Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Trekking in Nepal – Day 7 – Marfa to Kagbeni

This day is full of new sights, new surprises.  Today I felt the foreignness of Nepal as I have not before.  We have left the Hindu lowlands behind, and are now in the area settled a decade ago or more by Tibetan refugees.  There is no lush greenery, no fertile croplands or orchards, only the austere high desert surrounded by snowy mountains whose remoteness only adds to the austerity.

This morning as we leave town Bima, our head guide, spots a Multinath/Pokhara/Nepal twin of my  wind-snatched Monterey Kayak hat hanging in a window – now I am equipped again!

We walk along the river bed in the morning cool, watching the airplanes fly in low toward Jomsom, our lunch destination. It is heartening to see that air traffic is moving again, since our plan is to fly back to Pokhara in a couple of days and have a day to unwind before getting back to Kathmandu, also by plane, if all goes as planned (but it won’t.)

When we get to Jomsom  DB again wants to take a jeep for the next leg up the hill .  Hearing of the gray, rocky, dry, dusty, flat hike ahead to Kagbeni, DM and I wimped out and agreed to join her on the jeep.  In fact, a certain amount of bravery is required to get into one of these 4-wheeled engines of doom;  we careen along at probably a top speed of 30 mph but it feels like 70, dodging weary trekkers, donkey caravans, motor scooters, and one very large bus, which brings muffled shrieks from DB in the front seat.  We only ford a few streams, only come perilously close to the edge of the eroded road once or twice, and it is only 45 minutes. The hikers we pass look every bit as unhappy as we feared we would have been, scarved against our dust, bent under their burdens, squinting as we pass.

Kagbeni offers a lovely guest house in a very old Tibetan style village;  We enjoy lunch on the sunporch and then spend the afternoon exploring the village.  We visit the gaily painted Buddhist monastery which dates back to 749 AD, and has marvelous murals, mandalas, carved and painted pillars, and all sorts of ritual objects, including ancient scrolls kept under lock and key, intricate marzipan figurines made as sacrificial offerings, conch shells from who knows what distant ocean used on ceremonial occasions, and countless statues and portraits of Buddhas and Bhodisattvas.

The Wheel of Life at the top of this post  shows humans progressing toward heaven or hell (was Breughel influenced by Tibetan Buddists?  Hell looks truly horrible!), but the entire Wheel is threatened by the God of Death ready to destroy the entire cosmos.

We also admire the graphically  male and female effigies of the village gods who protected the village before Buddhism arrived.   who is also endowed with genuine yak fur mustache and eyebrows, real teeth, a painted cloak and belt, and a real metal knife. The female effigy is about half the size of the male, and gets no paint or fur embellishment.

In the evening we all sit around a big table with a bunch of Germans and one Dutch girl enjoying the charcoal brazier warming our feet under the table, with our down jackets keeping us warm above the table, reluctant to leave in fear of the cold distance between charcoal brazier and sleeping bag.  Despite the differences in languages and nationality around the table, we feel closer to these Europeans in outlook than to the folks who created and maintain both the village guardians and the Wheel of Life.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 6 – Kalipani to Marfa

The ecology and culture of the area has changed completely.  Instead of blue guesthouses haphazardly cleaned and decorated with marigolds and Hindu shrines, we now have gleaming whitewashed homes with wood (a sign of wealth) piled on the roofs and Buddhist stupas appear at the entrance to each tiny town.

Instead of banana trees we are now passing apple orchards, with the cored and peeled apple rings hung to dry on racks above the houses. (Question – why don’t birds eat them?  Why aren’t there roof rats or other rodents to wreak destruction? Maybe the apples are exotic and the local fauna doesn’t recognize them as edible? A mystery.)

We had a lovely morning walk along the glacial green Kali Gulkhari river, encountering a group of German mountain bikers who enjoyed barreling across the suspension bridges.  Then a tea break amid the apple orchards.  The guides sorted through a bushel of apples and bagged the best to take with them – because area transportation is so spotty, these apples will be greeted as a luxury back in Pokhara.

