We made it back to Kathmandu from our trek in time to celebrate Holi. To make a long, convoluted story short, Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the survival of a Vishnu devotee — Prahlada, son of the demon god Hiranyakashipu — and the death of the demon god’s sister, Holika. It is a boisterous, day-long event that involves throwing or rubbing colored powder on other celebrants, spraying water, throwing water balloons, and dumping buckets of water from rooftops on Holi participants below. It is a male mayhem in which few if any Nepali women participate, and the less wholesome among the celebrants take the opportunity to touch women (almost all foreigners) in ways they would not dare otherwise. It can be a bit intimidating to say the least. Nonetheless, we all survived it!
Opening with a family photo atop a snow covered peak surrounded by stunning mountain scenery is an irresistible gimmick. Sorry. Getting high into the Himalaya was one of the goals of this trek, but getting there and back made up the bulk of the experience.
Here you are either walking up or walking down, and the ups and downs are massive. Our 12-day trek started at the end of the road in the town of Syaprubesi (1500m x 3.3 = 4950ft) and took us up the Langtang Valley over the following five days to the settlement of Kyanjin Gompa (3900m) with a day trip to the nearby “hill” of Kyanjin Ri (4600m). The return trip took us back down the river to Bamboo (1950m) before heading back up through the relatively large (and uniquely electrified) town of Thulo Syaphru (2250m), the tiny two-house Foprang Danda and the beautiful views from Laurebina Yak (3900m). On our final day we descended from Laurebina Yak to the roadside town of Dunche (1900m) to catch a bumpy, windy, 6-hour jeep ride back to Kathmandu on roads with precipitous drops through switchbacks and landslides. For those of you doing the math, the last day’s descent was the equivalent of walking down from the peak of our highest east coast mountain, Mt. Mitchell (2037m), to sea level.
This is not a wilderness area, but a place lightly populated mostly by third-generation Tibetans. Religious objects are everywhere. Here are a few that we saw along the trail.
But not all of the religious objects were Buddhist. On the trail to the sacred Hindu lakes of Gosainkund, Shiva images start to appear.
The trails themselves are much-used footpaths that have connected settlements for hundreds of years. This is a roadless area, so everything that moves here moves along these paths. That includes not only the people, but the goods. Pack animals carry cement, rice and other bulk items that are not likely to be broken when bashed against trees or rocks on a narrow trail. Humans are the pack animals for everything else. It was a painful and sobering sight to see men (young and old) hiking for three leg-trembling days (Syaprubesi to Kyanjin Gompa), often in flip flops, with the following items across their backs supported by a strap over the forehead. (Photographing these guys seemed too voyeuristic, so words will have to suffice.) Five 4×8 foot sheets of 1/4 inch plywood; 2×8 foot rolls of galvanized, corrugated sheet metal roofing material; reams of rebar; several cases of 750ml bottles of beer; solar panels, brackets, and piping for solar hot water systems; and the ubiquitous heavy-ass load of unidentified stuff to be consumed by trekkers somewhere further up the trail. A three-day haul with 90-150 pounds strapped to the back will bring in approximately $35. In Nepal this is big money; enough, apparently, to destroy your body getting it.
In addition to the lowly pack-animal porter hauling commodities up the trail, many trekkers hire their own personal porters to carry their gear so they can walk with a small day pack. The juxtaposition of doughy trekker with day pack against sinewy porter with three large backpacks strapped around his head and back was a tough one to see over and over again. We are used to carrying our own gear when we hike, and did so on this trek. But was that the “right” thing to do? As a result, we left at least one Nepali unemployed who would otherwise have made as much as $15-20 per day carrying our stuff. The porters we passed were not concerned about this dilemma and instead invariably commented with glee on the size of the boys’ packs. Some images from the trail.
The day-to-day was what made the trip. We met great people along the way, both local hosts and international trekkers. We ate mediocre but filling, carb-heavy meals and drank lots of hot drinks. We enjoyed good weather almost all of the time. And we slept well after long days of intense exercise (except when sharing lodging with large groups of loud Koreans . . .). Here are some images that capture some of those experiences.
