Friday, June 04, 2004

A Himelein and a Himalaya

I have always had a special affinity for the Himalayas. I think it goes back to grade school. Being that I was blessed with a name that rhymes with pretty much nothing, some of the kids took to calling me Himalaya, instead of Himelein. When I pointed out that this nickname would probably be better suited to a girl with huge breasts, my point of logic was met by annoyance among my classmates. Not to let their wit fail them, then next day I was dubbed “Hime-E-limer.” So in honor my brief childhood nickname, and because I seek out adventure wherever it may lurk, I decided to spend a week walking around the Himalayas. Despite all the complaining that may follow, the views of the white-capped mountain peaks were incredible. And I put no blame whatsoever on the mountains themselves for the altitude sickness, uncooperative stomach, head cold, blisters, aching muscles, and strike headaches that I suffered as a result of this adventure.

Day 1 (Pohkara – Jomsom – Kagbeni)

The first day I flew to Jomsom. I had to get up ridiculously early in the morning to get the flight, though when I got to the airport all I found were two bored security guards and some equally uninterested crickets. Eventually some more people trickled in and we took off. The brief 20 minute flight marked two firsts in my aviation history. One, it was the first time that I have ever flown anywhere with the intention of walking back, and, two, it was the first time that I really felt there was a distinct possibility that I might die onboard an aircraft.

The plane was a little 14 seat twin-prop jobby. There was no cockpit door and, of course, I sat in the front seat so I could watch out the windshield. The plane took off into the clouds and then, out of nowhere, huge mountains exploded closer than they had any right to be out.

[Editor’s note - in order to be classified as a mountain in Nepal, it must be taller than 5500 meters, or around 18,000 feet. That pretty much rules out most of anything in America, except Mt. McKinley and a couple of others in Alaska. Mt. Whitney in California, nope. It’s a hill. Colorado? Sorry, thanks for playing, but you’re all hills. They ain’t kidding here.]

The scariest part of the trip though was the landing. We banked sharply over one “hill” and cut in just before another to land on the “runway” (dry river bed). I felt my stomach climb up into my throat and I tried not to think of the Yeti airlines flight that had smashed into a “hill” a few days before in another part of the country doing the same maneuver. But I lived. The next step was to hire a guide-porter. (Yes, I finally got my sherpa. And would you believe those four toed bastards are unionized?) He was a sweet kid, about 20, and couldn’t speak English to save his life, but he knew the trail and agreed to carry my pack, so I was satisfied. The first day was cake, only 4.5 miles. The highlight was crossing a high suspension bridge over the section of the riverbed that wasn’t dry. It was about the half the length of a football field and about 50 feet off the ground. It was made of metal grating, heavy duty wire cable, and chain link fencing. The tops were coated in what I guess once were goats to keep you from cutting your hands. After the bridge it was only 20 minutes into the traditional Tibetan village. Traditional except for the ripped off 7-11 and “YakDonald’s.”

Day 2 (Kagbeni – Muktinath)

Oh the altitude sickness! I hiked up to Muktinath, which only took 3.5 hours, but my lungs decided to call it quits after 45 minutes. By the end I was sucking wind and sucking it hard. Even with all my inhalers, I could only walk 25 feet at a time before the spins sat me down again. My head throbbed. My fingertips were numb. Eventually I made it to the hotel, where I sat very still for an hour and a half. After a wolfing down some carbs, the guide and I took a walk up (will it never end?) to the temple complex. It was interesting enough but I was still fighting the spins. The skyline was breathtaking, but that sort of goes without saying. Back at the hotel, I found some other Americans to talk to for a while before they completely weirded me out. Now, admittedly, I am suspicious of brother-sister pairs that get along really well, but these two were special. They read Harry Potter aloud to each other and played an awkward to watch touchy-feely game of Snakes and Ladders. I had to go back to my room to lay very still again.

Let’s see, other less frightening interesting things that I passed along the way today that I am reasonably sure were not hallucinations due to oxygen depravation: caravans of donkeys carrying things tied places, all tricked out like circus ponies with mirrors and bangles and big headdresses, and men carrying stacks of 10 foot long railroad ties, secured only by a single strap across their foreheads. And, like I mentioned, it was incredibly beautiful.

Day 3 (Muktinath – Jomsom – Marpha)

I walked to Marpha, a little town with stone houses that is famous for its apple brandy. Apple paint thinner is a more appropriate description. And the walk was over 20 MILES. I don’t know if you all know this, but I am a wuss. I was hurting when I got there. And in order to numb the pain, I decided to start reading War & Peace (while I had someone else to carry my bag . . . .) The town looks like it would be cute in the high season, but most of the tourist shops had closed when I got there. I took a walk around the distillery though. You could get drunk off the fumes a full kilometer away.

Day 4 (Marpha – Tukche – Lete – Ghasa)

This was even longer than the day before. I didn’t count the miles because it would make me cry. One fun thing, though, is that as we were walking along, the guide kept asking people a question in Nepali. They would answer by tapping the back of their calf, somewhere between their knee and their ankle. I wonder what that is about, I pondered. Then we came to the river. Oh. He offered to carry me across, but as I was 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, we would bother be swimming with the bilharzias if we tried that. I took off my rented boots (oh, and when you don’t own the shoes on your feet, it prompts a serious re-examining of previous economic priorities) and rolled up my pants and waded across. AGH! Who would of thought that Himalayan snow melt would be so damn COLD?!? But it was the one part of the day that my feet weren’t on fire. I had such bad blisters (again, don’t rent boots) that I limped most of the way that day. When I got to the lodge I “fixed” them. I’ll save you the gory details, but it involves a safety pin, a cigarette lighter and a lot of wincing.

