Indiana Jones

We woke early to darkness and silence.  It was 6 am yet no other guests were up and there were no yaks grunting or bell-jingling of a passing mule train to break the silence.  It was time to go to the airport and pray the planes were flying.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like Jomson.  I was just ready to move ahead to Pokhara…beautiful, dreamlike heaven.  I had heard from many that Pokhara is a special place, the Shangri-La of Nepal.  Gorgeous mountain views of the Annapurna range in all their glory reflect across the aquamarine Phewa Tal lake.  Besides Pokhara’s serene setting and beauty, Pokhara is also known as a more laid-back Thamel (the touristy, shopping district of Kathmandu) and offers the visitor an array of shopping, dining and adventure-seeking sports.  I couldn’t wait to get there.  Initially we had only planned on flying through Pokhara but due to a few back-to-back days of extra hiking we were able to land an extra day into our tight schedule and looked forward to enjoying it in Pokhara with our friends Hari and Chrring.

The airport experience was frightening.  A large group of trekkers were lined outside the gates at ten to seven with weary, tired looks on their face.  The machine-gun clod airport security guarded the small airport doors with looks of superiority and boredom.  Finally, at seven am the doors opened and the hordes filed inside.  There was no rhyme or reason to the ticket lines:  Just lots of budding in line, pushing and shoving.  Hari, whose miraculous guiding expertise, saved the day once again and got us the last four tickets on the flight.

Next we headed to the “women’s” and “men’s” lines for our pat-downs.  Each passenger went through a private room, where their entire body got a check for weapons.  It was funny because there was so much fuss back at home in the US about the detested pat-downs and how it invaded privacy and personal rights.  Yet pat-downs are just a fact of life traveling in Nepal and India.  At any airport, you have at least two of them (in Dehli, even three!).  It never bothered me one bit and instead, made me feel much more secure.  I found through my travels that security is on an entirely different level.  Bags and luggage is hand-checked, smelled and tested.  Pat-downs are fierce, and the intimidating guns are there to remind you to stay in line.  You can’t even enter the Dehli airport without a printing out boarding pass.  The security is so intense that there are dudes with enormous guns waiting outside every single door into the airport.  No ticket, no entrance. 

We boarded the small, 14-person aircraft with elation and fear.  I detest small planes and was nervous about this flight even before I left the States (see earlier post:  Is it Safe?).  The plane was old and you could barely stand up inside.  I held my Buddhist prayer beads tightly and tried to relax.  Hari found my nervousness humorous and tried to make me laugh.  The engines revved up, my heart fluttered and my palms were soaking wet.  Then we started to go, not fast, not slow, down the runway and gently lifted into the sky.

The plane flew at an alarmingly low altitude (Only 10,000 feet!) which felt so strange after hiking ABOVE that altitude for days.  You had to crane your neck to see the mighty mountains soaring above you 15,000 feet up into the sky.  I tried not to look at how close we were to the rocky sides of the mountains or how the plane barely made it over the trees.  I squeezed the beads tightly yet marveled how much the flight reminded me of a scene in an Indiana Jones movie (for those readers who are not as old as me, Indiana Jones is an adventurer whose first big movie was a hit in 1981 called Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Alas, we saw the gorgeous green, terraced rice fields and the outline of a town tucked away at the base of the mountains.  It was Pokhara and we landed safe and sound into the hot, bright sun once again.  I finally let go of my prayer beads yet did not take them off until I arrived safely at home in Minnesota several days later.  I still needed them for surviving the drive of terror in India!  That will come later!

For now, here are some lovely shots of the flight and beautiful, serene Pokhara.

The flight:

The runway:

Inside…too close for comfort:

Even a flight attendant!

The views outside the window….

Views outside the window:


Lovely Pokhara…at last!


A hike with a Monk

The next morning we set off for the last leg of our Annapurna trek:  The short, four-hour trek to Jomson, which is the major hub in the region and boasts an airport, hospital and other resources.  We had made it over three-fourth of the Annapurna Circuit trek (there were about six more days of walking if you wanted to complete the entire circuit making 19 days total).  We were ready to be done, though.

The walk was probably the most uninteresting one of the trek.  It was brown, rocky and barren without the unbelievable mountain sites you normally see.  We followed a huge river valley, one foot in front of the other, walking at a good speed as we had an extra motivation to arrive quickly to Jomson.  Hari, our unbelievably, magical, “can make anything happen”, guide had called ahead to Jomson airport and had confirmed there was one more flight out that morning to Pokhara.  Pokhara….just the sound of it brought images of breathtaking mountain views, gourmet food, much wanted shopping and fun!  It represented the finish line, the celebration, and heaven. 

