Friday, October 31, 2008

Monkey Doodle Doo



Monkeys upon a tree never are very blue
They never seem to be under par that is true
Not like the ones you see on a bar in the zoo
Monkeys upon a tree do the Monkey Doodle Doo

Oh, among the mangoes where the monkey gang goes
You can see them do
The little Monkey Doodle Doo

Oh, a little monkey playing on his one key
Gives them all the cue
To do the Monkey Doodle Doo

Let me take you by the hand
Over to the jungle band
If you're too old for dancing
Get yourself a monkey gland
And then let's

Go, my little dearie, there's the Darwin theory
Telling me and you
To do the Monkey Doodle Doo...

--Irving Berlin

We're still (Friday) at the hotel in Gokarno Forest near Kathmandu. Vicki's Khumbuitis has morphed into either a pinched nerve or strained ligaments in her shoulder, and she's been pretty much bed-ridden since Wednesday. Very painful. Sister-in-law doctor Beth has recommended medication and treatment, but it's mostly the kind of thing that will take some time. Send her a sympathetic and encouraging email!

Hopefully not too much time. We're scheduled for Chitwan National Park Sunday through Wednesday and an elephant ride somewhere in there, hunting for rhinos and tigers to shoot with our camera. Already done bears. Nepal has got to be one of the world's more diverse places, geographically. Chitwan is downright tropical, 30m above sea level. Snakes, crocodiles, mosquitoes. Kathmandu and its valley are sub-tropical. Then, 45 minutes away by slow plane, you've got most of world's 8000m peaks.

Saturday I will go into Kat to ship some trekking things to New Zealand and also hopefully see a few sights, Thamel again, Durbar Square, Freak Street, the Monkey Temple, etc.

The monkeys in this forest are strange. One day the place is crawling with them, scores, everywhere. Today, they're scarcely in view. But I trust I'll see them at the Monkey Temple, maybe doing the Monkey Doodle Doo. Irving Berlin's song was the musical centerpiece of "The Cocoanuts," the long-running Broadway musical collaboration with the Marx brothers that became their first film. It was the only musical he did that did not produce a hit tune. But my inner-Floridian still loves it. I'm struggling to understand what my inner-Floridian sees in the Himal.

Addendum: Saturday, while Vicki rested, Mingma took me to see some more of the sites in Kathmandu. Should the reader ever visit Kathmandu, two things I saw Saturday are exceptional. One is the Monkey Temple, on a high hill to the north over-looking the city and valley. The view, the rites and ceremonies, and the complex of temple buildings are worth the several hundred-step climb, and then some. Plus there were real monkeys. Kathmandu's Durbar Square is more than exceptional...scores of temples, shrines and other religious edifices, many ancient, all packed into a square kilometer or so. It is written that Kat has more temples and shrines than residences, and Durbar Square would lead you to that conclusion. We also walked along Freak Street, a shadow of its former self, I gather. I understand the Durbar Sqaures in Kat's adjoining cities of Patan and Bhaktapur are even more impressive. Next time.

Sadly, the National Museum was less impressive, mostly collections of weapons of former kings, coins and stamps, and a few comical life-sized dioramas of traditional peoples doing traditional things--a reminder of the poverty of this country and the fact that, under the previous regimes, it has invested very little in itself. Hopefully, both the poverty and investment will change.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

R and R in Kathmandu; and Thanks...



We are back in Kathmandu, again at the Meridien, east of the city. We decided to cut the trek a couple days short since it was unclear whether Vicki could make it from Namche to Lukla in two days. As it turned out, she did, and we caught a Yeti flight to Kat on Tuesday. I'll have to visit Thame next time. Flying stand-by out of Lukla gave us plenty of time to think about the “airport” there and to watch a dozen or more flights come and go before seats became available. Excellent YouTube representations are at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCQVLw_4brY and at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUQ8K1V0MQc.

So we're resting up and recuperating in Kathmandu, or, rather, at the hotel in Gokarna Forest, away from the insane bustle of Kat. Yesterday we had our promised “Adam and Eve” massages, and Vicki even had a hamburger at the hotel restaurant (I had a wonderful chicken red curry). The hotel grounds here are fairly crawling with monkeys—another kind of bustle...pesky little bastards—I have come to fear and loathe them.

We're also reflecting on the trek, looking at the hundreds of photos taken (when will I ever get them edited, sized, compressed, transferred, etc.?). It was an amazing trip, difficult, arduous, unpleasant at times, but worth it and something we're very proud (and not a little surprised) to have done. For two people who have always loved mountains and mountain scenery, this was the ultimate experience, done the right way.

We could not have done it alone, however (we'd still be in the Kat airport trying to find the plane). We owe a great many thanks to Dawa Geljien Sherpa, of Adventure Thamserku Treks & Expeditions, Kathmandu, who found us a guide and porter, who counseled us on itinerary and related matters, and who got us on the right plane. Our guide, Mingma Tshirng Sherpa of Lukla, pictured above with Vicki at the Lukla airport, was the star of the show, leading us all the distance up and down and back, encouraging us, counseling us on the ways of Himalayan trekking, making plans and arrangements, helping Vicki down the rough ground, keeping us out of the way of yaks and zopkyos and porters, and answering the thousand and one questions we had about Sherpa and Tibetan culture, history and Buddhism, climbing, flora, fauna, and the rest. With Mingma, we also got to experience first-hand why the Sherpa is so highly regarded—not merely for strength and endurance, but also for patience, judiciousness, honor, reverence, and oneness with the land. Lastly we owe thanks to our porter, Khanza, who literally shouldered the load, with unfailing cheerfulness and reliability. Vicki has written in her blog about the plight of porters here. We hope we treated Khanza with dignity and some generosity.

Anyone interested in trekking in Nepal, either the EBC, Anna Purna, or some other, or climbing, would do well to contact Dawa via www.adventurethamserku.com (lukla@mos.com.np) and/or Mingma at boam_mingma1982@hotmail.com. I should add that Dawa's sister owns and manages the Congde View guest house in Lukla, the best guest house we stayed in on the trek, and we much enjoyed her sincere hospitality as well. Oh...and librarian/veteran Nepal trekker Craig Seasholes of Seattle answered Vicki's query on a library listserv last spring and initiated all the connections that have so greatly benefited us. Thank you also, Craig.

