Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Intermission – New adventure begins tomorrow

I’ll be off on another exploration tomorrow -I expect this will be as much internal as external.  I will be escorting my nonagenarian mother on a deluxe cruise around the Baltic Sea.  This will be Something Completely Different, as

1. I have never taken a cruise longer than three days

2. I have never taken a deluxe cruise

3. I have always done ACTIVE travel – hiking, trekking, camping, biking… this will not be possible with my travel companion, who is socially and spiritually vibrant but also visually, audially, and mobility impaired.

I expect that my eyes, mind, and heart will be opened – travel does that, no matter where or how – and in ways that I cannot predict.  I’m not sure how soon I will be able to post again – thanks to all my followers who  stay tuned!

Three Perfect Days in Chiang Mai – Twitter version

I don’t tweet, but if I did have to encapsulate our Chiang Mai stay in less than 140 characters, it would go like this:

Go to Chiang Mai. Check into River View Lodge. Stay three days. Go home. Perfect.

Oh, you’d like a little more detail?

Day One: Woke to sunshine!  Out our window – a lovely patio garden, and a river view.  Breakfast on the patio looking out over the river, with real French-style croissants (not just crescent-shaped bread). Then out to see Chiang Mai armed with our Lonely Planet guides.  Temples – shops – stupas – temples – shops – stupas – shops – temples – shops. DM has gone mad, bitten by the bargaining bug.  As a result, what should have been an hour-long stroll to the central temple took three hours.  We break for lunch at a bustling Thai restaurant packed with people and wonderful smells.  Afterward, it is getting hotter – more shops and temples.  Too late for massage – we return to hotel and settle for a COLD swimming pool.

After  this refreshment we walked a couple of blocks to the  Night Market for dinner and a folk dance/folk music performance – and more shopping.

Day Two: Shower (After 12 days trekking, I can’t get too much hot water!), laundry, breakfast (those croissants again) , and a little catch-up email at the free Internet computer under the banana trees, we walk to the Street of Silk – shop after shop of  beautiful glistening fabrics that made my fingers itch to touch, stroke, fold. Then we took a Tuk tuk (Motorscooter-style taxi) to the Women’s Correctional Institute for afoot massage and lunch.  Feet feel great!

Outside the prison building, as was true with many other public buildings, was a shrine dedicated to the much revered, ailing King of Thailand.  It was odd and touching to us Americans to see how deeply the King is loved, without a trace of the irony which us Westerners bring to our political figures.

DM consulted with the concierge at the Lodge and found an afternoon cooking class for us at Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School.  After an afternoon sight-seeing, we were picked up by “Mum:” the loud, brash, funny chef-in-charge.  We added 5 Italians, 2 Dutch, and 3 Germans to the van, and off to Mum’s garden/house/outdoor cooking school.  First an explanation of what is grown fresh in the garden (basil, mint, bean sprouts, lemongrass as expected; a peat wall unexpectedly sprouting mushrooms). Then to the nearby open air market for fresh fish, meat, additional spices, additional vegetables. The class was mostly conducted in English, the byplay between students mostly in German.  DM, a fluent German speaker, did some translating. We pounded, pestled, chopped, ground, stirred,  with Mum barking out commands like a drill sergeant.  And we did cook good food: soup, pad thai, and curry.  Happily back to our jungly hotel.

Day Three:

We took a taxi to Wat Doi Sethup on the top of the hill, barreling past the lovely campus of Chiang Mai University and the entrance to the Chiang Mai Zoo (pandas there!  Shoulda stopped!) The Wat is yet another extravanganza of golden buddhas, golden tile, folk-singing and dancing children from various schools asking for donations.

We walked around to the back to see the view of Chiang Mai spread out below, took a path partly down the mountain just to get away from the bell-ringing, chanting, and general cacophony that  seems to accompany Thai worship.  The peaceful tropical hillside of monks watering their garden, cats peeking out from the leafy undergrowth, seemed part of another world.

