A day of holy sites

I’m back at this construction site we currently call home for a bit of a rest prior to the evening’s activities. Following standard Kathmandu breakfast (bread-based and purchased from Pumpernickel), the three of us met up with Raj and visited Pashupatinath and Boudhanath.

Pashupati is the biggest Hindu site in the city, and it was the center of yesterday’s Shivaratri festival. As Emily put it, Lollapalooza has nothing on Shivaratri for depth of refuse left behind by the crowd. Crews were working on cleaning it up. The holy men (“holy babas” — “fathers”) in town for Shivaratri are still camped out in large groups scattered around the grounds, dozens of them or more. Beyond the cleanup and these camps (which resembled groups of American youth at a protest for their smoking, clothing and drum circles), life and death went on. The platforms along the river were filled with funeral pyres, more so than on my previous visits, and as we arrived one sobbing family was leaving that area. We had Tikka applied to our foreheads and paid a few rupees for that privilege, and Emily and Tim took pictures of the holy babas, the monkeys and the rest of the huge grounds with its dozens of temples to Shiva.

From there, exiting on the far side of the river, we took a second cab, this one to Boudhanath Stupa. I forgot how huge it was until I got a glimpse between buildings as we arrived. We walked part of the way around on the ground level, visited one of the monasteries during their noon-time puja (chanting, big old horns, the whole bit), then stopped for lunch at the very nice restaurant where Raj had done the practical portion of his training in hospitality. The food was great, and we actually had a few traditional Newari dishes that I had not seen before, including something resembling an egg-and-chicken quesadilla, dried chicken meat, hot chunks of chicken in a sauce, etc. It all was excellent, and I need to figure out what each item was called. We had a shot of some rice wine, too, complimentary with the Newari meal and much stronger than raksi.

After lunch, we continued our circuit around the stupa, stopping at one point to climb up the stairs to the first elevated level, making a complete circuit up there, then descending to the ground to finish that circuit. Spun a few prayer wheels, stopped in another monastery and took a lot of pictures.

From Boudhanath, we walked ten minutes back the way we came to visit Bhat Bhateni, the supermarket here that most resembles ours in the US. This one, though, was more like a Costco or something, with groceries on the bottom level but additional floors above for home goods, clothing and electronics. We hit the first two levels, bought some spices, then headed back to Thamel passing in the taxi a fire that seemed to have started in an apartment above the street-level commercial space and that had attracted quite a crowd.

The crowd did not yet include any fire-fighting professionals. Apparently, there are only a few fire-fighting vehicles in the whole of Kathmandu, and they’re made necessarily small to fit the narrow streets. Even diminutive trucks have a hard time getting through unmovable traffic, though, which causes a delay of ten or more minutes for any fire response. This should explain some of why Pilgrim’s is now an empty lot.

So, that’s the day gone now. The night will involve a live band after dinner, I hope. There’s no sense attempting to sleep early around here — may as well go hear them in person. Tomorrow we relax, shop, and visit Raj and his wife for dinner.

Ah, Thamel

So, here we are in Thamel, Kathmandu, to spend the remainder of the trip far from the mountains where we started. It’s Shivaratri today, Shiva’s holiday, so schools are closed and everyone is heading to Pashupatinath — upwards of 100,000 people from Nepal and elsewhere. We are planning to go over there later with Raj to watch the festivities.

We settled in Hotel Nana yesterday afternoon after arriving by bus — Emily and I from Pokhara and Tim and Raj from Chitwan. Raj headed to his home, and we spent evening having snack and drinks at Tom and Jerry. Breakfast this morning at ye ol’ Pumpernickel Bakery, then we walked around part of Thamel to get our bearings.

We ended up at the largest stupa that I know of close to here and walked around it. A couple of local girls with some rope attempted to set up a toll booth around one portion of the circumference of the stupa, demanding rupees for Shivaratri. I’m not sure if that’s some traditional thing or not, but I generally avoid giving money (or choc-o-lat) to anyone asking for it here. I’ll buy things and give tips, but giving money away just encourages more of that, and that’s not for the best. Anyway, we snuck through the toll booth eventually and walked back around to the far corner of the square to the Buddhist painting school. We got  an explanation of meanings behind the two main types of Thangka paintings (the mandala and the wheel of life) and bought a couple of the smaller mandalas.

Sam says I only blog about food, but such is life in Nepal with little on the agenda now beyond relaxing, visiting the major holy sites and finishing shopping. No gifts will be procured for those complaining about the contents of this or any other writing, of course.