Vicki adds:

October 31, Kathmandu

We made it back to Kathmandu Tuesday, after a stand-by flight from Lukla. So our Himalayan trek is done, a success. Unfortunately, a shoulder pain that appeared Tuesday has grown into a full-fledged debilitating condition. We think it is a pinched nerve in my back or shoulder, but I can't even sit up or stand without intense pain. I'm taking pain pills recommended by doctor in-law Beth, but am beginning to wonder what it's going to be like riding an elephant in Chitwan next Monday. Hopefully, it will get better with a few days' rest. Mark is typing this for me and I will respond to emails as I can.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

In Namche Again



This morning we woke to a Buddhist alarm call, at precisely 6 AM, cymbols, gongs, and horns from the monastery across the way. There are 55 monks in residence, we were told, and most of them seemed involved in the ensemble. If there was a cadence, a rhythm, a melody, a tune, I missed it; but then I still have much to learn about this part of the world. In any case, I walked over and listened for a bit: the real thing.

The early start was appropriate in that we had determined to make our way from Tengboche to Namche Bazar in one day. Going the other way, it had taken two days. The weather was fine, as usual, if cool, with views of Everest, Lohtse, Ama Dablam, and the rest. 1000 feet or so down to the Dudh Kosi, then 1000 or so back up the hillside. We were happy to trudge back into familiar Namche by 4 PM. The Khang Ri was full, so we are at the nicer Norling hotel. Still a guest-house, but with (cold) water on tap, hot water for a price, and western style toilets. Luxury! Hot showers and clean laundry at last!

Dinner at Tengboche featured a long and enjoyable conversation with a pair of experienced American climbers, Tom and Dave, both attorneys from CA, here to climb Loboche and then another higher peak west of the Khumbu. They had done Makulu a few years ago—Tom did Everest in 2003—and they have been climbing in Nepal since 1990. It was interesting to hear their perspectives on how things have changed here and on Himalayan climbing generally. They have also climbed in Wyoming, the Tetons and Winds, so we had some experiences to share.

Vicki's been under the weather since Gorak Shep—stomach problems, cold, muscular aches, sick of high altitude trekking conditions generally. I have diagnosed it as Khumbuitis. I am OK, if fatigued. We both look forward to a cleaner, warmer, less demanding environment. Had there been a cable car to take back down from Kala Pattar (I assume the Chinese are working on this on their side), we would have done it.

Tomorrow we'll go to the Saturday market at Namche and the ongoing Tibetan market, then visit the Sherpa Museum and the Sagarmatha National Park Museum. Then probably crash for the afternoon and try to get warm. Barring further changes in conditions or plans, we'll trek to Thame Sunday, return Monday, rest Tuesday, then head back to Lukla for our flight to Kat on Thursday the 30th. The hotel at Kat looks more and more like paradise!

Vicki adds:

October 26—Phakding, Nepal

We are one day away from Lukla and hopefully, the plane to Kathmandu. I have basically been sick for a week, nothing too horrible, just upset stomach and loss of appetite. But it has made the last part of the trip not very good for me. Also, downhill is just not my favorite—my knees don't like being brakes. Mingma has been great to help me over the rough spots in the trail. The weather has been glorious during the day—bright blue skies make a great back drop for the snowy mountains. However, it clouds up some about 2 and the wind comes up—making for some really cold evenings and nights.

The trails have been really crowded—last year 8,000 people made the trek in October, plus all the porters, yaks, and local populace. All of them faster than we are. However, we feel like we have made many folk's day; they see us, and feel better about the progress they are making.

I spend my hiking day dreaming about hot showers and bathtubs, a sink not shared by 60 other people, sheets, western toilets, and central heating. Coming to a place like this makes you fully realize how lucky you are, to be middle class in the US.. Our guide is making $15 a day and the porter $6 plus tip. They work very hard and live in what we would consider primitive conditions, yet they are no less deserving of a better life then we are. Certainly, it is an eye opening experience.

The plight of the porters is especially moving. At some of the tea houses, when we have tried to buy the porter a drink, he has been refused service. In general, the porters don't come from the Sherpa ethnic group but from another “lower” caste from a lower altitude. At night the Sherpa guides sleep in the dining room or dormitory of the lodges and are welcome around the stove. The porters have a “shelter” in each village that is used by both the trekking porters and the goods porters. It is usually a rough stone building with no windows or doors; if they want a fire or food they must find their own. The loads they carry range from 70 to 140 lbs. Our guide used to be a porter and says conditions are greatly improved with the shelters. Until a few years ago, the porters stayed in caves and under tarps in the woods or held down by rocks. One feels badly about having them shoulder your backpack, but without the trekkers they would have no access to cash at all—the same with most of the guides. Subsistence farming is what they do the rest of the time. It is a world light years away from Missoula, MT.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Descent from Kala Pattar



We are en route back down now. I think the last time I blogged was a week ago, at a cyber cafe in Dingboche, the one powered by a Honda generator. Our poor little computer has been dead for a week—too little charge even to start up. This afternoon we are in Pangboche, less than 4,000m, retracing our ascent itinerary, and recharging batteries of all sorts. Hopefully, tomorrow I will post this from the cyber cafe in Tengboche. From there we will go to Kumjung and then the sherpa village of Thame, notable for its relatively unspoiled nature, for being the home of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, and for being the terminus of the Nangpa La, the traditional (and still used) route from Tibet to Nepal. (The Chinese evidently look the other way). Then back to Namche Bazar, with a day's rest (showers! wash! warmth!); then back to Thakding, Lukla, and the flight back to Kathmandu on the 30th.

The past week has been filled with too many sights, sounds, smells, experiences, conversations to even mention. From Dingboche we walked to Thugla, then Loboche, then finally our goal, the end of the “road,” Gorak Shep. Each day took us about a thousand feet higher, into more stark and barren places, where everything is difficult. At Thugla we were at 15,000 feet, higher than either of us had even been on foot. But the acclimatization program works, and every day were were ready for another. At Gorak Shep we were at 17,000 feet, higher than I'd ever imagined I'd be.