A funny thing happened along the way.  In front of us, we approached a party of three walkers and noticed a monk, dressed in his long, flowing maroon robe.  He was doing some sort of a pilgrimage to the next monastery.  The sight of him in his magical robe, walking so effortlessly in sandals, made me smile.  I waited behind our group and took some photos of him.  As I started to pass him along the trail, I noticed he was wearing a white knit hat that said USA on it.  I had to laugh.  Again, what are the odds?  A Buddhist monk walking the Annapurna trail in his American hat! 

As we neared Jomson, my nerves were driving me crazy.  I wanted to make that plane yet I didn’t.  Hari had promised hot, delicious meals (other than our standard Dal Bhat, the national food of Nepal), lots of beer and fun.  Wouldn’t that be better than spending yet another night without a western toilet?  We walked and walked, as fast as we could, and noticed the wind begin to pick up.  Wind is one of the main reasons why flights are unpredictable in mountainous Nepal.  They fly small (14-person) planes, relatively low throughout the valleys (10,000 feet!) so it can be quite dangerous.  The flight was the one and only thing I had been nervous about my entire time in Nepal (well, besides making it over the pass).  I had read in Lonely Planet and researched on the web that airline safety is not Nepal’s forte.  I’ve flown a lot in my life but I do not like small planes.  So I was very anxious about it. 

Four hours later, we arrived in Jomson and literally walked right up to the airport with our packs on.   It was a strange feeling, walking right to the airport.  But security was still tight.  In fact, it was surprisingly tight.  There were a few military guys waiting outside holding their big, intimidating guns to make sure no one who wasn’t wanted got through.  To our dismay, the last plane just left.  The winds were too strong so the airport closed.  It was only one o’clock.

We headed back to our “hotel” (it was actually a hotel and not a teahouse…a sign of civilization) which was directly across the street from the airport.  The afternoon was spent resting, reading, and an early happy hour of jacks and Tubourg with our friends Hari and Chrring.  It was also a special night because it was gratuity night.   Guides and Porters are paid a small stipend for their work however the big reward for their services is the tip.  We wanted to make sure they were well-paid for their incredible service, loyalty and help.  Yet we also didn’t want it to feel awkward given the difference in monetary standards between what is a good tip in America and Nepal.  As I mentioned earlier, most Nepali people survive on less than $2/day so we had to be sensitive about this imbalance.  Before we left for the trek, we had asked Rajan, the owner of the trekking company, what is standard and opted to give them the standard plus a little more.   As a Westerner, you often find yourself in an uncomfortable situation in which you desperately want to give them everything you’ve got, to help them succeed and build their lives, but you know you can’t.  You hope that the memories of the time you shared together and your friendship is a better gift than just the money.  But you also are well aware that the money helps tremendously to gain a better future for themselves and the next generation. 

Here are some shots along the way.


Here it is!  The walk with a Monk:

And here is Chrring, 22 years old, strong, happy and smiling still (word has it that he is taking English lessons in Kathmandu and hopefully will be promoted to a guide):

The town of Jomson.  Traditional houses.

Our hotel with the airport across the street:

A much too common site in Nepal.  Cow eating garbage:

Need I say more? 


The long hike down

After our initial jumps of joy and jubilation, followed by the throngs of fellow trekkers in line for the primo photo op, a tasteless mint tea, and hugs abound, we set off for the long, knee-aching hike down. Unfortunately I was so focused on making it to the top of the pass that I kind-of forgot we had a very long way left to go. Probably the worst part of the hike remained: Six more, grueling hours descending 6,000 feet until we would be done for the day. Even the mules were tired.

