Nepal Annapurna Sanctuary Trek: Chomrong to Ghandruk

31 12 2018

We had an outside breakfast with glorious views of the mountains (see previous post). Whilst packing up before setting off, we were visited by a random water buffalo and its keeper. And, our porters packed up their enormous loads to carry on to Ghandruk, our last camp.

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Amee and Cathy Ann enjoying apples at a rest stop.

Today’s hike would find us once again climbing and descending steps, with terrific views, through hamlets, and then crossing a river followed by a steep forested trail to a mountain saddle where we’d have our lunch. Morning was fairly cool with passing clouds. Good for me, comfortable!

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This was the day my 10-year-old Vasque hiking boots finally showed their life was pretty much done. The soles, very worn, finally began to come off. These boots never gave me a blister. Never leaked. Stood by me. They did last one more hike out – even with the soles starting to come off!

Lunch was in a dining hall at a tea house atop the mountain saddle. They had some surprises for us. They made some perfect french fries! And a kind of “hamburger sandwich.” They baked their own buns. The sandwich was SPAM, mustard, cucumber and tomato. Completely scrumptious and unexpected! The soup was also incredible. And juice – I drank lots and lots of juice.

Following lunch we had a comparatively easy hike down to Ghandruk, which is at about 6,000′ elevation. Along the way we heard the delightful sounds of singing bells – which turned out to be probably 75 horses in a freight train across the valley!

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An empty freight train of horses

 

 

 

These trains of horses were commanded by a shepherd who would shout “left!” or “right!” in Nepalese and for those animals out of line, a strike with a wicket does the trick.

Our camping spot at Ghandruk was on a flat plateau, like the others, but with no tea house and shared with beasts of burden.

We arrived in advance of our porters, so we passed the time while we waited for them to catch up and set up our tents/kitchen/camp.

Just outside, there was some carpentry going on. This is an example of local woodworking tools.

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Mama water buffalo and calf

This spot was some kind of resting/gathering for various farm animals. There were more than a dozen water buffalo when we arrived. At one point, some signal told them it was time to go home. They all seemed to rise at once and go their separate ways. And just as suddenly, a group of horses, without any gear, showed up and took their place, using the loose dirt to roll around and relax.

Our staff started to make things for dinner. And we could eventually see the remaining porters across the valley, coming from the saddle where we had lunch. With our tents pitched, they set up the shower tent. This was great. One by one we took our turns in the shower. Amee and Uli hiked out to the nearby town – came back with some nice stuff like greeting cards.

This night’s dinner was our farewell extravaganza and the kitchen staff stepped it way up. For starters, they served homemade chicken soup with papadums and prawn crackers.  We had a heart-shaped fresh salad, roasted potatoes, ceremonial rice, broccoli, cauliflower, locally sourced green beans, roasted chicken (fried), beef with carrots, potatoes and vermicelli noodles, sushi, among many other things.  Dessert? A fruit salad in a spun caramelized sugar baseket, and a vanilla and chocolate marble cake. WOW.

Tomorrow morning would be our last trail breakfast! And time to tip the 40+ staff members, each and every one well deserving!

 

 

 

xx

 

 





Deurali to Chomrong, The Stairway to Heaven and Views A Plenty

23 12 2018
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Wow! A panoramic with Chomrong clinging to the slope, Annapurna South (23,680′), Hinchiuli (21,132′), Machapuchare, and our tents!

A Total Day’s Descent Means Lots of Climbing

Today’s hike would take us from 10,670′ down to 6,759′ but descent is not the whole story. For in between there would be some of the hardest climbs done in a day on this trek. We’d end the day back at Chomrong – where’d we’d been a few days prior. But this time, we’d be climbing two of the longest sets of stairs instead of descending them!

The day started cool and comfortable. It was partly cloudy, and I assumed the clouds would burn off, which they eventually did. Being a bit cooler was a real benefit. I used the drying technique again last night of sleeping with wet clothes in my sleeping bag – they were dry in the morning!

More In The Present Time

After one of the break stops, I found myself starting behind the group because I was talking with another hiker when the group just took off. Yet I wasn’t the last guest, as somehow it turned out Madeleine was behind. Before I even knew she was behind I just happily walked my own way and tuned in to the sounds of the Modi Khola River, the breeze and the birds. It was only when I heard Mingma calling from behind that I knew they were there!