The point of all this is that from Kala Pattar, a hill rising from Gorak Shep (actually a buttress of Pumori), and only from Kala Pattar, can a mere trekker finally see Everest close-up. It is obscured by it high neighbors, Lohtse and Nuptse virtually all the way from Tengboche. But then, at about 17,300, on Kala Pattar, it reappears, perhaps 5km away, and more unfolds as one ascends. I was reminded, just a bit, of the Gates of the Mountains phenomenon near Helena, which was observed by Lewis and Clark and everyone else who has taken the relevant boat ride on the Missouri.

We trudged up Kala Pattar, rest-stepping, gasping, pep-talking. I finally established my personal ceiling—5,460m, about 18,000ft I guess. Mingma said the view would not improve with more height, and I could not have gone much further anyway. Vicki, to her credit, was plugging away when I stopped, and probably could have summited at 18,500 had she wanted to. As it was, we took photos, planted the prayer flags she had carried from Namche, took in the views—utterly remarkable and overwhelming, and began trudging back down.

Did I mention the wind and the cold? It was 1 (one) degree celsius when we left the guest house in Gorak Shep for Kala Pattar. The wind in these parts can be formidable, and despite the clear weather, it got colder as we climbed. We were wearing every ounce of polar tech, gortex and down we could don. For the better part of a week, we have slept similarly. When the sun goes down here (alpen-glow promply at 5:15, dark at 6:00; last call at 7:30), it really gets cold. The rooms are unheated, the community space (“restaurants”) at the guest-houses barely so, briefly, from maybe 5:30-8:00.At Loboche, the inns were full, benches and floor space all rented, and we felt very lucky to sleep in a tent, in a corral with half a dozen yaks and their bells ringing through the night.

The scores of people were have met and broken bread with in the guest-houses over these past two weeks have been wonderful. We have learned so much about their homes and perspectives. Nepalese, Russian, German, Dutch, English, Australians, Indian, New Zealanders, Swiss, French, even a (very) few Americans, mostly very young. All mountain aesthetes, evidently. I'll especially remember a French group at Loboche, perhaps ten or twelve, very mixed in age and gender, the younger crowd playing that international card game, Uno (we saw it again and again). Meals are served painfully early here, but the French had an image to uphold. First came out a bottle of Ricard, and pastiche at 16,000 feet, accompanied by a wonderful sausage and cheeses. Next was house-fare soup, then the main (starchy) dish, followed by a box of chocolates, a white burgundy, then coffee and cognac. And lastly, cigarettes, outside. All this before 8PM. I was so impressed, I had to ask them for a photo, and they obliged, rearranging the table for effect and rewarding me with a slice of the best sausage I have ever tasted. At least at 16,000 feet and after a week or more of unimaginative vegetarian dishes.

I'll write more about the trek—it's hardly over—about Mr. T's Yak Inn, about guest-houses generally, about the trails, about Vicki's horse evacuation from Loboche to Thugli (she's better now), about life without cars or trucks or wheels of any kind save water-driven prayer wheels, about plumbing and electricity or the lack thereof, about the challenges of life at these altitudes, about Sherpas. Later. Mark

Vicki adds:

October 22-- We did it!

I was never very sure that we could get to and climb Kala Pattar, the small peak from which you can get the only close up view of Everest without climbing it. But we did it. We didn't quite reach the south summit as Mark hit his altitude limit at the plateau just 200 ft. below it. We were right at 18,000 ft. However our guide assured us that the view of Everest was the same and the summit, which is quite small, had dozens of people on it. We could clearly see Everest Base Camp, the ice fall wall and the expanse of the Kumbu glacier that is fed by Everest and several other 25,000 and up peaks. We had decided several days earlier not to walk to base camp as it is across the glacier so there is no set path and is a morass of boulders, gravel and other fun stuff. When you get there you can't even see Everest and it is very cold.

Speaking of cold—for the last six days daytime temps have been about 40 (for about 2 hours) and below freezing in our rooms at night. I have been sleeping in long johns, my last clean pair of trousers, knee high socks, second pair socks, woolen Sherpa slippers and then a jacket zipped around my thighs and butt. On top, long underwear, polypro tshirt, long sleeve shirt, polartec jacket, down jacket. On head baclava, polar tec hat, down hood of jacket and two pair of gloves. All this with a hot water bottle inside a down mummy bag with extra liner and hood. Just like snowmobiling only no place to get warm. They only heat the dining area from about 5 to 9 pm with 1 stove fed by yak patties or at the highest lodges, kerosene. When the heat was on, unless you sat by the stove, it would warm up to at least 50.

I had my worst day on Monday, the day after we climbed Kallar Pattar. I woke up throwing up, but felt I could walk as we didn't want to spend another night in the coldest possible place. By noon, I knew I couldn't walk another 4 hours, so our guide went ahead but there was no space of any kind available at the intermediate point; they had even sold out the dining hall floors. By this time my malady had moved downward and I spent ½ hour in a squatter trying to decide whether to throw up or other. It was after 2 and a 4 hr walk to the lodge we had booked—it is dark here at 5. So for a mere $100 USA cash we rented a horse and handler. I haven't ridden in about 30 yrs and there was no pommel. The worst part was that the stirrups were permanently mounted for someone about 5 ft tall so my poor knees were screaming all the way. Most of the path was fairly flat until right at the end where you drop over the edge of the moraine of the Kumbu glacier. At that point, the horse knew where we were headed, and refused to go. The handler tried 5-6 different approaches until the horse started bucking and shying and I finally said—just get me off. Mingma had come with me and Mark was following behind. It was now near dark, very windy and cold—especially since I hadn't been moving much for the last couple of hours. Mingma went back with the horse to find Mark and I started down the escarpment—and might I mention that 1 of my hiking poles wouldn't lock so I was not doing well at all. Luckily, Mark wasn't very far back and they caught up with me in about 30 minutes. It then took about 45 minutes at dusk for Mingma to pull me down the trail. Truly not a good day.

