Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Are We There Yet? - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Jen and I started our trek of the Annapurna region in Kathmandu with a 7 hour bus ride to Besisahar. Within an hour we befriended a charming couple from the States, Tracey and Corey. Little did we know that this little counter would lead to 3 week trekking partners and good friends. After a short hike we reached our first town and acquired another trekking partner and a fast friend in Chuck. We went from a duo to a trekking gang within hours.

The Annapurna Circuit is 300km of trail that circles some of the worlds biggest mountains, Annapurna I, II, II, Dhaulagiri, and Gangapurna. All of which tower over 7500m. The trek meanders through lush sub-tropic forest, desert, mountain shrub and high mountain regions with no vegetation and little life. At its apex is Thorong La (Thorong pass) at 5416m. The pass is situated at the edge of the Tibetan plateau and has long been a trading route with Tibet.
The first three full days involved waking up at 6AM, trekking for 7-8 hours, eating dinner and then collapsing into bed exhausted. I was definitely out of shape and unaccustomed to this much trekking, let alone with a 35lb pack on. I was a little worried how my knees were going to hold up. A 5km run usually renders me immobile the next day. Luckily I found some great knee braces and a couple stretches to hold the knee pain at bay.

In the mornings we would see one of the giant mountains slightly peaking up over the foothills but would quickly disappear once we started trekking. On the the 5th day we were greeted by Paunga Danda, a rock face that rises more 1500m from the trail, a mountain that locals believe that the soul must climb to reach heaven. Now the great mountains were a permanent fixture of the landscape as they punched their way through the ground almost touching the sky. I was transfixed to these massive snow capped behemoths. I tripped many times while gazing in awe at these palisades.

On the seventh day we had to rest in Manang for a day to acclimatize to the altitude as we had now reached 3600m. The air is noticeably thinner and we still have 2000m to go! Unfortunately I became ill the previous day and gladly welcomed the rest day to recover. From here to the pass we hiked a maximum of 600m per day. If this mark is exceeded, you risk getting Acute Mountain Sickness. Having acquired this in Tibet I didn't particularly want to get it again so we took our time. Even though our days were reduced to 3-4 hours of trekking, the trails seemed to go straight up and with the air becoming increasingly thin, all of us struggled to catch what little air there was.

At this point in the trek all of the charming tea houses owned by adorable Nepali couples I grew to love vanished and in their stead were lodges without any allure or quaintness. Likewise, the higher one treks the more expensive the food becomes. At 800m, Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) is 60-80 rupees, at 4500m it is 450 rupees! At this elevation there is 1 maybe 2 options to eat at or stay the night. There is no negotiating here, they are firm, unemotional and stoic, like the mountains they live by.

The morning of the final ascent we started the hike at 5:15AM. With lungs gasping for oxygen, legs burning and and extremities freezing we slowly trudged in the snow towards Thorong La by the light of our headlamps. Having the piercing wind swirl around easily made the temperature -20 degrees. After what seemed like endless false summits and 3 hours of hiking, we had reached our goal of 5416m, Thorong La. The day was now clear and the sun was warm as if rewarding us for a difficult morning. A photo session quickly broke out and treats of gummies and cookies where passed around. Our once cold bitter morning moods were now jubilant and playful. With the 600m ascension finished we now had the very long 1890m descent to deal with. Some days it feels like the trekking never ends.

The following days provided us with picturesque towns and a return to the charming tea houses. Even though the climax of Thorong La was under our belts we still had just under 150km left in the circuit. A couple days later the deepest valley in the world with its desert scape welcomed us with 80km gusts of wind that stung our faces and pushed at our bodies as we tried to make progress. Two days further still, the trail stopped and the despised road began. None of us liked trekking on the road. Its dusty, noisy and the constant stream of cars destroys any magic the Himalaya once held. After two days of debating whether to take a jeep or finish the trek, Chuck opted for jeep while the remaining four endured two more days of road until we reached Tatopani and its much anticipated hot springs where we all soaked our strained muscles and joints.

After discovering how good the food was at our guest house we decided to rested an extra day in Tatopani and gorge ourselves on the surprisingly good enchiladas. We absolutely need the extra fuel to conquer our biggest ascent of the circuit, 1700m in one day. Followed by our biggest descent the following day, 2075m. Yikes! I didn't have much left in the tank for that big ascent and it felt like I barely made it to the town of Gorapani. The next day we climbed the 200m to Poon Hill where we were treated to one of the best views of the trek, one might even call it a defining moment. After the cold morning at Poon Hill we made our way down the 2070m to our final destination of Naya Pul. The trail was comprised entirely of tiny stone steps. Half way down my legs were already shaking and pushing my me closer to failure and a broken face. During the descent we noticed that there was a 71km race that took the entrants 2400m up and 2100m back down on the same little stairs. After that I stopped complaining about my legs. The winner of the race finished in 7 hours, just 1.5 hours more than it took me just to go down.

The Annapurna Circuit was a glorious, challenging, rewarding and stunning trek that will stay with me forever. I also had the opportunity to meet and befriend some marvelous people who shared this wonderful journey with me. Both the Himalaya and my new friends will always have a special place with me.

