip to the trail head at Bessisahar took two days instead of the advertised one and involved a landslide causing a five hour traffic jam, a night spent in the charming town of Dumre, complete with the worst bedbugs ever encountered, and lastly, a bone jarring journey over rutted muddy roads and rivers that would destroy most of the sport utilities on the road today. Terrible as this all may sound, it was really a terrific adventure and while, I'm not eager to repeat those parts again, they were fun. So it was a real adventure to even get to the trailhead, the starting point for our trek around the Annapurna Himal.

The first day was a long hard hike in the blazing sun along a trail that followed the Marsayandi river and climbed the hills through rice paddies and small settlements. A combination of heat, dehydration, a ten hour hike, and a heavy pack conspired to kill me and nearly did as heat exhaustion set in that evening and I spent the evening sick. The following day I wasn't much better so we took a short hike and stopped a few hours up the trail for lunch and stayed the day. While I recovered, Colin made friends with a Tibetan innkeeper and arranged us a porter: a slight man of 20 named Doni who, with a huge pack, still managed to beat us up every trail. The feelings of weakness and guilt that we didn't carry our own packs quickly gave way to the realization that, freed of our heavy packs, we were enjoying the trek much more and this was a vacation after all. Plus our porter was thrilled to be making good money.

The next few days passed pleasantly as we climbed above the humid lowlands and entered alpine forests with slight views of the snow-capped Himalayas. These soon gave way to open valleys above the tree-line with magnificent panoramic views of the mountains which, no matter how high we climbed, still seemed (and really are) beyond reach. We took a rest day to adjust to the altitude on the tenth day at the village of Manang (elevation 11600 feet) located at the base of Gangapurna, a 23000 foot peak with a glacier that drains to a lake adjacent to the village. On our "day off", we climbed a few thousand feet up to a Buddhist temple nestled in a cave high above Manang. There we were blessed by a Lama and promised safe passage over the Thorung La pass. We had tea, paid a generous donation, and left pictures of ourselves on an altar with many others who had made this "pilgrimage". So now there is a cave high in the Himalayas with my picture in it. Cool huh?

The blessing seemed to work because the trip over the pass, while grueling and hard, was successful and safe for all. Colin and I, as well as four Brits and another American we had met up with earlier on the, all rose before dawn and began the 3200 foot climb to the pass as the sun was just rising above us. The light rain soon turned to light snow which seemed to threaten to turn worse but fortunately didn't. At the summit (17769 feet: higher than any mountain in the contiguous US or Europe), we were surprised to find a small hut staffed to two Nepali who were serving hot drinks for about a $1. It could have been $20 each and I still would have bought one. The 5600 foot bone-jarring decent down the other side of Thorung La pass was a challenge but also a joy, knowing that the rest of the trek was a downhill walk back to civilization. We passed through the Hindu holy town of Muktinath, teeming with pilgrims who had hiked for days to the temples here. One temple has a holy flame burning in a cave above a small stream of water and while it's simply a natural gas flame behind a spring, it has been viewed as miraculous for centuries by both Buddhists and Hindus.

The next four days are long hard hikes that average about 20 miles a day, as we're anxious to end the trek and return to the amenities of the modern civilization such as western style toilets, hot showers, and refrigeration. Our days are spent hiking through the Kali Gandaki valley which is the deepest in the world, passing between two 26000 foot peaks, creating a gorge 3.5 miles deep. We pass down into the tree-line again and are soon hiking through forests as we pass over suspension bridges (think Indiana Jones), get our feet wet fording a freezing river fed by the runoff of the glacier on the Dhauligiri peak (one of the elite 14 tallest in the world), teeter across numerous landslides, dodge mule trains carrying supplies to the remote villages, and curse the numerous sheep and goats that block our trail.

Fifteen days after we start, we finish our trek at the town of Beni where we find transportation to the resort town of Pokhara and by 9pm that evening, we're in a hotel with a TV and hot water, imagine the luxury. We relax in Pokhara for several days, enjoying the slow pace and the sheer joy of not having to wake up early to pack up everything and then hike for most of the day. After a few days, we're rested and restless so we return to Nepal's capital Kathmandu and find the city, hectic and crazy as it was before, even more wild as the 10 day Hindu festival of Desain had begun and the city was in the midst of celebration. One local described Desain as similar to our Christmas. It must be noted that in marked contrast to Christmas, their celebration culminates with the sacrifice of countless animals in temples and at holy sites throughout the city. Then again the turkey doesn't do so well here at the holidays!


We spend a number of days in Kathmandu, enjoying the chaotic visual scenery of the tourist area known as Thamel where you can buy numerous paintings, carvings, knives, bells, drums, sculptures, boxes: an infinite assortment of Tibetan, Nepali, and Indian souvenirs and artifacts. And if you stand still on the street for 30 seconds, you'll have ample opportunity to buy any number of drugs too from the local "vendors" who spend the day muttering "hash" to passersby. Naturally the concept of rotting away in a Nepali jail on a drug charge wasn't too attractive, so I focussed my attentions on the shops and ignored the muttering. When not shopping or browsing, we'd take trips to temples within the city. The Hindu temples, in the throes of festival were an assault of color and crowds, while the Buddhist temples were calm, quiet, and well Buddhist. In the evenings, we'd meet up with our friends from the trail and reminisce about our adventure and stuff ourselves on Indian food and beer. After a number of days, we'd seen most that the shops had to offer, visited all the temples, witnessed enough animal sacrifices, and tired of the grime and pollution that characterizes Kathmandu. Once again we were restless, so we arranged to leave early and thus have a few extra days in Bangkok before returning to the US.

Bangkok was a shock to the senses, modern, fast, a world class city that was a shock to our senses after a month in a country that can be accurately described as medieval with some modern amenities such as electricity and the occasional operational phone. We quickly found ourselves on Kao San Road, the area of Bangkok geared for the budget tourist (AKA poor students) with an assortment of cheap hotels and restaurants and bars, all featuring pirated copies of all the latest Hollywood movies being shown on large screen TV's. A marked contrast from the village of Manang where our entertainment was limited to card games and recitation of old, dirty jokes.

So now, a month later, what have I learned? Did this trip, this adventure, change me? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer (sparing you the really long answer which would be the 100 pages I wrote in my journal on the trip!) is that I had lots of time on the trip to think about my life. The trip was a nice retreat from work and basically every aspect of my life and I had opportunity to come to miss and appreciate my life here. So if anything, I came back anxious to resume my old life. Somehow, the daily complaints about work and home seem paltry in comparison to the struggles faced by the people living in the hills of Nepal. And yet, somehow, in the shadows of the Himalayas, facing a terrible poverty they manage to live the happy contented life that escapes many of us here. Perhaps there is a lesson there, something about taking the time to appreciate what we do have and remember to enjoy ourselves. I left San Diego a poor student and returned to the same income and yet I know now how rich I am. No, I'm not being philosophical, I'm talking about moneywe're rich here and maybe I should take some time to stop worrying about money and instead focus on other things. And then I remember that a Coke costs a bit more than 15 cents here.