We are now 2 days further down the trail and there is actual oxygen to breathe. It is still very cold, but the days have been beautifully clear and sunny with stunning mountain views. Last night we also went outside to see the stars and Milky Way—what a difference several thousand feet of atmosphere can make. Has it been worth it---yes, absolutely. Would I do it again—never

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Never, Ever, Eat Yak Burger Above Namche Bazar



Unfortunately, I learned this lesson, and associated lessons, the hard way. In Pangboche Sunday evening, inspired by Vicki's experience in Namche, I ordered yak steak. I was sick by the middle of the night, and we spent all of Monday in Pangboche, me with the near-death malaise I am prone to with such food poisoning incidents and trips down the hall. I drank as much of the re-hydration cocktail as I could stomach, ate a biscuit, and later some garlic soup. By Tuesday morning, I felt ready to tackle the 400m up to Dingboche. Actually, it was not bad, the elevation gains coming in spurts with long intervals of flat ground. Dingboche is a scheduled rest day, which is well, because I am feeling less well.

The associated lessons. One sees yak steak, yak burger, yak cheese, frequently on menus. In Namche, yak cheese is sold as if it were some specialty. Actually, it would be. Mingma says it is all beef (“buff”) from Kathmandu. There are very few yak left, the males (yak) used for hauling, the nak pretty strictly for propagation. All of which leaves us with the following question. If yak meat and yak cheese are frauds (and we're told that much of the textile going by the name of yak is really not)...is it really yak dung, or is this yet another fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting tourists?

I will post this tonight from the Dingboche Cyber Cafe, and it really may be our final posting for several days, probably six to eight days, assuming no further sickness. Mark

Vicki adds:

October 12 – Pangboche, Khumbu, Nepal

Today was a short day, thank heavens. This is the 7th day on the trail and Sherpa's don't believe in resting on the seventh day or at all. Mark and Mingma, our guide, went out for a couple more hours this afternoon while I took a nap and washed socks. It is in the 50's, so I am cold except when walking. Our lodge tonight is luxury compared to the last two. There is a western toilet, a waste basket in the hall, and a working light bulb. It doesn't take much to please me now. However, we are at tree line which means that wood stoves are changing to yak dung stoves. This is the highest, year round settlement in the Khumbu.

Prices are also rising. Last night was $4 for the lodge instead of $2. Also charging batteries for the computer is up to $2 an hour.

Yesterday we hiked up to the Tengboche Monastery which was only founded in 1917 but is very influential. It has one o f the finest views of Everest and the surrounding mountains close to Namche, so it is a final destination for some trekkers who have less time or interest in going higher. The monks there are very environmentally conscious and have put in a water turbine for electricity for the area and done a great deal of reforestation. They also care for children who are orphaned

This is a very international trek. So far we have met people from New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, England, Austria, France, Canada, Hungary, Australia, Germany, Russia, Italy, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Indiana. I am going to sign off so the battery can charge better. Vicki

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tengboche Monastery



October 12 – Pangboche, Khumbu, Nepal

Today was a short day, thank heavens. This is the 7th day on the trail and Sherpa's don't believe in resting on the seventh day or at all. Mark and Mingma, our guide, went out for a couple more hours this afternoon while I took a nap and washed socks. It is in the 50's, so I am cold except when walking. Our lodge tonight is luxury compared to the last two. There is a western toilet, a waste basket in the hall, and a working light bulb. It doesn't take much to please me now. However, we are at tree line which means that wood stoves are changing to yak dung stoves. This is the highest, year round settlement in the Khumbu.

Prices are also rising. Last night was $4 for the lodge instead of $2. Also charging batteries for the computer is up to $2 an hour.

Yesterday we hiked up to the Tengboche Monastery which was only founded in 1917 but is very influential. It has one o f the finest views of Everest and the surrounding mountains close to Namche, so it is a final destination for some trekkers who have less time or interest in going higher. The monks there are very environmentally conscious and have put in a water turbine for electricity for the area and done a great deal of reforestation. They also care for children who are orphaned

This is a very international trek. So far we have met people from New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, England, Austria, France, Canada, Hungary, Australia, Germany, Russia, Italy, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Indiana. I am going to sign off so the battery can charge better. Vicki

The views today were primarily Ama Dablam but also several of the high peaks back towards Namche. I got one great shot of a mani wall, a chorten (close distance), Tengboche Monastery (middle distance), and a clump of 6km peaks (far distance). We have now entered potato country, yak country, and yak dung burning country, as Vicki said. Today's acclimatory trek with Mingma was interesting as I got to see the Panboche temple, 600 years oldest in the Khumbu, and also the Hillary school far above it. Pangboche is a very old place. The mani walls go off in all directions; some of the granite and slate tablets are so old that the carved letters have nearly all eroded away. Centuries....

Tomorrow we are off to Dingboche...300-400 meters higher, several km further, colder, less developed. We are hoping they have internet or at least electricity. Mark

First Sight of Everest



October 10 First Sight of Everest

I am sitting here in our room at 7:30 pm in the dark typing my blog. We started from Namche Bazaar this morning and after about 1 ½ hrs walk rounded a bend and there was Everest. It was quite exciting, amazing and thrilling. The clouds stayed away all morning so we were able to see the unbelievable mountains ringing us on three sides as we walked. It was an easy day, not too much up or down, but we walked longer than usual--about 6 hrs. As Mark said when we saw Everest, we can't say it is the fulfillment of a dream, because in our wildest imagination we never dreamed it possible for us to be trekking in the Himalayas. But dream or not, it was wonderful.

Now to get to our room. Because we can't walk as far and as fast as most trekkers we are not always staying in the best lodges. This one is the last lodge before we cross the river and head up for a 2000 ft climb. Most trekkers leave Namche and get all the way to where we will have lunch tomorrow, but we couldn't go that far in a day. So our lodge has no lights in the rooms and filthy bathrooms—at least according to Mark. I am relying on our Little John jar—which is a life saver here. Dinner was okay though—lemon tea and spaghetti with about 3 tbs of sauce and cheese. Lunch was fried eggs and french fries.

