A Travellerspoint blog



First Impressions

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We are off to Nepal! A couple of months before we left, we decided to add some volunteer work to our itinerary. After searching through opportunities on line, we signed up for a program through International Volunteer Headquarters. www.volunteerhq.org Their partner agency in Nepal is called Hope and Home. www.hopenhome.org. We initially choose Nepal as the country to volunteer because we wanted to visit the Himalaya and Hope and Home offered a medical placement for volunteering. Meghan wanted to work in health care and have something to contribute to her education in nursing. So here we are, flying from Delhi to Katmandu where all of the typical travel duties arranged for us! Hope and Home, the organization for whom we will donate our time, efforts, and money, have sent a representative to the airport and for the first time in my life I will have a stranger holding a sign with my name on it when we clear customs. Raj is more than friendly and enthusiastic about our arrival and quickly whisks us away to our pre arranged stay at the Katmandu Peace Guesthouse. Driving through the streets of Kathmandu and comparing them to Delhi and India in general, things initially appear to be much quieter and more relaxed.

A Glimpse of the Himalaya from the plane

At the Guest house we were pleased to meet two other volunteers who have also chosen to arrive a few days early to warm up to Nepal. We spend our first full day together walking trough the congested streets and alleyways with dark open fronted shops of the old town to Durbar Square. This was a touristy section of town were one can explore old temples and monuments. The Kasthamandap is found here and is considered one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. It dates back to the 12th century and legend has it that it was built from a single tree. The square is made up of Old brick buildings mixed with 3 tiered temples. The square is also home to the Kumari Chowk were a “Living Goddess” resides. The Cult of the Kumari worship a prepubescent girl whom they believe is the reincarnation of a legendary goddess. A young child is selected based on a series of qualifications and “serves” until puberty. Apparently the girl (or her family) gets a good amount of money out of the deal but once she reaches puberty she will have a hard time transitioning out of the cloistered lifestyle. Legend has it that anyone who marries this girl will die early in life. We waited around for the 4 year old to appear in a 2nd story window for her daily 4 o’clock showing before heading back to her private life inside. Unfortunately Photography was not allowed.

Mountains of knit hats for sale in Kathmandu
A small Stupa in a neighborhood courtyard we found down a dark alley
Temple and statues, Kathmandu Durbar Square
Wood Carvings
Legend has it that if you lie in front of this stone carving you will vomit blood.

Mecca for outdoor gear shopping!
As the jumping off point for any big expedition into the Himalaya from the mountains of the Anapurna area to Everest, Kathmandu is swarmed by the adventure tourist. The shopping in to Thamel area reflects the tastes of such a tourists are offers up an unbelievable selection of outdoor gear shops. Store fronts spill out gear with styles and labels from North face and Arc-teryx to Mammut and Chaco! Down sleeping bags, “gore tex” jackets, hiking boots, Nalgene and Sigg water bottles, full down overalls is just an idea up what up for sale. Upon inquiring price and upon closer observation you start to get an idea of what is going on. Jackets that would sell at home for over $400 are for sale here for less then a hundred! Needless to say, Nepal has the knock off market down. Not too bad if you are wearing the gear casually, but I wouldn’t want to test my luck with a “gore-tex” jacket when the conditions really demanded one. Fortunately, legitimate gear is also available at the North Face and Mountain Hard Wear stores!
On our way back to the guest house we noticed a shop selling tags and labels to high end outdoor gear. I figured as this is part of the black market it would be done on the sly and behind closed doors but this shop had hundreds of rolls of the tags right in the front window! I could even see them on the computer inside working on duplicating a new logo on the computer.

Just a sample of the tags available!
We spent the next few days just lounging around the guest house. I was in a sort of funk, being over the daily activities and sightseeing and wanting a few days off. I started to question myself on the decision to come and volunteer, and the pollution in Kathmandu had me feeling ill. It is ranked as one of the worlds most polluted cities and the fumes on the street leave you gasping for air. Kathmandu is set in a valley were the smog is trapped by the surrounding mountains, similar to Denver. The problem is so bad that we can not even see the mountains through the smog. Many locals where masks to block the polution but that does not prevent a large number of respiratory problems, reportedly 12 times worse than the rest of Nepal. Our guidebook recommends not staying long before heading out on a trek as most travelers suffer from chest colds and sinus infections. Meghan and I both are both feeling the effects of this and are constantly hacking and coughing.

