Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Nepal Page 1 of 6

OUR LAST DAYS IN BOUDHANATH

(December 17-24, 2018)

Nitu

Our final week in Boudhanath was full of last-minute shopping for shawls, tapestries, prayer flags, table cloths, knickknacks like small metal dragons and carved turtles (please don’t ask me why) and outrageous bloomer-like pants that cost about $4.00, so who could resist? We said our farewells to our favorite shopkeepers. and the beloved stupa, now fully recovered from the damaging earthquake of 2015.

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The last items on our shopping agenda were two tablecloths…one a plain color and the other an overlay with our favorite Nepalese pattern. You find this combination in most restaurants and cafes, and I’ve always wanted to duplicate it on my dining room table. After much research, we discovered that the store carrying these cloths was outside the stupa gates and across a road under construction that seemed almost unpassable. Thus began our most perilous shopping expedition of the year!

Here is a glimpse of the chaos we encountered. Happily, we lived to tell the tale!

On the way home to the Shechen Guesthouse we passed more building repairs, many of which were being done by women. This is not unusual in Asia.

We also passed the reconstruction of the Shechen Monastery from earthquake damage. After three years, it was in the final stages of repair.

It was a bit dicey along a narrow path past this stretch…

I was completely ragged out by the time we hit the courtyard of the guesthouse and could sit down.

But I bounced right back the minute the cappuccino and mo-mos arrived!

The next day we had a chance to visit Pasang and his family at their one-room apartment, where he lives with his wife and two daughters amidst books, notebooks, and art projects created in school by the children. I have never seen such meticulous and artistic organization of a small living space. Everything was stacked up, even blankets and mattresses; two narrow benches were covered with tasteful rugs; and a tiny kitchen was in one corner with one table and a cupboard. Bookcases took up any extra wall space.

I’ve written about Pasang, the former guard at the Sechen Guest House, and his family many times before, and find it wonderful to observe their progress each year. Aashika, the eldest of the two daughters, is now in the fourth grade and has a daunting curriculum: grammar, science, history, writing, ecology…and all in English with commensurate homework! She and her sister, Ashmika, enjoyed reading to me and meticulously went through their school notebooks. They even entertained me with school songs. My favorite was one composed to a story by Raold Dahl. The little one, Ashmika, wanted to get into the act, so read and sang as well. And then it was my turn. I’ll never forget the delight on their faces. I felt as if I were on the off-Broadway stage, and my audience was enthralled. I read with drama and authority. Needless to say, I did not sing! The spirit that prevails in this family is heartening. Cramped conditions have not diminished their interactions. Loving, cooperative, supportive. There is joy written all over their faces.

Since our two-year absence we have been keeping in contact through What’s App. I honestly don’t know how they survive with the present conditions in Nepal. They, as well as our other friends in and around Kathmandu, are often in my thoughts.

Later in the day we stopped by the small Tibetan restaurant owned by our friend Tenzin’s mother and enjoyed more thenthuk and momos with the two of them. You may remember that we bumped into Tenzin, unexpectedly, before we took our trek. He recognized us as his sponsors when he was attending the TCV school in Bir, India. How about that for a coincidence?

On our last day we were invited to the children’s Christmas show we had enjoyed last year, put on by the Mila Academy, a private Tibetan pre-school. What a gala occasion, with carols, dancing, and an enthusiastic crowd of parents and friends! And all done in English. Pretty good for four to six-year-olds, I’d say. It really tickles me to hear familiar songs like Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow. Made me a bit homesick.

The teacher would stand in front of the students and go through gestures and dance steps along with them. She would hold the microphone for each one to tell his or her name or give a Christmas message. It was quite a production and was received enthusiastically by the onlookers.

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Dr. Sonam Pelmo

Early in the morning on our final day, we made one more visit to see Dr. Sonam Pelmo at the Shechen Clinic, home to Tibetan medicine. We had gone once before our trek, because I was having a lot of trouble with the pollution, which greatly affected my level of energy once I was out of the mountains. Their medicine helped me a great deal. I also took advantage of very low cost ($16) tooth cleaning from the resident dentist.

After lunch we said goodbye to our favorite staff members at the guest house.

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Afterwards we sat in the garden, enjoying the peace and quiet and warm sun. Soon we were joined by several new acquaintances—a couple from Taiwan, an American woman living in Dehradun, and a Buddhist monk. We talked about a future trip to Bodgaya and possibilities for places to explore next year. Soon the conversation morphed into a discussion of Buddhist teachings, which fascinated me. To me it is such a complicated philosophy, so full of drama, folklore, and tradition. If it brings good works in its wake, more power to these people, who are its practitioners. I enjoyed watching and listening to Cary during these exchanges and realized how much I have to learn. There is so much I do not know about her, but isn’t that true of most people? We, too, are complicated and multi-layered.

 

In late afternoon Tenzin joined us for a farewell meal. What a great way to end our visit!

At dusk it was off to the airport and our night flight to Seoul, S. Korea. Gird your loins, folks, for it’s really cold there! You can read about our trip to South Korea here.

As our plane rose into the night and circled Kathmandu, my thoughts turned to the varied experiences of the past three weeks. When would we return? Is the “hardship quotient,” the cold, the pollution, the danger in the mountains no longer an adventure to me? Would there be another trek in my future?