Last night I had Yak steak—which was quite good and actually cheaper than Mark's Dahl Baht, which is the national dish in the mountains. My only concern was that Namche is the end of the line for the traders coming from Tibet with their Yaks—I have a feeling the ones eaten are the ones too feeble to make it back across the mountains.

There is so much more to talk about but I will leave the detail to Mark. The computer is low on battery but we will be able to recharge tomorrow night. PS It is very cold here, especially by this raging river out our door that is fed by dozens of glaciers. I would say it is about 50 and of course colder during the night. Our sleeping bags are warm—we will definitely be in bed by 8:30 as we can't afford to use up all our batteries. Tomorrow we will be buying some candles. Vicki

The river is our old friend the Dudh Kosi, which drains much of this side of the mountains. It is a raging torrent, glacier-milky. The bridge we will cross tomorrow morning stands right beside the remains of the suspension bridge that collapsed last year (no one hurt). High water around here lasts several months, as the spring melt merges into the monsoon, which ends in September.

Seeing Everest this morning was indeed a thrill. Its sedimentary-strata summit pyramid stood above the rest, Nuptse, the Lhotse wall, and the rest. Beautiful Ama Dablam was to our right much of the morning.. I had no idea this vista existed, especially so close to Namche. Just after the view appears (and it lasts for some time down the trail) there is a new chorten, erected in 2003, commemorating the 1953 first ascent and celebrating the sherpas. An additional thrill was watching three plane loads of sky divers doing their thing directly above. Crazy people.

Culinary note. Today I had Sherpa garlic soup twice (no vampires!). Not as refined as some versions I have tried, but very tasty and said to combat altitude sickness. Also had a grilled cheese sandwich with yak cheese for lunch. Tomorrow morning, Tibetan bread with jam. Mark

Tomorrow we will pass through Tengboche, more great vistas of the Khombu and also a great religious site. It Tibetan companion, Rongbuk Monastery, was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Mark

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Acclimatizing in Namche



Today was a rest/acclimatization day in Namche. This included a hike up to the rarely used Namche airport (being used now by insane sky-divers). It was cloudy, so Vicki went back to Namche. I went ahead, ever the optimist, to the Everest View Hotel, 3,880m, and enjoyed a partial view of the mountains, especially Ama Dablam, Thamserko, and portions of the Everest group. Everest itself was hiding behind a cloud. Tomorrow, our guide Mingma says. This afternoon and evening we have done some shopping in the Bazaar (a mini Thamel, but no vehicles), planning and resting.

At dinner tonight, Vicki tried the Yak steak and frites. Seriously. She ate it all except for giving me a bite. Tastes like beef. We'll definitely have it again.

We're off tomorrow into the Khombu, where internet will be sparse. We'll pass through Tengboche and the monastery there, and then on to Pangboche, in a few days' time. The ultimate goal is Gorak Shep and an ascent of Kala Pattar. 18,000 feet. We'll see. I will definitely not be smoking. We have had no difficulties with the altitude nor anything else so far, but further up the valley is really pushing it. I'll be happy to see Everest from Tengboche, the classic view. Anything more will be bonus. Mark

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Namche Bazaar



[Written October 8]

We are now 3 days into our 24 day trek. However, today was really quite sad. The same flight we came in on to Lukla on Monday crashed this morning killing all aboard—17. Apparently it was cloudy and the pilot came in too low and ran straight into the mountain. There were 2 Nepalese guides and everyone else was on a German tour. The news spread quickly up and down the mountains as several military men were headed down from Namche to help. There is also intermittent cell phone service available. There hasn't been a fatal crash at that airport in many, many years so all the Nepalese were quite shocked.

When we get back to Kathmandu Mark will post picture of the airport if not before.

We have actually done quite well with the hiking. We divided the normal first day into two to help with the acclimatizing. We were quite worried about today because it is supposed to be the hardest of the trek with a 2300 ft climb and no way to break it up. However, I have been on harder hikes in the West and in the Alps—we went very slowly but were here at 1:00. The altitude is now 11,304 ft so everyone spends two nights here—even those going on to climb Everest. The chance of altitude sickness is just too great—even among the young and super-fit.

This is our third guest house. They are all very much alike. The standard charge is $3 a night for a double room. For that you get two smallish twin beds that go wall to wall with just enough room between them for a door to open. The toilet, shower and sink are down the hall and shared by about 25 people. Last night it was not even a Western toilet—not my favorite type. Of course no linens (everyone brings a sleeping bag), no heat, and 1 bare bulb in the ceiling for light.

You are expected to eat breakfast and supper at your guest house. That is how they make enough money to survive. We have been spending about $25 a day on food so it is inexpensive. The choices are about the same. Today for breakfast Mark had a omelet and toast and I had French toast. Last night for dinner I had eggs and French fries and Mark had dahl bat, which is the national dish. Down low there is lots of rice, later on mostly just potatoes. The only meat on the menu has been noodles or rice with tuna. I've got to be able to lose weight here! Vicki

First Days Trekking



[Written Tuesday, October 7]

We are in a lodge in Jorsale, some distance beyond Monjo and the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park. It is our second day en trek. Before us tomorrow is the long 2,300 foot climb to Namche Bazaar. We stopped here early this afternoon to rest and acclimatize. Our net altitude gain today was modest. We are still no higher than Lukla. Our 60-something bodies are not liking the altitude here, about 9,000 feet.

So how did it come to this? Our early Monday morning departure was frantic as usual. Searches for things misplaced, the hotel failing to to arrange for an early breakfast, etc. We departed the hotel at 6:30 AM, expecting to find the streets of Kathmandu empty, but they were fuller than ever. It is the beginning of Desai, we understand, approximately what Christmas is to Christians, for Hindus. Kat is 85% Hindu. Big family, big travel, a week-long celebration. I guess the Buddhists just watch and spin their prayer wheels.

