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Tea House Trekking

Annapurna Circuit and Base Camp Part 1


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It is 8:30 in the morning and my heart is racing as I fight for oxygen. I have been hiking straight up for three and a half hours and I am now standing on the Thorung La at 17,769 feet. This, the pinnacle of our 24 day trek, is a mountain pass close to the Tibetan border inside the Annapurna Conservation Area of Nepal. We have been on the trail for 11 days and have reached the main objective of our trip but only one of the many highlights.

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Standing in front of hundreds of Prayer flags on the Thorung La

We set out for the Annapurna Himal directly after completing our time at the Orphan Home. This is an incredible cluster of mountains on the Nepal/Tibet border and includes some of the worlds highest peaks. The 34 mile long massif includes Annapurna 1, the worlds 10th highest peak at roughly 26,540 feet as well a eight other peaks over 23,000 feet. On its eastern side is the wide and deep Kali Gandaki River valley that originates near the Tibetan border in the forbidden kingdom of Mustang. The great river gorge also separates the Annapurna’s from the Dhaulagiri Massif who’s namesake is the 6th highest mountain in the world and provided great views for a good portion of our trip. We set out for what turned out to be a 24 day hike covering 180 miles and cumulatively climbing over 33,000 feet. We visited the frozen Tilicho Tal(lake) That proudly claims to be the highest lake in the world at 16,138 feet (it is not, neither is lake Titicaca). Our journey would bring us through vastly differing terrain from a some what tropical start in Besi Sahar at 2,500 feet through lush forests and up to the wind blown Thorung La (pass) at 17,769 feet. We saw differing cultures and different villages along the way that were as interesting as the rugged country we were traveling through.

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Our first few days climbed consistently up a great river valley from the low lying Besi Sahar were one could spot banana trees growing in a some what tropical landscape up through pine and fir forests and into an alpine environment were very little grew. Villages were spread out every few miles along what was once an old Tibetan trade route to Kathmandu. On our 2nd night we stayed in a “tea house” more resembling a guest house or mountain chalet in the village of Jagat. This once served as a toll station; set atop a gorge in a narrow section of the valley provided strategic location.

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Jagat

As the trail climbed the valley we crossed the river many times on numerous impressive foot bridges sometimes spanning incredible distances high above the raging river below.

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The further up we climbed the more impressive the scenery became and the Tibetan Buddhist influence in the villages increased. A long line of prayer wheals usually were placed on the outskirts of town as well as in the center of most villages. The many trekkers and travelers kept there mantras in constant rotation as they moved up and down the trail. We also saw thousands of Mani wall’s. These were collections of stone tablets with mantras painstakingly carved into them in the beautifully intricate Tibetan script. At points along the way the worlds highest peaks looming in the background took second stage to the fascinating villages we were passing through.

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Stone Chorten marking the entrance to one of the many Tibetan influenced villages

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Mani Wall - Most tablets were not colored and had a lot more writing in smaller text. We literally saw 10’s of thousands of these tablets

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Stone houses of Ghyaru below Annapurna 2

Staying in teahouses provided a much different experience than tent camping. We could always count on a bed and a warm meal at the end of our day. It also provided a great social scene and we spent our time most evenings sharing stories with other travelers from all over the world. We made some good friends and intentionally stayed in the same villages and guesthouses along the way. As we were out for a longer trek than most people we got to know a few different people along the way on different sections of our route.

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East side trekking crew in Manang - The largest village on the east side

We opted to add on a few side routes of the main trail and these were some of the most rewarding segments of our trip. The first was a high route above the river on east side of the valley. This opened up amazing views and brought us into less visited villages. Ghyaru was an amazing place to spend a night in an old tea house. Haze in the lower valleys and overcast and rainy sky’s kept the high peaks out of view for a few days. When the clouds started to break up in the late afternoon we could not believe the size of the mountains before us. Reading our topo map I determined that the elevation change between the valley floor below us and massive Annapurna 2 before us was almost 16,000 feet! We woke up the next morning to a crystal clear day and hiked the entire length of the upper trail with outstanding views. I was embarrassed when I figured out that I took over 200 pictures that day.