Then came a stretch of flat gray desolate land along the flood plain of the Kali Gulkhari: we crossed its tributaries on stepping stones and log bridges, waiting our turn with the oxen.

By the time we rejoined the bus road the wind and dust  were picking up along the river.  We left DB, one of the assistants, and all the large packs at one of the small villages  to catch a jeep to Marfa while DM, the other three guides and I pressed on.  We spotted DB’s jeep coming and I struggled with my trekking poles, grit in my eye from the wind and dust, and my camera in my right hand trying to take a picture;  a sudden gust of wind seized my trusty Monterey Kayaks hat and swept it over the parapet and at least 100 feet straight down.  Rats!

I used my Biffie to shield my scalp for the rest of the day’s walk, wide brimmed sunhats being scarce at the Tibetan craft shops on the way to Marfa.

We reached Marfa just as the sun was setting beyond the mountains, leaving the town in dusky shade (and giving an unreal blue tinge to my photos.  The white-washed stones and pale cobbles contrast with the heavy dark doorways and windows;  the streets are so narrow that the houses seem to loom over the passersby.  Where the  casual litter of towns on the lower level leds to a feeling of  congenial informality, in Marfa and other high-elevation towns there are communal sanctions for any shopkeeper who does not keep his shop in order and his share of sidewalk swept and neat.  Even the dogs are well-behaved.

The guest house at Marfa gave us a lovely large room with big windows looking out at the mountains. 300 steps up from the guest house was a Buddhist monastery, with a lavishly painted shrine, cubbyholes for storing ancient religious scrolls, prayer flags fluttering everywhere.  But there are only 20 or so monks in residence – it is  hard to keep them, we were told – the young men keep leaving for warmer altitudes, busier throughways.

Tips for Travelers in Nepal – Clothing

In general, women in the rural areas of Nepal dress very conservatively, with long sleeves and long skirts being the norm outside of Kathmandu and Pokhara.  Nepalese who run guest houses and other tourist services on the Annapurna circuit have become enured to seeing women in trousers, but bare shoulders and short shorts will draw unwanted attention.

To bring:

  1. Two pair of many-pocketed hiking pants – the kind with zip-off legs is good, although I never used that feature.  I had only one pair which I wore for 11 straight days of hiking – by the end of the trek they could stand on their own.
  2. A brimmed hat.  A baseball cap will not be enough to protect your nose and neck at high altitudes. Make sure the hat has ties for under the chin – a brisk wind can carry off your hat in the moment it takes to shift a trekking pole to your other hand and try to grab the hat.
  3. Lots of layers of clothes – short sleeve T’s, long sleeved T’s, preferably wick-away material that keeps moisture away from your skin. A water-resistant lightweight wind-breaker with a hood and lots of pockets. A fleece jacket.
  4. A change of clothes for evening.  I gained a new understanding of the rational behind the old tradition of “dressing for dinner.”  If you have been walking all day, if the shower has only cold water and the sink is for public use in the courtyard, , it is still amazingly refreshing to put on something different, even if the skin underneath is un-scrubbed.  My evening outfit consisted of clean undies, my long johns (top and bottom) and a long skirt, with a T-shirt on top. After dinner I could just take off the skirt and shirt and hop into my sleeping bag.
  5. A change of shoes.  Your feet will thank you if you let them escape the hiking boots for more flexible footwear at the end of the day. Thong sandals are useful for getting in and out of a wet-floored shower/toilet combination room, but they get chilly. DM used Tivo sandals;  I liked the watershoes I brought – waterproof, easy to get on and off, wearable with socks for warmth if needed.
  6. A Biffie – one of those lightweight knit loops of cloth that can be used as a headband, hat, neck scarf, or face-covering.  When a sudden dust storm envelops you on the dusty trail across a dry riverbed, or a giant lorry passes you by, being able to cover your mouth and nose on short notice is a blessing.
  7. A conservative bathing suit and wrap if your route takes you to Tadopani – after several days of iffy hot water supplies the unlimited hot spring should not be missed – even though the fence is lined with ogling Nepali men. A bikini would probably cause a riot. [ See post from Day 4  ]

Trekking in Nepal – Day 5 – Tadupani to Kalipani

If Pun Hill was the overture to the Himalayas, the road to Kalopani is the main movement – we walked all day in a lush landscape decked with marigolds and bougainvillea and ringed by snow peaks.