So now I’m at KC’s, sipping a banana lassi, catching up on the blog, enjoying the loud hip-hop here on the deck mixed with the car and motorbike horns from below and the smell of dust and incense. It’s certainly not a quiet place, and our hotel is no exception to that. Like Peace Eye, it is also under construction during this tourism off season. Across the street, Northfield’s front area is gone, replaced by a mess of iron work as they are apparently building a new building next to what remains. Slightly down the block but visible from our balcony is the mostly cleared lot formerly inhabited by Pilgrim’s Bookstore, which burned along with a few of its neighbors one night shortly after I left here last year.

The weather is trending back to clouds, and it slightly cooler here today than it was yesterday, but days are warm enough to enjoy and nights cool enough to sleep — without open windows, too, which is important in this noisy section of the city.

It’s good to be back here, this place with which I enjoy a love-hate relationship.

Just enjoying Pokhara

I don’t know how many more times I’ll see them, so I am sitting on the roof of Peace Eye looking at Dhaulagiri, Annapurna South, Annapurna, Machapuchare, Annapurna IV and Annapurna III. Listening to some country on Spotify.

Emily and I have today and tomorrow remaining in Pokhara before we head to Kathmandu. Yesterday we walked around a little and sat at Club Amsterdam for a while, looking out at the lake with Lakeside’s flowers and palm trees. We don’t have a lot more than that planned, though I may take a little tour in a helicopter today or, if it’s clear again, tomorrow. I’m waiting to hear about whether they have enough other passengers to go for a flight, though it is just a four-seat R44 like Texas John flies back home.

I suppose we need to book a bus to Kathmandu before too long, but otherwise all we have to do is relax and enjoy the view. And the peace and quiet prior to moving to noisy Thamel.

Guest blogger Emily’s story of danger and intrigue

So dad and I decided to go paragliding. 
Prelude: Last night we invited our Nepali friends,  Raj and Devendra, to dinner. Dad really wanted to try some fish from the lake before he took off to the jungle so we set off for Moondance.  Moondance is a Canadian and Nepali owned business and as such offers a large variety of food and a hipster bartender. The food and the company was amazing — topped only by the chance seating of our trekking friends,  Patrick, Mario and Dilip. Seriously,  they were seated at the table next to us. This was great not only because we like them, but because we got to hear about the rest of the trek to High Camp, which we abandoned largely due to snow. Apparently the snow became much deeper past High Camp, and they turned around as well. Also, lucky for the 77-year-old trekker stuck at High Camp, he now had foot prints in the snow to follow down the mountain. He had waited six days for this.

We finished dinner and headed to the Busy Bee for some drinks. Patrick joined us for one last drink in Pokhara before heading to Kathmandu and then home to China.

Back to paragliding: Earlier in the evening,  Raj made a call to a paragliding friend and set up Dad and me for the early-morning jeep ride to Sarang Kot so that dad could go before his microbus to the jungle. We met the jeep and signed our life away as one does before running off a cliff strapped to a Nepali man and a kite. As we waited to depart we glanced down to see not only the dusty floor but the mangled remains of a small gecko dismembered under Dad’s shoe.

Although we had been invited to ride inside the jeep on the way to the insurance-form-signing office,  immediately following that penstroke we were ushered into the uncovered back of the jeep to hold on for dear life until we reached the paragliding launch roughly 1000 meters above Pokhara.

Although there was some concern about Dad’s 6ft-2in, 200-lb frame getting a good paragliding ride, he was quickly strapped to a pilot and in the queue to take off. (You’ll have to ask Dad how he felt at this time, but he looked calm and ready.) Minutes later I watched my father run off the side of a hill and lift gracefully into the air above me. I worried for a moment…but only about what Mom was going to yell at us. I was pretty sure at the time, and know now, that dad had neglected to mention this flight in his last conversation with Mom. The Instagram photos went out…and we now have nine days to wonder what our punishment will be for this small omission.

Next it was my turn, and Krishna told me to run. Against regular logic I ran towards a cliff, and two steps later I was circling Strang Kot amongst thirty or so others paragliding our way to the beach of Fewa Lake. It feels like the most gentle weightless ride — very relaxing and a beautiful view, until a gust of wind takes your parachute for a ride. 

Krishna assured me that we were safe and all I needed to do was make beautiful pictures with my camera. I stiffly aimed the camera at the mountains as we floated to our landing about 25 minutes later.

Sorry mom. 🙂

Back in Pokhara

And we’re back at Peace Eye. We are here one day early, but a couple of rooms were freed up for the night, so while we have to change rooms tomorrow at least we will not have to change hotels.