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Clouds lifting. You can spot the top of Annapurna 2 starting to show were the clouds meet the blue sky.

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Good Morning! I was up at 5:00 AM to catch sunrise.

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Annapurna 2 and 4 from Ghyaru

Another rewarding side trip was to Tilicho Base camp and lake. We later learned it was not the worlds highest lake but it was still a great destination. We broke off the main trail and made the trip in two long and tiring days. Following the river valley up to the lake was incredible. We came across a 1,000 year old Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) that was far removed from the main trading route. The scenery was stunning and vastly different than anywhere else on the trip. We had to cross massive scree fields that were dotted with towering chunks of rock that created an almost lunar landscape. We were approaching 14,000 feet and after the long day we were both exhausted and feeling the affects of the altitude. We were both relived when we came across a turn in the valley after and endless traverse across the lifeless rocky terrain and saw the Tilicho lake Base camp in a meadow below us. The next day we were up and on the trail by 6:00 AM. It was a big climb up to a viewpoint over the lake. On the outset the weather did not look promising. Luckily we rose above the clouds and had amazing views of big alpine terrain. What we first thought was the sound of a jet plane was actually the first of many avalanches we witnessed tearing down the near vertical wall of mountains on the west side of the lake.

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Thare Gompa and the river valley heading up to Tilicho Tal

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The Trail became steep in sections…

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We stopped at a few nice viewpoints along the way
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Meghan waits for a Yak to get out of the trail
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Navigating the scree fields. Notice the trail cutting across the rock face in the background!
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Tilicho base camp coming into view in the lower right
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Getting close to the view point
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Frozen Titlicho Tal - The info board cleverly misleads the reader to think it is the worlds highest.

We had to retrace most of our steps back to the main trail except for the very end. We caught a seldom used trail that cut north and brought us further up the valley then from were we departed. We spent two short days leading up to our big push over the pass. This section the days got shorter as you did not want to go up in elevation to much and the stops were at purpose built trekkers lodges that catered specifically to our needs. Before we knew it we were up at 4:00 AM in a cloudless dawn and ready to make the big push over the pass. We would have to climb 3,100 feet and then descend 5,500 feet before reaching the village of Muktinath, the next available lodging on our route. The beginning of the climb was nothing but punishment. The trail was all rock and went straight up. Meghan suffered at this point and struggled with the altitude. After a good break and a lot of water we continued and felt fine for the rest of the day. We were soon on snow again and the grade lessened. Before we knew it we arrived at the pass. It was so cold and windy that we did not elect to hang out for to long before starting the long painful decent to Muktinath.

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Mmmmm…. Yak Burger
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Pre Dawn light on the mountains from Throrung Phedi
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Working our way up above the snow line
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View from the pass
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Prayer Flags at 17,776 Feet!

To be continued…

Posted by pmunson 03:40 Archived in Nepal Comments (4)

Annapurna Trekking Part 2

The Kali Gandaki River Valley, Poon Hill, and A.B.C.


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Pack Mules - All supplies are carried in by man or beast and we saw many caravans of pack animals along the trail
The Big decent from Throrung La was not as bad as we had built it up to be. Going down is more difficult for us than going up but we made it to Muktinath with our knees intact and smiles on our faces. Muktinath is a holy sight for Hindu’s and Buddhists alike and had impressive temples. We decided to take a rest day here but I could not resist exploring the nearby villages instead of giving my legs a break.

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Temples in Muktinath
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Colorful doorway at a temple in a village outside of Muktinath
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Nuns on the run - There were two nunneries outside Muktinath as well.

We picked up another side route that brought us up over a ridgeline with incredible views of Dhaulagiri peak before dropping sharply to the rocky riverbed of the adjoining valley. We had to pick our way along the stream to the Village of Lupra. There wasn’t any services for trekkers but nontheless we managed to get invited into the Temple and also into a home for tea before we set back off for Kagbeni . Kagbeni was one of our favorite villages. It was incredibly scenic and had a medieval feel to it. It was another stone village but was a maze of narrow corridors and stone tunnels. A lot of fun to explore. It was also home to the Mustang Guest house and “Yak Donald’s” They also had copied the 7-11 logo for their provisions shop and had quite the reputation on the trail. I think it may just be the one and only 7-11 you can buy yak cheese in!

