A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

Annapurna Base Camp Trek Prt 2 - Kristine's mental breakdown

No one said hiking the Himalayas was going to be easy


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

We woke up the next morning with the crack of dawn as we wanted to be on our way and hiking by 6:30am at the latest. It was going to be a long day and we didn’t want to get caught in any afternoon showers. We didn’t bother getting any breakfast as we had some cookies and granola bars that we could eat as we went along. The views that greeted us on our way out of Ghandruk were nothing short of stunning:

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The first part of the trail was a rather steep one and a half hour climb after which we decided to have a little break and have some delicious Nepali tea. Even Kristine liked the tea here and she is not really a tea person. What came next though she did not like one bit. We had a “bit” of a canyon to cross, 400 vertical meters down to Kimrong Khola and another 500 right back up.

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The downhill part was punishing and painful for Kristine's knees. The estimated time for this portion according to our handy trail guide was 1 hour but it took us close to 2. Then we started the way back up, another 1 and a half hour grind up the side of a canyon. It is then that Kristine had a bit of a psychological breakdown and she became convinced she would never make it. I’ll let her describe it.

Here is a picture of the elderly lady and what she was carrying on her back:

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Despite all the psychological drama we made it to the top of the canyon in reasonable time and then only had a relatively easy and flat 1 hour walk to Chhomrong. We found a cozy little place to stay overnight and it even had a nice terrace where food could be served. The terrace had an amazing view of the mountains we would be walking into the next day, giving us an opportunity to contemplate what we had gotten ourselves into as we ate our dinner.

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Posted by dariusz 08:15 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Hiking the Annapurna Base Camp Trail Independently - Part 1

Lets just take a walk into the heart of the Himalayas


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

We had left our big bags at the Monastery with Elizabeth, said our goodbyes, and took the taxi cab Lekshy had ordered for us the day before to Nayapul. It was 6 in the morning and it was a good 45 minute ride which left us plenty of time to ponder and think about what it was that we were about to do. We had taken just our little day packs, no more than one change of clothes each, some sleeping gear, some oatmeal cookies and granola bars, some medicine and some other small but indispensable items. This was going to have to be all we make do with for the next 8 days while trekking the trails in the Himalayas! The thought of that was exciting and a little scary at the same time. If I had allowed myself to contemplate the entire undertaking I would have gotten overwhelmed. The key is to take it a day at a time and that’s how we approached it. If we don’t get all the way to the top, that’s OK, we will see and experience what the elements and our bodies allow us to and no more or less than that. The truth is though we REALLY wanted to make it all the way through the trek.

We got out of the taxi near Nayapul and just looked around. Nothing really here, a small Nepalese village down the road, a couple of foreigners sitting with their hiking poles either waiting for a taxi or maybe their guide. We however, did not have this guide person, or a porter, or anyone else to wait for. There was nothing else to do except ask for directions and start walking. I love the feeling I get in these moments. It is a feeling of infinite possibilities, of unknown adventure ahead and no one else to count on except ourselves.

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We started walking down the hill quickly passing through Naya Pul and onto our next destination. The nice thing about the Annapurna Base Camp trek is that there is usually a town or at least a store and a guest house approx. 1 hour or so apart. The next town, Birethanti, was only a 20 minute walk away and that’s where we had to present our permits and sign in to the trekking registry. We saw a number of hiking groups heading in the opposite direction which made us feel secure knowing that we could always ask for directions if we weren’t sure which way to go. The permit formalities in Birethanti were a breeze and we were on our way again shortly. This part of the hike was very easy with soft rolling hills and we were making amazing time. If we continued at this pace we would be up at the base camp in no time! Our confidence and spirits were high, and as it turned out, probably the highest they would be for quite a while.

Maybe an hour and half later we made it to a little town called Syauli Bazar, took a rest, and then looked where to go. We saw a tiny sign that said “Ghandruk” which is where we were going, but it wasn’t pointing down the road, it was pointing towards a small stair case. No big deal, it will probably be a few steps up towards another road, and then we’ll be chugging along again. Not quite! It turned out to be just the start of a gruelling hope crushing, muscle and joint destroying 3-4 hour climb straight up. Imagine a stair case maybe twice as steep as a regular building stair case back in Canada, except this staircase has not switchbacks, and it just keeps going and going. Stairs, stairs and more stairs. Will the stairs ever end?? To put things in perspective by the time we were done for the day we had climbed approx. 900 meters vertical. That means measured straight up. The CN tower is 533 meters high.