This was an easy but long walk – 8 KM. Most tours break this segment at Ghasa; our guides had combined what was normally a two day stint into one in order to provide some wiggle room in our schedule for returning to Kathmandu (a very good decision, as it turned out!).

We lunched at a stunning spot overlooking the Kali Gandaki river gorge, with the beautiful Rupse Chharara falls cascading 5000+ feet down the neighboring mountain. We then crossed the first of several spectacular suspension bridges over “the deepest gorge in the world.”  (This is somewhat of an exaggeration, since they count from the top of the surrounding mountains, not from the adjoining roadbed.)

At Ghasa DB decided on a different adventure –at 3PM she could not face another three hours of walking and decided to take the public bus to  (brave lass!).  DB and I kept on to thrill at alpenglow on the peaks, then the full moon rising over the mountains, and arriving at our guest house by moonlight. Bena, our guide, had gone ahead with Dianne, and the three assistants led us on the shortcuts- including a clamber up and across a rocky, pebbly, thin trail across the face of a cliff where we were literally sidling along the trail in the half-dark clinging with our fingertips… we decided we would rather have walked around, thanks, but once started there was no returning – and by that time we were too tired to be actually scared.  The two friendly dogs romping up and down the path around us were not helpful.  And then the full moon rose over the mountains, bathing everything in a silver light almost as bright as day.

Kalopani, like most Nepalese towns, closes at dusk.  We plodded through the town by moonlight, passed by  an occasional motorbike or bus, my feet complaining about every picturesque cobblestone they encountered.  Happily, our trek ended at the Kalopani Guest House, which to our eyes seemed as luxurious as a  Ritz Carlton.  We had a large room with wood paneling, and our own gleaming white ceramic tile bathroom!

The dining room boasted a carved and mirrored bar, a long table occuppied by high-spirited Germans,  and a high-speed internet connection. The charcoal brazier placed under our dinner table to warm our feet was the crowning touch. DB threatened to marry the smiling, English-speaking proprietor, but he demurred on grounds that his existing wife would object.  He explained that he and his family had recently invested their pooled savings to upgrade the guest house in hopes of attracting more tourists, and urged us to spread the word to recruit more trekkers among our friends.  He looked all of eighteen.

Our Tax Dollars at Work ( Los Altos Town Crier May 1, 2012)

On Tax Day this year I found myself flying into Dulles International Airport.  There was some turbulence, but our landing under the direction of the FAA-trained traffic controller was silken smooth.

As we taxied to the gate, we passed the space shuttle Discovery, still piggy-backed on its 747 shuttle waiting for enshrinement at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum near the airport.

The next day we spent several hours in the museum, guided by a volunteer docent brimming with anecdotes and information about the jet planes, rockets, satellites, and space exploration – so many achievements that were only made possible by a wartime or Cold War-time national commitment.

That afternoon we proceeded through the springtime electric green east coast countryside on US routes 15 and 30 to Gettysburg and its marvelously evocative National Battlefield. The landscape is meticulously preserved as it appeared in Matthew Brady’s historic photographs taken only a few days after the battle almost 150 years ago.  Again, park rangers were available at major points to tell an audience of school children, Boy and Girl Scouts, parents, and other tourists about what happened here that formed our national consciousness.

We had previously visited the Park Department’s Visitor’s Center which offers both panoramic and microscopic information about the politics, military strategy, soldier life and every other aspect of the battle that one could imagine. The famous Cyclorama 360 degree painting is there along with a short film about slavery that will bring a tear to the most jaded eye.