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High on the Ridge with Dhaulagiri in the background
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Lupra
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Kagbeni Alleyway
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Yep, Yac Donald’s
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Long haired mountain goats being herded through the Village
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Looking up river into Mustang
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View of Nilgiri North from Kagbeni

Unfortunately the Annapurna Circuit is no longer the 300 mile roadless Tea House Trek it once was. A dirt road has made its was up the Kali GandakI River Valley all the way to the foot of the pass. This obviously detracts from the allure of this section and most trekkers hop on a Jeep or hike a little further to the town of Jomosom were a small airport has daily flights to Pokhara. We opted not to use the any of the buses, jeeps or planes and chose to put in two really long days and knock this section out on foot. Before we knew it we had lost almost all of the elevation we had gained and were turning off the road to a 6,000foot climb to Gorepani and the well known look out, Poon hill. Instead of torturing ourselves we made the climb in two short days.

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The road works its way down valley.
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White washed walls Of Marpha
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Meggy had a little … Kid(baby goat)
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Lookout Village of Sikha were we split the climb to Ghorapani.
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Would you believe me if I told you this picture was not posed? It is not! It had rained all afternoon and the sky cleared to an incredible view from Ghorapani
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Blowing Snow and Clouds hide in the lee of the mighty Machhapuchhre

The next day would be our longest and most painful. I was on the trail at 4:45 to make a side trip up Poon Hill for the obligatory sunrise on Dhaulagiri. This is the crowning point of a short trek that can be done in 3-5 days so I was not alone. It was well worth it when the sun started to light up the mountains but I had no idea of what laid ahead of me that afternoon.

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Poon Hill Sunrise
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Poon Hill Panoramic

Meghan and I were on the Trail early and climbed up above Ghorapani on the opposite side of Poon Hill. We had an equally good view on this side and Meghan was happy with her decision to sleep in rather than join my on my pre dawn outing. The trail initially was some of the most enjoyable walking we had done. It was a forested ridgeline alive with birdsong. Occasionally the big mountain peaks would pop out of a gap in the trees and the trail was all soft dirt. At a clearing we had the opportunity to watch one of the small planes bound for Pokhara fly through the valley beneath us! It is a rare opportunity to look down on a plane. The joy soon ended as we faced multiple deep valleys with extreme ups and downs. Looking across a valley that is easily 3 or 4 times deeper than it is wide and seeing your trail on the other side does not make the legs feel good. We were exhausted when we reached our lunch spot but decided to press on only to find another ridiculous 3,000 foot decent with our trail climbing right up the other side of the valley again. We limped into Chomrong, village of stone steps, and were glad to rest our aching bones.
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Look Familiar? Meghan and I at an equally good Viewpoint opposite Poon Hill
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Meghan enjoys some relaxation in Chhomrong
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Evening Light on Machhapuchhre. The so called “fish tail” shows its likeness

At this point we were on the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) Trek. The trail leading up to the base camp to one of the worlds deadliest mountains was much more remote than the Circuit Trek. The accommodation along the trail from this point on where purpose built trekkers lodges. We felt like we had lost a lot of the culture of the circuit but gained much more dramatic scenery and a more wilderness environment. The glacier sculpted valley we ascended was nothing short of breathtaking and we had two amazing days leading up to Machhapuchhre Base Camp. Machhapuchhre Base Camp was sort of an oxymoron because the mountain, like many others, is considered holy to the Nepali people and has never been summated. Due to weather and time we decided to stay at MBC and make a day trip the remaining hour and ½ in the early morning for sunrise and breakfast.

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Digitally enhanced morning sunbeams behind Machhapuchhre
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Storm clouds building in the valley

We Made it to ABC shortly after sunrise and were treated to incredible 360 degree views including the best view of Annapurna 1. The evidence of glacial activity here was plain as day. The earth looked as it had been pushed aside as easily as soft putty were the glacier had once made its way down the valley. In its retreat it left a rocky bed that was still barren. There was a memorial to fallen mountain climbers that was covered in prayer flags spreading out in all directions. We sat in awe for a long time and enjoyed a simple breakfast at an outside picnic table at the ABC lodge. While we were there a Austrian lady flew in in a helicopter and joined us for breakfast. She was only their for a little over an hour and we figured her breakfast cost her a little over $2000. A Little out of our budget!