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The climb was gruelling but it was also stunningly beautiful passing through little mountain towns with rice paddies overlooking a gaping canyon below us. The people we met along the way were extremely friendly and always willing to lend a helping hand when the path would split and we had to make a decision about which way to go. It was a great introduction to the hike and a great warm up for what was still to come.

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We staggered huffing and puffing into the town of Ghandruk and found ourselves a nice little spot to sleep. The way things work in the Annapurnas is that everything is fixed price and it’s the same price for every guesthouse/restaurant in a given town. You can haggle a bit but it won’t get you much since a room is relatively inexpensive anyway. We are talking about $3-4 per night (200-300 NPR). The owners make their real money on the food, which is also exactly the same price in every establishment in a given town, but they are far less likely to give you a discount there. Generally I wouldn’t like such price fixing but the prices are very reasonable considering the location, which is not accessible by any type of motorized transportation, so there is really nothing to complain about.

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The accommodations themselves are extremely simple. It’s a room with a wooden bed or two, simple hard mattresses, a single light bulb hanging from a wire in the wall and maybe a hook or two for hanging your things. The floors are often not entirely straight and the door and the windows don’t fit their frames with any sort of accuracy. There is no insulation. However, everything is always clean and tidy, which is something Indian hotel owners, with their fancy but dirty everything, could really learn from. I’d much rather stay in a simple but clean place like this and it’s really all a hiker needs to sleep comfortably through the night.

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We went to sleep shortly after sunset since we were exhausted from the days hike and needed to get up early the next day. It was sure to be easier from now on wasn’t it?

Posted by dariusz 04:48 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Visiting a Tibetan Monastery Outside of Pokhara

One of the most memorable cultural and spiritual experiences we’ve encountered was at the Pema Ts'al Sakya Monastic Institute located just outside of Pokhara. Situated near the gorgeous Annapurna range, the Himalayaan mountains serve as a breathtaking backdrop for this beautiful monastery.

How did we find out about this monastery? One of my coworkers, Elizabeth, had taught English to the monks last year and loved it so much that she decided to come back and for another 5 months. If you’ve ever met Elizabeth, you would understand how her smiles, contagious energy, sincerity, and genuine love for these monks make her a “mom-figure” for them.
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Even S.A.M. was so intrigued by the idea of visiting a monastery that he came with us! As we approached the monastery by taxi, we mistook it for a swanky hotel! For 3 generous meals, hot shower, and a clean and comfy room cost about $10/day. In addition, visitors are allowed to watch the pujas (prayers) and interact with the monks.
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As soon as we arrived, Elizabeth excitedly informed us that we were lucky to be present for a special ceremony the monks were performing. It involved much prayer, chanting, and instruments. Each monk was to give up one of their personal possessions and have it burned in a pyre. Elizabeth told us that one little monk gave up a picture of his family. When he was asked why he was giving this up, he patted his heart and said “I don’t need pictures because they are here.”
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We felt very welcome here. The monks are shy but genuinely friendly. It does not take long for the children to warm up to you – eventually they were vying for our attention and playing with us! Prior to visiting the monastery, I had this impression in my head that monks would be constantly praying and silent in their thoughts. This was NOT the case! Although there are rules to follow, the monks were free to express their different personalities. The little children were the most surprising to me since they were able to almost run amuck during their break times, laughing and playing loudly amongst each other. The monastery was such a lively place to visit!

Some other random things we did included Derek debating a monk, helping Elizabeth in the clinic and during bath times, participating in a couple of Elizabeth's classes, playing with the little monks and learning that they watch horror movies, and attending a lecture on Buddhism.
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We were privileged to meet a talented Spanish artist, Andrea Lopez Iglesias, who is living at the monastery as she works on paintings for her big art exhibition featuring the new Faces of Tibet. Andrea's artwork communicates the stories of different Tibetans, their struggle to survive, and their outlook towards the present and future. On the backs of her paintings, their stories are written in Tibetan script by the monks. I was so impressed by her professionalism, passion, talent, and sheer determination to accomplish her goals at such a young age!