Every day on the trek was a good one, but the best one had to be the day that we set out from Thulo Syaphru on the way to Shin Gompa (an 1100m climb). It had rained the night before, which was an unusual weather event this time of year. The trails were a bit slick and the sky was still overcast. After an hour or so thunderheads started rumbling and we sought shelter where we could find it under the eaves of a storage shed. As we crouched there with the temperatures dropping and the rain increasing we received good information from a passing Nepali of a tea house ten minutes up the trail. We made a run for it and managed to reach the warmth and shelter just as the skies opened up. The next four hours were spent on benches around a wood burning stove with an American birder, a Canadian wanderer, two German medical students and their various guides and porters sipping tea, eating various combinations of noodles, rice and potatoes, and watching a pan on the stove fill with water dripping from the ceiling. It was heaven compared to the outdoor alternative. When the weather finally cleared we got back on the trail and continued our climb through slushy forests to the ridge top clearing of Foprang Danda. The two tea houses that usually serve as a lunch stop became our home for the afternoon and night, and Foprang Danda became our favorite trail moment. Our young host cooked up an excellent dinner and we slept hard and well crammed into a room no bigger than the bed itself oblivious to the rats sharing our space and unconcerned about the frigid outdoor squat toilet with the shower curtain door. Rising at 5:30AM we caught the clear morning views to the west, north and east as the sun rose to the sound of roosters and nothing else.
Happiness is trekking with your family on the rooftop of the world.
The Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu is one of the most significant temples to the Hindu god Shiva in the world (and Nepal’s most important Hindu temple), and it happened to be a twenty minute walk from our guesthouse in Boudha. It also happened to be the day before the festival of Maha Shivaratri (“Night of Lord Shiva”) when devotees of Shiva (including thousands of ash-covered Sadhus) gather by the hendreds of thousands at Pashupatinath Temple (Pashupati is one of Shiva’s incarnations as “Lord of all Animals”) to make their offerings, bathe and anoint the Shiv Linga, and smoke marijuana. We figured we had to check it out.
The temple complex was already in full swing with about 12 hours to go before the official midnight start of festivities. As we entered with the throngs we were picked up by a near-toothless gentleman named Keshab Badal who became our guide for the day. Mr. Badal was quite an asset, as it turned out, presenting to us the basics of the Hindu belief system as we sat on the banks of the Bagmati overlooking the cremation ghats of Pashupatinath. This time of year the Bagmati is reduced to a sewage and plastic filled trickle as it makes its way from from the snow-covered Himalaya down to the Ganges across the plains of India. But like the equally polluted Ganges River, the Bagmati is sacred despite its current physical state. As Mr. Badal said “science says it is toxic, but culture says it is pure.” Believers who are near death are brought to a hospice building within the temple complex on the banks of this river to be near it when they die. This allows them to drink from the river just before they die in order to purify their souls, to be washed in the river after their death, and to be cremated on the ghats of the river shortly thereafter. As we sat with Mr. Badal listening to a cogent explanation of the Hindu trinity of birth, life, and death and the main gods Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver/protector), and Shiva (the destroyer/recreator), we witnessed all of the stages of this final life ceremony as the terminally ill were brought to hospice, as the bodies of the recently deceased were washed on the banks of the river, and as the shrouded bodies were placed on prepared piles of firewood, unwrapped for their final exit (“naked in, naked out” another Badalism) and set ablaze. The smoke from the ghats filled the air as dreadlocked, loinclothed holy men wandered by.
The boys declared Nepal the best country so far within an hour or two of landing in Kathmandu. When asked to specify what made it the best country, their answers varied from the vague “I don’t know, it’s really cool” “everybody’s really open and nice and stuff” to the more specific “the tea” “the colors, sounds and smells” “the sadhus”. I have to agree with them, but I am also hard pressed to put the “why” into words.
If only one word was allowed, it would be “texture”. That might be a stand in word for “what a place looks like when it is extremely poor”, but there are other extremely poor parts of the world that don’t have this feel. Nepal is an unthreatening place, even (apparently) for a nine year old boy. It is a place of stunning natural beauty (which we’ve so far only caught a glimpse of from the plane window). It is a place of vibrant culture, much of it intertwined with two of the most fascinating world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a place that seems totally chaotic, but in a good, exciting and energizing way. We’re all looking forward to our two months here.
It did not hurt the first impression of Kathmandu that we decided to stay in Bodhnath (or Boudha) on the good recommendation of our friends Kevin and Sarah. Boudha is the home of Asia’s largest Buddhist stupa and is inhabited primarily by Tibetan refugees. Our first afternoon in the country was spent circumambulating the Bodhnath Stupa with the maroon-robed monks and other devotees under fluttering prayer flags with the scent of yak butter candles in the air. Among the many people who took an interest in boys (but who could not care less about the boys’ parents) were two newly minted nursed who wanted to practice their English. The boys have enjoyed celebrity status throughout the trip, but Nepal has brought it to a new level.
We’ve been enjoying the life of luxury in Bangkok; a big, crowded, hot and humid SE Asian capital city. Our home has been the Four Points hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 15, a high end district of Bangkok, paid for on points. The free shelter has been accompanied by perks like 2 for 1 drink specials at the rooftop pool bar complete with a buffet robust enough to feed this family of four, and free wi-fi in the lobby. In other words, we are acting like backpackers, but living like five star tourists. The AC, reliable electricity and hot water, the fast internet, the concierge desk, pool, cable TV and etc have been really nice and potentially addictive. We will wrench ourselves loose from this paradise tomorrow when we fly to Kathmandu for two months in Nepal.