2,000 Steps to End the Day

The most challenging steps of the day were our last. In mid afternoon, we rounded a bend to see across a valley to Chomrong. We’d climb steeply to cross the river via a suspension bridge, then ascend some 2,000 steps through the village to our lodge-side campsite. Once at the bottom of those steps, I dressed down to my T-shirt for the upcoming steps!

After much industry I make it up to camp maybe 30 seconds or so behind the main group. And after making home in my tent, Don and I headed to the restaurant for an early beer. And headed back after tea time….and we were joined by Uli, Kevin, and Annette for a couple of well deserved beers!

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Waiting to dig into breakfast.

The best views were in the morning. And those are featured on this blog post.





Annapurna Sanctuary Trek: Chomrong to Doban – and A Himalayan Downpour

13 12 2018
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One of the many mountain dogs

Our Chomrong Lodge had another beautiful view up the valley toward Machapuchare. Chomrong was one of the larger hamlets along our route. It had many houses and lodges clinging to the hillsides, with the trail winding right on through the middle. This early section of trail was entirely paved with steps. Our spot was set below the top of the village. Just across and above was Annapurna South, but clouds were obscuring a really good photo.

Down below, we’d be descending over 2,000 steps to cross the river on a suspension bridge, to climb back up some 900′ and then from there, the trail would roughly follow a forested river and thick bamboo forest toward Doban, at 8,628′.

They say at altitude you can get weird dreams. I have had such dreams in the Andes and I had one at Chomrong last night. Last year on the Cordillera Huayhuash trek, in Peru, at over 13,000ft near a mountain called “Diablo Mudo,” or Mute Devil, I had a dream that I walked into my kitchen and there was a half man/half bull in there making breakfast! I remember getting angry at it and yelling at it. But it was mute, and didn’t respond to anything I said. I remember stacking furniture to try to trap it in there but it just kept knocking the furniture over. And then I woke up and realized I had been yelling in my sleep and woke up half the camp!

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Love her NY Yankees vest!

It happened again at Chomrong. This time, I was with a date walking toward a house where there was a party. Lots of festive noises coming from the house. All was good. And then without warning my date shrunk to 6″ high and began walking like a zombie toward this basement window and disappeared! And right after that, people started walking out of the party, shrinking to 6″ high and doing exactly the same thing. And it was their souls that were being drowned in that hole. They were voluntarily giving up their souls. Some demon was eating their souls. I remember standing in front of them and commanding them to stop! I was trying to save them! And then I woke up and knew I had done it again. Yelling in my sleep.

In neither of these dreams I felt any fear, I was just trying to stop something. But in the recent dream, it was so disturbing I didn’t want to go back to sleep because I didn’t want it to continue. Well, enough of that.

Our trail to Doban included some of the longest series of steps we’d see along the trek. One of them is called “Stairway to Heaven,” in fact. Hmmm. On this day, we’d be climbing down these. But I kept in my memory bank the fact that we’d be retracing these same steps UP on our return!

We ate our breakfast outside again which was very nice. While we ate, I couldn’t help but notice the porters slinging so much stuff on their backs. Amazing.

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I think I finally found my trekking rhythm today. On the steeps, I was purposely taking “rest steps,” and not worrying about keeping up. And I even got complimented by those behind me for my pace. As usual, I needed to de layer all the time. Today it was more challenging, as a breath of fog climbed up the valley during lunch, so whilst I was sweating, the fog was cooling and a little damp. Several of us even donned our rain shells for a bit. It was hard to decide what to wear. It began to drizzle, and most of us put pack covers over our day packs.

Then, sometime in the last 30 minutes of our hike it began to rain in earnest. It was too late now to put on a rain coat. We just slogged through it, and reached Doban just in time. The lodge had the dining area reserved for us, and we hunkered down in the dining area for a while, had our “happy hour” tea, coffee, Pringles and popcorn, whilst our crew set up camp. And then the heavens truly opened up. Very chilly and torrential. But we were inside then, and LUCKY! We talked and talked and reminisced about the day, and then finally the rain abated and the tents were ready for us. My tent had a bit of condensation coming up through the floor, but I figured out how to deal with it. My duffel was a rafting bag and immune from moisture. And I used the crew’s waterproof duffel as a floor mat for my backpack. That, plus my upper tent laundry line kept everything dry. No problems for the sleeping bag as it was on top of the generously sized insulated sleeping pad. This night, aside from occasional drizzle, the rain was just a 90-minute local downpour.

In the morning, no rain. Good for hiking.

 





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 approximately 6,500′, 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!

 





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!