Manasulu circuit trek and the non-trek circuit (aka the highs and the lows of Nepal)
09.26.2008 - 10.25.2008
When we got to Nepal after our diving extravaganza in Egypt, we sadly realized that because of Carina's injured ankles, she shouldn't go on the trek and risk more damage to her tendons. This was very upsetting for both of us since this was a part of the trip we were both really looking forward to. The decision that we made together was for me to join Daphne on the trek as we couldn't send her off alone, while Carina would try to make other plans and then regroup in Kathmandu before travelling together in India. In hindsight, we should have made the decision earlier to cancel the trek and give Daphne enough of a warning so that she could decide what she wanted to do. As it was, we basically decided the night before the trek was to begin with the manager of the company. It all felt a bit rushed and of course upsetting and weird and worrisome to know that I'd be leaving Carina alone. I think the entire trek was filled with the very mixed emotions of enjoying some moments of it and at the same time feeling bad that Carina couldn't be there to share it.
Rather than give a long narrative of the trek, I thought it would be more interesting to share some pictures from different moments along the trail. The trek took around twenty days to complete, and I would divide the time between three distinct sections of the loop around Manasulu Himal: the week and a half hike up the steep river valley to higher altitudes, the week at altitude and the crossing of the Larkya Pass, and the final days of descending via the Annapurna circuit trail. The first week was a difficult one because the weather was extremely hot and humid, and it rained almost every day for the first week and a half. Eesh. I was surprised to learn that the altitude at the beginning of the circuit was only around 200 meters: we had a lot of ascending to do. Another challenge of this particular circuit trek is that the terrain doesn't gain altitude steadily; instead, you go up and down (jokingly referred to as the "Nepalese flats" by our head guide) many times during the day. Beautiful terrain, though, and quite different from the return side of the circuit.
A typical day would start with one of the kitchen staff serving us our wake-up tea by our tents. After dressing, we would sit in our dining tent and be served a hearty breakfast of porridge, chapati, eggs, etc. The first week, we spent most of the day hiking, because we weren't at altitude and needed to gain a lot of ground. Something that struck me about this trek was that at no point (except briefly at the pass) were we away from any kind of settlement. The trail was always filled with villagers and their animals, travelling up and down the route. It was always amazing to see people farming and herding animals at very high and seemingly inhospitable areas. Lunch was always a welcome respite for us, but it meant more cooking for our kitchen crew. After the afternoon portion of hiking, we would usually roll into our camp site, already set up by the porters, and would sit down to my favorite moment: tea and cookies. Then we had time to write in our journals, play cards, hide in our tents, or tend to our washing and laundry, before eating dinner at 8-ish, then sleep. A simple existence made so by the hard work of the porters and kitchen staff.
Here are some moments from the three weeks.
This is a shot Daphne took of me talking to Purba, a Sherpa who functioned as a sherpa. We learned that the word means both an ethnic origin and the function of mountain guide/porter. This was during the first week of the trek on a particularly enjoyable part of the trail above the river valley below (and a rare moment of clearer skies). We spent many days gaining and losing ground to the river, the Budi Gandaki, and crossing it on suspension bridges many times.
This was a common site on the trail, especially at higher altitudes where more Sherpa lived. They alone herded the yaks we saw on the trail. Also, many villagers use burrows to haul loads up and down the trail.
This is a shot of faithful Gyanendra, our motherly head guide, taking care of a little blister I developed during the first week. Daphne braved a bad respiratory ailment over the first week, and here she's undergoing a Gyanendra special: head under a towel suckin' in the clove oil fumes. She said it helped. Something else we encountered on this wetter portion of the trail, were leaches. They attach themselves to your boot then work their way up to your leg where they suck the blood right outta ya! Daphne and Gyanendra were plagued by them for two of the days. Yuckie!
This is a shot of some of our kitchen staff at one the lunch stops. Because this was a camping trek, meaning there often weren't tea houses available for sleeping, we often ate lunch outside on a tarp. This was one of the times we made use of a house in a village. These guys were incrediblely young and fit. They would make us three meals a day and would run ahead of us on the trail to be sure to be at the camp site before we arrived. From left to right are Chatra, Mona and Subey (not pictured is Dhana, our head cook, whom we really grew to respect).
We passed the eastern flanks of Manasulu before we reached the high pass. Manasulu is one of the fourteen +8,000m peaks in the world. Many teams were higher up at the base camps making their summit bids. This has always been known as the Japanese mountain since they were the first to climb it in the '50's after Hillary and Norgay did Everest. Apparently, Manasulu holds the same kind of mystique and awe for the Japanese, as Everest holds for us. We were blessed with a window of clear weather on this morning to take some photos of the summit before the noon clouds socked it in.
This is a shot of our porters. I was embarrassed when the trekking company manager told us before we left that we would have a total staff of two guides, five kitchen workers and 12 porters....for two people...ridiculous. The upside was that we were employing these guys. The porter issue is somewhat controversial for westerners because it feels like exploitation. They carry big-ass loads and are compensated, by our standards, with minimal pay. However, Gyanendra told me that many of the porters are farmers in their villages, and that during this time of year, after the harvest, supplement their income by portering. He made a point of telling me that they want the work and actually not happy with folks who are self-sufficient on the trail. We gave them what I considered to be excellent tips after the trek. I also loved the fact that the trekking company made sure they had fairly decent (and matching) Gore-tex clothing for the colder, higher altitudes. This shot was taken at a village called Samdo, which was just two days before our crossing the high pass. Our porters were Rup Badu, Maan Badu, Ed Badu, Mahan Badu, Sher Badu, Mongal Badu, Sushil Badu and Narayan. Badu means "strong" in Nepalese.