The Kat airport was a madhouse. Yeti and other airlines literally shuttle people to Lukla and other places. The plane lands, taxis to meet the bus of passengers, may not even shut down the starboard engine, loads, and then hustles back to wherever it came from. This goes on throughout the morning hours, while the flying weather is relatively good. Anyhow, the airport was a madhouse, from parking lot to boarding. Fortunately, Dawa, our hero, was there to meet us, get us through security and baggage, and into the boarding area. While others, scores, maybe hundreds of climbing and trekking group members stood in what might have been queues, a couple employees, came out from behind the counter, tagged and grabbed our heavy trekking porter bags (supplied by Dawa),while Dawa got our printed tickets (Yeti's telling you your e-tickets are confirmed means nothing; you still need paper tickets).

The 45-minute flight aboard the aging Twin Otter was interesting. We sat right behind the cockpit, taking pix through the windshield, getting up to about 11,000 feet, but never a whole lot above the ridges. (Jungle-like mountains all the way from Kat, sparse family farms here and there, mostly on the ridges.) The interest of the flight was enhanced in that we sat next to a US Embassy employee who was spending the Desai holiday trekking from Lukla. Lots of interesting information about the various refugee issues in Nepal (Tibetan, but mostly Bhutanese),

The single 300 meter (less I'd say) airstrip at Lukla also is interesting. Imagine that an aircraft carrier had run aground at the very end of a box canyon at 9,000 feet. You land from the west; you take-off from the east. You need really good brakes on landing, and really good lift on take-off, except that the ground falls away precipitously, thousands of feet, after the end of the run-way.

Fortunately, very fortunately, first-timers like us know little of this beforehand. I sensed changes in rpm and prop pitch, and saw the pilot adjust the flaps...and the ground come up quickly...and then a bump and screech...and then we were taxiing—a hard-right turn, almost 180 degrees, 90 feet or so--and then you're at the terminal and they're hustling (Namaste!) you off to the exit. The plane is almost fully re-positioned for take-off as the next batch of passengers is hustled on. And it as well as the next flight are both airborne before you get through the exit, collect your bags, and head into the waiting throngs.

Fortunately, again, Dawa's sister was there to meet us—she owns a guest-house in Lukla—as well as our guide, Mingma Sherpa, who immediately began watching carefully over us. I guess he knew we were going to be difficult when I insisted on photographing a take-off from Lukla. I guess I was reminded of those famous old films of Doolittle's Raiders taking off from the deck of the Hornet to bomb Tokyo in 1942, first disappearing off the bow, then eventually coming back into sight, in the distance, aloft. Lukla's kind of like that, except for all the mountains and trees and clouds.

At the guest-house we repacked again (some day I'll explain why all the different styles of travel and transit require different packing), met our porter, got 2 cups of coffee I'd missed earlier, and set forth with Mingma, registering at the police station, and spinning prayer wheels in the temple-things on the way out of the village. I at first felt guilty about the load we gave the porter until I saw him later carrying our stuff and much else.

Lukla to Thakding is mostly downhill. It was enough of a chore for us, laden as we were, and we'll regret it when we have to climb it on the way out. The path is mostly paved with large stones and steps, many doubtless of some age, generally 2-3 meters wide. The are trekkers, sometimes groups of trekkers, and many, many porters, each hurrying past the tourists, up- or down-hill carrying astonishing loads. And there are the occasional beast of burden, usually in small group with a driver/herder/whatever. These are not yak. They look pretty much like cows, longhorns, but are generally smaller and black. They are sort of like yak/mules. We'll get the name and spelling..

We stopped at a cafe for lunch. It took more than an hour to get a small pizza and an omelette, but we were glad to be off our feet. We stopped at a lodge just past Thakding. About 30 people there, a few in groups, several couples obviously independent. Our room had two hard single beds and just enough room for our bags. For dinner I had dahl bat with meat (unclear what type, but it was grilled and good). We sat with a well-traveled couple from the Netherlands and had a long, enjoyable conversation, mostly about travel in Asia and Europe. Exhausted, we were asleep by 9.

The next day was hiking from Thakding to Monjo, again mostly downhill, but with any number of climbs out of the suspension bridge river crossings. These are fairly modern, all metal, not the rickety wooden things you seen in the videos. They sway, they bounce (one kind soul galloped a horse across just for our benefit), but there's no way you could fall. Which is fine, because the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) is raging below, fresh from monumental glaciers. We arrived at Jorsale about 3, exhausted, but by dinner we had decided to press on to Namche, where it is nicer and and better to acclimatize. Mark

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Trekking in Nepal





Monday the 6th we'll take Yeti Airlines from Kathmandu to Lukla where we begin our Everest Base Camp trek. This will take three weeks or so. We understand there is internet in Lukla, Namche Bazaar, and Dingboche, and cell reception at various points. But I doubt we'll post much blogging for the time being. We'll be checking email, however, so write us if you can.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

K-k-k-k-k-Katmandu


That's why I'm going to Katmandu,
Up to the mountains where I'm going to,
And if I ever get out of here that's what I'm gonna do.
K - k - k - k - k - Katmandu,
That's really, really where I'm going to,
Oh, if I ever get out of here I'm going to Katmandu.

--Bob Seger

Our two days in Kathmandu have included a visit downtown to the Boudhanath Stupa, meetings with out trek organizer (more about which later) and a couple trips to Thamel for cash money, provisions for the trek, shopping and people watching. Thamel is pretty much as advertised: the tourist quarter, although tourists are only the smallest fraction of people there. The trekking/alpine shops must number in the hundreds, followed by internet cafes, pashmina shops, restaurants, guest-houses, and more. The density is just about elbow to elbow, and the strets are crowded with all manner of transportation except tour buses. We managed to find a general store of sorts and stocked up on gorp, granola bars, ramen, hard candy, coffee, sweetener, and other trek necessities. The taxi ride to and from Thamel covers much of Kat, and there are any number of interesting sights, sounds (mostly horns honking), and smells. We'll be spending three more days in Kat after our trek, and will get to know it better then. For now, we're packing for the trek.

Vicki adds:

October 5 Kathmandu

We leave at 6 am tomorrow to catch the plane to begin our trek to Everest Base Camp. We hired a porter and a guide who we will meet in Lukla when the plane lands. We decided that at this altitude our packs were just too heavy, even though they were only about 33 and 24 lbs respectively. With a porter we can take lots of snacks and extras that will make the trip more pleasant. The cost is very low and we were able to get in touch with a very reliable trekking agent here in Kathmandu through a connection I made with a Seattle high school librarian.