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Annapurna South and Annapurna 1
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Munslers and Mountains
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Expensive Breakfast
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Nice enough place for a cup of… Nescafe

We pushed it back down to MBC and further on down the valley that night. We were able to make it out to the road to catch a bus back to Pokhara in four days. After the 24 days we had been on the trail we were eager to get back but sad that it had all come to an end. The way out held some more treats for us. Another brutal up and down were I counted 2,180 continuous stone steps leading back up to Chhomrong. It was all worth it when we got to Jhinu and were able to relax in some beautiful hot springs alongside the river. We said good buy to friends we had hiked with and spent the last 2 days on our own. As luck would have it we got caught in a torrential down poor on out last afternoon and huddled underneath a tree while it hailed on us!

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Meghan Below ABC
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Looking Down Valley
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The forest was really fascinating
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I was not the only Monkey on the trail
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Endless Steps to Chhomrong
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Oh Yeah
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The foot bridges got a little sketchy at times
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Slate Rooftops
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Hail…

Posted by pmunson 05:55 Archived in Nepal Comments (5)

Meghan's Take Two

Reflections of Nepal


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Meghan’s Second Entry!

Thanks to all the positive feedback, I thought I would give this challenge another go. Peter and I have been in Pokhara for just about a week now. Pokhara is the gateway city to the trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area and boasts a lively touristy area with adjacent lake all overlooked by the Himalayas to the North and a Peace Pagoda to the south. We thought we would take a few days to max and relax before we reenter the intensity of India. In addition, India just happened to change their visa rule December of last year and any tourist that leaves the country must wait a minimum of 2 months before reentry regardless if you hold a double entry visa like we do. Great India, thanks a lot, oh well we will continue to spend our money in Nepal and enjoy the cool air and beautiful views. We could legally reenter India on the 28th so we made plans to bus to the boarder, stay a night in Lumbini (Birthplace of Buddha) and cross on the 28th. Only to make the connection last night around 7pm that today (May 27th) is the birthday of the “Enlightened One“. After a few phone calls we came to discover the accommodation would be very difficult to find. Ooopppps. Instead we leave tomorrow the 28th, bus to the border, another bus to Gorakhpur, train to Lucknow, another train to Amritsar (north of Delhi, close to boarder with Pakistan and home of the Golden Temple, the Mecca equivalent for Sheiks). where we will be greeted with 45 degree weather, and for those of us not up on the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion we are looking at about 115 degrees! What are we thinking? Really this will be just a quick stop before venturing into the Indian Himalayas and possibly more trekking and a more agreeable climate. But today, gives us yet another day to ‘hang out’.

I thought I would do like I did last time and scour all tens of hundreds of pictures that we have taken in the last two months and offer a “behind the story” take on Nepal. Most of the pictures will come from the trek. What a highlight that was, how can I not continue to talk about it!!
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Here is Mr Munson working away on a blog…..these take a lot of time. If only we could get paid, then we may never come home!

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Touristos walking the strip in Thamel, Kathmandu. We affectionately call such areas the TZ (the tourist zone) and they are the same everywhere and every country. The stuff being hawked and the type of tourist changes slightly, but not by much. Coming to Nepal, I made an observation there where a lot of Sunnto Watches, leather hiking boots and technical fabric pants on the plane from Delhi.

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Kathmandu was firmly located on the “Hippy Trail” of the 1960s and 1970s and Freak Street was its epicenter. Today Freak Street is one stop shopping for today’s “hippy trailers”. Hippies flocked to Nepal for its cheap chilled out vibe and, well lets be honest, for its abundance of dope. Although today it is illegal (most of the year) one doesn’t need to trek far before walking through fields of it.
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We have come to understand why this plant is also called “Weed”. It grew everywhere! I mention that it is illegal most of the year, it is legal during a Shivarati Festival in Janurary/Feburary. Cannabis is used in many different forms as an offering to Shiva, one of the many gods of Hindu (but one of the more popular ones), Many Sadhus (holy men) smoke charras of hash in observation of Shiva.