These are questions I would ponder over the next year, ‘though I doubted very much they would keep me from my beloved Nepal. But no matter what the future brings, the vison of the Boudha stupa in moonlight will remain with me always.

PULLAHARI MONASTERY REVISITED

December 16, 2018

One of the joys of travel is revisiting places that have special meaning, and the Pullahari Monastery, on one of the hills above Boudha, is one of those. It had been six years since we walked from Boudha through the valley and up a steep hill to this beautiful monastery overlooking the vast expanse of the Kathmandu. The road had been unpaved, small family farms abounded, and there was an intimate feeling of community with a sprinkling of neighborhood stores and large areas of open space. How different it was today! Traffic jammed the streets, and houses and apartments had replaced many of the farms.

Halfway there I hailed a cab to take us the rest of the way. It was a good thing we hadn’t tried to climb on our own as before, because the path–a short cut up the hill through the forest–had been fenced off. As I looked at the slope we’d scrambled up, I wondered how I had ever navigated it in the first place!

We arrived at the monastery tea shop, run by a charming gentleman who served us tea and brownies, my first chocolate since arriving in Nepal.

From there we began a peaceful walk down many stone steps to several stupas, all situated in the woods and surrounded by lovely flowering bushes. Prayer flags added to the serenity.

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After walking a few koras, we visited the main temple. Cary was familiar with the surroundings having done a month-long retreat in 2007.

We walked around the beautiful temple with its splendid columns, exquisitely ornamented entrances, painted ceilings, and symbolic art work. I had seldom seen such intricate detail and was enthralled by the diverse designs and colors.

We then walked farther up to a smaller temple with the stupa containing sacred body relics of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. He established the monastery and was tragically killed in an automobile accident just after its completion in 1992. A new building exclusively for butter lamps was being erected.

There were large flowering bushes covering the area—poinsettias, a variety of roses, and camelias, as well as rows of smaller plants with a sign: No Plucking of Flowers.

 

Cary showed me the dorms, looking out over the valley, where she had stayed in 2007, and shared her feelings and experiences while doing retreat. This meant a great deal to me.

It was mid-afternoon when we completed what to me was a spiritual journey through this very special complex, and headed back to the teahouse to summon a taxi. Fortunately, we found a delightful Tibetan cab driver, who came from a distance, and delivered us to Boudha Gate in record time. We had thought we’d be in traffic for hours, but he knew all the short cuts and back roads. He was also a Buddhist, so the conversation was lively. What a great way to end the afternoon!

This was the last day of our visiting the area surrounding Kathmandu. We spent the next week moseying around Boudha, saying goodbye to old friends, and enjoying the peace and tranquility of the Shechen Guest House. Stay with us while we complete our 2018 sojourn in Nepal.

The Tibetan Wheel of Life – the representation of the cyclic existence of samsara.

A VISIT TO PASHUPATINATH AND ARYA GHAT

(Take two – here is our full visit to Pashupatinath!)

December 15, 2018

How great it was to get back to the Shechen guest house in Boudhanath and be greeted by old friends and, as always, to meet a few new ones. Joss, a physical therapist from California had recently come from Bhutan, where she used an $18,000 Russian machine to work on patients. She had given me two sessions before the trek that really helped with the pain in my ribs. Little did we know at the time that I actually had broken those ribs on my recent fall in Kathmandu. No wonder I was in such pain!

And it was fun to reconnect with Maria, the Buddhist nun from Iowa, who now lives in Dharamsala, India, and is one of the peppiest, most upbeat people on the planet. Then we met Hans, a retired “thatcher” and longtime bee-keeper from Denmark. Seldom have I met a more fascinating, charming, sensitive, and caring man. We could have talked for hours. And so it goes with the traveling members of the Shechen “family.”

Today was the first day that neither Cary nor I had been awakened by the early morning chanting, bell ringing, and drumming at the monastery, which routinely took place at 5:30 AM. It was my first long sleep since returning from Pokhara. After breakfast with Maria, we decided to head for the famous Hindu temple complex, Pashupatinath, which includes the ghats on the Bagmati River, where bodies burn all day long. Arya Ghat is the main place where the crematorium lies and is the largest cremation area in Nepal. It consists of six elevated platforms on the banks of the river just outside the main temple.

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We crossed the Bagmati River on the north side of the Pashupatinath Temple Complex. As we entered the complex we could see that many temples and beautifully-carved buildings had been destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, and extensive rebuilding was in progress. I noticed the usual large metal (bronze) pigs, Ganesh – the elephant god, Hanuman – the monkey god, and hundreds of live monkeys cavorting ups and down the massive stone steps and on the adjacent lawns.

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But it was the ghats that really spoke to me.

About ten were being used, and more that I couldn’t see. Huge fires billowed forth, their orange plumes intense and shattering, accompanied, off and on, by thick smoke. Hay was placed on top of white packets of ghee (clarified butter) or some other readily available combustible material to keep the fire burning. Men in T-shorts used huge poles to poke the fire, and kept wood on top of the burning body. As the body disintegrated, they would brush the ashes and small bones into the river and wash the large stones in preparation for another body. The river was quite low and extremely filthy, with white muck and debris floating in it.