Feeling a bit burnt out, we settled for a quiet non-descript lunch at the River View Lodge, then walked across the Iron Bridge (pedestrians only) to a neighborhood massage parlor that Mum had  recommended to DM.  No one here was clutching a copy of the Lonely Planet guide – just dumpy middle-aged Thai folk on their work break, maybe, being pummeled by equally dumpy but very effective masseuse teams.  The masseuses were tickled to be working on a pair of silver-haired foreigners – they passed over our unusual scars and focused on our weary backs, legs, and shoulders.  Tea at the end – very nice, very quiet.

And for contrast that night – the Sunday Street Market.  The whole of the main street between the Canal and the temple is given over to street vendors of all sorts – musicians asking for donations, food vendors, book sellers, and the usual wood carvers, weavers, jewelers, gold and silversmiths, etc. Even the Buddhist stupas were selling food, drink, and crafts – no escape! We dropped off to a side plaza to find food at a vegetarian open air restaurant. By the time we finished, the market had become so crowded that it was nearly impossible to move – we had exhausted our gift list just ahead of our gift budgets, and so extricated ourselves and walked back to the hotel for our last peaceful sleep beside the river.


Tips for Travelers – Do as I Say, Not as I Do

During this day’s transition from Kathmandu, Nepal to Chiang Mai, Thailand, DM and I broke every rule of the experienced traveler, including:

1.  Allow plenty of extra time to get to the airport in case of traffic.

“Our international flight is at 1:30PM;  let’s arrange for a taxi at 10:30” say I.

“Oh, that’s silly,” says DM. “It’s only a 20 minute ride to the airport – make it 11:AM.” I didn’t feel like arguing, and also refrained from saying “I told you so” when the taxi arrived 20 minutes late, and traffic was horrendous.

2.  Besure to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the hotel.

Three blocks into the noon-time traffic of Kathmandu, DM shrieks “Oh No! I left my purse on the couch in the hotel lobby – we have to go back.” Fortunately, the taxi driver knew a back street, and the purse was still there.  And even more fortunately, the plane was a bit late.

3.  Be sure to check the rules about currency exchange if you have any significant amount of local currency left.

I had about $70 US in Nepalese rupees, which I decided in our hurry not to pause to exchange at the airport in Nepal.  It was only when I got to the US and tried to exchange that I found out that it is “illegal” to take NPR out of Nepal, and no other country will exchange the currency.

4.  Be sure to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the plane.

I stepped aside to check  the connecting flight number as we waited to exit the plane;  only after we were halfway up the concourse (fortunately, still within the security area) did I realize my backpack was too light – I had left my fanny pack/purse on the airplane seat.   I swam upstream against the flood of exiting passengers to retrieve it, and we loped through the concourse to catch our flight rather than making our anticipated R&R stop in the Thai Airways Orchid Lounge.

5.  Be sure you have some local currency in hand on arriving in a new country.

We had planned to grab some Thai currency in the Bangkok airport, but had no time between flights due to flight delay and my brain-dead episode.  By the time we arrived in Chiang Mai, the ATMs and currency exchange booths were shut down for the night.  Fortunately, DM’s neighbor had given her a few leftover baht to use as mad money – just enough to pay the taxi to our hotel.

So yes, we knew better.  God watches over fools.  We got there anyway.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 11 – Jomsom to Pokhara

This morning the weather in both Jomsom and Pokhara has turned overcast, foggy, and damp,  so no planes are flying.   The town is swarming with folks who wanted to fly and are now seeking wheels.   We fall back on Alternative Transport to cover the ~ 90 miles.  Flying would take less than 60 minutes. Alternative Transport? In Nepal that means

Stage 1 – Jomsom to Ghaza    –  Bina, our guide,  manages to secure a jeep – one of the standard white made-in-India models, with blue tarp duct-taped over the space where the rear window used to be, clear packaging tape overlying the spider-web of cracks in the windshield, and a roll of duct tape for emergencies hung on the gearshift lever.  The Nepalese standard usage is a minimum of 14 people plus baggage.  Happily, our resourceful guide hired the jeep for the seven of us, paying for the extra phantom 7 people at the Nepalese rate – 140 NR/person, or an extravagant $12.50 extra.  We got puzzled and disappointed looks all up the road from folk who wanted to flag down the jeep and fill the empty spaces.

We departed at about 8 AM.  Just out of town we stop to top off the gas tank.  No gas pump – just a five-gallon plastic jug full of gasoline and a siphon.  It’s primitive but it works.