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Up until 2006, Nepal was a “Hindu Kingdom” ruled by a Monarchy. Nepal was proud to be the worlds last Hindu nation. Since then, the government has been turned up side down. The monarchy was ousted in 2006 after very problematic 5 years prior. In 2001 the heir to the throne massacred the king and queen and 8 other family members before turning on himself in one horrific murder suicide. One theory suggest Prince Dipendra had been drinking and high and merely erupted while others believe that it was a conspiracy by Gyanendra (next in line for the throne after Dipendra) and China’s equivalent to the CIA. (people question whether it was really a suicide). Regardless of the truth, the people of Nepal were rocked and the government has been in shambles ever since. The Maoists (Nepal’s Communist Party) took the opportunity of the massacre to increase its anti monarchy stance and increased its hold in Nepal. Today, the Maoists are very vocal against the current prime minister. On May 1st, their Labor Day they held massive protests in Kathmandu and starting May 2nd called an indefinite strike. Unlike strikes that we know at home, when the Maoists call a “general strike” they mean everything is shut down. If you happen to open your shop or drive your taxi you risk violent reprimanding from a Maoist supporter. We personally have only heard really negative things against the Maoists and not one person has come out to say they support them. However, they are out there, and literally had shut down Nepal for 8 days. Many tourists where left with out taxi or busses for their use and had to take to walking to and from the airports and trekking trail heads (sometimes 10 miles!). Fortunately, we where trekking and didn’t have any impact from the shut down.

Nepal is home not only to Hindus and many Buddhists as well. And as I have already written, Nepal is home to the birth place of Buddha. The Buddhism seen on the highland is greatly influenced by the Tibetan form. In addition, there are many Tibetans living in exile in Kathmandu, Pokhara and the highlands.
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Women Spinning Tibetan Prayer Wheels. Inscribed on the cylinder are mantras and spinning in a clockwise rotation releases them. (hey Pops, see the prayer beads? Thought you would like that!)

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Taking my turn….
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Yep, you got to love the trusty guide book.
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More prayer wheels. We literally passed thousands during the 24 day trek. I tried to spin most of the them. In some villages, the wheels were merely coffee cans. Not too sure why.

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These stone structures where found along the trail with paths leading down both sides. On them are the inscribed stone slabs, again with mantras. One should walk with it on your right for your right side of you body is you pure or clean side. This is also true when circumnavigating stupas and other temples (true for Hindu temples as well)

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Monk on a horse….yes peter did ask permission and happily he said yes.
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These cheerful women were encountered on the trail returning from a festival The older lady was dancing and singing and full of enthusiasm. I would not be too surprised if they had been drinking the local “wine” Raksi. Women’s lives are much easier in the hills as they are unencumbered by caste and less tradition bound then the orthodox Hindus of the plains.

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While trekking, you encounter information boards when entering most of the villages. It gives you an idea of how set up they have made this trek.
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This guy trekked the entire time with a Russian Flag hanging off the back. Not too sure why, never asked, simply assumed he would summit the pass with it and leave it there. Nope, saw him down the other side with it the next day. Peter and I chuckled and wonder what others would say if we had done it with an American Flag. (Plenty of Stupid American jokes I am sure) A German hiking buddy also shared in the jest stating she could never get way with it.

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So on the trail one comes across a variety of trekker. He was a group leader of a large group of Germans that we leap frogged with for the first week. This picture was taken the first time we came across the group and I couldn’t help insisting Peter take a picture.

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The best view from the guest house window. Doesn’t it feel like you can just reach out and touch a 25,000plus foot mountain.

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I really loved the head adornment on the donkeys. In addition, the donkey wore bells around their neck of varying size. Some were down right huge and heavy but made the most beautiful sound when a troop of the them passed. I think we got some video recorded just to remember what it sounded like.

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This is a porter for a trekker. In his case, three trekkers. We crissed crossed with this red bag for a least a couple of days. I am not sure what we more impressed by, the bag to man ratio or the fact that a back pack that size exists! Take note, he doesn’t wear the waist belt and in his hand is the rope he will place around his head to carry the bag with.
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A porter brings up lumber for construction of a new guest house.
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A porter lugging up a new REFRIDGERATOR! Fortunately this was only a one day hike from the nearest road, but who know how far is was going. Surprising, the little villages on the trail had more electricity from solar and micro hydro projects then Kathmandu!

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Peter and hiking buddies playing a lunch time game of cards. We introduced the game “Oh Hell” to many people along the trail. Thank you Casey and Liz!

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Baby yak vs. baby cow……which one is cuter? I take the Yak!
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This was how logs were once cut by hand…here they still implenet this technique. Talk about patience.
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Many homes and guesthouses had one of these, a solar cooker. There is an ever present concern of deforestation up in the hills. They request trekkers to select guest houses that do not use wood to cook with. Unfortunately, those were not easy to find after a couple day hike from the road. Some day soon there will be a road that travels up the valley and maybe (we will see) over the pass to connect with the road down the other side. This will destroy this trek, but allow plenty more bus happy tourists access. I feel that the trekking tourism some of the villages know will not be the same once the road is built, but the road will allow for kerosene to be shuttled up to use in place of wood. Oh, one of the many developmental conundrums Nepal faces.
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How most food is cooked.
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Building of the road…

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Map of the trail
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Himalayan Dogs. Very different looking then your typical mountain dog. Obviously desendents of the Tibetan Terrier. (Do you think this is where Toby gets the long body?)

Posted by pmunson 23:07 Archived in Nepal Comments (2)

Back to India

Golden Temple to the Dalai Lama


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Over landing from Nepal to India, we knew we where in for some long arduous bus journeys. We left Nepal on the morning of May 28th for an 8-hour bus ride to the border town of Sonauli. Walked across the border and boarded another bus for three more hours that brought us to the city of Gorakhpur. This city was the closest railway station to the Nepal border and allowed us to trade the cramped hot bus for the much more comfortable train. Our train left the next morning, so we over nighted in the absolutely dirtiest “hotel” yet. I guess when you are located right across the street of the train station you do not have to do much to bring in the customers. At 6:45 the next morning, we boarded a train that led us to Lucknow and the very busy capital of Uttar Pradesh. This is India’s most populated state and the capital reflected it. With a four-hour layover, we contemplated between leaving the train station for some sight seeing and lunch or just hanging tight. The temperature was easily above 100 degrees and with sweat dripping down our faces and horns and rickshaw drivers accosting us, we quickly decided to wait it out in the train station. A quick look around found us a waiting room with air conditioning for those traveling upper class. Technically, we did hold ticket for the AC upper class, but this was not checked and we were waved on in. The train left only 1.5 hours late (not too bad), we boarded and settled in to the 17 plus hour journey to Amritsar. Located in northwestern India, in the state of Punjab, Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine.

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The Golden Temple

Upon arriving to Amritsar, we followed our trusty guide book to the free bus from the train station to the temple. Getting on the free bus was crazy. In the typical India fashion their was no queue and people just crammed on in. It reminded me of trying to get on the parking lot shuttle at a Phish concert at Sugarbush in 95! We got as close as we could and when the time came we just pushed. Meghan felt like her arm was going to be torn off and I thought that I might loose the small backpack that I was wearing on my front but we made it on board and proceed to get crammed in like an overfull suitcase. Fortunately it was a short ride to the temple. Sikhism has a come one come all nature and the temple provided free lodging for both Sheiks and foreigners alike. Getting off the over packed bus, we found ourselves on the street surrounded by thousands of sheik pilgrims. We started our aimless wondering when we were whisked away by a very helpful women and her two kids. She quickly located the accommodation for foreigners and we were led into a long narrow hall that had beds lined up side to side running down one end. It had AC, and was a welcomed refuge from the heat. We dubbed this place the “tourist enclave” and compared to the lodging for the pilgrims, who spilled out onto mats laid out in the open courtyard, it was Shangri-la
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Laid out in the enclave

Inside the temple priests chant in Gurmuhki from the Sikh holy book. These chants are broadcasted over loud speakers through out the temple complex.

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A marble walkway surrounds the pool.