The trek down was surprisingly dangerous. It was very slippery, loaded with ice and plenty of loose rocks along the steep path. My knees killed with a sharp excruciating pain during each, careful step down. The craziest thing of all is that we were soon passed by a couple of Belgium guys on mountain bikes! It was extraordinarily dangerous and shocking that it was even permitted. There were points on the trail when the bikers had to get off and walk their bikes down because it was so steep. Perhaps what was even more surprising was the fact that they had to carry their heavy bikes all the way up to the pass on their backs, at such high altitude. At least the ride down was easy despite the danger involved to themselves and other trekkers (there were a few close calls).
The landscape turned barren, bleak and brown. There was no vegetation in sight. It was the closest point along the trek to Tibet and I felt like we were on another planet. Yet despite the starkness, the landscape was beautiful and serene. The foothills and slopes of the brown mountain landscape looked like freshly whipped butter. The folds went on and on into the vast emptiness of the land. The pass was now far behind us and in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the mountains juxtaposed nicely against the dirty brown landscape.
We walked down, and down, and down, dragging our feet while conversation flowing steady but slow. There were no teahouses along the way for a tea break or snack. Nothing but the land. The familiar “Are we there yet” questions began to creep back out of my mouth, even though I didn’t want to be the wimp. My 68-year-old father pressed ahead, continually amazing me and Hari alike. I followed painfully as the third and Chrring with the two thirty-pound backpacks and as always a smile, was at the end of our group.
I felt bad even thinking about being tired and “struggling” with the hike. For this is a way of life for most Nepalese. They didn’t have the latest gear: The REI brand, heavy-duty hiking boots, the fleece jackets, sunscreen, trekking poles, and serious backpacks. No they didn’t have any of these “luxury” items which are a trekker’s standard. Instead, they hiked uncomplaining in worn-out sneakers, torn pants, old coats, no sunglasses, and sometimes even flip-flops. The guilt crept in my head and made me feel ashamed. Ashamed of my complaining and sad that our lives had so many material comforts that are unknown to most of the world. Life isn’t fair, that is for sure.
Finally, like an oasis in the dessert, the tiny, brown formation of a village appeared within the distance. It was still an hour away but at least we finally saw it and knew it was real. The village of Muktinath awaited us and it was only at 11,512 feet! We could barely walk when we arrived. Utterly exhausted. Thankfully, we FINALLY had a hotel with a hot shower, yet it was still outside our room. It was the first hot shower we’d had since leaving Kathmandu. Plus there was an unexpected surprise….the long-forgotten western toilet was in our room! No more walking to the communal holes at two am. I was overjoyed at these small plumbing luxuries that we always take for granted at home.
The day was spent relaxing in the bright, warm sun on the rooftop deck of our teahouse. Happy hour was more joyous than usual since we were at a lower altitude where it was a little safer to drink and we were celebrating. We only had one day left of hiking and then we would be off to Pokhara, the real reward of the trek.
There was nice local shopping in Muktinath. The next morning before setting out on our final walk, we did a little shopping and I negotiated a new hand-woven, wool scarf for the “morning price” of $2.00. Wow. I still wear it happily today.

Here are some pictures along the way.

Even the mules are exhausted:

 After the pass:  The long hike down:


Porters from large trekking group taking a break:

Off in the distance, the village awaits…at last!

The rooftop deck:

The $2 scarf:


The Gates of Hell

At last, we made it to our final destination Thorung Phedi before the highlight of the trek: The infamous, intimidating Thorung-La Pass at 17,769 feet/5416m). Thorung Phedi is an extremely remote place with only two small “hotels”. There are no shops, no cafes, no trees….just barren, brown landscape. Little did I know it was the place from hell! Well not that bad but it gave you the feeling that you were trapped. It was the point of no return. You either made it over the pass or you had to walk all the way back to the beginning. The worries of not making it over the pass loomed over each trekkers head with the realization that you weren’t exactly sure yet how your body would react to the altitude (severe altitude sickness is not something you can mess around with. If you ignore the signs and don’t descend, you can die). After nine grueling days of trekking and feeling completely unhygienic, you just wanted to get over that damn pass and get back to some sort of civilization (even if it lacked the long coveted western toilet).

As you enter the main teahouse at Thorung Phedi, you are instantly shocked by the stinky, gamey smell of hundreds of trekkers, who like yourself are filthy and haven’t had a hot shower now for a number of days. You are crammed like sardines into the main dining area which is the only place warm enough to pass the time before bed. Most days, there is barely a spot to be had so you end up sitting on the concrete steps, uncomfortably close to an unknown smelly hiker, or standing. We opted to stand and I’m glad we did as we met the owner of the teahouse’s son, who had a lot to say. Apparently his father started the teahouse many years ago and today (of course his son didn’t tell me this….I heard it from our trusted guide Hari) the family is very wealthy in Nepali standards. They spend the short six-month season at the teahouse, working like a dog, and then leave to travel around the world. Even more unbelievable was the news that this young man’s brother lives in the United States, in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota (population @ 2 million). It was one of those strange moments when you realize what a small world it truly is!