The hotel buffet was wonderful and no monkeys attacked—they waited until this morning to jump at Mark. He was bringing me a muffin after breakfast—he had to give them the food as there were no hotel employees around—with their big monkey sticks. Yesterday and today we went into Thamel, which is the tourist part of Kathmandu. It was a madhouse. Picture a very narrow street completely crowded with pedestrians, beggers, bicycles, motor scooters, pedicabs, cars, trucks, hawkers, touts, store displays. Literally no sidewalks and traffic running over you. Crossing the street was one of the scariest things I've ever done. Anyway, ATMs wouldn't give us enough money so we keep looking for other ones. We have to take enough cash for the entire trek. We did find a little grocery with lots of American food, so we bought snacks for the trek like gorp, candy, teabags, and toilet paper. Supposedly, all that will be available is water and your left hand—we'll see.

The drive to and from town has been quite an eye opener. Buildings here are about 3-6 stories, all made of handmade bricks, some with outer coverings of stucco or cement, some not. The roads are not all paved, even in very populous areas. We followed a river much of the way—not as big as most Montana creeks. Women were doing their wash, little boys were swimming naked, cows roaming in and out and along the road piles of garbage everywhere. There are lots of dogs nosing through the garbage and just running loose on the streets with the cows. Most of the women dress in traditional saris as the culture here is 85% Hindu and 15% Buddhist. Most of the Buddhists live in the mountainous areas rather than in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is over a million—so it is no small town.

We are taking our little computer on the trek so we will be able to write our blog, but I don't know how often we will be able to post. There is Internet available towards the beginning and end of the next 25 days, but in the middle, nothing but satellite phones for emergencies. I really think we are headed to the ends of the earth. Wish us luck. Vicki

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thai'd One On



Friday night. We're in Kathmandu, at Le Meridien, a Sheraton property a few km out of town. It's pretty nice, very Nepalese (by our lights), incense bruning, everybody saying "Namaste," monkeys roaming all over the grounds (guests are warned to keep windows closed), some huge and obviously ancient India Rubber trees. All set on a 500 hectare forest reserve that features two old temples and other sites; and a golf club and spa. Somwhat older, plush. With very slow internet.

Last night was at an airport hotel Vicki found on the internet--driver met us at the Bangkok airport and drove us, in a Mercedes, to the $13/night hotel. Not so plush, but safe and clean, and included return to the airport today. Bangkok traffic was near gridlock, and we were merely on the outskirts. It was warm and muggy, and last night featured heavy rain and the loudest and longest electrical storm either of us has ever experienced.

The Kat airport is a small regional sort in size, despite the 1MM population, and the customs/immigration set-up is not configured to deal with the two L-1011's that arrived this morning. We were in lines for a quite a while, got through, and then emerged into the sunshine and crowds of touts and louts. Fortunately, the hotel had a person meeting us who drove us here. The "meet and greet" function is becoming ever more important in this next stage of travel. We drove from the airport to the hotel, away from the city center, and saw some of the worst poverty we have seen. Nepal is genuinely a third-world, developing, South, however you put it. We saw rather little of this in China--nothing to compare with today--despite the fact that Mao's "iron rice bowl" of social security is no more than history.

Friday evening we ate at the buffet, in a courtyard of the hotel, with local musicians playing a very interesting kind of fusion, both instrumentally and musically, traditional instruments as well as guitar and bongos. The grilled lamb was great, as was the chicken, etc. Nice to have a bit of a change in cuisine.

Tomorrow we'll begin preparations for the trek, including a meeting with a trek organizer we have found via a Seattle school librarian. Hopefully, things will get squared away quickly and we can spend some time seeing the Kat sights. And watching the monkeys. It will be tough, however, not being plied with food and liquor on Thai Airlines. (I've never had cognac with lunch before). Mark

October 3 Kathmandu, Nepal

I can’t really believe we are here. Kathmandu sounds so exotic—a place I never expected to visit. We stayed in basically a dump last night near the Bangkok airport. But it was only $13. The choices I found were there or at the airport Novatel which was well over $180. Because our flight was delayed in Bangkok we were only there 7 hours anyway. It was clean but old. There was an incredible thunderstorm during the night that lasted for hours with the loudest lightning and thunder I’ve ever heard and massive amounts of rain. The monsoon season doesn’t end in Thailand until November.

The Kathmandu airport was a zoo, especially once we left the terminal. Our hotel was meeting us but two other fellows grabbed our bags and pretended to be with the driver and then wanted us to pay them. The hotel car was blocked in by another so our driver had a rousing battle with several men before we could leave. The hotel is amazing, quite old but beautiful, located on the edge of a large forest that the hotel owns. It was once part of the King’s reserve and the only standing forest of any size in the whole valley. The forest dates back 500 years and some of the rubber trees our over 200. Monkeys roam the grounds. We will see how well behaved they are at the outside dinner buffet. Can’t just have ramen here as there are no stores anywhere within walking distance. We have to hire the hotel car—but it is only $20 to town and they will wait for you for 2 hours and then bring you back included. Tomorrow night—ramen. The hotel itself is free with our credit card points. They have saved us a ton of money, which is good since India is going to cost 3 times what we budgeted.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Big Honkin' Hong Kong




















After a pleasant morning at the People's Park in Chengdu, including some great lemon tea and jasmine tea and biscuits at a tea house by the lake, we took the high speed taxi to the airport, where, at length, Thai airlines informed us our flight to Bangkok had been canceled. (We had confirmed earlier in the day). But the young woman who broke the bad news also got us re-booked via Hong Kong and spirited us through the usual ticketing, baggage, and other hurdles. So I am writing this now from Gate 42 of the international terminal in Hong Kong Airport. Our passports won't show it, but we have been to Hong Kong. The international terminal here does not appear as large as Beijing's, but it appears to be servicing more aircraft; big international aircraft. And the mall, largely duty-free, is similarly very large, with every up-scale brand known. Gucci's appears to have its own wing. Vicki has been shopping for an hour now. I happen to know they take USD as well as HKD and who knows what else. They have been doing capitalism here for a while and it is truly international, judging from all the different costumes one sees. Anyhow, barring another delay, we'll soon be off to Bangkok, overnight, and then on to Kathmandu tomorrow morning. Mark

Vicki adds:

October 2, Hong Kong

We are supposed to be in Bangkok and I hope we will be in 3 more hours. Our hotel called to reconfirm our flight this morning but when we got to the airport it had been canceled. We were momentarily panicked as the flight to Nepal leaves tomorrow. However, the nice women with Thai Airlines rebooked us through Hong Kong. Big, fancy international airport with the stores I always shop at: Gucci, Ferragamo, Coach, Burberrys, Versace, many so expensive I've never even heard of them.

