Annapurna Sanctuary Trek: Chiuli to Chomrong

9 12 2018
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Sunny breakfast at Chiuli

The sunset last night was beautiful, but it was behind a hill directly to the west above us. Good news – we were perched on a ledge with an incredible view to the north and east – so I didn’t take photos of our beautiful site at Chiuli last night because I knew morning would be 100% better! Annapurna South (23,684′), and Machapuchare (22,943′) would all dominate views!

I was fortunate that my tent was next to Amee’s last night so I could visit for a little bit. But, my legs were so beat up and in need of rebuilding so I crashed out before 8 p.m. I awoke a couple of times, but slept very well and rested. I think Amee was wrapped up reading “The Snow Leopard.”

Dawn. Probably due to my early to-bed-time, I’m the 1st up. I’m rewarded with opportunities to get images of sunrise! You can glimpse Annnapurna South, plus Machapuchare up the next valley east.

Mornings on the trek began with a luxury. The first thing an awakening trekker hears is “Good Morning! Coffee or tea?” And believe me it might be the most welcome time of the day. We get 15 minutes or so with morning nectar.

 

15 minutes later, staff brings washing water. It’s a big stainless steel bowl with hot water we can do a sponge bath with.

The sun rose up and strong. It was so beautiful that the staff took the dining tent down and we had breakfast outside!

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I had a nice photo of myself with Cathy Ann.

And like any other day, we start hiking around 8:00 a.m. We watch our porters load up and hit the trail, too.

Today was considered a “rest day,” by that way meaning it didn’t have so many ups and downs. I’d say I agreed, for the day’s trail was definitely more “meandering,” less steeps. And overall, we would end up about 2,000′ lower than we began.

This day, like others, was a challenge for my perspiration! I de-layered a lot.

We would end our day at Chomrong, another perch with an amazing view. And later in our trek, we’d camp exactly at Chomrong on the return! Chomrong has some pretty intimidating steps down to the river and back up the other side!

 





Ghorepani to Chiuli and Pun Hill for Dawn Patrol!

6 12 2018
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No shortage of Impactful Women on this trek! From left: Madeleine, Tara, Annette, Uli, Cathy Ann and Amee! And what weather!!!?? Wow! That’s 27,000′ Dhaulagiri back there!

Today we’ve got a super highlight of our trek! Witnessing dawn at 10,200ft Pun Hill! I’ve heard (and seen pictures) of the Pun Hill view and it’s spectacular. There are glacier-draped peaks all around and some are over 26,000ft! The spot is so incredible it draws tons of tourists like us but that’s OK! So, we were up up up and had some breakfast treats and tea/coffee, and then it was out the door to hike 1,200′ up to Pun Hill! O’Dark Hundred.

I was OK for a while, but our lead guide was quick and urgent, and I fell behind. And I wasn’t quite yet acclimated. Nevertheless I got up there before sunrise, and we were all rewarded with a spectacular dawn! Well, us and seemingly everyone else in the region!

There are many peaks to see from Pun Hill. Everything from Dhaulagiri through Annapurna South and Machupachhare, all between 22,000′ and nearly 27,000′.

Once the sun fully began to bake the peaks we descended to the tea house for a big breakfast. And once that was consumed, the big surprise for me happened. Our trip description said we would “Descend through a moss-covered rhododendron forest.” Not. Nope. Instead, we climbed another 1,200 ft right back up to another saddle, right in line with Pun Hill! In fact, I could see Pun Hill directly across from the rest spot. So in a matter of a couple of hours we had climbed 1,200′ twice and descended 1,200′ plus the descent from the 2nd 1,200′ for a total mid morning of more than 3,600′ before noon!

So, once the 2nd 1,200ft was attained, the trail wound up and down a ridge before finally beginning a very long descent clinging very close to a river. We had a super nice warm lunch in the sun (a brown bagged lunch) and then arrival at Chiuli at, 8.759′, was very beautiful, another nice “lawn” with our tents ready!

 

 





To Ghorepani at 9,429′ we Climb More than 3,000 steps!

5 12 2018
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Nilgiri South 22,462′ and maybe Nilgiri North 23,166′ from my tea house room

My sleep went well at Tirkhedunga, for at 5,067′, it was warm enough that I just lay my unzipped sleeping bag over myself. At this location, we had some very noisy cicadas! In fact, they made sounds unlike any cicadas I’ve ever heard. I’d seen locals tending their crops and watering. Honestly, I thought the noise was from sprinklers! But nooo, that noise I heard was cicadas!