Unfortunately the lodging situation was less to be desired. There really wasn’t anywhere to go except the jam-packed dining hall because our room was miserable. It was literally a square, refrigerated box lined with stones and an attached bathroom (just a hole but it was luxury to have it in our room and not down the hall or worse yet, outside). It was so ungodly cold in the room that you had to wear everything you had (your Gortex coat, long underwear, hiking pants, wool socks, wool hat, wool sweater, and gloves, which of course were all very dirty by this point), AND you had to lay under your sleeping bag with a yak-wool, heavy duty blanket on top. Being from Minnesota where the winters can easily get to 10-20 below zero F, you would think that I would be ok with the frigid air but it was absolutely miserable. The little sleeping I did accomplish was spent with my head under all the covers trying not to suffocate.

It was a terrible night (thankfully the only bad night we ever had). We ate dinner early, and tried our best to go to bed by 6:30 PM knowing very well that we wouldn’t sleep a wink given the high altitude, the severe cold, and the anxiety of the next day. The knocking on our door began at 3:30 AM and I seriously felt like I had never fallen asleep. The thought of getting out of bed when I was already frozen to the bone wasn’t pleasant but the thought of having to spend another night in hell was worse. So I jumped out of bed, of course already fully clothed (since I slept in them) and joined our small group for breakfast of hot mint tea and Tibetan bread with honey.

We set off in the pitch black dark at 4 AM along with the hundreds of other trekkers slowly stumbling up the mountain, huffing and puffing into the darkness. It was cold, windy and quiet. Each step was slow. You could hardly breathe. It was the highest point I’d ever been in my life and I was quite worried about getting altitude sickness. Yet ironically, the beauty of the starlight trail lined with the twinkling glow of headlamps made me relax and stay focused. One foot in front of the next, breathe slowly, I told myself.

It was slippery and so dark. A few mules almost lost it over the edge. It was incredibly exhausting as well. Like walking up a treadmill with no air. Yet we kept going because the memories of the Gates of Hell obsessed my brain and the visions of a nicer place awaited me.

Hari was my all time savior. He was my cheerleader, motivator, drill sergeant…you name it. He kept me going and took excellent care of me. He wasn’t the least bit concerned about my 68-year-old father who has been climbing much bigger mountains than this pass. Hari was concerned about me: A stay-at-home Mom with two little kids who he’d talked to on his cell phone. We’d become good friends and his focus was on getting me across the pass.

After an hour and a half of endless, baby steps up with my little-kid questions “Are we there yet”? and Hari’s continued response “Only five more minutes”, we were closing in. I was too exhausted to realize he was lying to me but of course it was only in my best interest because he knew I would make it.

Finally, as the sun began to rise and it hit 6:30 AM we could see the pass. I was breathing fine which was such a relief. I surprised myself and realized in that moment, that anything is possible. It almost felt better than finishing a marathon (which I did ten years ago and then couldn’t sit without hurting for an entire year!).

After such a long journey and so much time spent together, we had to get a few celebration shots with Hari and Chrring. We couldn’t have done it without them. Reaching the top was a moment I’ll never forget!

Here are some photos along the way (Note: I included some from the previous post, heading up to the pass because I thought they were good shots. Unfortunately the pictures are in REVERSE order….some kind of technical difficulty here but you get the point. The first ones are at the pass at 6:30 am, climbing up are the next ones).


A unique friendship

As one would expect, a strong, caring friendship developed over the course of the trek with our fabulous guide Hari and our constantly smiling porter Chhring. For some odd reason, it felt like fate. Like it was meant to be that we were paired together with them. Besides the immense beauty and magic of the Annapurnas, our Nepalese companions were equally amazing and they made our entire experience in Nepal truly remarkable.

