Archive for November, 2006

Round the world in 15 days!

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

How to describe a trek that was so long, so varied, and so incredible?  We started out expecting a wild and snowy land, with moments of exhaustion and cold.  While we did find a bit of that, we also found luxury guesthouses with hot water (!), incredible pumpkin curries and homemade local apple pie, soothing hot springs, and some very interesting people. 

Day 1-3: We started out armed with a porter/guide named Krishna (pictured with the funky hair below), new woollen mittens, and soft, tender feet!  Our first few days were low altitude, so the weather was hot and there was lots of agriculture, people, and busy towns.  We followed a noisy glacial river the whole way, and our hotel rooms often looked out over it.  We breezed past the Maoist checkpoint, unfortunately forking over $30 each, a sizeable sum considering the highest we paid for accomodation on the entire trek was about $3.

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We saw lots of interesting people and sights, including a 65 year-old man who carried a 65kg pack on his head day after day, and quite a few ‘chicken men’.  The reason for this madness is that these towns are only accesible by foot, so all goods have to be carried/donkeyed in for up to 7 days!  It made for quiet peaceful walking!

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Day 4-7:  We began to climb higher, and rounded the hills to enter a large glacial valley, with our first up-close view of the most majestic mountains in the Annapurna range – Annapurna II, III, and IV, and Gangapurna rising to our left.  The air became quite chilly and the land less inhabited.  Although farming was no longer evident, the ‘donkey train’ ensured that fresh food was still available, and we discovered the homemade apple pie, which was INCREDIBLE.  Our guide was working out very well, being lots of fun and incredibly knowledgeable about where to find the best bakeries and local cuisine.  There was lots of local culture to see including a new monastary, and we met a few very friendly local people.

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Day 8-9: After 8 days of buildup, we were finally nearing….THE PASS.  Being located at 5400M, the highest pass in the world, we found that the guides and other travellers really hyped up the difficulty and danger of this part of the trek.  The night before we made ‘our summit bid’ we stayed in a lodge full of sick and anxious trekkers popping Diamox and aspirin like candy.  We made serious waves in the crowd when we mentionned that we had skipped our ‘acclimatization day’ in favour of continuing towards the next apple pie stop.  But we figured that with the extra fuel, it would be a breeze.

(claire) Well, Seth annoyingly DID find it a breeze, more or less.  However, I did not.  It was probably the hardest physical day I have ever had, although I did make it over.  It took 4 hours of climbing to the top and the severe lack of oxygen made me take about a full breath to every step.  Seth took a funny video in ‘real time’ of my progress, but it definitely looked like someone put it in slo-mo.  But if I turned around, I would just have to try again the next day, and I sure wasn’t going to do that, so I pushed on.  I don’t remember a lot of the last hour of climbing, the top, and the first hour of descending.  I got a splitting headache and felt pretty dizzy, sort of in my own little world, and Seth luckily realized by the top that we would need to descend quickly.  Luckily it was a quick descent and I was feeling better in a few hours.  It was pretty scary though, and my body took a few days to feel normal again.  I was still proud of my determination and now I can be part of the altitude-sickness club with laura.  (it’s a pretty exclusive club!)

(seth)I would like to think that my incredible physical strength and determination was what got me to the top, but the reality is that it is more likely to do with spending time at high altitude before (although never this high).  The first hour in the dark reminded me of a series of paintings by one of my favorite artists.  As the sun rose behind the impressive Annapurna II and IV it looked like “The Domination of Light” by Magrite.  Truely beautiful and a fit distraction from the cold of -12C at 4500m.  After sun was up we found ourselves in a barren landscape dominated by rock and snow.  Whit little to look at and no altitude headache I pushed until I reached what I called ‘hypoxic euphoria’, a condition similar to ‘the zone’ that joggers experience, but occurs at only a walking pace.  We reached the top and sat in the tea house for some cookies and tea.  Strapped to the pillar was a small balloon with a red Canadian flag, left (I presume) by Justina and Lifa only 2 weeks earlier!  Claire was not looking good at this point and kept telling me to give Krishna more cookies. He was not disappointed and in no hurry to leave.  We snapped a quick photo and pretty much ran down the 1600m decent to Muktinath, where we enjoyed the hottest showers of our trek and local popped corn.

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Day 10-12: The next few days were shorter, as we recovered from our climb.  We passed through the ‘windy valley’ which is absolutely the most reliable wind we have ever seen (every day at 10am on the dot the massive wind comes up).  In Marpha we tried some local apple brandy, and made another bakery stop (luckily we were walking everyday otherwise we’d probably be growing out of our clothes by now).  We also stayed in some nice hotels, and to our complete shock, one even had a REAL sit-down toilet.  After months of squatting to pee down a hole, we both stopped dead in our tracks at the sight of what seth termed ‘the butt-cup’.  We decided that in a country that doesn’t have sanitizer, we prefer the hole!