I watched as one palette became clear and another body was carried to the site by relatives and held high over their heads. The body had been wrapped in bright orange cloth and taken into a large pillared section of the temple. Droves of people pushed in. I assumed it was some kind of farewell ceremony. It continued for a long time while the pyre was being built. Then the body was placed on top and a few people walked around and around, similar to what I saw in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges in 1987. At that time, however, it was the eldest son who performed this duty. And I was standing very close to the bank of the river, so could witness the bargaining between the family and the seller of the wood. I was told that this was often a problem with poor families. They needed to buy enough to completely burn the body.

After placing more ghee on the body, a long stick was lit to start the fire. I waited until the flames rose before leaving.

This experience was very meaningful to me, especially after my conversations with Maria, who had worked for years as a counselor for the dying. It was real and it was comforting, and it gave me a lot to think about: karma, reincarnation, and the fact that only the five senses are gone and a new body awaits us. I would think long and hard about these questions as we made our way back to Boudha. How can we influence our next life, and do we have one? How do we know, or how do we not know?

A VISIT TO PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE AND ARYA GHAT

December 15, 2018

OOPS! Another slip of the finger and the post we’re working on accidentally published! Stay tuned for the last days in Kathmandu in 2018!

How great it was to get back to the Shechen guest house in Boudhanath and be greeted by old friends and, as always, to meet a few new ones. Joss, a physical therapist from California had recently come from Bhutan, where she used an $18,000 Russian machine to work on patients. She had given me two sessions before the trek that really helped with the pain in my ribs. Little did we know at the time that I actually had broken those ribs on my recent fall in Kathmandu. No wonder I was in such pain! And it was fun to reconnect with Maria, the Buddhist nun from Iowa, who now lives in Dharamsala, India, and is one of the peppiest, most upbeat people on the planet. Then we met Hans, a retired “thatcher” and longtime bee-keeper from Denmark. Seldom have I met a more fascinating, charming, sensitive, and caring man. We could have talked for hours. And so it goes with the traveling members of the Shechen “family.”

Much more to come!

 

ONWARD TO POKHARA…

December 13 – 14, 2018

At 10 AM we said goodbye to our comfortable room and hopped into the jeep for the long drive to Pokhara. To tell you the truth, I’d much rather have slept in a tent in the woods and awakened to see Machapuchare with its fishtail shining pink in the morning light, then packed up and hiked down a steep hill through a forest that suddenly opened up onto Phewa Lake, one of the eight lakes in the Pokhara Valley. But that was not to be this time around.

We were happy for the Buddha on the dashboard watching out for us as we drove down impossible roads for 6 ½ hours, with delays, dust, and enormous potholes, wondering when we’d go over a cliff. It was also comforting to know that we had an excellent driver with a sense of humor and nerves of steel! We built up a robust camaraderie as we wound down the “soon to be a highway” with its plethora of road building equipment—the backhoe competing with the front-end loader, and the excavator making light work of them all.

What always amazed me, however, was the number of school children nattily dressed in their uniforms, laughing and chatting as they calmly made their way up the hill next to the machines, with nary a glance. As a parent, I was terrified. The road was hardly big enough for two large vehicles to pass one other, and there they were, walking on the side, oblivious to the danger.

The road being constructed was cut out of the cliffs and banks of the Seti Gandaki Khola (river).

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We passed groups of men huddled over piles of rocks; some digging ditches, some hammering large stones into small pieces, and some building the wire containers for flat rocks that are used to fortify the bottom of a hill or act as guard rails. They also operated the large equipment with great gusto. It was a young boy’s dream!

Several times we were stopped while cars passed or digging took precedence. During these stops we had time to examine various rocks and check out the landscape, seeing, first-hand, how difficult it was to cut through the hills abutting the river.

Tight squeeze coming up!

We also marveled at the high voltage transmission lines with their enormous towers. These infrastructure projects will change many lives through improved transportation and access to electricity.

Buddhi gave us some background on the young men who worked such long hours on the road. Usually, they were hired to work for a year non-stop and made about 1,000 rupees, approximately $10, a day. During that time, they lived in various makeshift, rather primitive accommodations, which were quite depressing to me. But this road will get done, Buddhi assured us. Nepalis are tenacious. And that was that….


We stopped for a short coffee break,

and then continued on until reaching the crowded, bustling town of Beni, where we had lunch.

The Yak Restaurant was charming—round outdoor gazebos with thatched roofs and curtains for privacy. And the food was really good, albeit a bit spicy. It was the first time Buddhi had allowed us to have yogurt, since he didn’t think it was safe in the mountains. My special treat for the day!

For another few hours we wound around the hills and river and navigated the construction. Then we left the river valley, and the roads transitioned to paved.

By 4 PM we could see the hills and small communities around Pokhara and upon arrival there, were welcomed to The Big Pillow, a new hotel near the downtown shopping district.

WE MADE IT! Our gang: Cary, Kandu, M.P., Suni, Buddhi

It was all very posh, much more so than the last time I was in Pokhara in 1999. There were balconies with designer railings, spotless marble hallways and stairs, the slowest elevator so far (we chose to walk the six floors), and a shower that would rival the Tatopani hot springs! We loved it! (Covid-19 update – the Big Pillow closed for the pandemic, but is hoping to reopen soon when it’s over!)

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At dusk approached, walking along the shoreline of beautiful Phewa Lake with its myriad boats, we found ourselves inside the confines of an extensive fish hatchery. Talking to one of the owners, we discovered that there are twenty-five types of fish being grown. Some operation! We also enjoyed talking to a group of school children, who wanted to try out their English as well as sell us tickets to their new production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We declined, but gave a contribution to the school for which they were very grateful.