Hari is a bright, hilariously funny young man who is from the villages yet now lives in Kathmandu with his beautiful wife and young son. He is a wealth of information and every story is full of laughs and poignant remarks on Nepal (culture, politics, religion, education, business, etc). Over all my years of travel, I have never met someone quite as unique, personable and driven to satisfy his “customers” as Hari. He is unbelievably driven to help and ensure that every need be met. I was constantly surprised and even amazed by his non-stop attention to us. He was my link away from home (via his cell phone which oddly enough, worked in the middle of nowhere), our dealmaker (always calling ahead to the next village to reserve the best room at the best teahouse), our waiter (embarrassingly, he waited on us hand and foot, keeping everything running smoothly along the trek) and most importantly, our friend. We talked for hours on end about everything, sharing our lives, our history and our cultures. The highlight of the day was happy hour. Each night before dinner, we would meet in the teahouse and sit around the only heating element (a wood or yak dung-burning stove), and drink Belgium beer (Tubourg) and play cards (every time it was JACKS). We would howl with laughter as we played and get constant looks of curiosity from the other guests mostly because they did not interact like us with their guides. Most tourists join huge trekking companies of 10-20 trekkers, 10 porters and a couple guides. The guides help the guests order and usually sit at their table during meals, however, the porters all eat separately in an entirely different area. Thus in my opinion, you do not get the same kind of cultural immersion as you do with a small, personally guided trek and quite frankly, the cost was probably the same. Our evenings of cards, beers and meals were some of the highlights of the trip. It gave a whole different level of meaning to Nepal for me, and it is the way I like to travel: With the locals.
Hari’s story is facinating and at first sounded very unique to me, however, is probably relatively common among young and talented Nepalese who want to get ahead. He grew up in a small village in the mountains of Nepal. His father was a postal worker, making barely enough money to get by. He had heard that being a porter was a good job so decided to give it a whirl. During one of his treks, he befriended a European couple who instantly became very fond of him. Over the years, the couple returned to Nepal several times, visited Hari’s father and family in the village, and most of all, they gave back. They provided money for Hari’s father to help his children’s education, and helped build infrastructure in their village. Hari was able to gain a good education and get ahead in Nepal, which is relatively hard. The literacy rate is under 50% mostly due to lack of schools in the villages (over 80% of the people in Nepal live in rural areas). Hari feels very fortunate that he has been able to get a degree and even more so, have the opportunity to work a few years in Dubai to earn some savings to start his very own cybercafe. Leaving Nepal is one of the only ways to get ahead and make money. Many Nepalese apply for jobs in Dubai, South Korea and other countries but few are lucky enough to get the visas.

After Hari returned to Nepal, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a porter and worked his way up to being a guide. He currently splits his time spending half the year as a guide and the other half of the year helping his wife run their cybercafe in Kathmandu. His English is excellent as well as his business know-how, so I can see Hari going far in the world and truly hope he does. He is a charismatic, one-of-a-kind sort of guy. One that you cannot help but like and hope he fares well in life. The world could certainly use a few more people like Hari, that is for sure.

Our porter, Chhring, is also a wonderful person and a treasure to have on our trek. Like Hari, Chhring is also from the villages but he is a Buddhist and still spends most of his uncorking time in the village where his wife and child live. Being a Buddhist, Chhring gave us a different perspective on life, religion and culture in Nepal. His English was ok (he is learning) so we had to use Hari to help translate. But hid kindness and tranquility didn’t need words. We were happy just having his smiling, peaceful presence.

The work of a porter is much more difficult and labor-intensive than a guide. Most porters carry at least two backpacks of loads up to 100 pounds. The world-famous Sherpas, who are small in height but incredibly strong, carry up to 200 pounds and are basically paid per pound they can carry. As a Westerner, it was hard to see Chhring and the other porters carrying such big, heavy loads wearing rundown shoes and very basic outerwear. It wasn’t uncommon to see some Porters in ripped sneakers or even flip-flops! Yet for porters, the job was worth all the hassles of carrying heavy loads over mountainous terrain and being away from family for months on end. It offered a way out of poverty and a chance to earn some extra money for their village.

We treated both Hari and Chhring with our uttermost respect, and as the trek went on, it felt more like they were our friends than our help. As I mentioned above, we spent much of our free time together playing cards, laughing and having fun. Near the end of the trek, we did a few special things for them as well such as purchasing Chhring a real pair of hiking boots and giving Hari some of the things we didn’t need anymore (thick, warm Nepali sweater, headlamp, etc). We also gave them a very nice gratuity in hopes that they would use the money to help them get ahead. It is always a struggle for us to know what the right thing to do is in these situations. When $100 to us means so little yet $100 to them means so much. But we feel we did the right thing.

We spent our last night together in Pokhara, a beautiful lakeside town with a postcard perfect view of the Annapurna and tons of modern ammenities which felt like Heaven after so many days roughing it. It was the famous Festival of Lights where the entire country is on holiday, celebrating in the streets with music and dancing. The sidewalks are lined with candelight and it is truly magnificent. When asked what Hari and Chhring wanted to do to celebrate the successful finish of the hike, they chose to attend a cultural dinner and show. We spent the next two hours together, laughing, watching and finally dancing on stage to the diverse collection of Nepali songs and dance. It was a perfect way to end a perfect time together. I’ll never forget them!