Kids at the Guesthouse on Facebook! They may not have much but they do have more friends than I do.

For some reason I was completely caught off guard by this. Nepal is a 3rd world country and Kathmandu is its capital but for some reason all I though about when coming to Nepal was the Himalaya and its snow caped mountains and clean rivers. The river running through the city is black and the banks are lined with garbage. We learned that only 30% of the cities sewage is treated and in many cases sewage flows openly into the river. There is also an electricity problem. The country’s electricity is all hydro power and although Nepal is more than rich in water resource the infrastructure to capture this energy is lacking. Also we heard that Nepal sells lots of energy to India and China. This leaves Nepal with its growing population (doubling in Kathmandu Valley between the early 1990’s and late 2000’s) in the dark for more then half the day. The “load shedding” occurs at different times each day and is never reliable. This coupled with a unstable government and a recent civil war leave the Nepali people with an insurmountable “Everest” of problems. Learning all of this over the days leading up to our placement has reassured my initial doubts and I am glad to be giving back a bit in the little country that is king of the mountains and the beautiful country I love so much in Colorado.

A cyclist trying to ward off the pollution, Kathmandu
Mmmmm…. Momo’s. A Staple Nepali dish. I was the only one brave enough ot of our group of eight to eat with the locals at this street side glorified food stall of a restaurant. The dish is a steamed dumpling usually filled with minced buffalo meat served with a spicy chutney and a curios green broth.

Getting started with Hope and Home was a little bit more laid back than I had expected. Information kind of just trickled in and it did not feel like anything was actually pre arranged despite our signing up for the program over 6 months ago. This was not really a problem for us as we did not really have any preconceived notions of what we were going to be doing and were willing to go with the flow. After Meghan asked about how hot it would be in the Chitwan Valley, were we anticipated being placed, the program coordinator moved us to the more touristy area of Pokhara. This meant being closer to the main stream of tourism and not so far removed as we were hoping for but it does come with a few advantages. We are being placed in a home stay as opposed to a guest house, this will give us more exposure to the daily live of the Nepali people than a hotel for Volunteers. Also the temperatures will be milder and we will be close to a lot of fun activities for the weekends when we are not working. One disadvantage for Meghan is that it sounds like the Health work will not be as busy as it would have been in Chitwan. Of course this is all assumptions based on limited information so we will keep an open mind and see what comes of it all.
Hope and Home arranged an orientation period where for 4 days we would have language and culture classes in the mornings and go sightseeing in the afternoon. There were 8 of us going through the orientation. Mark and Sylvia, a Swiss couple who currently were living in Melbourne. Chin, an Australian who was born in Malaysia. Jordan who was from Ireland and a young Scott/Aussie named Jaime. Then there was Erik from Sweden. He had us all rolling with his unique personality and endless questions such as “are you fat in America?” Our language instructor’s name was Uzina, a young and well educated Nepali who was obviously troubled with her countries political and infrastructure problems.

Kathmandu Volunteer Friends
For sightseeing we were brought to the Swayambhu Stupa (or monkey temple) This was a large Stupa and temple complex set on a hill just outside of the city. A stupa is a dome shaped Buddhist monument found all over Nepal. There were a few other little monuments and a like its English namesake it was filled with monkeys. There were also more prayer flags here than I have ever seen in one place but I am sure the prayer flags will become commonplace after a few more days as they are everywhere.

Kathmandu disappearing into the Haze and Smog From Monkey Temple
Some of the 6,000 pair wheals surrounding the Temple
The stupa was being rehabilitated during our visit
The monkeys were clearly the main attraction for most tourists
Too many Tibetan Prayer Flags
Smaller Stupas below the Monkey Temple

We also were brought to a geographical feature that plays into ancient Nepali folklore. As the story goes the Kathmandu Valley was once a giant lake, A lotus flower fell upon the sight that is now the Monkey Temple, and the surrounding hillside was sliced with a great sword to drain the lake for the people to inhabit. That is the quick don’t quote me on it ½ word of mouth ½ guidebook version. Anyhow we did visit the impressive Chobar Gorge that did appear to be the drain of the Kathmandu Valley. Unfortunately the river running through it was shockingly polluted based on what I have already described. The smell wafting up the canyon walls was foul. Once again I was disturbed at hiw such a beautiful place could be so polluted.

The river resembled an oil spill flowing through a city dump.

Our last day of sightseeing with Hope and Home was at the Patan Durbar Square. Patan has been absorbed by Kathmandu’s sprawl but at one time was a completely separate city. The Durbar square, Durbar meaning palace or royal court. We liked this one a whole lot more than the one in Kathmandu. It was really similar but the buildings we just a little more interesting and their was not so many people trying to sell you stuff. I finished the orentation by getting drunk with Erik, Chin, Jordan, and Jamie on the roof of the guest house. Something I have not done in a long time…. Like since southern Thailand… and It was a lot of fun. Five guys from 5 different countries and 5 different backgrounds sharing life’s stories and their views on things.
Eyes of the Primordial Buddha seen on all stupa’s and most tourist trinkets. The symbol between the eyes is the Nepali #1 which can be interpreted as a symbol of unity.
Golden Temple. Patan
Statue inside Golden Temple

Patan Durbar Square

Posted by pmunson 20:33 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

A Village Home Stay

Getting started with our volunteer work in Nepal

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We left Kathmandu early in the morning for the 7 ½ hour bus ride to Pokhara. We were sat in the back of the “AC” bus (AC is Nepali for windows) and as usual we were on the sunny side. It was a long hot and sweaty ride. The road immediately started climbing out of Kathmandu past endless terraced farmland over the first line of mountainous defense put up by the foothills. After climbing and then descending we followed one river valley to the next as we slowly made the 200k journey. Yes, it was Sloooooow. 200k in 7 1/2 hours is a little under 17 MPH. This is about the same time it took me ride the 200k Triple Bypass on my Bicycle! The winding and dilapidated road kept the speed low but we had plenty to look at and generally enjoyed the trip. Hope and Home had a taxi waiting to pick us up at the bus station and after picking up the local program coordinator we headed out of town and into the country were we would be staying. The city slowly fizzled out and soon we felt like we were really far away from things even though it was only about a 45 minute ride to the small village of Jugi Mori.

Leaving Kathmandu’s polluted streets behind


Terraced farmland

We turned up a dirt road and headed into a green valley were life appeared to be about same as it has been for many years. Men were plowing terraced fields with buffalo drawn wooden plows. Women were harvesting wheat by hand into straw baskets then carried them on their backs. All but a few homes were very basic. We met our host Mom whom we would call Aama (Nepali word for mother, or someone old enough to be your mother) and her 12 year old son Bikram. Their home was very basic and actually really cool. Their was a modest front porch and the home immediately opened up to hallway of mismatched and roughly cut wooden planks. Two short doors on either side made way to two modest rooms. One for Aama and Bikram and one for Meghan and I. Despite being in the front of the house both were windowless and measured no more than 7 feet by 12 feet. Out the back was an open patio to the left and a basic kitchen to the right. I call it the kitchen but you would not recognize it. There were a few shelves for dishes but other than that their was no tables or countertops. All the cooking was done on a dirt floor. In the back there was also a 2nd floor were Aama’s mother in law lives in. They do not talk with each other so we have not seen the upstairs to describe it for you.(The mother-in-law is a whole other issue in Nepal and India alike. When sons marry, their wives come to live in their home with his parents. There are a multitude of reasons, but the mother-in-law can and from what we understand very often makes the new wife’s life very hard. This theme came up many, many times in conversation with women in Nepal and a lot of the literature we read about India and Nepal. Our Aama and her mother-in-law literally lived on top of one another but we never heard one word between them! We didn‘t care for her much either.) In the courtyard there are two concrete stalls similar to an outhouse. One contained the eastern squat toilet and the other was the “shower” were buckets of cold water waited for a refreshing bucket shower. Moving back and behind the kitchen was an alcove were the family buffalo lived and the outside cook fire was located. At the time of our visit the beast was pregnant and unfortunately not producing milk for our tea. Down a few steep steps was an community alleyway that ran behind the houses that lined the road and further past this was the garden and hay tower. They did have electricity that powered a few bare light bulbs, charged the cellular phone, and lit up the TV. They did not have any running water or “natural gas” (ha ha… I will get to that later) Water came from a spigot out in the road and was carried into the house each day for cooking, cleaning, and bathing. However, most of this usually happened out in the road to save the effort of carrying water. Every day we would see people bathing and doing the laundry under the community spigot.