The next day we took my centenarian mother-in-law, who raised her family in Gettysburg, to visit her favorite spots on the battlefield.  Thanks to the improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, we were able to wheel her to almost all the most nostalgic spots both on the battle field and on the campus of Gettysburg College where she had worked for many years.

My mother-in-law never held any job title higher than Executive Secretary to the college president, but her contributions through her working career have provided her with competent and caring medical coverage in the thirty-five years (so far) since her retirement.

We stopped off at the post office to mail some Gettysburg history  and other used books that we had picked up; since we were in no hurry to get these the cost was just under $8.00 to ship the 12”x12”x12” box across the country.

Throughout our trip we stayed in close touch with my mother and two children via Internet email (formerly known as ARPANET, developed and still maintained by the US Defense department).

Safe air travel, flight technology, space exploration, highways, postal service, national heritage parks, handicapped access, secure old age, Internet communication….

Folks who complain about your taxes – What part of this heritage, these services would you not want to support? I’m happy to pay my fair share for all these things and many more that I could never accomplish on my own.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 4 – Shikha to Tadupani

Day 4 – Shikha to Tadupani

The morning is bright and clear and there is a view of Khilghari Peak out my window.  This is a great day of hiking – we are on ups, downs, and flats, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.  We cross swaying suspension bridges over chasms where the river runs white over huge rocks far below. (This had been one of my fears – that I would have an attack of vertigo in the middle of one of these bridges and freeze in panic.  Happily, these crossings turned out to be thrilling, not terrifying – though both DM and DB confessed to being afraid to look down.)

 The fields are golden with the buckwheat harvest.  Every home is trimmed with drying corn cobs hung from the eaves by the hundreds.  Sun means hot – we are stripped down to single layers of clothing as we descend  to rain forest levels again,  some but the brilliance of the flowers and the mountains makes it ok.

Due to our slow descent, we arrive at Tadupani quite late for lunch (3PM).  Hunger does not bring out the best in me!  Once fed, we are free to enjoy “the Palm Springs of Nepal.”  Tadupani literally means “hot water” and at the riverside just below our little cabin are the hot pools – one VERY hot, one deliciously warm, plus a shower with free-flowing warm water where one can wash one’s hair.  The pools are full of trekkers, and surrounded outside the fence by Nepali gawkers – young men staring at the Western women in their revealing swim suits.

The guesthouse at Tadupani comprises a number of little cabins surrounded by a tropical garden.  Our  cabin is a duplex with a shared shower in a separate room behind and a big bunch of green bananas nodding from a banana tree at the front door.  DB locks the entry and is enjoying the shower as DM and I explore the hot spring, but discovers to her embarrassment that the cabin door cannot be unlocked from outside, she must sprint buck-naked from the shower to re-admit DM and I, and meanwhile the other half of the duplex which she had thought was empty is now occupied by two young Frenchmen. They are sitting on the steps smoking as we go up to the lodge for  dinner, and greet us with bland smiles.

The dining room and patio are full of Germans and Americans and Dutch and Israelis and Koreans all swigging beer and swapping stories – in some ways tea-house trekking in Nepal is  a giant mobile summer camp for grown-ups.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 3 – Pun Hill to Shika

If the Himalayas are a symphony, Pun Hill would be the overture.

DM and I wake at 4:45 to hike to the top of Pun Hill for our first glimpse of the Himalaya since our arriving flight.  The stars are blazing in a black sky.  We don our headlamps and set out. 500 meters along, the fog sets in. 100 meters later, about 20 of our number, including DM, turn back, convinced there will be nothing to see.  Bettina (from Illinois) Jennie (from NM) and I press on with two guides.  45 minutes later Bettina, who has gone ahead, lets out a war whoop.  We turn the corner and there is Annapurna Thang rising grandly above the ocean of fog like an island in the sky.  Far off is the twisted double peak of Macchapucchre – the Fishtail Mountain, the sacred peak that no-one is allowed to climb.

As we go on, other peaks rise out of the fog – it is not quite sunrise, and they are peachy pink. By the time we are at the summit (10,532 feet), the peaks are glowing golden, and we are jumping with excitement, taking pictures of the mountains, taking pictures of and with each other, and with the guides, who are also excited (and relieved). We drink hot tea along with the views.  Finally about 7:15 the guides suggest descent.  WOW!  It is hard to leave so much beauty.  I am drunk with exhiliration! (Maybe the altitude had a little to do with it?)

The rest of the day is downhilll – literally.  DM and DB had caught views of some of the mountains when the fog lifted at the guest house, so they are not too crushed at missing what I saw.  So we start down, down, down. DM has Swiss ancestors and confident feet and leads the way, but Dianne and I have both experienced slipping on the wet marble or stone steps, so we clamber down like infants one step at a time sideways.

It take us 10 hours to get to our next stop – Shika, at 6348 feet.   (It was supposed to be five - we took a lot of breaks!)  This is a small guest house with rooms too small for 3 beds, so they put me in the “lucky room” – with the family shrine. Vishu, Ganesh, and Shiva watch over me as I sleep.

Tips for the Traveller in Nepal – Money and Security

How much does it cost to trek in Nepal ? Well, that depends on the trekker, the trail chosen, and unforeseen circumstances.  (There will always be unforeseen circumstances).

For our 12-day trek,  the total quote from 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking was $1222 per person – about $100/day. This  included flights from Kathmandu to and from Pokhara, and from Jomsom to Pokhara, most guest-house charges (including all meals, tea, beds, but excluding sodas, mineral water, and alcoholic drinks), transportation to the start of the trek, guide, and porter service.

In addition, from 3 sisters  I rented a down sleeping bag, trekking poles, a large back pack for the assistant guide to tote my stuff in and a down jacket, at a total charge of  1320 NPR ( about $1.43/day for 11 days).

You should plan to tip the guide and the porters/assistant guides.  Plan on 20% of the cost of the trip for the head guide and maybe 15% for the assistant who carries your backpack. (Oops!  Cost just went up, didn’t it?) This should be in cash, so allow for time to visit the ATM in Pokhara or make sure you have retained enough cash from before the trek.

In addition to the tips for the guides, budget at least 800 Nepalese rupees (about $10 USD)/day of trekking for odd expenses and shopping.  Have the cash with you in small denominations – there are few ATMs on the trekking circuit, and lots of irresistible expenses: Tibetan crafts, pashmina scarves, yak-fur blankents, Internet cafés….  If you flash a large-denomination bill, you only invite inflated prices.

Haggling over prices is traditional throughout Nepal.  It is very easy to get swept into a competitive spirit of trying to get the cheapest price no matter what – try to keep perspective.  If you pay 500NPR ($5.90 USD) for a yak-wool blanket and your friend is gloating that she paid only 450NPR for hers – that’s a savings of 60 cents.   Relax!

If you are worried about security for your cash and equipment, bring your own lock for your guest-house door.  Most are secured with a padlock of some sort, but monitoring of the access keys is haphazard.

We actually ended up with a small refund on our prepayment as we had to use jeep and bus transport instead of in-country flights – but that’s getting ahead of my story.

Remember that you must  change your Nepali currency back to Thai or US or whatever you will need next at the Kathmandu Airport – some other countries, including the US,  will not accept Nepali rupees for  exchange.  If your next stop is Thailand,  you will be glad of the Bhat if you find ATMs closed (as we did) on your arrival in Bangkok.

(I learned this the hard way – if anyone is going to Nepal and wants a bargain rate on abour $70USD in Nepali Rupees let me know – no foreign exchange or bank on the West Coast will take them.)

Nepal – trekking in the Annapurnas – Day 2 Hille to Ghorepani


Up and packing at 6:45AM; our troupe of 9 women engaged in a yoga session after breakfast led by our tour guide – we all share the same thoughts on how to fend off age – just keep moving and don’t look back!