Here are some pictures of our friends, Hari and Chhring:


The sweet life in Manang

Manang is a magical place, six days hiking from the end of the road, and at the heart of the amazing Annapurna range.  Upon entering Manang, there is a joyful, magical feeling, almost like a child in a candy shop.  There is plenty of eye candy as it offers probably some of the best, most beautiful views of the entire trek.  There is also tons of food candy.  Manang is known for their bakeries, and after six days of dal bhat and chicken curry, a good ole piece of hot apple pie tasted fantastically good.  The main trekking route leads each guest right past the usual yaks, mule trains, village commerce and then the eye-catching glass windows displaying the bakery goods (pies, chocolate cakes, homemade cookies, fudge brownies, and the list goes on).  Of course you have to stop to satisfy that long-forgotten love of sweets! 

Another nice find in Manang is the array of local shops selling traditional goods like hand-woven wool scarves, hats and sweaters.  I bought a warm, colorful wool hat for a mere $2 and of course had to bargain because that is how every business transaction is conducted in Nepal.  I also bought a heavy wool sweater for $22.  It was much colder at night than I expected because there is no heat and no insulation in the teahouse rooms, plus you are well over 10,000 feet.  Thus nights were freezing and by this point in the trek, I normally slept in my clothes along with that thick wool sweater and hat! 

Manang also has a few very nice day hikes.  There is the one to the Manang monastery (as mentioned earlier in my blog dated 2/16: Blessed by a 95-year-old Monk) and there is also a wonderful short hike to a magnificently aquamarine glacial lake.  Manang is a perfect stopping ground for a day or two rest and to just enjoy the beauty and serenity of the Himalayas.

Here is a cool video I found on Lonely Planet TV with awesome footage of Manang.  Hope you enjoy!

To view clip, copy and paste this link into your Internet Browser:

Some photos of lovely Manang:

Our teahouse….what a setting!


Hiking up to the monastery:

Views from on top (our guide Hari, porter Chrring, my dad and I, a close-knit team!):


Hike to the glacial lake:

Up close:

The beloved bakeries of Manang:

The main drag in town:

View of Manang from the lake:


That Deadly Road

One of the main reasons why we opted to go to Nepal before going anywhere else on our long, travel wish list was due to the recent article in the New York Times regarding the building of the road.   

Almost like a sign of fate, my dad happened to see an article in the New York Times on March 10, 2010 called “Hiking the Annapurna Trek Before the Road Takes Over”.

Link to article and video footage (copy and paste into browser):

Basically what the article said was that this world-renowned hike was going to be ruined within a matter of years by the building of a dirty, dusty road that would tear through idyllic villages and pristine nature and open this once hidden, mystical land to jeep, car, and bus traffic.  The road will start in Bhulbule and end in Manang (which currently takes 6 days hiking to reach).  After hiking the Annapurna trail, I can see exactly what the author means by the dangers of building a road, not only to tourism but to the people who build it.

Unfortunately building a road in Nepal is quite a feat given it’s mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure.  There are incredible dangers involved in building a road.  Although the job pays well the worker’s conditions are deplorable.  There are absolutely no rights for the workers (they are out there without hard hats, without any protection from sun or falling rocks and wearing flip-flops!).   Per our guide Hari, 15 workers have already fallen to their death yet they keep coming back to work since it is one of the only good-paying jobs available.  Furthermore, the road construction is a very manual, labor-intensive process without the modern technology we use in western cultures.   

There is a lot of concern that the road will destroy the village life as well as the Annapurna trek, taking away its beauty and more importantly, the rural villager’s dependable tourists which the community relies on.   Who would want to trek along a dirty, dusty road smelling of jeep and car exhaust?  It is a tragedy. 

The good news is that the road is nowhere near completion.  Locals estimate it will be at least another 10-15 years until it is completed and I’m not sure many tourists will want to risk their lives to take it. Roads in Nepal do not have the same safety as western ones….no guardrails, terrible conditions (pot-holes, landslides, etc) and probably not paved.  Nepal desperately needs infrastructure but good infrastructure. 

So the bottom line is if you want to go to the Annapurna, go soon! 

Picture of the building of the road (the workers look like ants and are building on a dangerous edge where you could hear the rocks crashing down the mountain):


 Closer view of the workers:

One of many gorgeous valleys that will be destroyed by the road:


Blessed by a 95-year-old Monk

We left Pisang early in the morning after a breakfast of hot oatmeal and mint tea, and headed to Manang.  There are two routes to Manang:  The short (4 hours tops) and the long (7-8 hours).  We chose the long one (after much pressure on my dad who would rather have done the easy one) which took us up above the valleys climbing into the clouds.  It was our first and only “bad” weather day and to our chagrin, it snowed.  Being from Minnesota, I of course am accustomed to snow and cold weather, however, we were mainly disappointed about the lack of view.  The gorgeous mountain views were blocked behind the snow clouds and occasionally we would see the white tip of the mountain poking out of the clouds.  It was a disappointment since the main reason we took the extended hike was for the marvelous views but we felt blessed to have had so many amazingly, spectacular days. 

Our hike was remote and lonely stopping briefly in a small village where we had hot apple pie and mint tea.  We finished our long day in Manang, a special place that is one of the largest, most wealthy villages in rural Nepal and is known for the bakeries.  Although we were eight days walking from the end of the road, we still at last were able to feel somewhat connected to civilization by the appearance of internet cafes.  The service was spotty, but still! 

Probably one of the coolest cultural experiences of the entire trip was our visit to the Manang monastery.  Due to Manang’s high altitude (11,483 feet), most trekking groups stop there for a day or two of acclimatization.  An excellent acclimatization hike is to the famous Manang monastery, about another hour and a half straight up the mountain above Manang.  There, lives the magical, 95-year-old Monk and his daughter (who is 65) in a cave monastery.  The highlight of the chest-pounding, barely-able-to-breathe hike up is to be blessed by the monk.  Upon entering the cave, you wait in line and when it is your turn, you receive a personal blessing from the Monk.  He places a string necklace around your neck (or else for $7 you can upgrade to a beaded necklace), says some Buddhist prayers and well wishes (which of course you don’t understand) and then you leave to see the most magnificent, spiritual view of the entire trek to date:  The incredible, mighty Himalayas in all their glory. 

It is truly an amazing experience and I did not take those beads off until I landed safely at home in the States a week or so later.

Being Blessed by a 95-year-old Monk:



View of Manang cave monastery:

The splendid views of Manang and the Himalayas:




View the previous day, on approaching Manang (the only cloudy day we had the entire trip!).  Check out the village, hanging on the side of the cliff:


Entering Yak Country

We continued our trek from Chame to Pisang (10,466 feet), climbing higher and higher into more mountainous and serene terrain.  The presence of Buddhism surrounded you, just like the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalayas.  The views were magical and you immediately felt at peace.  As we climbed above 10,000 feet, we were finally introduced to our new friends, the yaks.  Yaks are funny creatures that look like a cross between a cow and a buffalo and have very long, course fur.  They commonly live in herds and are found in high-altitude climates above 10,000 feet.  Yaks are an important livestock for rural villagers as they provide milk, meat, power (they are commonly used by farmers for transporting goods across the high mountain passes) and fuel (their dung is used to heat fires and provides one of the only fuels available in some remote, arid regions of Nepal and Tibet).  For some odd reason, I was fascinated by the yaks and loved their morning wake-up calls from outside my teahouse window. 

Here is my pal, the Yak and his sweetheart who loved to wake me up at 5 am:

Man bridge and yak bridge:


The villages change as we climb higher and higher


As we climb higher and higher, leaving the jungle terrain behind and entering the pine trees, the villages start to change and urban Nepal seems far away.  The trek will take us up to almost 18,000 feet, the highest point, where the landscape changes dramatically along the way. 

Here are more pictures of the villages we passed through and the way of life in rural Nepal.

Picture of our porter, always with a huge smile, leading the way.  Porters work hard for the short trekking season, often leaving their family and village behind in order to make a living.  For many villagers, this is one of the only jobs available that isn’t farming.

Soccer at 10,000 feet (yes it happens, even in the villages):

Cooking the traditional way for teahouse guests:

The rickety bridges:

The magnificent stuppas:

Traditional farming (each village is self-sufficient in food production):

The heart-warming smile of a child (and constant requests for candy or a school pen):


Cultural immersion

One of the main reasons why the Annapurna Circuit Trek is so world-renown is the close intimacy the hikers have with the local people.  The trekking route circles around the magnificent Annapurna Conservation Area and passes directly through picturesque villages representing an immense variety of cultures.    The trek starts off in the jungle and climbs higher and higher elevation, and the landscape and communities began to change.  The jungle disappears and the pine trees emerge.  Then at the highest point of the trek, Thorong-Phedi (almost 18,000 feet), it is stark and barren.  There are remnants of Tibet (which isn’t far) and the landscape is dreamy, brown and wild.  The trail continually changes along the way and it is utterly fascinating. 

Throughout the trek, the Buddhist influence surrounds you and you feel Buddhism’s mystical powers every time you enter into a village.  There is always a giant prayer wheel strategically placed in the middle of the trail and trekkers are reminded kindly to walk on the left side for good luck.  Colorful Buddhist prayer flags soar gracefully in the sky assuring you that you are in truly in Nepal.  You can also find the common scent of burning juniper, the low rumble of the Buddhist drum, and the beautiful, decorated stupas (bell-shaped Buddhist shrines) at the entrance of each village.    