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Day 13-15:  As our trek neared to a close, we finally got the chance to stay with a family.  We stopped for lunch at a lovely little cottage, and the warmth and friendliness of the 5 kids and parents, and the incredible lunch (fresh limes from the tree, cilantro, local rice, thick fresh dal, homemade chapatis) won us over and we decided to stay for the night.  Their sign did say they were a ‘guesthouse’ but in the end, we took the parent’s beds and the kids slept on the floor of the kitchen.  Well, actually it was only one room but with partitions.  It was a humbling experience as this family shared everything they had with us, and to watch a family of 7 living together in a house with no windows, holes in the roof, and at the same time living with such warmth and happiness and joy.  The little girl delighted us by picking up the chickens and trying to get them to ride the goat (which we soon began to help her with!) 

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While sharing some whisky over dinner with the father, a heated exchange about the Maoists (who have signed a deal with the government here but show few signs of honouring it) resulted in the father tearing up and burning our Maoist receipt.  We didn’t think it was such a big deal at the time, because the Maoists are supposed to have stopped taxing trekkers, but on our last day we ran into some more Maoists who didn’t seem to ‘remember’ that fact.  Thank goodness for our sweet-talking guide, who convinced them to let us off with a 100 rupee ‘replacement receipt fee’…without him, things could have been much more expensive!


Our trek concluded with a climb to Poon Hill to watch the beautiful sunrise on the mountains.  Unfortunately, it’s proximity to Pokhara and description in the Lonely Planet ensured that we were not alone – at least 50 other people were there to make ooohhing noises.  Not exactly what we are used to (like in Garibaldi) but it was gorgeous nonetheless.

One note of caution: anyone planning on one day trekking in this region may want to do it SOON.  They are building roads like crazy, and there may be road access to most of the conservation area in as little as 4-5 years.  This will really change the feel, and as it is already touristy enough, it may destroy what little culture and peace remains.  We feel so fortunate to have been able to do it, but we certainly learned a lot about the effects of tourism during our time there, and the increase in people is sure to reduce future experiences.

From the Dark Days…to the Light

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

Well after leaving Nirvana we have had quite the week!We saw a cool fort in Kangra and then set out on our train journey From Dharamshala area to Gorakpur.  imgp1873-medium.JPG   dscf1329-medium.JPG The wait for our first train at the lovely stationwas a good start, but then the train was 2.5 hours late, which would cause us to miss our connection, a relatively pricey and rare 21 hour sleeper train.  We had to fork out for a cab in order to make it.  On the train to Gorakpur we met some…okay, TONS, of very very friendly Indians giving us high hopes for our arrival.dscf1331-medium.JPG

But then I felt the dreaded upset stomach feelings and knew my last 7 or 8 hours were not going to be good.  I had become so sick by the end of the train ride that I was only able to walk in 30M spurts across the station before collapsing on the ground amongst garbage and homeless people.  Lovely.  And quite the show for everyone.  Seth was wonderful and found us a room right in the train station, above platform 1, but while I was waiting for him to do this I was groped by some kid.  Adding to my good times.  Pictures were NOT being taken at this time.

Further memories of the next few days, in which we were cursed, were being meowed at and laughed at by 7 adult men while taking my first shaky steps after illness, arriving late at night at a closed India/Nepal border and staying the night in a bed that was LITERALLY crawling with bugs, and then arriving in Nepal at last to realize there was a strike and all roads were indefinitely closed.  Ahh…good times.

Luckily the roads reopened the next day and we splurged on a cab for the last 5 hours to Pokhara.  We truly appreciate the luxuries here, staying in our own little cabin by the lake, and preparing for our 16+ day trek around the epic Annapurna range which starts tomorrow.  We will be spending the next two-three weeks away from it all, in the presence of 7,000M peaks, stopping at natural hot springs and following what is termed the ‘apple pie trail’ (aka we are going to eat our way to heaven as usual).  And luckily, our lovely guide has told us it is ‘yak killing season’ right now…whatever that means. 


The good life in Dharamshala

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

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 Well somehow an entire week has passed us by here in Dharamshala.  Time slips by surprisingly quickly here, as our days are filled with hikes, cooking lessons, meeting new friends, and browsing art and bookshops.  However, we are feeling the need to get trekking in Nepal before the winter sets in, so we’ll be taking a sleeper train tomorrow night to the Nepal border. 