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The Golden Temple (Check out the line of pilgrims waiting to enter)

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Father and son taking a ritual bath in pools surrounding the temple.

In the 15th century, Guru Nanak of present day Pakistan founded the religion of Sikhism as a way to revolt against the misgiving of both Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs number about only about 1.9% of the total population (Hindus number 82% and Islam 12%). Principally, the belief of one God, rejection of the worship of idols, belief in rebirth and Karma and in an equality of all being (regardless of “caste” or creed) makes up the
basis of this religion. Many Sheiks don’t cut their hair or beard as a symbol of saintliness (heads are covered in tightly wound turbans with long beards often braided or twisted and tucked up into them), wear a kirpan, a sword signifying power and dignity and a steel bangle representing fearlessness.
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In Sikhs temples and shrines across the world, the ritual of langar is practiced. Langar is when people of all walks of life (religion, caste, creed, nationality etc.) sit down together and share a common meal provided by temple volunteers. Here in the Golden Temple, 60,000 to 80,000 people are served a day! It was truly an amazing feat of organization and commitment.
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Stockpile of metal plates

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Peter waiting for his grub in the required headwear

How do they serve up to 80,000 people a day?!?
There are two dining halls, upstairs and downstairs. Both sat about 800-1000 people on rows of long mats. Plates are handed out and people file into a “cleaned” hall. Servers come by with pails of rice, curry, Dal (lentils) and just slop it on to the plates. Other servers come around with hot Chapatti (flat bread) fresh from the Chapatti making machine! We all eat quickly, with 2nds and 3rds always on offer. As you finish you stand and file out to the dish washing station. Here, more volunteers take your plate and loudly thrown then into a giant basin when they are then moved to the dish washing area. Once last people are out of the room, the floor is wetted down and squeegee clean. In the downstairs hall they even have a zamboni type vehicle that makes laps cleaning the floors. When one hall is being cleaned, pilgrims are eating the other. It goes back and forth like this from dawn to 10:30 at night!
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Filing out after eating

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Pilgrim volunteers wash dishes

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Not your ordinary soup spoon…Stirring a vat of Dal (lentil soup)

Yet another long bus ride, a pattern that will develop in our travels through Northwestern India, brought us to Dharamsala. Unfortunately we were not done yet and had to catch a 2nd bus that would bring us another 45 minutes up windy mountain roads to the small town of Mcleod Ganj. This has become a destination in India since around 20,000 Tibetan refugees have moved here, along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Today, Tibet runs its government in Exile and quiet little McCleod Ganj is no longer so quiet. We climbed out of the bus to find the typical TZ (tourist zone) lined with the typical shops and tourists. It was a big change from Amritsar were the domestic tourists and pilgrims far outnumbered the foreigners. As the epicenter for Tibetan Buddhist activity, people from all over the world are attracted here for different reasons. Many come to volunteer with the refugees, others come to meditate and take in the spiritual side of things, while others come to see what the fuss is all about. We found ourselves is the latter category. While a beautiful setting, the overwhelming noise from traffic and the shear number of spiritual tourists we found ourselves disappointed with the whole experience. One nice experience was seeing monks in maroon and saffron robes everywhere. In every café and restaurant, which there were plenty, one would see a monk chatting with a westerner in what looked like a deeply spiritual English lesson. In addition, we visited the Tibet exile museum and took in two documentaries that educated us more to the plight of the Tibet people and government. If you are interested please visit www.thetibetpost.com

Posted by pmunson 04:47 Archived in India Comments (3)

Kashmir

Srinigar, Dal Lake, and Trekking


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Ahh Kashmir! The name itself self drew me to this place before I learned more about its massive mountains and long valleys. From Dharmasala we had a seven hour bus ride that brought us to Hindu city of Jammu, where we befriended a Polish girl, Kasha, who had been traveling in India for five months mostly on her own. We overnighted in Jammu, and woke the next morning for a nine hour jeep ride up into the Kashmir valley. Here, the “summer” capital city of Srinagar would be our first stop. Kashmir, with it Sufi- Muslim people are culturally and ethnically different then the rest of India. Unfortunately, since India’s independence in 1947, this valley has been scared with three wars with Pakistan and the people are divided in their allegiance. The valley itself is actually divided by an arbitrary “line of control” in which the northern section is ruled by Pakistan and the southern by India. Many Kashmiri people identify with Pakistan while others want a complete independence from both India and Pakistan. India has a HUGE military presence in the valley and although peaceful while we visited, it is not hard to see the tension in the air. We visited Srinagar to spend some time on a houseboat on beautiful Dal Lake