Day 5 (Ghasa – Tatopani)

The walking was easier on my fixed feet. Today was uneventful, no rivers and less than 10 miles. The only fun thing was meeting the wandering mystic. He was a shoeless toothless old man with a wispy white beard, who wore a bright orange robe with a woven sash. His huge mound of gray dreadlocks were pilled on top of his head and wrapped in a lemon yellow cloth. I took his picture and gave him some cash (about 75 cents). I thought it was solely a jack the tourist thing, but he insisted my guide give him some money too (he was cheap and only gave 50 cents.) I chose wisely. The mystic told me that I would live to 85 while my guide was going to kick it at 70. That gives me complete license to live dangerously for the next 61 years. The mystic said so.

Day 6 (Tatopani – Ghorapani)

Hell. It was only 7 miles, but straight up a mountain. Pure hell. The only redeeming things that happened was successfully avoiding the Maoists in their prime stomping ground (I think that is largely because it was pouring and even Maoists have the common sense to say inside) and I saw what I believe to be a rare snow leopard. It was a little ways away and the guide didn’t think that I should chase after it to take its picture. There was a good chance that it was just a plain old mountain lion and it is not really worth being eviscerated by anything less than an endangered species.

Day 7 (Ghorapani – Nayapool)

Deliverance! Only 6 hours of walking downhill to the road, then sailing the last 35 km by bus back to Pokhara! Joy! I am getting off this MF-ing mountain. Or so I thought. It was a strike day. Which means that the Maoists allow no traffic on the roads. And I mean none. I waited by the side of the road for two hours and nothing. Not even a donkey cart or a bicycle. Nada. I asked why and found out that the Maoists just throw Molotov cocktails at your car, sometimes before, sometimes after, you get out of it if they see you on the road. I didn’t believe the guy who told me this, but he had the newspaper with pictures. And you could see the burnt-out metal shells when I did eventually get on the road.

~Brief interlude for a political message~

Now about these Maoists. Their strikes are crippling the country. Commerce is grinding to a halt and there are permanent strikes against the education and industry sectors starting this week. Also they have declared a “tourist strike” to begin on the 7th, where they will place all tourists in the country under an effective house arrests by shooting any Nepali that attempts to drive/serve/converse with them during the three day strike. (I will be making a run for the border to be in India by the time all this goes down, hopefully.) I know all this sounds crazy, but the king did dissolve the government a year and a half ago, and decided to just rule the place himself. So basically it is bunch of people shouting that their 18th century outdated form of governance is better than the current 17th century form of governance, and if anybody doesn’t like it, fuck them, let’s have a civil war.

~Interlude concluded ~

Today (Nayapool – Pokhara)

Today I made it back to Pokhara. I woke up at 3:45 am to hike 30 minutes to the road to split a car with some Dutch travelers I met. Of course the driver wasn’t there, but luckily we found his mom to go wake him up. The ride into Pokhara was amazingly easy, except for the fact that the back left tire almost fell off. We had to stop and remedy that situation. We even breezed through the normally difficult police checkpoint on the edge of Pokhara. I like to think this was because of the winning smile I flashed the guards, but, in reality, I think they were distracted by the homemade bomb they were trying to disable on the roadside and just waved us through.

I arrived in town at 6:15. At 6:30 I had signed up for a whitewater rafting trip that left at 7. By 7:15 I had dropped off my laundry, checked into the hotel, changed into my bathing suit, and was on the road again. The trip took for-frigging-ever because every vehicle in the country was on the road trying to get somewhere after the 3 day strike. Rafting was fun. They weren’t the biggest rapids I have ever been in, but I got to sit in the front so it made up for it. My boat had 4 little Dutch girls and a Belgian guy. We lost one of the squeakier Dutch girls over the side at one point. I considered it a prime example of Darwin’s theory in action, but the Belgian guy fished her out.

Oh, the trip back. Again I waited by the side of the road forever to get a ride. I chatted with a disgruntled Seattle tech guy in the midst of his mid 30s crisis while waiting for the bus. A bus. Any bus. Eventually a packed bus slowed to a stop. While there may have been no room in the inn, there was plenty of room on top of the inn. As I climbed to the roof and settled into the metal bars digging into my flesh, I saw the sign 109 km to Pokhara. 4 hours. Oh well. The roof was already inhabited by two Nepalis, some luggage, a kayak and two suspiciously happy German guys. I began to understand why when we stopped at a check point and one of them hopped off the roof to buy more beer. They gave me a beer and, for a while, it was one of those beautiful this-is-why-I-travel moments. Then it monsooned. It was still nice drinking beer with two crazy Germans on the roof of a Nepali bus in the Himalayas as the monsoon poured down, but it got a little cold after a while when we ran out of beer. I was happy to hit the check point back to town. Okay, that is all. Now I am completely exhausted. I have been up 20 hours and I still have to arrange a ticket out of here tomorrow. I apologize for any spelling mistakes or missed words, but I really am almost too tired to see.

No comments: