Check it out! Here is the link on You-Tube:
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.
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!
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 )
The ever-helpful 3Sisters Adventure Trekkers called just as we collapsed into our suite after our airport ordeal (see Day 7) – alternate arrangements are made. Since the weather is not expected to change tomorrow, we abandon hope of flying to Pokhara, the central starting point for trekking the Annapurnas east of Kathmandu. They have arranged to pick up us at 6AM in their jeep and take us to Pokhara. It is an 8 hour ride over a road which is probably the best in Nepal outside of Kathmandu, since it supports the all-important tourist trade. (That doesn’t mean there weren’t some white-knuckle moments!).
I’m not a big fan of SUV’s but in Nepal a large four-wheel-drive vehicle actually makes sense. The road passes through rural country and busy villages; traffic alternately easy and harrowing. The passing lorries are elaborately painted with pictures of gods, flowers, and strange beasts, set off with ornamental grille work also elaborately painted, and often sporting banners flying from the fenders. These ornaments help take your mind off how very closely they pass on the narrow road clinging to the mountain side – art at work!
The Chetri Sisters Guest House is friendly and comfy, though not as isolated as the pix on the website would have you think. It was full of other trekkers, either families planning to trek together or other groups of women.
Although the 3 sisters started out as a service devoted to women trekkers on the well-established Annapurna circuit, the slower pace, moderate burdens, and nightly accomodations have attracted families and other groups which include men – they have even added a couple of male tour guides to the staff (who also enjoy the benefit of the humane load limits imposed by 3 Sisters management).
Pokhara is a tourist town, with all the tourist ameniteis including souvenir shops, ATMs, and restaurants of every persuasion. We ate lunch down by Fewa Lake along with several other women who will be traveling with us for the first two nights, shared a bit of a beer and chat. Celebrated view of lake surrounded by snowy peaks invisible; instead we had a foggy Chinese-y landscape of gray lake and gray sky and darker gray foothills swimming out of the mist. (Can you spot the hills in this picture?) We returned to a mandatory orientation meeting with our guides-to-be, a presentation on Empowering Women of Nepal (3 sisters NGO), and a dinner of the Nepalese national dish, dal bhaat – rice, lentil soup, curried stew (sometimes this includes meat, sometimes not) and a pickled vegetable. (Watch out for little pebbles in the lentil soup!) We went to bed to the sound of rain pounding on the roof and gushing down the gutters – hoping this augurs clear weather for tomorrow.