Our tents were quite large by backpacker standards. They were 3 person Mountain Hardware expedition tents. Inside, we had sumptuous 3″ foam pads, and pillows. All of us were singles inside these tents, and I can surely say that I, for one, made use of every single inch. I also brought along a backpacking clothes line which I stretched across the tent for my very wet from sweat clothes. So each afternoon we’d arrive at camp. The tents would already be set up, with our duffel bags inside. I’d pile into my tent, set stuff up, lay wet clothes out, and then get on with socializing or on some afternoons, write my journal, or indulge in a portable shower which was made available.

This morning, after a multi course breakfast, we set out on what was promised to be one of our most arduous hikes. When done, we would climb over 3,000 steps and ascend 4,362 feet. We’d climb into a bit of oxygen deprived air. I was wondering how I’d do, because I have a friend in Park City, Utah, which is about 8,300 feet, and every time I go there, the 1st day I can really feel the altitude!

On this day I was to learn that on the Annapurna trek, the end-of-day “altitude gained” does not reflect the actual feet climbed! That is because in this region, there are many, many steep valleys to descend and climb before the end goal is reached!

We walked the steps, the thousands upon thousands of steps leading up and down, but ultimately up, to Ghorepani. We passed many other trekkers and Nepalese, greeting each with a hearty and sometimes breath-challenged “Namaste!”

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Oh yes. And no description of an Annapurna trek would be complete without a note on the steps. The Nepalese have chiseled out steps, which they have laid all along these trails, to keep the trails from eroding – due to the heavy monsoon season rains. These steps vary in condition and in length and height. Heights vary from 4″ to as much as 18″. And to complete a day’s hike, you just might do several thousand over 6 hours! We called each other “buns of steel!”

At certain zig zags, we’d see beautiful flowering trees, or images of the giants!

Climb and descend, and climb again! With views of 23,000+ foot giants and flowering trees all along the way.

We lunched at a tea house along the way. Our kitchen staff had arranged for a dining room to be held for us – they made and served our lunches. For a few days, I indulged in a Nepalese Coca Cola. The tea houses are constructed with the trail going right on through. So, any commerce, including freight trains of horses, come right on through!

With lunch done, it was time to tough it out to Ghorepani! As with many of these hikes, sometimes I think I’m going to give up and then all of the sudden the end has arrived!

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Notice the precision of the stones. Sometimes the steps were very tightly laid as if they were trying to imitate the Incas. Anyway this was kind of a “false summit,” because our tea house lay several hundred feet further up in elevation from here!

And soon we reached Ghorepani, where we’d try a real tea house lodging. The hike was very worth it. From here we could see Dhaulagiri, at 26,795′ the 7th highest mountain in the world! And what spectacular weather! It was quite literally clear and CALM up on the peaks.

We enjoy a truly boisterous evening and dinner. But we need to bed early, because tomorrow is not only another big hike day, but we need to climb 1,200ft at dawn to catch the sunrise at Pun Hill! Pun Hill is at about 10, 200 ft and from there, one can see a nearly 360 degree view of Himalayan giants!

We will arise extra early to grab some coffee and then ascend to Pun Hill, then descend for real breakfast, before our day’s big hike! We will see the world’s 7th highest peak, Dhaulagiri at sunrise!

 





Annapurna Sanctuary Trek: Let the Trek Begin!

1 12 2018

After breakfast at the Kathmandu Shangri La Hotel, we took an early flight to Pokhara, the beginning and ending city of our trek. Our 30-minute flights on Yeti Airlines were on a smallish, twin-engine turbo prop. As we rose above the pollution in the Kathmandu valley, the Himalayan giants dominated everything! And while our flights were uneventful, Don and I noticed rivets missing on the right engine cowling, and one more twirling itself out of its hole. Some prayers were offered about the outcome…

Emerging from the plane in Pokhara all one needs to do is look up. My favorite mountain, Machapuchahre, or Fish Tail, at just under 23,000 ft, dominates the view! This mountain would be prominent during the next two weeks. We would do base camp right underneath.

Once aboard our transfer vehicle, it was maybe a 90 minute ride to our trailhead. Along the way, we passed by Nepalese settlements and through a town where we briefly tried to exchange currency.

Our Annapurna Sanctuary Trek officially began at the trailhead at Nayapul. This spot was a Grand Central Station of sorts, all sorts of 4 x 4 vehicles and taxis dropping off and picking up trekkers! We’d walk a couple of hours to a tea house lunch and then end the day at Tirkhedunga, at 5,067 feet.