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Houseboats on Dal Lake
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Meghan, Kasha, and Guza look at some photos on the veranda

The tradition of house boats started back during the British rule when Srinagar was used as a summer retret. In keeping with the fashion of the original boats from the1930’s, some of the house boats sport ornately carved verandas with lavishly appointed sitting rooms adorned with chandeliers and over carved wooden furniture.

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Sitting room inside a “deluxe” boat

Over 600 boats form a city in an large outlet area of the lake with more lining the broad river that runs through the town. At first it appeared that they we not more than a tourist destination but after a few days it became clear that families live aboard, usually occupying a smaller boat behind the one that is for rent.

We found ourselves the “Moon of Kashmir” which was actually a group of houseboats. We stayed in a nice boat that had two bedrooms and a nice sitting area. It was not in the “super deluxe” class of houseboats but Golum, the proprietor, gave us use of his nicest boat’s veranda. It was a family run operation and his son Guza would come to spend much time showing us around the lake and town. Our first morning on the boat I woke early and sat on the veranda to take in the scene on the lake. There was still mist coming off the lake and on a small boat a fisherman, his wife, and two small children were starting their day. The man was smoking tobacco from a large water pipe in the center of the boat and the woman had a stove going with tea boiling. The puffs of smoke and the steam from the teapot mixing with the mist rising off the lake created a magical morning moment. Throughout the day many boats would pass in front of our view including floating salesmen hawking anything from chips and beer to jewelry and pashmina shawls.

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The convenience store boat - One came buy about every ½ hour

Gondola like shikaras were readily available for hire and out on the lake in force. The Shikaraa were brightly colored and decorated with beautiful drapes around a comfortably upholstered chaise lounge. Happy couples and family’s were ushered through narrow canals lined with shops, past wide aquatic boulevards, and out in to the open water of Dal Lake beneath the Pir Panjal mountains.

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Shikaras waiting for tourists
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Lakeside lounging

We spent 5 days on the boat and in Srinagar. We took in a interesting early morning floating vegetable market were men congregated to buy and sell all sorts of fresh veggies from their small boats.

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Moon of Kashmir
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Heading out through the canals of the old town to the morning vegetable market
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Floating Veggie Market
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Early morning conversation at the veggie market

Srinagar is home to lavish gardens of the Mughal Era. The lake is surrounded by huge beautiful gardens with water features, large shady trees, and an abundance of beautiful flowers. Finding a nice place to sit outside and relax in India is a challenge so this was a nice treat.

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Roses
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Meghan in the Garden
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Mughal Gardens
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[i]Flowers

The canal lined old town still had some old buildings that survived a terrible earthquake in 2005. The old wooden buildings had interesting architecture. We spent a day getting lost in and around the old town. During this we visited an old mosque with 4 wooden spires that looked like it could accommodate thousands of worshipers.

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Old Town
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A solo boatman paddles at the front of his ship through old town
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Prayer mats and archways inside the mosque

We also took a day trip out to Gulmarg which is one of India’s ski destinations. Their was a gondola that whisked you up to over 12,000 feet. Wealthy Indian tourists collided on the ticket line in the usual chaotic fashion to buy a $20 USD ticket to the top. As most Indians do not ever see mountain weather rental shops outfitted them with rubber boots for the snow and fake fur jackets for the cold. The result was hilarious! After some discussion we decided to buy the overpriced ticket and sent Kasha to get in the shorter women’s line. She fought her way up the line for about 20 minutes and just when she was the next in the “line” they shut down due to bad weather and a lunch break. Go figure. We walked around for a disappointing hour or so before heading back top the jeep for the bumpy 2 hour ride to the lake.

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Indian winter wear
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Gulmarg

Posted by pmunson 04:48 Archived in India Comments (3)

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