Tim is heading to Chitwan tomorrow with Raj for a few days’ tour there. Emily and I will be here in Pokhara for those days and will meet him in Kathmandu on Wednesday. It’s a couple of days earlier than we thought we would be in KTM, but that’s fine. There is plenty to do there.

Trekking map is attached, though probably not entirely legible.

Trek is over

We’re sitting in Landruk, which is a Gurung village back down in the river valley that lies to the northwest of our ridge-top Mardi Himal trekking route. It’s actually a town through which Raj and I passed last year on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, but that was a speedy morning. Today, we arrived relatively early and have been enjoying the town. Raj showed us around and taught us a bit about Gurung buildings and life. Tomorrow morning we will take a “jeep” back to Pokhara, arriving there a day earlier than planned.

I’ll try to fill in the gaps with what I remember and the notes I made on the map as we went along. We spent the first night after a short hike in Pittam Deurali — I mentioned this already. From there, we diverged from the Annapurna Sanctuary trek onto the far less often traveled Mardi Himal Base Camp trek. It’s a fairly new trail, and last time Raj was here they had to find their own way along. He did a fair bit of that this time, too, especially in the snow where he could find easier or less deep ways to move up the ridge.

Five hours of hiking through forest/jungle brought us to Forest Camp. We had a large lunch there then decided to push on to Low Camp. Forest Camp is just over 2500 meters, I believe, and Low Camp is just over 3000. Raj thought it best we spend a night around 3k before proceeding higher, so going through Forest Camp to Low Camp in one day set us up to get to High Camp the next day, then on a day hike to the base camp at the end of the trail the next day.

In retrospect, pushing through was a bad idea, though I doubt it really changed the end point of our trek. That day was our longest and most uphill. It was also cloudy for the last few hours, and that is where we got into some snow. We made it to Low Camp well before dark, but at that point Tim had had enough of the route.

Instead of a short trek to High Camp the next morning, climbing another 500 meters over a few hours, Emily and I instead went with Raj up to the top of the ridge to a point at 3222m just before a large saddle. The view from there was amazing: Annapurna South, maybe a hint of Fang, Annapurna I, Gangapurna, Machapuchare, Annapurna III and IV, Mardi Himal and some of the Manaslu Range were spread out before us over almost 180 degrees.

In the middle foreground stretched our planned trail. One more dip through the forest to the other side of the saddle over which we were perched. Then a clean ridgeline, no more trees, no valleys, just views. It has to be, despite its wooded beginnings, one of the best treks here for accessibility and constant views of 6000m, 7000m and 8000m peaks.

It took about an hour to make the short hike there. Our friends from Spain (Mario) and China (Patrick) and their guide (Dilip) whom we had seen at lunch and then who had been the only other group at Low Camp with us, caught up to us at our viewpoint and hung out for a while. Mario had binoculars, which were invaluable as Raj and their guide debated whether or not we were looking at a big chunk of Annapurna I. Beautiful day, it was, and a beautiful spot. The whole trek was worth it to be there for an hour.

The others went on to High Camp, and we went back to Low Camp in all of 18 minutes thanks to a steady descent and a few inches of slippery snow. Emily is half goat, of course, and outpaces me regularly in the Olympics as well as here. Snow, though, makes for cold feet, so she was glad to be heading down, I think.

Retrieving Tim, we continued downhill for lunch and a night’s stay at Forest Camp. We had a good time there, too, staying at the lodge where we had lunch the day before. The woman who runs it is great, and while it wasn’t the nicest looking place we chose it because Raj’s friend had let him know — correctly — that it had great service. Emily went to bed early due to having to take allergy medicine, and Tim and I stayed up through dinner, raksi with yak meat and lots of talk with Raj about politics and other differences and similarities between our countries.

Today, we took our time leaving, anticipating a very short descent to Landruk. The trail down that way from just outside Forest Camp is even newer than the other, and it has its challenging places. We took it slow and slipped and slid a bit in the upper part and some wetter parts. The temperature rose as we dropped from the ridge into the valley, and, after a lengthy rest to let a herd of sheep pass us on their way out of town, we arrived a few hours later in Landruk.

So here we are, trek concluded and mountains seen from, if not the planned end point, still the best and closest view I’ve had of that much of the Annapurna range. Someday I’ll have to finish some of these treks I’m half-assing, though I may never choose to see again the same ground when there is so much more of this range and so many other ranges in Nepal to be seen someday.

One day closer to snow and ice

We’re in Pittam Deurali for the night, arriving around 1410 after leaving Kande around 1000. Got a ride there from the Peace Eye car after breakfast. We had a lunch of dal bhat at Australian Camp, a beautiful place of open camping fields and guest houses.