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Before we retired to our luxurious bedroom, our host took us to the roof garden and proudly showed us the extensive eco-setup he had installed for getting hot water from large highly-insulated tanks placed on the roof. For the next hour we sat on the roof, watched the lights come on all over town, and drank a celebratory beer as the sun set over the Annapurna Range.

In the morning, as I lay sleeping, Cary got up early to take photos of the sunrise.

We returned to say goodbye to the lake and have coffee in a small café by the shore. We mingled with the tourists as we perused the downtown shops, enjoying the cleanliness of the modern stores. Not able to resist a fancy Kashmiri shop, we stepped in to buy some elaborate shawls and immediately felt very much at home, sensing that bargaining was expected. We were able to get a “very good price” as “first customers” of the day. Where had we heard that before? Nevertheless, this town was so different from any other place I’d been in Nepal. No crazy motorcyclists, no crowded sidewalks, no open ditches and streets being repaired, no tangle of traffic. It’s Nepal’s second largest city and its largest tourist center.

The little Pokhara airport (they’re building a bigger one) had a great rooftop restaurant where we enjoyed very tasty veg chow mein, and then waited for Yeti Airlines to take us on our 90 minute flight to Kathmandu.

So many mixed feelings as we took off. So many thoughts. So much had changed in the mountains since my last trip. But isn’t change all you can really depend on? What will be will be. Cary and I both felt emotional as we photographed scenes during the flight. The end of an amazing journey. How happy and lucky we were!

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DESCENDING FROM LARENI TO PAUDWAR AND TATOPANI

December 11 – 12,  2018

We savored every step of our descent from Lareni to Paudwar, noticing a definite change in the terrain as we went through one vegetative zone after another. There were pine, alder, ferns, rhododendron, and bamboo again. It was even getting warm enough for some young ferns to start unfurling.

As we descended there were many lush gardens with cauliflower, sugar cane, beans, corn, mustard greens, garlic, cabbage, carrots, and white radishes (daikons).

Click on photo to see slideshow.

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Entering Paudwar, we passed people sitting on their slate courtyards threshing beans (the livestock eats the shells or pods), drying barley, buckwheat, and amaranth (a kind of grain), washing clothes, digging out a new foundation on the side of a hill, and going about their daily activities. There were women, children, and babies everywhere.

This was like an ancient medieval town—small alleyways, slate-roofed houses, everything made out of stone, narrow, perilous streets, turning and winding. This is what they mean by “watch your step!”

You can imagine how disconcerting it was for me to see teenage girls in flip flops sailing ahead of me as if they were taking a walk in the park. It was, however, the most picturesque village I’d ever seen in Nepal.

We wandered up and down, finally arriving at the Barahee Guest House.

It had only one drawback…the toilet was outside and locked, and we were inside and on the second floor. Rather inconvenient! But the room was comfortable, the view excellent, and the temperature so much warmer than the last few days.

During the afternoon we walked around town, enjoying interacting with the locals. We happened by a school and enjoyed watching a group of girls playing a strenuous game of volleyball. What fun! We sat on the stone “bleachers” and cheered them on.

Here is a slideshow of village life and the people there.

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After the best dinner so far…steamed cauliflower, assorted veggies with butter and an excellent fried veggie roll, we were invited to watch a popular game, kabaddi, on TV. It’s the national sport of Bangladesh, and also very popular in Nepal and India. This was the first time I’d seen this unusual game. I really don’t know how the players survived! Looked like about 8 or 9 men with no helmets, only knee pads. Individual players took turns crossing onto the other team’s side, repeating “kabaddi, kabaddi” (or an alternate chant) for 30 seconds, while the opposing team tried to tackle him and prevent him from invading their territory. Points were scored by tagging as many opponents as possible without taking a breath or being caught.

The next day we took off through the village to start another four-hour downhill to Tatopani, famous for its hot springs. It would be our last stop before Pokara. I had done another section of the Annapurna circuit in 1999 before there were roads, and I found the woodland trails far more beautiful than the dusty, unfinished road. Also, the spectacular views of Mt. Machupuchare and Dhaulagiri were far more prominent from our forest camps. But I also understood why the Nepali villagers wanted better access to markets, medical help, and other needed supplies. Too bad for the tourists…much better for the locals. Their life may have looked quaint to us, but they, too, wanted modern conveniences and a better life.

As we wended our way down the alleys and walkways, we marveled at the intricate juxtaposition of houses, seemingly all attached at different levels and built with the same gray stone. The slate roofs were lovely in the morning sun as well as the numerous courtyards. I can’t imagine what would have happened to the village if the earthquake of 2015 had hit them. Nothing had been built with any precautions or safety measures.

We alternated between going down a rather new road (even ‘though there was one place that had almost been obliterated by a landslide), and old paths or short cuts to save time. These were very steep and perilous, but much more interesting than the road!

Fortunately, there were many chautari where we could sit and have a snack and water. And I presciently ordered four hard boiled eggs and oranges at breakfast that we used to assuage our hunger and supplement the ever-ready power bars during the long descent.

Our favorite chautari and it’s in the shade

Once, again, we noticed a distinct change in ecosystems. There were gorgeous long-needle pines mixed with bamboo, some in clusters and others standing tall by themselves. We came upon a large grove of oranges and bananas, and a field of brilliant poinsettias.