"Our way is not soft grass, it's a mountain with lots of rocks. But it goes upward, forward, toward the sun."
Ruth Westheimer

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tragic Beauty - Tibet

On the way to the Nepal/Tibet boarder the first thing our guide told us was that any picture of the Dalai Lama, a Tibet guide book or Buddhist icon would be confiscated during either the police or military search. I haven't even stepped foot in Tibet and already the Chinese government is trampling on things I take for granted. At the boarder I decided to rip out the pages out of my Tibet guide book I thought necessary for the trip and hid them in my pants. At the boarder the Nepalese guards smiled and said "Namaste" while on the other side of the bridge we were greeted by Chinese soldiers with stern faces and passport checks. At security I went through two checks where they flipped through my books to ensure Chinese doctrine was not challenged. As I left security I realized I forgot about my Buddha that Gendun gave me which definitely would have been confiscated had they found it. Whew.

On the second day we started our journey through the Himalayas. The scenery is unbelievable. Snow covered mountains dominate your vision and hypnotize you into pure awe. No amount of time gazing at these majestic mammoths can diminish their beauty. The only problem was that on only the second day of traveling we hit the first of three passes that reach 5000 meters. At this height altitude sickness is common and everyone that day came down with some form of it. That night was one of the worst sleeps in my life and I felt terrible the entire following day. It feels like being extremely hungover. Most suffered minor ailments from the altitude and one person suffered a major symptoms which didn't lift for four days.

The first town we visited seemed like a typical Tibetan town with traditional Tibetan homes and restaurants serving momos (dumplings) and thukpa (yak meat noodle soup). As we drew nearer and nearer to Lhasa the effect of Chinese migration was palatable. Beautiful Tibetan homes were replaced by modern buildings, and the number of Chinese was rising dramatically. By the time we reached Lhasa there was barely a trace of the charming Tibetan culture I was becoming so fond of. Big buildings, bright lights, Chinese script shadowing Tibetan and a ratio of two Chinese for every Tibetan constantly made you wonder where you where. It was difficult to wrap my mind around and I struggled to ensure my money went to support Tibetans as most businesses are Chinese owned.

We had two days in Lhasa with our group and another four on our own, which I'm shocked the Chinese government allowed. The Potala is the most dominating structure in Lhasa. Built by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 1600's as the religious and political headquarters of Tibet. It is a engineering marvel and easily one of my favorite sights. I became a little obsessed with it and went there as often as I could. During our time in Tibet we managed to visit five monasteries/temples. It was amazing to see the incense rich, chanting filled, yak butter candle lit, heavily used temples. The murals filled every wall and used every color. Buddhas, Lamas, and deities of every size filled countless chapels and pilgrims prayed and gave alms to each. Sadly, all monasteries are Chinese government controlled. Temples went from housing thousands of monks to mere hundreds and enrollment is strictly governed by the Chinese. 3000 monasteries/temples (90%) were destroyed along with a million plus Tibetans killed during the "Cultural Revolution" of the seventies. The story of "Peaceful Liberation" the Chinese government spews is unbelievable transparent propaganda. One of the biggest lies in history.

We were fortunate to have been there during Losar , the Tibetan New Year. On the last day of celebration fireworks went off for hours as we ate dinner. March is also the month that the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. Because of these two events Tibet is politically unstable. During our six days in Lhasa the military and police presence seemed to grow exponentially. On the first day there where military guards at every entrance into Old Lhasa and on the last day there where guards on roof tops, posted at every intersection and groups of eight patrolled the city endlessly. I've never seen so many guns and felt to intimidated in my life.

To the Tibetans credit, they always treated us with kindness and a smile. It took but a "Teshidelek" (hello) to coax a smile or conversation from them. During a stop on the way to Lhasa Jen and I went to a local restaurant for some momo soup. After we where finished we went to pay the owner but he refused to take our money and just waied (bowed in respect) to us insisting that our food was on him. Incredible! In Lhasa when trying to order food in a very busy, English void and confusing restaurant a Tibetan helped me navigate the process of ordering food. After, outside the restaurant, while a rickshaw was trying to charge me a ridiculous amount of money to take me to the Potala, the same Tibetan came out and insisted that he drive me. Tibetans are easily some of the most amazing people I've ever met.

It was very hard to witness the enormous military presence making sure that Tibetans fall in line with the Mao doctrine. As our guide told us one day, "Tibetans may look very happy but inside, their hearts are broken." It is amazing after all the Tibetans have been through in the last sixty years that their spirit can still find hope and their Buddhist beliefs unbroken.

On our last day in Lhasa we decided to go for a hike in the mountains behind Sera Monastery. We approached the main entrance and veered to the left to go down the kora (pilgrim circuit usually around a monastery or temple). As we walked a police officer began to yell at us. After some questions in English and Chinese (which we could only shrug at) we finally persuaded the officer to let us continue. Halfway around the kora a random Tibetan questioned us about our guide (which is mandatory but we no longer had) and which travel agency we used. The Chinese have spies everywhere including drivers in tour groups such as the one we took. Sufficiently tripped out now we seriously debated whether we should continue up the mountain. Following a nervous discussion we decided to proceed. After a lung burning multiple rest taking trek to the ridge at 4200m, we relaxed and enjoyed the view of Lhasa below us. On the way down we were attacked by a dog. Fortunately we were able to scare it off before any damage was done. This didn't help our already jittery nerves and we shakily continued to the lora. Once we completed the kora we walked past the front entrance hoping for an easy out. No such luck. The same police officer began questioning us again. Now I was nervous since we took much longer than the normal time to complete the kora. Again, after many questions he decided to let us continue onward.

This was a ridiculous ordeal to hike a mountain. I can only imagine what the Tibetans go through. My heart goes out to them all. If anyone is interested, I encourage them to learn more about the plight in Tibet. These are but a few stories in an endless trail of human rights abuses.

"Free Tibet"