Our morning was nice as we walked over to a park in Chengdu with an artificial lake and gigantic outdoor teahouse. Many families boating on the lake—paddle boats, rowboats, electric motorboats. I had a stupendous lemon tea and Mark jasmine—comes with a huge thermos of hot water so you can keep adding water. We were immediately assaulted by two men wanting to clean our ears and give us neck and shoulder massages—passed on the ear cleaning (Mark will post a picture of their implements) but did get the massage. Very nice.

We are seeing far more 2-3 children families here. In rural China (heaven knows what that means with 100 cities over a million) 2 children are allowed, and all the 54 official minority groups can have as many children as they want. In total they only make up 8% of the population. I also found out that if you have a girl first and you or your husband don't have any siblings, then you may have another child. If you don't fit into one of those categories you have to pay an enormous sum to register the child (like a birth certificate) and also you have to pay for all their schooling from kindergarten on.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Da Bears
















At the Panda Center near Chengdu


















Fortunately, there's a deep moat between us and this guy















Vicki at the Panda Center



















Mao presiding over Tianfu Square



















Waving at the Cartier's and other fine shppping...

Wednesday in Chengdu we went to the Panda Breeding Center. We saw 3 babies in incubators each about 1 month old. While we were there the nurse took one baby out and took it next door for the mother to nurse. Only at that point were we allowed to take pictures. The babies were just getting their fur. They are born completely hairless and blind—-all pink skin looking a little like rats—hard to describe. There were also 3 cubs about 2 months old sleeping in a large wooden playpen structure. At two months they have a full set of fur with all the panda markings.Their eyes are still developing so no pictures of them allowed either. It was terrific to see the babies—-bad part was that since babies are only born 2 months of the year, there were none old enough to hold. They have a program that allows you to hold a cub if you contribute a healthy sum to the breeding program. I had been looking forward to it. Next time. Vicki

The Panda Center was interesting for a range of reasons. Here's a poor animal that can't and won't adapt. It eats only bamboo and breeds like other bears--rarely and with low survival prospects. The Chinese are taking extraordinary measures to ensure its survival, but at great cost. Yes, they are adorable, although I think we've all been conditioned from childhood to think of them as cute and cuddly. They're big, though hardly giant, and have really nasty-looking claws and teeth and doubtless can do some damage when provoked. The center is a typically well run, organized, signed (in English) affair. It is strictly about research and breeding--not a zoo. And only a few dollars admission.

The taxi ride back to Chengdu center was our most harrowing yet. A bit of freeway, then miles of back streets, frantically dodging pedestrians, hand-carts, bicycles, scooters, cars, buses, etc. The driver got through one squeeze-play with a violent maneuver, no more than a couple inches' clearance on either side.

In the afternoon we ventured back to Tianfu Square to see the masses luxuriating in the National Day. Throngs on the square, fountain displays, music, but no program nor speeches. Oh well. We explored a variety of stores, alleys, etc.

Tuesday night we did eat Sichuan, pork and chicken dishes (only 1 chili in spiciness), soup, fruit, and a very interesting cream of peanut soup for dessert. (Vicki said it tasted like Jif and honey). Yum. The Sichuan provide a large spoon with chopsticks, in addition to the ceramic soup spoon. Interesting. Leftovers Wednesday. Mark

Another On-Time Departure with Sichuan Airlines



Wednesday we are off to see the baby Pandas, so I am quite excited about that. Tuesday's airport experience was exciting. We were supposed to fly out of Chongqing at 9 am. We were up a 6 and at the airport at 7. Upon check-in we were told there would be a 4 hour weather delay. Mark checked off and on during the morning and was told the departure would be at 1:40 pm. At 11:25 we were finishing lunch at a Chinese fast food place and Mark went to check the board again—now it said boarding at 11:40. While Mark packed up, an announcement was made for final boarding of our flight. We rushed to security where the line was long, but a nice family let us in ahead of them, then ran a couple of blocks and staircases to the gate. No one was there. Nor any airplane. We searched around and an airline employee took us upstairs, consulted with a colleague, and we were rushed back the two blocks to a different gate, where we were the last ones to board. The flight took off at 12:40—when boarding was supposed to begin! Every Chinese flight we have made has left early—-but only by 10-15 minutes. This one gave us both near-heart attacks. But they did feed us breakfast—-on a 45 minute flight. Vicki

I had hoped our day in Chongqing might have included a hot pot meals, the local specialty. Prowling about the neighborhood of our hotel, I did find several such restaurants but discerned it was not the kind of dining experience apt for one or two, especially when there were no English menus nor English-speaking staff. But it was fun to watch. I also encountered a fancier hotel restaurant decked out in Mao and Revolutionary regalia, posters, photos, kitsch. Got some interesting pix.

The four hour delay gave me a chance to work on photos, so maybe tomorrow night I can get some more posted. Chengdu is China's 4th largest city, and looks it. We are smack downtown, a few blocks from the Tianfu Square, where the gigantic statue of Mao waves down the street at Cartier, Dunhill, Gucci, etc. Our 19th floor room at the Sheraton overlooks the municipal stadium—home of the Chengdu Bears (da Pandas)—and they are setting it up for a big Mei rock concert October 2. Hopefully, we'll be in Bangkok, en route to Kathmandu. Mark