On the mundane level we saw numerous minor mishaps between various earth-moving machines trying to complete the road, and it was hilarious. Even saw mechanics, who came in on motorcycles and worked frantically to repair the machines that were clogging the road. And an hour later we saw the disabled vehicles, having magically turned around, heading out of the area.

Looking down the road into the deep valley we saw several bridges leading to locations like Jomson and Poon Hill, both places I’d been in the past. I hadn’t realized how closely the towns were connected in this region until we reached Pokara and saw the same range of mountains from another vantage point. Those were places I trekked with my friend, Jon Pollack, in 1999. Ah, what memories!

At the end of four hours, we had reached a very long bridge that spanned a roiling river and hooked up with the final section of road we would walk to Tatopani.

Almost there!

Heading to Tatopani on the bridge

How happy we were to be ushered into our large room with attached bath (en suite in the Himalayas no less!), which overlooked a lush garden. We immediately unzipped our long climbing pants to make shorts, and donned a T-shirt, then walked five minutes to the famous hot springs, from which Tatopani gets its name.

The hot springs alongside the river.

We sat in almost-boiling water for as long as we could stand it, and enjoyed chatting with an international crowd of all ages: Aussie, Indian, Nepali, Japanese, English, Dutch, South Korea, Russian, New Zealand…but no other Americans. For the last few days we’d made no mention of Trump (always an unfavorable response, and queries as to how he could have been elected), and it was a great relief to leave him behind.

Dinner was wonderful…my first non-veg meal since I left home. Garlic ginger chicken with great gravy and, of course, the wonderful cauliflower and carrots that abound in Asia. We went to bed knowing that the real trek was over and the next day would be spent navigating a bumpy road under construction that would rival Mongolia. But that, too, would be part of the adventure.

I was at peace as I thought about these last nine days. And I thanked my lucky stars (and God, too) for Cary. She is an amazing, sure-footed climber. She seldom makes a mistake, and is calm and reliable. And she helps me keep a steady pace, especially on uphills, by singing a soothing Tara mantra. It borders on the hypnotic. I feel very confident being with her. And very, very happy.

DESCENT FROM KHOPRA RIDGE TO LARENI TEA HOUSE

December 10, 2018In my previous post about Khopra Ridge, accidentally published before it was all done, I shared our incipient descent down the mountain. To read our post about getting up to this 12,000 ft high ridge, click HERE.

To pick up where we left off…it was December 9, 2018 and my daughter, Cary, and I were preparing to depart from glorious Khopra Ridge, 12,000 ft. in the Annapurna area of Nepal. We got up very early to watch the sun come up over the range.

And here is a video I took of the range that morning. Forgive the ending while I learn iMovie editing!
We socialized with our new friends over breakfast, and at 10 A.M. headed off for a day of steep and intense downhill.

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As we negotiated the rocky trail down, we were grateful for the occasional chautari (a rest stop made by piling stones to create a platform for sitting) to refresh ourselves.

 

 

Do you see that steep trail in the photo below, snaking down the mountain? We had to pay focused attention every step of the way so as not to take a header. But we always took time to enjoy the views and the changing vegetation.

We met a Malaysian couple coming up over the ridge as we were heading down. They had been climbing since early morning and were exhausted. How glad I was that we were going in the opposite direction! The trail was made of new stone steps (built by the villagers of Paudwar, where we would stay in two nights), followed by treacherous rocks running along a sheer cliff. Cary was impressed by the exposure, but it seemed tame to me after the Kangchenjunga trek in 1996, where we were confronted with a chilling landslide that had to be negotiated by putting one foot in front of the other on a narrow makeshift path along a steep ravine.

During the difficult descent, Buddhi, our guide, was extremely helpful, guiding me by holding my left arm, gently, and giving me the support I needed on difficult passages.

It was interesting to see large swaths of grassland on the hillside, that had been burned and charred to get rid of the inedible, tough old grass and make way for the new grass in the spring. This will provide tender shoots for the yaks to eat. It’s hard to believe that yaks can climb the steep mountain and graze on such slopes. But there are about 150 of these animals owned by the community, roaming the hills on government land.

After three hours of constant downhill we arrived at a new tea house, The Lareni, owned by a charming, hospitable gentleman, Lil, who regaled us with stories of the area, and showed us his extensive land, garden, and animals.

He used solar heating, exclusively, and cooked meals on two small cement stoves fed by sticks of wood.

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We were the only guests and spent a peaceful sunny afternoon in the spacious dining room until dinner, which we had in the small, windowless, smoky kitchen, watching Kandu and Suni whip up nettle soup and other vegetarian specialties. Much intense heating and stirring!

I can’t remember a more congenial evening, sitting by the fire, chatting, and being treated to Buddhi’s enthusiastic singing and dancing! And guess who accompanied him with drumming on the table? We even imbibed in a glass of rakshi, a favorite, rather tame, alcoholic drink enjoyed in the mountains. It was still pretty cold, so a metal container of red-hot coals was placed at my feet to keep my legs warm. How nice is that! I have never had a lovelier or more down-to-earth evening on a trek. And it ended as we stepped outside to see a sky filled with stars. I stood, transfixed, as I was carried back to my overland trip in Tibet to Mt. Kailash in 2004. Every night I would stand outside my tent, just as I did this night, and take in the vast expanse of the night sky, breathing in its beauty, strength and tranquility.

After a refreshing sleep and a long conversation with the owner of the tea house, we started out for Paudwar. One hour and 30 minutes to Paudwar? No way!

 

 

Khopra Ridge and Beyond

Oops! this post was accidentally published before it was ready! So as to not break the link, but whet your appetite, here is the beginning of our descent from Khopra Ridge. To be finished soon! I hope you are all well and safe during this COVID-19 time!

December 10-12, 2018

Is it unamerican to write about past adventures in the Himalaya during this bizarre covid-19 pandemic that has most people riveted to the News 24/7…to the point of obsession? For all the good advice we are receiving, daily, to lift our spirits and paint our future in an optimistic light—get our lives in order, sort through our accumulation of unnecessary “stuff,“ decide what the real meaning of life is and how we can make our contribution before it’s too late, love everyone around us, even those who have wronged us (especially those!), appreciate our present good health, glory in the selflessness of our doctors and medical workers and all the others who have stepped up to the plate, obey strict laws of social distancing, help our neighbors—we are beginning to yearn for a respite from the wise and necessary advice, the depressing numbers, the suffering, and the almost science fiction atmosphere surrounding us. Yes, I think we’re ready to move ahead. People are singing from balconies, dancing on the lawn, resurrecting that most wonderful experience in life, walking, and using their imaginations to create and communicate in unique ways…all while keeping at least six feet apart.

So, I think you will welcome a blast from the blast. That said, I am about to take you on what seems now to be unreal…an adventure in the mountains of Nepal, those most glorious mountains that have no connection with our current troubles and will be there long after our travails are over. Come along with me as I finish up my December, 2018, journey. Remember 2018? Back in the day….

I last left you on December 9 as my daughter, Cary, and I were preparing to depart from glorious Khopra Ridge, 12,000 ft. in the Annapurna area of Nepal. We watched the sun come up over the range, socialized with our new friends over breakfast, and at 10 A.M. headed off for a day of steep and intense downhill.

Stay tuned for the rest of the descent and beyond!

TWO DAYS TO KHOPRA RIDGE

(December 8 & 9, 2018)

Hey folks! Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year. Thanks for your patience as I get back in the saddle and finish the trip Cary and I took to Nepal last year at this time. I would never have imagined it could take so long!

You may remember that we had just finished a long, steep climb to Bayeli, where we were bombarded by a diverse group of trekkers, including thirty-eight members of the graduating class in computer engineering from Kathmandu University. As we were leaving the next morning, I was amazed to see a group of Nepali students checking their phones outside the tea house before they began their trek. It’s a universal addiction that knows no geographic boundaries! Meanwhile, we were satisfied to groove on the plethora of mountains surrounding us.

I can’t remember more beautiful trails than we were treated to on this next leg of the trek to Khopra Ridge. And because we went slowly, we savored every moment. (that didn’t stop us from taking pictures, ‘though our hands were freezing). I recall sitting on a ledge, looking into a grotto covered with moss-covered rocks and dripping vegetation. Such moments defined tranquility for me. And both of us were in no hurry nor wanted to win a race. We were there to absorb and delight in the natural beauty of these Himalayas.

Here are a few scenes along the way. Click on photos to make larger.

Looking back at where we started

We took our time, never realizing how far we had to go, nor the difficulty of the trail. We frequently encountered yaks grazing. The worst part was a steady downhill for more than three hours. Luxuriant bamboo flourished in the woods as we reached a turbulent stream and crossed a rickety bridge, once more heading up a killer incline for another three hours. How we chided Buddhi, who assured us at every turn, that it was just thirty minutes to our destination. Yeah, right.

Suni, of course, had arrived before us and doubled back to bring tea and cookies, since we had had no lunch. In the meantime, power bars and walnuts kept us going! And we used up two quarts of water.

After six hours and fifteen minutes, we arrived at Christibung (Dhankharka) and enjoyed the best lodge so far. Beautiful large rooms, great lighting, and western toilets. How good can it get? While there we met a delightful couple, Kieren McIntyre from New Zealand and Raiko Rafeeq from the Republic of Maldives in South Asia. The evening was spent in lively conversation with guitar strumming by the cook in the background.

What a great feeling to know, as we started out, that this day would be our final bruising uphill to Khopra Ridge. And it turned out to be rather warm, and so sunny all morning that I wore my sun glasses for the first time! We came upon what looked like yak or sheep hair in several places where the animals gathered, as well as stands of impressive old trees and rhododendrum.

We also came upon wild primrose plants, caterpillars, and a pika, a tiny and unusual rodent/gopher. As you can imagine, Cary was vigilant when it came to any form of vegetation or animal life.

The trail wound through fields of high grass where you could see stone slabs on which salt had been sprinkled for the animals. This was necessary for their health, nutrition, and fertility. Yaks and nyaks (females, with smaller horns) roamed freely throughout the land.

The guest house we had just left owned about fifty of these animals, and the owners have to find them in the morning in order to milk them. In the spring they have their babies. I can’t imagine what a task that must be!

How glad we were to bump into Kieren and Raiko, as they passed us on their way to the ridge.

The climb was intense, constant, and with lots of exposure (not my favorite). We carried a thermos of coffee and some biscuits, because there was no guest house along the way to stop for lunch. Instead, we relaxed on one of the many stone “seats” (chautari) designed for the porters, to rest themselves and their packs. They were made by piling stones to create a platform. There was often a ficus tree planted in the center to provide shade, and in some there were memorials dedicated to relatives or fellow climbers.

The fog started rolling in two hours before we reached the ridge. It seemed endless, and just as we were beginning to feel discouraged, Suni appeared with more hot coffee and biscuits to help us with the last push up. We were so grateful!
After a most welcome snack, we continued up into the fog.

And just as we reached the top, it lifted, giving us a glorious view of the sun setting on Annapurna and Annapurna South.


Later we would go out of the lodge and watch as the peaks came in and out of the clouds and the sliver of new moon rose above them.

 

Kieren, Raiko, and the Latvian climbers joined a large group of climbers seated around the metal fireplace, trying their best to get warm. But it was most inadequate and smoky, even using copious amounts of wood and hardened yak manure for fuel. We decided this was the coldest night so far, and donned every piece of clothing in our packs. It was less than 40 degrees inside.


At times like this you really appreciate central heating, nice bathrooms, and a place to put all the “necessities” and toiletries that you feel are essential. But are they really necessary? It is difficult to simplify life, isn’t it?

The next morning Buddhi woke us early to see the sun rise over the mountains.  Kieren had been on the ridge since 4 AM with his camera and tripod, photographing the stars and moon. We walked around the lodge on the slate steps, trying our best to capture the magic of the morning light as it came up and lit each mountain in its path. Time stood still. Nobody talked. We were all in the moment, in our own way.

We were at 12,000 ft., my hands were freezing, I had no tripod, the wind was blowing, and I was breathing hard while I took this video. It’s not the best video I have taken, but it will give you an idea of the majesty of the mountains.

 

AND NOW WE RETURN TO THE HIMALAYAS FOR TEN DAYS OF GLORIOUS TREKKING!

December 4-14, 2018

As I look at the volume of journal pages I devoured with my scribbling during these intense few days, I am again reminded that my readers have a life of their own and do not wish to use it up accompanying me through each day’s travails and successes, regardless of how much I want to bring them with me. Now that I am at a venerable age, and getting more venerable by the minute, I have to remind myself that procrastination is no longer a viable alternative and the ever-present tomorrow may be more elusive than I care to admit. So here is a brief outline of my recent ups and downs in the Himalayas with as many photos as time affords.

Click on photos to enlarge and to see slide show.

On December 4th, Cary and I and our guide Buddhi, flew from Kathmandu to Pokara on Nepali time, i.e. four hours late.

We were met by our two guides-in-training, who also doubled as porters, Suni (left) and Kandu (right), both in their 20’s.   From there we drove to Kimche …three hours of the worst roads I have ever encountered, and that includes Mongolia! As in India, both men and women worked on road construction—widening, forming cement ditches, carrying crushed rock in large bowls on their head, and emptying the rock into the forms. An endless parade of tedious labor. At least that’s how it looked to me. Thank heaven we stopped in Birethanti for lunch, to rest our bones!  It was rural Nepal, almost unchanged since my first trip in 1988. Once in Kimche we hiked 1 1/2 hours to Ghandruk. Never have I seen so many stone steps, except in Sikkum.

 

During our journey we thought it would be fun to catalog the Best and the Worst of our adventure. We only wrote what stood out for us at the end of the day. Coming up are some of the highlights. You can check them out as we go along, and maybe it will help you if you ever wander into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

The first night we stayed in the pinkest building, and met the friendliest Malaysian couple.

The next day, Dec. 5th, we left Heaven View Lodge to embark on a very strenuous, but beautiful day.

After lunch we stopped in several small villages and bought knitted woolen hats for Hector and Theo, my two great grandsons. I also found a pair of handknit socks to replace the down slippers I left in Boudha.

Something I noticed on this trip was how many South Koreans we met, first on the trail and then in the guest houses. Thus began the taking of numerous selfies by those who were enthralled with my advanced age. At first it was irritating, but soon I realized that such adulation was meant as a compliment, so I smiled and learned to roll with the punches.

Mountain views were interspersed with woodland trails covered in leaves, and majestic gnarled rhododendron trees, not the usual bushes. These peaceful interludes between steep grades helped me strengthen my legs and increase my confidence. Cary, the perfect companion, stayed with me, singing her soothing Tara mantra Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha as we trudged along.

 

Just before reaching the Panorama Lodge in Tadapani, we encountered (surprise!) our most challenging climb of the day, up more steep stone steps. What a great guest house this was, complete with a western toilet (my litmus test) and a dog that guarded our door and nearly tripped me up every time I went in or out. It had the worst door jam and lock, however, and I was tempted to leave the room unlocked.

After dinner at a dining room in a separate building up another long flight of stairs with a panoramic view of the mountains, we were serenaded by the Koreans singing Roman Catholic hymns. It was really lovely. Evidently the Catholic church has made big inroads in South Korea and this was a parish hiking club. I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback when one of the men in the group took my hands in his and said, very seriously, “M’am, we are all praying for you.” Again, I had to hold my tongue and keep from laughing. They wanted to make sure I survived the trek.