During our stay here, we’ve done a couple days of urban adventure that have included a stroll to the largest shopping mall in Asia and a day riding the SkyTrain and Chao Praya river taxi to the old backpacker center of Khao San Road, the Royal Palace, and Wat Pho (home of a huge reclining Buddha with beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid soles).
We’d been on an island off the coast of Cambodia for five days without an internet connection when we returned to the mainland to say good bye to Coco and to find a column in the New York Times by Joyce Walder titled “On the Road, With Mothers” in which she wrote: “I have been thinking of writing a book, “How to Travel With Your Mother,” but it would be a very short book. That is because my first tip is: Don’t. Do not ever travel with your mother. Unless maybe you are disposing of her ashes.”
As our faithful readers know, Coco joined us at the beginning of February in Hanoi and traveled with the team for a month through northern Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, departing Sihanoukville March 1st by cab on the way to a day and night and day of travel that would take her from Phnom Penh to Hanoi to Seoul to New York to Burlington across 12 time zones. While I cannot speak for my wife or my children (who might write different blog entries, such as “how to keep your marriage together while traveling with your mother-in-law” or “how to manipulate two generations of parental authority figures to get what you want in Southeast Asia”), I would always welcome a good adventure with my mom.
For the Coco-philes, here is a photographic tribute to our month with Coco:
From Luang Prabang we traveled eight windy, bumpy (and for some team members, barfy) hours by minibus to the town of Luang Namtha — one of the jumping off points for exploring the Nam Ha National Protected Area — for a three-day guided jungle trek. The highlights of this adventure on the eastern edge of the Golden Triangle were not found in the hiking itself or in the flora and fauna, but in the people.
On the hiking: it was steep up and down, at times treacherously slick, jungle trekking with few views through the dense foliage (despite relatively high ridge and summit trails) in what an Ashevillian (not to mention a Vermonter) would consider extreme heat and humidity. (Nonetheless, our guide, Tom, referred to this time of year as the “cool dry season”.) On the fauna: we saw little of it but heard some pretty “jungley” noises probably produced by birds and frogs (interspersed with some mysterious nighttime shrieks and crashes). On the flora: we saw a lot of it, but, with no expert botanist with good English language skills on the team, we did not learn much about it.
The people made the trip. Our guide Tom was a gentle, knowledgeable young man who, along with his sidekick Zhuan, could fashion almost everything you would need out of the raw materials around them (mostly bamboo). These items included strong, light weight rattan walking sticks; bamboo picnic tables, shot glasses, chopsticks, spring loaded pea shooters; and banana leaf food wrappers. Our fellow trekkers Pawel and Goshe provided good stories of previous treks in Ethiopia and important insight into their recent trekking experiences in Nepal (where we hope to trek next month). Pawel’s camera size (large) and shooting frequency (often) indicate that he will produce some great images (which we hope to receive by email someday). Our other fellow trekker, Ian, was a mechanical engineer with the Mars Curiosity mission, responsible, among other things, for the percussive part of the rock drill the rover has recently started using to take samples of Mars’ rock layers. The drilling had just started when Ian left on the trek, so he was anxious during the trek to find out whether the drill (specifically the percussive element) actually worked. (It did.) Ian’s knowledge of things galactic came in handy when answering the boys’ many questions about life on Mars and etc. We’re calling those Q & A sessions homeschool science class for the week.
Night one was spent in a rustic jungle camp. Among the practical issues faced by residents of a jungle camp is protecting food (here sticky rice grains) from rodents. Snakes take care of part of this problem, but the complete solution involves trapping, roasting and eating the critters, specifically jungle rats. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with a variety of meat, vegetables and spicy sauces was the order of the day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Day one: “I love sticky rice!” Day three: “Oh no! No more sticky rice!”
Night two was spent in a Lanten village. The Lanten (variably known as the Lantien, Landian, and Yao Mun) may have originated in the Yangtse River Valley of China but migrated south into southern China and the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia during the last centuries. They are closely related to the better-known Hmong (better known in the US for their role as our allies during the Vietnam War). Walking into this village, accessible only by footpath, was a highlight of the three days. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and cows roamed unfettered through this community of 113 souls (down from 115 a month earlier). The effects of poverty (and possibly the shallow depth of the Lanten gene pool in this region (the tribes apparently do not intermarry very frequently)) were apparent on their faces. The first three grades of schooling are offered in the village, after which ambitious young scholars who choose to continue their formal education must hike 3 to 4 difficult hours to a school on the main road where they spend the school week before returning home for the weekend. Having hiked that route out of the village on Day 3, I can attest that those students do hike uphill to school, both ways.