About 5 Km into the journey, we make an unscheduled stop: the driver hops out and greets an elderly woman carrying a plastic bag full of garlic.  He examines the garlic, shakes his head, discards some of the more dubious roots, then slings the bag into the back of the jeep on top of our packs.

Another 5 KM – a very unusual sound comes from underneath the floor of the jeep, and the engine stops.   Within 5 minutes there are two buses headed the other way which have been forced to stop, their two drivers are standing around our jeep offering advice to our driver, who is underneath the jeep with a monkey wrench.  After about 15 minutes he emerges, wipes his hands on the grubby towel he had been lying on, and we proceed with cheering from our group.

Another 5 KM – The driver stops again and a young woman runs up to the jeep.  He brings  out the garlic, and gets a big smile from the happy homemaker.

Stage 2 – We arrive at Ghansa about noon.  The driver refuses to drive any further, as the bridge has washed out at the Rutche falls and there is no turnaround.  So we resume our packs and hike for two hours, plus a lunch stop just after making our way over the washed -out bridge, until we get to Tithze (?) where we hope to hire another jeep.  The walk is actually very pleasant – cool, bypassing the road, and it feels good after the hard seats and bouncy suspension of the jeep. But yet to come was

Stage 3 – at Tithze, no jeep is available – all have been booked by folks who walked faster than we did.  Bina books us on the next available bus, which was third in line to leave – again, the earlier buses had already filled with an eclectic collection of Tibetan refugee women in their colorful woven aprons, young Nepalese men in blue jeans, and a swarm of trekkers from Germany, France, Australia, the US, and many other points, in various stages of grunginess and grumpiness.

Bina got us onto the bus as early as possible before its 3PM departure to make sure everyone had a seat – that was fine, until the additional folks started filling in the cracks.  DM and DB and two Nepalese and two Frenchmen sat in the area in front of the partition that was designed to separate the driver from the passengers;  I was packed into my seat unable to move my legs as they were wedged in between the spare tire, four back packs, and a violin case, plus assorted legs of fellow passengers.  Fortunately, I had made an offering to Ganesha, the god of travellers, at the temple in Mulktinath, so we survived the trip, although DB had to exchange seats with Bina since she couldn’t stop herself from shrieking at every upcoming hairpin turn.  We thought that the bus was crammed full, but that didn’t stop additional passengers from hopping aboard through the always-open side door – we accumulated three in the course of the ride, all of whom ended up sitting on the packs on top of the spare tire next to me.

The trip was eerily like living the previous week in reverse, as if the tape of my life were being rewound. We went through all the small towns – “Ah, there’s the Dutch Bakery in Tubuche where we had that great carrot soup and brown bread!” “Look, there’s where you lost your hat!” We plunged down the gravel track traveling from barren scrub brush to pine forest to cherries in bloom to apple orchards laden with fruit to banana trees.

Three hours later, we made it to Bema, and

Stage 4 – the SUV from 3 Sisters arrived to carry us the rest of the way – three more hours in the dark and rain (of course it would rain!) on roads not much better than the “drivable gravel roads” we had been on.  We keep ourselves awake and alert by trading songs with the Nepalese guides: DB, DM and I harmonize on “You Are My Sunshine”, and the girls in the back respond with a Nepalese folk tune that involves a considerable amount of finger-snapping and tongue-clicking.  We come back with a round of “White Coral Bells.” We get through our entire repertoire of 1960’s Girl Scout Camp songs before finally in the last hour we hit blacktop!

At 10PM we reached the 3 sisters guest house, where they insisted on serving us  our Farewell Dinner – dal bhat, of course.  Then we thankfully hit the cozy beds. Tomorrow we will enjoy hot showers and full-size towels, then DM and I will hit the road back to Kathmandu.  Next stop – Thailand! 

Trekking in Nepal – Day 10 – Mulktinath to Jomsom

The last day of the trek is a 5 hour hike from Mulktinath to Jomsom, partly across a rocky river bed along the bus road going into the sun and a cold wind. DB took the jeep again, as she has had a lot of trouble coping with the altitude.