On the trail an hour later. It is still foggy. Yesterday was a warm-up for today’s journey, which is twice as long, twice as high. Happily DB shows no symptom of altitude sickness or exhaustion today, even though we are constantly gaining altitude. We left the rain forest behind and below, and walked instead past orchards of cherry trees in full blossom.  Occasional drizzle brought out the rain covers and water-proof parkas.

Today’s segment was billed as 5 hours of walking; we stretched it to 10 hours, with breaks, including close encounters with bullock carts, pony caravans, and a herd of goats. At intervals along the trail there are stopping spots, walls of stone with two steps constructed at a height convenient for the porters to lean against the lower step while resting their carefully-balanced baskets on the ledge. The design works equally well for backpacks.
Tip to trekkers: be careful to sit ON the stone bench if possible. Nepal boasts a species of stinging nettle which can penetrate a pair of lightweight trekking pants with no trouble. It’s not a memory you will cherish!
We finally arrived at Lower Ghorepani at 5PM. Ghorepani is a nest of bright-blue-painted guest houses, all claiming the best view of the Annapurnas. Due to the persistent overcast, we had no way to judge. We shambled past guest house after guest house and finally a good half hour later reached ours – the Sunny Guest House. We are told that in clear weather from here the view is terrific. Tomorrow, if the skies are clear in the early morning, we will get up at 4:30 AM and hike another mile uphill to get the panoramic view of the Annapurnas from Pun Hill. Tonight again it pours rain.

Nepal – Trekking in the Annapurnas – Day One – Pokhara to Hille

Talk about herding cats!  20 women (9 trekkers, two guides, 9 assistants/porters) trying to get organized at once on the front porch of the Chhetri Sisters guesthouse.  The people all fit inside three large SUV’s;  half the gear went on top held on by bungee cords and tarps.   Trekkers carry their own day packs with a few layers of clothes, at least two quarts of water, rain gear, and whatever else you deem essential for the day.  Beyond that, 3 Sisters porter’s packs are limited to 25 lbs – 20 lbs for the guest and 5 lbs for the porter.   3 Sisters porters are provided with hiking shoes and decently balanced back-packs, and wear logo shirts and jackets while on the job.

To help you appreciate how ground-breaking this is for Nepali touring, here is a shot of a typical male porter on the trail.  The whole load is balanced with a tum line across the forehead;  if it should slip, he 1) tumbles or 2) strangles and either way is 3) dead.

The trail to Hille, our first night’s stop, goes  up through rain forest  past villages where rice was being harvested and left to dry in the sun, past blooming hibiscus, poinsettias, and twining squash vines.   Fog and overcast made walking easier, as we climbed up and up on dirt, granite, marble steps, as the Mohdi Kohla River receded further and further below.

At one point we were overtaken by several impossibly tall and fit Germans wearing helmets and carrying kayaks.   Suddenly they plunged off the trail and down a narrow footpath – they were evidently kayaking through the rapids back down the valley to Pokhara.  This takes adventure trekking to an entirely new level!

Hille is a small town whose livelihood depends on trekking traffic and rice.  In this part of Nepal the lucky color is blue (probably still influenced by Hindu tradition, where blue is the color of Vishnu.)  So every guest house is painted the same electric blue – very appealing visually but hard to distinguish one from the other. 

Warning:  If your guest house advertises solar showers, this means that if the day has been foggy, or if you arrive behind other groups of trekkers, there will be no hot water for you.  Set modest expectations!

It was here that we first experienced the unpredictability and scariness of altitude sickness.  All three of us live at or near sea level but had trained for the trek by hiking at 9000 feet in the Rockies;  DB had spent quite a bit of additional  time with additional hiking at 9000-9500 feet in the Sierras.  At Hille the elevation is a modest 4800 feet.  DM and I were tired but basically exhilirated by our first day’strekking experience;  DB was stupefied.  The combination of altitude and exertion left her so exhausted that she was between incoherent and comatose.  DB and I managed to get some aspirin into her, manoevered her into her sleeping bag, and crossed our fingers.

(Coming next: Day 2 – Hille to Ghorepani )

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