What makes this trek so unbelievably unique is the fact that you are completely immersed in the culture, not just a witness.  Trekkers use the exact same routes as the villagers thus can experience firsthand how rural Nepali people live.   It is not uncommon to spend an entire day hiking with the locals, as they go about their business herding sheep and goats, transporting supplies village to village using mule trains, and carrying a cage full of chickens on their back village to village until the cage is empty.    Each village welcomes you with a friendly namaste and a varying difference of cuisine.   The food was surprisingly good, especially given the modest cooking methods (there are no ovens…only fire-burning stoves).  Villages have their own variations of the “national food” Dal Bhat (which is a curried lentil soup poured over rice) as well as Tibetan entrees such as momos (chicken dumplings) and sometimes teahouses offered more western food such as pasta and pizza (yet is didn’t taste anything like what we are used to). 

Village life is very traditional and basic.  There are no luxuries.  Electricity arrived only a few years ago and is spotty in its use.  It is common for the electricity to go out every day for a few hours because there simply is not enough electricity to go around in Nepal.  There are no roads, only the rocky, mountainous trails and villagers live a very hard, simple life.  Over 80% of the population of Nepal is rural and of course the hard life and lack of jobs is not for all.  Like most developing countries, there is a mass exodus to the cities in hopes for jobs and education, which is devastating to the preservation of traditional Nepali cultures and languages (there are over 100 different languages in Nepal!). 

After a few days of trekking, I felt far away from the world I knew at home and completely immersed in the beauty, magic and culture of Nepal.  So what if there were no western toilets or hot water to take a shower?  I was in Nepal and loving it! 

Here are some photos along the way:

Along the Annapurna trek:

Village life:

A common site:  The mule trains

Look out for the sheep:

A village woman, chanting and watching the mule trains go by:

The sharp contrast between the past and present:  A rooster atop one of the only satelite dishes around. 



The buddhist prayer wheels:

The division of food (once a month each village has meat and divides up a water buffalo into equal servings for each family):


What you get for $2/night: Lodging in a Third-World Country

The first major dose of severe culture shock hit me when we arrived, after nine long hours of miserable travel, at our destination, Bhulbule.  It was already getting dark so our guide Hari had to find the first teahouse available.  Teahouses are pretty much the only accommodations available in most of the remote villages throughout Nepal.  They are extremely basic, usually having a traditional kitchen on the first floor (where the family lives) that has a wood-burning stove, and very basic, small rooms one or two stories above the common area.  Each room typically has a wooden bed with a thin mat and no blankets (hence need to pack your own sleeping bag).  If you are lucky you will have a small table or an extra chair to put your belongings on, and sometimes electricity but it is sparse.  The communal bathroom was the biggest shock of all.  I knew they would be bad but was not prepared or expecting to discover how bad the bathroom situation really was.  At the teahouse all toilets were located down the hall, in a dark, smelly room with two foot pads and a hole.  A bucket of water and a trash can were located adjacent to the toilet.  After such a long, terrible day, my first sight of the toilet made me gasp in horror.  I’d been to places in Europe with the squat toilets but it wasn’t that frequent.  I began to worry how on earth I would survive twelve long days trekking and staying in the teahouses without my beloved, clean western toilet.  To make matters worse, there was no running water to wash your hands, no toilet paper, and the communal shower was ice cold and just as basic as the toilet.   Ironically enough, our teahouse was called “The Heaven Guest House” but there definitely wasn’t anything the least bit heavenly about it.  I found the name to be so ironic that it made me laugh despite myself.  As I would later discover, almost all the teahouses along the trek had such hilariously, similar names such as The Paradise Inn, Hotel Dreamhouse, and The Shangri-La. 

The owners of the guesthouse were nice and friendly and the food was edible but the culture shock that first night was unbearable.  Of course I’ve experienced it many times before.  Usually the first day or two in a new country, culture shock is a common, normal experience.  It takes a few days to get used to the new culture and either accept it or reject it.  But this time, the culture shock was severe and it was a terrible feeling.  I wanted desperately to go home but was ashamed to admit it, especially to my dad.  I wondered why on earth I’d ever decided to go to Nepal and wish I could click my magic shoes together and instantly arrive at home, just like Dorothy.  As I climbed into my hot, sticky sleeping bag that night, I closed my eyes and prayed tomorrow would be a better day. 

Our first teahouse (view from the outdoor “dining room”):



We didn’t stay here but I couldn’t resist taking a picture of it!