We had several novice trekkers on this trip, and a few novice campers as well! And so it was that guests like Tara were introduced to the luxuries of “glamping,” and also Annette and Amee as well.

We slung our day packs over our backs, donned our walking sticks and set off. It was a sunny day, with this first walk mostly on a road, and part on a trail. The sun was hot. I relished the shade. We passed through our first series of Nepalese Himalayan hamlets with their tea houses and restaurants.

As the trail wended up into the hills, the road ended. And just when we began to need a relief (and to relieve ourselves) it was time to stop and lunch! It was time for some of our newly minted trekkers to have their experience of glamping on the trail!

I had this experience before, so I knew what to expect. But Tara had no idea how sumptuous just something like lunch on the trail can be! We sat down and the table service began. First beverages, then soup, then a main meal (which might be a few courses) and then dessert! Oh yes. This is lunch on the trail! So Tara exclaimed over and over THANK YOU! It’s hard to get used to this level of service. But let it happen!

And there was dancing. Local children were practicing local dances and some of us, so (Tara and Cathy Ann) tried their part! Super cute. OK, then we put our packs back on, and continued our hike. This hike wasn’t that long, though, and we reached our “perch” by late afternoon.

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We had a nice level spot for our tents outside a tea house and it was perfect. Since several of our trekkers were “newbies,” (Tara, Annette, Amee and Uli) I offered some suggestions on how to “vent” one’s tent, and arrange their sleeping bags, so they were more comfortable. Take note: Venting, regardless of the temperature, is really important! You don’t want condensation building up inside the tent. And, it’s important to resist the temptation to go to sleep inside your sleeping bag with too much insulation. I mean don’t get into that bag with a down jacket and down pants. If you do, the bag cannot do its job. The jacket will “insulate” the bag from being able to “activate” its down to warm you. Instead, go to bed with less insulation. My advice was proven over and over on the trek. Oddly less is more inside your sleeping bag!

 





Kathmandu: Bhaktapur and its Durbar Square

29 11 2018

We spent another day exploring Kathmandu and surroundings. We went to visit the ancient city of Bhaktapur, which is at once ancient, artistic, architecturally stunning and mystical.

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The Golden Gate in Durbar Square

One my favorites is the Golden Gate, a delightfully preserved example of metallic art. It shows up top Garuda battling with serpents, over Taleju Bhawani, the goddess of the Malla Kings.

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The Palace of 55 Windows

Right next to the Golden Gate is the Palace of 55 Windows. It is named for its 55 balconies. It is used for royal ceremonies and has been such for centuries. It has incredible detail, a testament to the woodworker’s craftsmanship.

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Like elsewhere in Kathmandu, many buildings and temples were severely damaged by the 2015 earthquake.

Here in Bhaktapur, things are no different. Workers may spend years repairing priceless structures important to Nepal’s heritage.

 

 

 

Daily offerings are part of Hindu practice. In many places throughout my trip, I saw offerings being made, or evidence of them.

We then strolled down alleyways lined with shops to a square dominated by the Nyatapola Temple which dates to 1702.

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It is a beautiful square, and due to the Dipawali festival, sellers of festive goods and foods were allowed to create a market to allow people to stock up for Wednesday’s big night.

It was mid-afternoon, and we returned to the Shangri La Hotel for a rest-up before our kick-off dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Tomorrow we fly to Pokhara, where a bus will take us to the trailhead where we start our trek to Annapurna!

 





Kathmandu, Nepal: Hindu and Buddhist Influences

27 11 2018
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Approaching the Boudhanath

Prior to striking out on our trek to Annapurna, we spent some time in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu. Taken together with the surrounding valley, the greater Kathmandu area has a population of about 5 million. Although Nepal boasts the highest mountains in the world, including 29,029′ Everest, most don’t realize much of the country sits at lower elevation, and Kathmandu is at 4,600 feet.

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My flight to Kathmandu took off from Guangzhou, China, and I was fortunate to sit next to a couple from Kathmandu – now living in Sydney, but who were going home for the popular 5-day Hindu festival known in Nepal as Dipawali – the festival of lights. They told me how the whole city would be lit up like Christmas. And, on Wednesday night, the darkest night, the children go house to house like Halloween and sing songs and get offerings. It is a celebration of light over darkness – and knowledge over ignorance. They said that every household goes out of its way to be clean and beautiful. That got me really excited! Though we would be leaving the city before the climax.

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The giants come into view!

I was also fortunate to be seated on the right side of the plane, so I could see the Himalayas of Bhutan and Nepal! We even saw Everest.