This is a panorama shot I took on our acclimitization day at Samdo. We stayed there an extra day to help our bodies prepare for the altitude of the pass. That day I decided to go with one of our kitchen staff-turned guide to hike up the ridge of one of the smaller peaks to get this beautiful view of the Manasulu massif and the Larkya pass. From this perspective on the ridge, we are actually quite close to the Chinese border. This was a nice moment that I wished Carina were sharing with me. The peaks in order from left to right are: Himal Chuli, Peak 29, Manasulu, Larke peak, and to the right, the Larkya Pass, we were are headed.
It snowed the night before we headed up to the pass and we did the classic pre-dawn start. This shot is of me...taking a much needed rest on the way to the pass after the sun had risen above the other peaks.
The prayer flags were our signal that we had finally reached the pass. This is a shot of us with Gyanendra and Purba enjoying the moment before heading down the other side of the pass towards the Annapurnas and our completion of the trek in the following week. This was by far our toughest day. We topped out at 4,930m (16,269ft). Our elevation gain for the day was 470m (1,651ft) and loss 1,340m (4,422ft) on the "backside."
I added my little stone to this cairn in an emotional moment of reaching this beautiful place and not having Carina there to enjoy it with me...difficult. I took a stone from the site back for her...don't tell anyone.
So here's Carina's posting:
That I was pretty bummed about not being able to do the trek is an understatement, as it's something I've wanted to do since I was teen, plus I had over three weeks till Will and Daphne got back, and couldn't do much walking. I decided to try to rest my tendons as much as possible and focus on "acceptance."
Kathmandu (and much of the valley) is quite a congested place, and the area our hotel was in, Thamel, was as touristy as could be. Navigating the streets is a challenge, as they're narrow, and there's tons of pedestrians, motorbikes, rickshaws, and cars. Thamel is party central at night, so lots of live bands, mainly playing the classics--think: "Sweet Child o' Mine." Even though Nepalis are mainly Hindus, it does a attract a large portion of tourists who are Buddhist wannabes, which must explain why every shop plays the exact same CD of the Om Mani Padmi Om mantra. I'm sad to say I grew to cringe every time I heard it. I'll never be able to meditate again... I'd like to say something positive about Thamel...but I can't.
Anyhow, I tried arranging a few trips that would have been awesome--a horse trek to the less-visited Kingdom of Mustang, and a trip to Bhutan, but both fell through. At this point I was pretty much losing my mind in Thamel, and arranged a car and driver to take me on a trip to few places in Nepal. Razu, my driver, was absolutely great, but spoke rarely. (After about two days in the car with him, he finally spoke, saying as we drove through the outskirts of a small city, "Madam, this is a city." Thankfully I was making a little movie with the camera at that very moment so I captured the whole dialogue.) I would insert some pics of my trip here, but somehow we sent those home already...It's fitting as most of my time in Nepal I felt kind of cursed, what with every travel plan I tried to make disintegrating.
I saw some beautiful views of the Himalayas, and Annapurnas from a mountaintop place in Daman, south of Kathmandu, that was extremely peaceful and restorative. After that I spent a couple of days at a wacky stay at a lodge in a nature reserve. I knew it would be bizarre as the manager's orientation speech included his telling us that the schedule of activities was packed tight so we wouldn't get bored, as we probably wouldn't see much wildlife. I spent a lot of time laughing with other guests while I was there. Our schedule included: early morning elephant safari, canoe trip, elephant bathing, elephant safari, and then...movieshow!
The elephant safaris (I never would have gone to the lodge if I had known this was in store) were silly--nothing to see, and a lot of foliage hitting you in your face if you're not watching, plus there's four people on each elephant, sitting cheek to cheek so to speak. The canoe trip? Thought this would be fun. We floated downstream while two guys poled to steer through the shallow water. Wonder what elephant bathing is like? Now I know. People climb onto the elephant who is in a shallow stream, and elephant is commanded to spray water on them. Needless to say everyone was a bit surprised by this one, as for some reason, we all thought elephant bathing would involve the elephant being bathed. Go figure. And then..."movieshow." I skipped it both nights, which was just as well as both times it was in Nepali. I do have to say, to be fair, I did see two rhinos in the stream, which was exciting, but no tigers, which are what people hope to see in this park. We found out our last day there, that in this lodge the last tiger sighting was about 2 years ago. The stay there is something I'll remember with a smile.
After my nature experience, we drove further west and south across the Terai, a wide plain in southern Nepal (and northern India), to reach Lumbini, the place Buddha is believed to have been born. It's an interesting site, quite large, and not yet finished. A Japanese lansdscape architect designed the place about twent years ago, and it's still being completed, and will be lovely when done. The government of Nepal has given plots of lands to different countries to build their own temples, and some are finished, so it's an interesting assortment of styles. I hired a guide and spent a few hours there, learning details about Buddha and Buddhism, and giving psychotherapeutic advice to the guide who wanted to help his good friend through a bad time. Wil managed to get a call through after trying for a few days on the way down from the pass, and we arranged to meet up in my next destination, as I still had a couple days left on my itinerary.
We had a very long day's drive north through more stunning mountains, with beautiful valleys and gorges, and few inhabitants for the most part as much of the area has steep hillsides, and reached Pokhara, a lakeside town in the foothills of the Annapurnas. The next day Will arrived and we had a joyous reunion. Will got his beard shaved off and had a massage in the chair by the barber that wasn't up to his expectations but was funny for me to watch.
After a day in Pokhara, we started heading back east to Kathmandu, stopping for the night at Bandipur, a medieval village, that we both enjoyed visiting. Scenic views of the mountains to our north, and a valley below that was swallowed in mist in the morning. Then back to the dreaded Kathmandu where we met up with Daphne and had a farewell Nepal dinner at a nice French restaurant, before leaving for...India!