This town has been by far the most Westernized that we have come across, with real coffee in many shops and more white people than you can shake a stick at.  But it is also the current home of the Dalai Lama in exile, and so is a very interesting and politically charged place.  One night here we were eating some dinner in a little Tibetan cafe and began a conversation with some of the Tibetan guys there, and they told us of how they had been imprisoned and tortured.  We also saw a former Tibetan prisoner speak last night and visited the Tibetan history museum, a place that brought two of our friends to tears and really hit Seth and I hard.  This town seems to be a place of contrast, where life is laid-back and people are smiling, but at the same time, sobered by the fact that the majority of adult Tibetan people here have been imprisoned, abused by the Chinese government, have lost some of their family and friends, and have had to escape over the Himalayas to get to India, some dying in the process and others suffering amputations due to the frostbite.

On a lighter note, yesterday Seth and I hiked up to 3000 metres to a ridge called Triund, where we slept in a cave with some rented sleeping bags and foamy mats.  Two Israeli guys shared our cave, but they just had flimsy blankets and were freezing!  However, there were a bunch of people up there and we had a big bonfire, and so nobody died of cold.  It was great because at the top of this ridge there was also an Indian guy who would cook dinner for the hungry hikers, and he also made omelettes and tea in the morning.  I am really getting used to this ‘luxury’ trekking – you get delicious hot food even in the middle of nowhere!

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A few more things of note before I sign off…first of all, I would like to point out that there are at least 5 German bakeries in this town, but so far no sign of any German people or even any decent baked goods.  Secondly, yesterday a shopkeeper asked me how long I had lived in India for – I’m pretty sure with my lady-suit and my new tan I am pretty much Indian!… And finally, we took a picture of the sign at the Dalai Lama’s residence, to illustrate the brilliance of the signage in this country.  You couldn’t find a road sign if you tried, and nowhere in this town is the way to his residence signed, but when you get there they make sure you know exactly how to proceed!


sidenote: for those who are interested (and know how!) the coordinates of our locations are being taken by Seth’s handy GPS machinery…and are posted on his page!


Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

FYI: We added pictures to the last couple of posts so check it out (and Chloe you can ID our monkey)!

Well, for the last few days Claire and I have been living easy! We went on a trek just outside of Chamba and were waited on hand and foot for 5 days and 5 nights! On our first day in Chamba we talked to a trekking agency and were convinced to blow our budget for a few days and get out of the hustle, bustle and litter of the Indian cities.

We started the trek at a charming lodge called the Orchard Hut and after Claire got her measurements taken by a local seamstress in the small village (for her “lady suit”) we were off on the first day of our adventure. For the benefit of those who have not “trekked” before it is more akin to hiking than anything else.

Our porter and guide loaded up their 1980’s, cheap Jansport backpacks with 5 days of food, four sleeping bags, our tent and everything they needed (which was nothing), donned their casual shoes (guide) and rubber slippers (porter) and we headed off up the steep 1100m climb to our first night’s destination.
Things started out a bit rough, our guide came down with the flu on day one (typical, eh) and was taking frequent forays into the forest and returning looking feverish and distant. Still, with the mind set of a pack animal, he hefted his rucksack and gritted through the day without one complaint! The people here have the most incredible work ethic, it must get done, and whining will not be tolerated!

That evening we stayed the night at a hut owned by the company. A couple of important things happened here, for one, we discovered what it is like to be rich! Within minutes of arriving our bed was made and we were relaxing to the view with hot tea and the sounds of dinner preparation coming from the kitchen! The other was that we gained a companion…later named Jackie, a farm dog came out of nowhere and decided that we were far better companions than any of the animals in the area. He was with us everyday (even though we threw sicks and stones to ward him off) until we eventually had to abandoned him two days walk from his home when we caught the bus at the end of the ride :(

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The next few days were spent hiking and being pampered. The days were spent enjoying the high meadows and grazing lands of the area. Sitting in fields, listening to shepherd boys play the flute, and hiking to temples built by hand surrounded cliffs, all the while carrying only our clothes and a sleeping mat. Every night we were served a minimum 2 course meal, with home made bread!

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Once the trek was finished we spent one more night at the Orchard Hut and arranged to bus to Dharamshala the next day. Leaving at 9am we rode 4 public buses for a total of 9 hours, getting to our destination in the dark.

Dharamshala is the home of the Dali Lama and pretty much every Westerner in India! We had more of them around us last night in our restaurant than we have seen in the entire first two weeks of our trip… But more on that later.