Upon landing, the reality of life on the subcontinent strikes hard. Time slows, and strict schedules suddenly fall away. I knew about this, but jet lag was coming on strong.

Several flights landed almost at once, depositing some 600 jet lagged passengers to be processed by less than 10 officers. The lines didn’t seem to move. In my line, I looked up, and the officer went to lunch! I switched lines, only to have the last person in front of me have a problem and take 15 minutes.

And if that wasn’t enough, there was more! They require another X-ray of bags. And this time, the officer was too busy chatting with buddies to even look at the screen. Finally, I reach the passenger pick up outside the terminal and yell, “Cattara!” hoping a driver was waiting. One guy came over anxiously, but it turned out he was not my driver. Fact was, it took me TWO HOURS to get through immigration, so long my driver went to lunch. And this guy was there in his place. Not to drive, just meet me. About to pass out from jet lag and unable to untangle my brain, I just waited. And waited. And waited. Until I almost couldn’t stand it, and I considered getting my own cab. But then, experience told me, “No, let these people do their jobs. Don’t embarrass him by taking a cab. Save face. It will work out.” And just like that, Karin, my driver, showed up from lunch and I was on my way to the Shangri La Hotel.

If I hadn’t been to other cities such as Saigon, Denpasar, or Phnom Penh, I might have been completely overwhelmed by the rules of the road in Nepal. While it seems like a constant game of “chicken,” and maybe it is, and sometimes cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles, cows and pedestrians seem to be going in all directions at once, including head-on at you, and sometimes they indeed are, there is some kind of orchestrated dance going on. How do you walk across the street? I remember my first Bangkok guide teaching us. She said, “Just walk, slowly, deliberately, through the traffic, and look at the drivers. Do not hesitate. They will move around you like a school of fish.” And they do.

We reach the Shangri La Hotel. It is a true oasis in the chaos. The rooms are lovely, and there is a wonderful 1/2 acre sized lawn/garden area out back.

The staff at the Shangri La are very courteous and prompt. I had several issues in my room, including a bad electrical outlet. When notified, the staff arrives promptly and takes care of the issue. But it’s more than that. The staff remembers who you are, and takes care to remember the little things. In fact this characteristic rang true for the entire trek as well.

One my rooms at the Shangri La was spectacular.

Kathmandu hosts some of Nepal’s holiest Hindu and Buddhist temples and World Heritage sites. So I began by heading to the Boudhanath and the Pashupatinath. I hired a guide through Cathy Ann to take me there.

The Hindu Pashupatinath Temple complex, reconstructed in the 1400’s, houses no less than 492 temples devoted to different rites. It was overwhelming, busy, and frequented by visitors from near and far. Brahman priests hold court for people seeking certain rites to be performed. Some of the interiors of the temples are off limits to non-Hindus.

One of the most important duties this temple complex carries out is the cremation of the dead. Hindu practice requires cremation by 24 hours of death. The complex is bisected by the Bagmati River, and it is on the banks of this river that cremation, and the drama of loss and grief, takes place. And I was there to witness all of it.

There are dozens of Hindu sects in Nepal, and each has its own cremation rituals. But for each, they take the body of their loved one to this place, where the body is consumed by fire, and the “spirit,” if you will, is allowed to leave and find a new vessel in which to live. There are perhaps 20 stone platforms along the river.

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A loved one’s body is turned 3x clockwise before laying down on the pyre.

A specialized Brahman is trained to carry out the rite. He lays specially cut logs on the platform. Then a body is carried to the site and spun three times clockwise, before laid down.

Once down, depending upon the sect, men, or men and then women, walk around the body three times clockwise.

I saw one woman ask to see the face of the dead. She was so shocked or grief stricken at what she saw that she fainted and had to be carried back to the steps to recover. This is the drama that is death.

Once the family has retreated, the Brahman can begin the process. He anoints the entire body with camphor oil. The first step in cremation is lighting the head. So I witnessed the priest removing the saffron colored body covering from a body’s head, and lighting it. After a short time, the priest continued lighting the logs underneath. I also witnessed the priests stoking the cremation, and then, when done, sweeping the ashes into the Bagmati River. It is very moving to witness this human drama.

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The next temple complex I was to visit was the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist stupas in the country. I knew it was also one of the largest stupas in the world. When I arrived, I was first amazed at the condition of the roads leading to it. They are just dirt. My guide Bir told me that the condition of the roads was due to bureaucratic gridlock. The clean water bureau, the sewer bureau and the transportation bureau all wrung their hands and nobody will move forward to get the street constructed properly. Until then, the street remains dirt. With some big sewer pipes just in piles!

This Buddhist stupa is very important to millions. And there were thousands here paying their respects. There are prayer wheels surrounding the stupa and many were walking around it, spinning the wheels in respect. The levels of the stupa represent the levels of attainment one must pass to reach nirvana. Only the very top represents attainment of nirvana!

We visited a school where students create Thankas, paintings usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. In their finest and most detailed form, a Thanka can take many weeks to finish. My favorite is of the Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life.

Thanka Wheel of Life

I loved this because here, life is set up as a kind of “game” to get to Nirvana, represented by the figures on the upper right and left. Below, the spirit recycles through the six realms of existence of Samsara, some better than others. If you vary from the path, you might fall into the realm of animals, or jealous demi gods, or some other form of desire or suffering. Only by following the true path can you jump into the upper right of left.

So, what was Rod to make of this? It is a perfect pin ball game! Set it down, tilt it, and insert into a pin ball machine. Add flippers, and you get the point. Any mistakes and your pinball goes down the wrong hole, and back into Samsara. Only the exact correct combination of flipper flips can get that pinball into enlightenment!

Next up we pay a visit to some of the outlying temples near Kathmandu, Bhaktapur!





Nepal Annapurna Sanctuary Sacred Trek: Trekking in a Tutu for Breast Cancer Prevention

25 11 2018

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2018 has been a tough year. In February, I lost my brother John to cancer, after a two-and-a-half-year battle. But on the positive side, my friend Shari has come through a courageous struggle with breast cancer. I have watched and rooted, I’ve been lifted when they were on the mend and pained when the battle seemed for naught. I swear, cancer treatment often seems like witch doctor medicine. I was inspired by their courage to trek in a tutu Nepal’s Annapurna Region to raise funds for breast cancer prevention!

Ever since I completed my first Himalayan trek, the Chomolhari Trek in Bhutan, I’ve been yearning to return to the greatest mountain range in the world, with its spectacular views, ultimate challenge hikes, and its myriad cultures and faiths. So it was that in 2018 I signed up for the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek led by Cathy Ann Taylor.

I love travel, discovering new cultures and perspectives, and I am hopelessly hooked on the outdoors. So this trek was in my wheelhouse. But what was in my wheelhouse, just for other causes was fundraising. I’ve been part of a number of non-profits, even been on the board of directors. So it was a surprise when maybe six weeks prior to the beginning of this trek, it became a “sacred” trek, to raise funds for Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. Cathy Ann named Joani Carpenter, a trekking peer from my Cordillara Huayhuash Trek as its honoree. Joani survived pancreatic cancer! My first reaction was OMG what have I signed up for? I’m already busy with fundraising! How can I add another? Then I found out fundraising was not a requirement. Still, over the subsequent days, I kept thinking about it. Then I was at KEEN Footwear in downtown Portland (one of my sponsors), and a heard a phone ring…I picked up the phone and the voice said, “Just do what you know how to do.” I heard a call to action!

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The next morning, I went to my gym, and as it was breast cancer awareness month. They had mannequins festooned with pink shirts, feather boas and tutus. As I did my abdominal routine a thought came to mind, “Trekking in a tutu!” And with that crazy idea in mind, I hatched a plan to raise funds by trekking in a tutu in honor of Joani, and of my friend Shari, who is a survivor, and in memory of my brother John.

At first I went out and bought pink stuff. That was all I knew. I got pink bandanas, a pink boa, pink shirts. Shari made a pink tutu. I made a pink social media post. I figured trekking poles, muddy boots, prayer flags and hash tags might do the trick.

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Shari and I even did a small barbecue and a photo shoot!

Then I learned the correct color is purple! Purple is the color for prevention. With only a week to go I got synthetic purple shirts and a purple bandana. If I got enough support, I’d get images of myself in that tutu in Nepal! I posted photos on social media, and sent personal ask letters. With just so little time I was surprised I was able to generate over a thousand dollars worth of contributions. And with that done, on trek, I needed to generate some content for the contributors! So, whilst in Nepal, I managed to get some images in that outfit, or wearing some of it!

OK, yes, there will be following posts of this trek! We managed to ascend/descend tens of thousands of vertical feet, take in views of the world’s giant peaks, meet people from dozens of countries, and laugh a lot. We struggled up or down tens of thousands of steps. We ? Me? Sweated a lot. We ate like royalty. We witnessed giant peaks and glaciers. We said “Namaste” a thousand times! We witnessed priceless sunrises. We bumped and grinded in 4x4s.