It was such an honor to be part of this large family, even if it was for such a short time. The experience provided us with a small yet enlightening insight on Tibetan culture and monk life. I have a great respect for their constant search for truth, wisdom and knowledge, and for their emphasis on the importance of critical thinking and questioning.

This experience gave me time to reflect upon my own spirituality, life priorities, and eccentricities. It was a truly humbling experience that I will cherish always, like the boy who kept his family in his heart. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this gift.

Posted by krisses 06:26 Archived in Nepal Comments (2)

Meeting S.A.M (Special Agent M) in Pokhara

How to "do-it-yourself"


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

After spending a day in Chitwan we really couldn’t wait to get out and finally get to famous Annapurna trekking gateway town of Pokhara. We left early in the morning on a local bus that probably had never changed its brakes in its entire existence and had no suspension to speak of. Every time the bus broke an ear shattering shriek like something out of the dark armies in the lord of the rings came out from where the brakes should be. When the bus hit even the slightest little bump I could feel my entire spine compress making me lose an inch or two of height. It’s a good thing I have some to spare. All this combined with the wildly windy mountain roads and lack of guard rails made for an experience that we promised ourselves we would never repeat again. We’d decided we’d rather spend the extra $10 per person for tourist class and get a bus that has seen a maintenance mechanic sometime this century.

We checked into our room, unpacked a couple of things, and literally 10 minutes after we did that someone knocked on the door of our room. Kristine opened the door and gave out a shriek of excitement as she saw it was our old friend S.A.M (aka Special Agent M) from Colombia and Ecuador! I’m guessing his bionic implant satellite linkup told him we had just arrived. OK, so in all fairness we did in fact plan to meet up that day, and we did tell him where we’re staying, but the exact timing was just too impeccable to be coincidence in my mind.

S.A.M came in bearing all kinds of wonderful gifts and reassurances to help get us prepared to do some hiking in the Himalayas. He had just done a circuit that should take 21 days and added a 12 day hike on top of it, except he did in less than 20 days for the whole bit. We were not surprised. He reassured us that the hike we were planning to do, the Annapurna Base Camp trek, was far easier to navigate then the one we’ve all done together in Ecuador and that we really didn’t need a guide or any type of other help as long as we prepared well. He also suggested 12 days was overkill and we could easily do it in 7 or 8. We felt much better about the whole undertaking after talking to S.A.M since he’s seen us in action and knows our abilities or lack thereof.

S.A.M also brought us some practical things we would need on the hike. The walking stick he used during his hiking which he put 300km (!!) on of steep up and down trekking, he gave to Kristine, as well as his sleeping bag. I got a fleece top and some fleece long underwear which would turn out to be a life saver in the upper altitudes of the hike. There was also a detailed map of the entire mountain range with all the trails marked on it and a smaller guide on how to go through the Annapurna Base Camp trail itself. It was all wonderful stuff and made us feel even better about attempting to do this trek by ourselves! Thanks so much S.A.M for believing in us!

He then took me shopping in Pokhara for a sleeping bag of my own when he used his magical negotiating skills to get me a great deal (my guess it’s the convince-O-ray implanted in his left eye). The last thing we did was go to get the actual hiking permits for the Annapurna Region. We left Kristine behind and headed out on the longish walk to the inconveniently hidden permit offices. I’m guessing that the reason they are so badly located and mostly unsigned has much to do with all the agents in town who will offer to get the permits for you for a “small” fee.
As we were heading to the permit office a large dark ominous cloud started coming in and we heard thunder. Then the wind picked up and we saw all the signs on the sides of the street being pushed over and thrown around and the store owners quickly closing their windows. Hmmm, we thought we’d better find a place to hide. S.A.M quickly located what looked like a little cement cubicle near a tall cement wall and we hid in there just in time as the torrential rain started coming down in buckets.

We shot the shit and chatted for a few minutes and then all of a sudden we heard a voice behind us.