DM and I were apprehensive about the dusty, rocky riverbed section of the trail, remembering how un-happy the trekkers on that path had looked when we had passed them in the jeep two days before.  However, our guides led up to the high path away from the road going from Mulktinath toward Jomsom, which cut out a lot of the riverbed section.

The first  section of the road retraced our path back toward Kagbeni, but then it branched up over the shoulder of the hill so we looked at Kagbeni far down in the basin of the valley with snowy peaks rising in all directions.  In the distant downhill we could see the small nameless town where we would have our tea break.  We passed a herd of domesticated mountain goats, built low to the ground with long shaggy coats of black, tan, or a splotched blend of both.  Each had one horn painted blue to show the ownership.  They munched eagerly on thorny gray scrub bushes which I would be ashamed to put in the recycling, much less use to sustain life.

At tea break, we talked with an Australian and a couple from the UK who had just come down from the high pass at Thorung La (5540 M).  The lady said “I just looked at Sindu’s feet and followed where they went.”  I congratulated her, but thought privately “Don’t forget to look up – it’s why you’re here!”

From this comfortable spot we continued down to the riverbed, the road barely discernible and the wind picking up as promised.  But the traffic was light – one tractor, two jeeps, two scooters, a half-dozen trekkers.  The wind was cool, the sun was welcome.  My new hat, pulled down tightly over my hood, blew off only once; the shoelace cord I had contrived to secure it was so inextricably tangled in my camera lanyard that no harm was done.

The hill trail cut half the distance between Jomsom and Kagbeni – we arrived in Jomsom in good spirits, but with the fog closing in.  On the good side, fog in Pokhara had prevented flights into Jomsom, so the premier guest house was able to find room for us despite having been fully booked when we checked on our way to Mulktinath.  On the downside, the hardest stretch of the day was getting from the near side of town – the jeep park – to the far side of town where this hotel was located.  (Strange but true – no matter which direction you are going, your hotel is always on the far side of town.) My feet protested each step on the cobbled street, which seemed to stretch on forever.  We finally made it to the Majesty Hotel, complete with chandelier in the three-story atrium lobby (see earlier post).  The service was slow, the internet connection was down, the ATM did not work, but all was excused: double blankets on the bed!  Attached bathroom!  And HOT SHOWER!

This was supposed to be the last day on the trail, but… men make plans so the gods can laugh.

Tips for Travellers in Nepal – Food, Shelter, Communication

My basic tip is: don’t worry about it. If you are doing the Annapurna circuit you will not be far from a roof or a kitchen;  BUT

in the high season you WILL need reservations or risk sleeping on the dining room floor.

Other thoughts:

  1. Set expectations realistically for communicating with family and friends during the trek. Let me first dispel the myth that “there are cybercafes everywhere”.  There was rumored to be one in Tadupani, but as I walked down the narrow twisting street suddenly everything went dark – power outage.  By the time I returned to the guest house it was aglow with candles on every table – evidently power outages are common – but internet connections do not run on candle-power.  Somehow, though, our guides’ cellphones never seemed to be out of reception range.
  2. Don’t worry about the food. This is not Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayas.  The tea houses/hotels are governed by regional associations which set standards and offer an established menu of dishes with familiar names such as pizza, spaghetti, and eggroll.  The fare is largely vegetarian, and might include fried rice, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, apple pie, and cornbread.  Although the pizza may be like no pizza you ever ate before, and the cheese may be yak cheese, you will discover some reliable choices.  The vegetable soups (tomato, pumpkin, carrot) are consistently excellent, and the dal bhat platter is a nutritional powerhouse. Our guides ate this at least twice a day and their slogan was “Dal bhat power – good for 24 hours!”  And for your daily laugh, be sure to check the menu for typos.  (Would you like to try the Greed Salad? Or the Chocolate Crap?)
  3. Don’t worry about the beds.  The trekking trade is a key part of any upward mobility story in Nepal;  each teahouse must meet minimum standards for accomodations, and most will exceed.  Some of the teahouses are downright lovely, taking every advantage they can of the views and environment.
  4. Take time to check your room completely before starting out each day – including under the bed, under the blankets, in the corners.  It is amazing what slips to the floor when you are tired and not looking. I managed to leave my favorite Biffie on the bed in Kalipani (fortunately I had a backup); my backup glasses/sunglasses never made it out of Pokhara, and DM rescued my favorite jade necklace from under the bed in Marfa. If you are traveling with a team as I did, check for each other.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 9 – Jharkot to Mulktinath

This was a very easy day, hiking only 45 minues up the hill from Jharkot to Mulktinath, where we stayed in a more primitive guest house (Asian-style toilets, 3 beds shoehorned into a room meant for two, one sink for all to use outside, pay-per-use propane-fueled shower) but with a fantastic 270-degree view of the peaks around.  Mulktinath is a holy pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus, and has the requisite Vishnu temple, Buddhist gompa, and Buddhist nunnery.

Since Mulktinath is almost the first point of civilization for people descending from the highest point of the full Annapurna circuit, it has also blossomed in the last few years (since the most recent Lonely Planet, even) with fancy new guest houses and scores of Tibetan refugees selling hand-woven belts, hand-knit hats, and scarves which may or may not be handwoven pashmina or yak fur.

We ran the gauntlet of scarf-sellers and made it to the temple, where Bina, our guide, observed devotions and showed us how it is done.  She and Bandana, one of the assistants, had brought empty plastic liter bottles and carefully filled them with water from each of the 108 spouting bull’s heads fountaining around the Vishnu temple.  She also tied a lucky mallahi string around each of our necks and gave us each a tika  – the red dot in the center of the forehead. 

We also were admitted to the most sacred site, which is an eternal flame burning from a natural gas vent next to an underground river – this combines the sacred elements of earth, air, fire, and water in a way which is thrilling to Hindus and Buddhists alike.
The hills behind the site are a spider web of prayer flags;  the path up to the site is lined with stones piled one atop another – these are believed to be homes provided for souls which have not yet found their way to judgment, so building a nice one for yourself in afterlife is a good investment of time – especially if you need to pause for breath while climbing the stairs at 3800 M.

Following our descent and our mollifying the sellers by purchasing several scarves, necklaces, and whatnot, we made it back to the hotel for lunch.  After lunch DM and I visited a Buddhist monastery (brand new and painted lavender, for some reason).  Murals outside the shrine depict the “King of the North (China), yellow-skinned and standing on a panda. The King of the West is pale-skinned and stands on a Lion – influenced by early British contact, maybe?  The King of the East (Tibet)  stands on a tiger, while the King of the South – the Kathmandu region relative to Mulktinath – stands on an eland. Inside the shrine has the usual portraits of current and former Lamas, but the monastery is down to only five monks.

In town DM and I  did our best to send some email.   The young man who runs the internet café spends the winter months in Kathmandu playing in a band;  in the trekking season he spotted an opportunity and set up the internet café in Mulktinath – but the connection is iffy before 6PM because of the limited power allowance in the mountains.

In the evening the three of us and two of the guides drug out a battered deck of cards and played gin rummy and a new game called “five-or-less” to great laughter.  There is something universal about a deck of cards; I wish we’d discovered this sooner.

Trekking in Nepal – Day 8 – Kagbeni to Jharkot

This day we again put DB on a jeep – this time first thing in the morning – and DM and I set out on foot for a four hour trek partly along the bus road (DB and Bina waved at us as they passed) and partly along the old trekking road.  We had the three assistants as guides – nice young things with big smiles and minimal English – and we had a fine time walking through a series of small stone-built villages, over stone bridges, along an amazing series of conduits for flowing water (the actual river was way downhill from us).  We shared trail mix and granola bars and rested frequently, but still made our destination in the four hours allotted.

Jharkot is just a smidge(3500M)  down the hill from Mulktinath, the high point of the trek (3802M according to my new hat).  Since we arrived before noon, we had a leisurely lunch on the veranda looking at Nilghiri Peak across the valley, then explored the town, including an ancient Buddhist monastery dating back to the 700s, with some fascinating paintings and artifacts.  We are amazed still at how cavalierly the Nepalese treat their history – no hesitation about touching a fragile old canvas, or allowing flash photos of an ancient wall mural.  The town was very Tibetan in feeling, according to Dianne, who has been to Tibet, all gray stone and low doorways leading into dark corridors or bright courtyards; lots of Buddhist elements mixed in with ancient animist totems – very alien to us.

We also had an impromptu tour of a women’s collective engaged inproducing seabuckthorn juice concentrate for the local market. (If seabuckthorn replaces the acai berries craze, you read it here first!) The women do everything from gathering, crushing, and simmering the berries for juice to scalding, labeling and filling recycled bottles for the market.  The space for the seasonal operation is provided by the local Buddhist monastery;  the proceeds are used to assist poor families in the village.  (The catch is that much of the money goes back to the monastery to pay for religious services)

In the evening we gathered around the table under which a charcoal brazier radiated warmth, and after dinner ended up playing a Nepalese version of gin rummy with our guide Bina; assistant Bandana; Katharine, a Dutch management consultant who was trekking solo with a guide, and a charming Italo-French skydiving instructor named David who had just come over the Thang Lo pass solo – no guide, no porter.  We had a lot of inter-generational, inter-cultural laughing and silliness, and at 8:30 the three of us decided it was past our bedtime and left the younger folk to it.

I was amazed at the ability of a battered deck of cards to erase boundaries – we need to play  more often!

Tips for Travelers in Nepal – Equipment

Here are some suggestions regarding equipment you will need for the Annapurna circuit trek, and my recommendations for the best way to manage it.

  1. If you are not a frequent and dedicated backpacker hiker with your own tried and true equipment, and you are doing a tea-house trek with someone else carrying most of your gear, consider a rental option for items that are necessary but not size – related.  Why schlepp a down sleeping bag, back pack, down jacket, and trekking poles half-way around the world if you can rent them from your trekking guide group at a total charge of less that $2/day? These necessary items can be rented in Thamel or Pokhara and save you a lot of baggage bulk on the way to and from those locations.  Some necessary rentables:
    1.  1. Down sleeping bag – you may hike all day in a T-shirt but the temperatures plummet when the sun goes down, and there is no central heat in the guest houses.
    2. 2. Trekking poles.  They will save a lot of wear and tear on knees and hips, as well as saving you from a fall here and there.  The extra security – priceless.
    3. 3. Down Jacket – I needed mine three times in 12 days of hiking – but oh, when I needed it, it was lovely to have!
    4. Large back pack – Remember – it’s not you that will be carrying this pack, it’s the assistant guide assigned to you, so it doesn’t matter how well it fits you. It will hold your sleeping bag, extra clothes, and everything else you don’t need during the day, as well as a small amount of the guide’s gear. Instead of traveling with a backpack as my main piece of luggage, I took an expandable suitcase as far as Pokhara, stashed it at the guest house, and had lots of room for gifts and mementoes.
  2. Bring a silk liner for the down sleeping bag – it will add extra warmth at very little weight and if you are renting it is nice not to worry about who last used the bag. I recommend sewing a bright strip of bias tape across the top opening edge of the liner so it is easy to find when you need to slither in after dark. (thanks to a customer comment on the REI site for this tip!)
  3. Take good care of your feet.  This includes
    1. Good hiking boots, well broken in
    2. Several pairs of wool hiking socks
    3. Silk liners for the hiking socks to wick away sweat and help prevent blisters
    4. Dr. Scholls’ Blister Prevention pads, because you will get “hot spots” despite the good boots and the silk liners. (mentioned already in “Sanitation“, but worth saying twice)
  4. Bring a headlamp.  If you are getting up early to see the sunrise, by definition you will be hiking in the dark.  You will need both hands free for your hiking poles, so an ordinary flashlight will not do.  You will be pleased at how useful it will also be if your roommate in the guest house wants to sleep while you want to read about next day’s route, or if you need to find your way to that outside toilet in the middle of the night.
  5. Bring a deck of cards.  In the evening, a game of cards around a charcoal brazier bridges all culture gaps –French, Swiss, and Dutch and American guests joined by our Nepali guides with the common language of gin rummy.
  6. Bring a long-sleeved cotton shirt with a front breast pocket into which your camera will fit.  Your camera should be on a lanyard around your neck so that if you drop it, no harm. The pocket will take the weight off your neck.


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