All is well for the Mardi Himal trek. Raj got the phone number of the brothers who run the upper lodges from the police checkpoint, called and set it up to be open when we arrive. It is the off season up here, so we are going to be the only ones on the trail starting tomorrow, it seems, or at least on the higher parts of it. Could be others camping, of course, but we are not at all equipped or staffed for that.

From Deurali here, Annapurna South is a huge wall of ice and snow, with some rock exposed where the face is sheer. The huge and imposing but distant summit pyramid of Dhaulagiri sits off its shoulder. Today, this morning actually from a particular part of Pokhara, is the first time I’ve actually looked at Dhaulagiri and seen it for the huge mass it is. Someday, I shall have to trek around it.

Tomorrow our objective is Forest Camp. Everyone is kicking ass, so our pace, while far from Nepali, is sufficient. We have a long way to go, but we’ll get there.

Tracking device was running on my pack all day. I can’t really see it from here, so someone take a look at the Nepal 2014 page on mattstewart.org and let me know if you see the whole track on one of the maps.

Today we trek

Beautiful weather, yesterday’s, and the pre-dawn sky is perfectly clear again. The photo is from yesterday’s lunch on the rooftop at Maya Cafe. A few minutes ago the peaks of Annapurna and Fishtail were just visible in the moonlight, but now they are brighter and whiter. There doesn’t seem to be a bit of cloud or mist in front of them for the first time since we arrived — just a bit of low, dark cloud or maybe smoke from a fire is hanging over Phewa Tal and obscuring the view of Dhaulagiri from our deck. The birds seem especially noisy when everything else is so clear and quiet.

I’m still not sleeping much past 4 am, and today that was hopeless anyway, anticipating final packing, breakfast and a taxi ride an hour west out of Pokhara to where we will start walking. Our plan is for a short time on the trail today to a point where the Mardi Himal trek diverges from the Annapurna Sanctuary route. We’ll spend the night there, find out whether the lodged are open or can be opened for us on the Mardi Himal side, then go that direction if so or to ABC if not. Raj got here yesterday afternoon, and he got our permits before we all talked about the route, had dinner at Peace Eye and picked up some final trekking gear.

We’re anticipating some snow above 2500m, certainly above 3000, and either route takes us above 4000. The preferred Mardi Himal route reaches its peak on a day hike to just over 4500m. So our plans will remain fluid. We know from the first day we will be quite close to Annapurna and the surrounding peaks, so we will go as far as we want to go given the weather and our physical conditions as we progress.

We should have spotty wireless conditions along the way, but cell-only service is more likely than Internet. I’ll post when I can and run the satellite tracker as batteries allow. On the outside, we should be back in Pokhara on Sunday or Monday.

Still here

The lightening morning today features higher clouds and a clear shot of the moon over Lakeside, Pokhara.

Not much on the agenda today — mostly trekking prep. Hotel reservations for next week back here are made, and we’ll probably stay here until the 28th to see the festival the day before. Then we’ll be off to Kathmandu to close the trip.

The weather feels and looks better today, so it should be a good one.

Down day, trekking plans

Whew. It appears my straight-up approach to the 13.75-hour (I think) time change had an expiration. I allowed myself a nap this afternoon after doing my normal reading on a cloudy day, and I couldn’t wake up. Even now, around 7 PM, I’m up but feeling exhausted. Needed to get this out of the way before Tuesday, when we start trekking, and the clouds and cold made for an acceptable afternoon to spend asleep.

Tim and Emily made it up a few hundred meters and back, visiting by boat and foot the Peace Pagoda that watches over Pokhara from the opposite side of the lake from Sarang Kot. While a lot lower than SK, that will pass for a confidence-confirming warm-up hike this time around, since the other is a harder up-and-down trip than any single day we’ll trek. No need to over stress the body a couple of days before taking off on the real thing. They did well, had a good time and stayed dry. The real rain today came later in the afternoon.

The forecast is looking up, and we will meet Rajendra tomorrow to firm up trekking plans for the next morning and finish our permits. I’m leaning toward setting us off on the Mardi Himal trek, which is on the ridge to the east above the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. The ridge top makes for a more steady climb compared to the elevation variation continuously cursed while following a river like the Beni-Jomsom and ABC trails. Depends on weather and group comfort level with it, and it’s a relatively new route as far as trekking, but it’s on the maps and developed with a few trekking lodges. Views should be amazing no matter how far we get, and it tops at 4500m. It wasn’t on my radar until Devendra mentioned it today, but that elevation and the trail profile are pretty attractive. We shall see.

Now, light dinner and back to bed hoping the forecast for clearer weather the next few days holds.