“Please leave, you cannot stay here”

We looked around and we realized we were standing in front of army barracks and there was a guard behind the wall in a similar cement cubicle holding a rifle telling us to leave. Now, what I would have done is probably apologized profusely and ran hoping I don’t get a bullet in the back of my head. However, S.A.M calmly responded to the man by saying with a smile

“We are not leaving here until the rain stops”

I think the guard was shocked. He just looked at us and didn’t know what to make of the situation so he asked us to leave again, and S.A.M responded in kind again. Then to avoid any further discussion S.A.M turned around with his back to the guard and muttered

“If he wants me to leave he can come down here and try to arrest me”

I think if I tried a similar thing the guard would have been down there in 2 minutes arresting me, but there is something about S.A.M that the guard knew better than to try to arrest him. Now that’s badass.

The rain stopped shortly after and we proceeded to the permit office. Everything went super smoothly once again thanks to S.A.M’s advice as he guided me step by step through the convoluted process involving two different building and two different agencies basically both doing the exact same thing. It’s all just a money grab but if you don’t get both sets of permits, one of the agencies is going to stop you from hiking the trails.

We were now ready to hike the Himalayas thanks to all of S.A.M’s indispensible help! However, before we would head out into the mountains we had one more place to visit. The Pema Ts’al Sakya Tibetan Buddhist Monastery located between Pokhara and the start of the hiking trails where Kristine’s friend Elizabeth is teaching Monks English. However that’s a topic for the next blog.

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Posted by dariusz 06:29 Archived in Nepal Comments (3)

Chitwan - Rhinos, Elephants, and a King Cobra!

Chitwan is a nice, small town to go visit if you are trying to find some calm away from the bigger cities of Nepal. It is a tourist-centric town, meaning that all of the stores, hotels, and tours are geared towards tourism. Therefore, it should not have been a surprise when we arrived at our hotel and were offered “package deals on tours” before we were even shown our room!

Chitwan’s biggest appeal is its National Park for walking and jeep safaris, and elephant rides. And perhaps an even larger appeal is bathing with the elephants!

There are 2 types of elephant rides in Chitwan:
1) Privately-owned elephant rides – 1000 NPR for the ride itself and 500 NPR to enter the park. This park is right outside Chitwan’s national park and IS NOT the same thing. The ride lasts for about 2 hours but you’re squished into a small compartment with 3 other people and the park itself is unimpressive. It seemed as if the 1 rhino in the park was placed and there were a few frightened deer. The elephant drivers hit the elephants in the head on occasion in order to control them. We talked to other tourists who seemed very disappointed with this ride as well. Here are some pictures:
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2) Government-owned elephant rides - 1500 to 1700 NPR for the ride itself and 500 NPR to enter Chitwan’s National Park. The elephants here are owned by the government but cared for by the locals. These animals seemed much more happy! Had we known the difference, we would have opted for this elephant ride instead!
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The privately owned elephants are also the same elephants involved with the elephant bathing. We decided not to do this due to fear of acquiring a strange, water-borne disease. But in retrospect, this is one thing I sort of regret not doing. However, after watching some elephant drivers pounding the elephant’s heads with large sticks, I was glad that I wasn’t contributing to it.
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The next thing tour we did that day was the half-day jeep safari into Chitwan’s national park. The tour was 1400 NPR per person. We were EXTREMELY lucky during this tour because not only did we get to see rhinos up close, we saw families of spotted-deer crossing the road, crocodiles, peacocks, and a King Cobra!

The king cobra was the most scariest and most remarkable sight – you know something is quite out of the ordinary when your guide is freaking out and taking pictures of something along with you! And he’s been a guide for 17 years and had never seen a king cobra in the wild! It was about Derek’s height and completely black in color. It seemed that the snake was trying to cross the road but the we had surprised it, and it surprised us! It was almost comical as the guide was excitedly telling the driver to back the jeep up while fumbling with his camera, the girls on the jeep were freaking out and asking why we needed to get closer to this humongous and deadly snake, and the guys on the jeep were happily clicking away with their cameras! Here is a picture of the snake “running away” from us, and a picture we found on the internet to provide you with some sort of scale:
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The park and its animals are stunning. More animals came out of hiding during the evening and it was during this time we saw the most animals.
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After the jeep safari, a bunch of us on the tour enjoyed watching the sunset and headed for dinner at a local restaurant. My dinner was good, although it looked sort of like donkey or elephant feces. The company and conversation we had was entertaining, sobering, fun, and funny. We did all this in one day then happily set off for Pokhara the next day.
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Posted by krisses 06:00 Archived in Nepal Comments (4)

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