As with everyone we met, he also wanted to talk about our present government. The questions always started with, ”What is going on in your country?” Needless to say, the discussions were long. We’ve also noticed whenever we meet Koreans, that they carry most of their food with them, as well as their cook, and much of their bedding. And, in this case, their priest. They were a happy, congenial group and I’m looking forward to visiting their country.

It was a very cold night and the Koreans were each given a hot water bottle. How about that? We just put on our down vests, snuggled under an extra comforter, and hoped for the best.

The next three days, before we reached our high point, Khopra Ridge, were the most challenging of the trip. Not just the uphills, but the downhills as well. In fact, I found them more dangerous with their many jagged rocks and gullys, and the knowledge that if I fell it could be catastrophic.

 

It took us almost four hours to our lunch stop but we were rewarded with the best garlic soup, dal bhat, and milk coffee (very similar to western latte if you look past it being made with nescafe instant coffee) we’d eaten so far. This was concocted by a 14-year-old boy in his simple kitchen at a guest house in Meshar Danda, a small village along the way. We have become experts in judging dal bhat. You may remember that our food of choice at altitude has been garlic soup ever since our trekking trip in Sikkim in 2010. His soup was incredible…nearly blew our heads off! We were also particularly intrigued by the log bee hive fastened on the side of the guest house.

It was then another strenuous stretch of hours of very steep climbing to arrive at Isharu, our destination for the night. Here we were promised amazing views, but all we got for our work was fog.

Still, it was beautiful and peaceful…and we could rest at last. The trail had been varied, starting in what seemed like a temperate rain forest, then moving into areas of long grasses and rolling hills, but always with those glorious mountains in the distance. We passed a few people on horseback, but were told that they had to walk downhill, since the horses were not surefooted enough to make the steep grade. I can relate to that!

 

We seemed to be the only customers at the Isharu Greenhill Guest House.

The weather had turned very cold, so you can imagine how glad I was to get to a warm dining room. But soon we had to leave, for somehow the pipe that came out of the large round metal stove had gotten clogged, and smoke filled the room. Thus, this became the smokiest guest house of the trek. However, the rooms were the brightest (more than one hanging bulb!), so we stayed there until the dining room aired out. The night was very cold, dipping below 37 degrees, only it seemed colder. For the first time, I used my sleeping bag liner.

The next day was beautiful, crisp, and sunny, but the largest mountains were still in the fog when we departed Isharu. I despaired of ever seeing Machapuchare, which I saw so frequently in 1999 on my Annapurna circuit trek. I also noticed for the first time that the menus at the guest houses were pretty standard…steamed veggies, veggie fried rice, veggie rolls, garlic soup, and dal bhat. Thank heaven there was plenty of hot water and lemon tea!

This was a day of walking through forests of bamboo and huge rhododendron trees.

 

In early afternoon we arrived in Dobato. While having a delicious lunch at Hotel Mt. Lucky, it started to snow. The flakes were more like tiny white beads, covering everything in a glistening film of white. We changed to our rain pants and loaded up on heavy clothes.

The going was slow and slippery, but thank goodness the snow abated and the trails dried out as we went up, up and up.

Many trekkers passed us that afternoon headed for the same guest house in Bayeli, the Annapurna Dhaulagiri Community Lodge. We met people from Holland, Germany, Belgium, and, of course, Nepal. One group of students from Kathmandu University, celebrating their graduation from engineering college, was especially cordial to me after finding out my age. It was a riot! Selfies everywhere. I was, frankly, embarrassed. Cary admonished me to enjoy it. “You’re a rock star in their eyes, Mom,” she said. Too bad I hadn’t brought my guitar.

Naturally, we were the last to reach Bayeli.

I hopped right into our cozy room and rested a bit before dinner!

The lodge was packed, and was the noisiest guest house so far, because of all the students. And it had the most door sills to trip me up. That is a story in itself. Nothing seems to be on one level in Nepali buildings. You never know…a step will appear when you least expect it. But what a great time we had! We participated in a gala birthday party and spent the evening with multiple groups of students, all of us gathered around the old metal stove to keep from freezing, and eager to talk about politics, travel, and what was going on in the United States. And they knew more about our government than many Americans. Believe me!

Some of the topics covered included: Arranged marriage as compared to love marriages, the complications of a joint family (multi-generational extended family), and how it differs from the nuclear family.

I asked a lot of questions about the caste system. We usually think of it as only operating in India, but it is also alive and well in Nepal and a few other Asian countries. There are four main castes as well as numerous other ethnic groups, such as Shresta, Gurung, and Sherpa. I have many friends with these surnames. There are rigid restrictions about intermarriage among these various groups, but a lot is now changing with modern times.

One student had just returned from a tour of the U.S., and he really liked it, especially New York City. Another student wanted to start a company and go to Silicon Valley, but was concerned about the treatment of people of color and the murdering of Blacks by the police. This was a common concern, along with gun violence, that I heard voiced many times during our trip. There was a universal disgust of Trump, but this is not a political blog so you will have to read it in the paper yourself. And, believe me, it’s there…in both India and Nepal.

It was approaching 11 by the time we said goodnight, hugged all around, and turned in. I hate to think of what the temperature was, but suffice it to say that we wore our down jackets to bed! Sleep was instantaneous. Tomorrow would be an early morning.

And in the morning, there was a view at last!

Next stop, Khopra Ridge (up up up on the right)! Thank you Suni and Kandu for carrying our gear!!!

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