Jugi Mori at the end of the valley
Amma and Bikram
Freshly Furrowed Fields
Nepali women humping wood out of the forest above Jugi Mori
Meghan naps in our tiny room
Looking down the road from our home stay

Part of the garden and the hay tower.
A healthy bushel of wheat that Amma carried on her back from the fields. Meghan could hardly lift this and it kept me on the Claritin for our entire stay. We are weak Americans.
I often bathed at the spigot as the locals do and the neighborhood ladies would not give me any privacy!

Amma had an interesting system for powering the gas stove and fertilizing the garden. The buffalo powered both with her piss and shit! The urine would run out of the stall and into a tank under ground. The buffalo’s excrement would be scooped into a basin (by hand, no need for a shovel) and once enough had accumulated a hand crank would push it all down into the basin with the urine. Somehow the methane that would be generated by all this crap was collected and used to power the gas stove. If this was not enough the piss and water that was used in the basin to help get the doodie down magically irrigated the garden. Welcome to the wonderful self-sustaining Nepali country home. All you need is a buffalo, a green thumb, and a stuffy nose! Actually the smell is never all that bad.

Don’t mind me… Just brewing up some more fuel for the fire.
Who wants to crank the crap basin? Not nearly as fun as farting the groover for all you river rats.

Shortly after our arrival things took a down turn for us and particularly me. We chose the volunteer placement agency primarily based on the fact that they had a position were Meghan could work at a health post. This was described as a place were doctors worked and were basic medical procedures were performed. As described in my previous post the location of our placement was changed at the last minute and the health post turned out to be a total joke. The program coordinator left it to 12 year old Bikram to show Meghan were she would be volunteering. Here she learned that they did not even know she was coming or showed any interest in her being there. Apparently all they did was lend an ear to the few patients that may show up in a day and quickly handed out antibiotics. This is most likely not a fair review but it was nothing like expected and she quickly decided her time would be better spent in the orphanage with me. Here Meghan made a much more graceful adjustment than I did. The combination of the big let down on the health post work, a chaotic introduction to the orphanage, and a major case of culture shock that hit me completely out of the blue after over 5 months of travel, I felt completely grounded. I was in an amazing Himalayan valley with countless trails out my back door, I had an opportunity to lift the spirits of a few underprivileged kids (however briefly it may be) and all I could focus on was the negative. Fortunately it did not last long and after a day alone in our tiny room with my mind racing I was able to pull myself back together and start enjoying myself again.

Some shots from around Jugi Mori and the trails heading up into the mountains.

Wheat was in season and we got to watch Amma hand process it to the point were it would be ground into flower.
Tray used to separate the grains
Bikram has some fun with the drying grains
A Nepali country home
Terraced farmland making the most of the valley floor
A cluster of rooftops atop a narrow ridge above Jugi Mori
About an hour and a half walk past the end of the road and up stone staircases the entire way I found this small group of homes. I was invited in, offered tea, and asked to spend the night and continue to the top of the mountain in the morning! Perhaps I will go back with Meghan and take up the offer.
My would be and impromptu mountain guides home and lovely patio looking over the hazy valley.
Typical row housing that lines the dirt lanes spreading up mountain valleys in the small towns of Nepal
Sahdu or “Holy Man” who came begging for rice and offering up 5 rupee photographs.

For the first day stayed with Amma there was another American Volunteer staying with her. Izzy was actually from Denver and this was her second time in Nepal staying with Amma and working at the orphanage. She also taught English at the school and was great to have around to show us the ropes. We all walked to the orphanage on the first day. It was about an hour walk or a 15 minute ride on a bus that only ran every hour. We would learn later that the bus was always filled to capacity and the standing room only was about 4 inches short of my lofty five feet eleven inches. This made for an uncomfortable ride and left me more apt to walk. This was not all that bad because it was a really beautiful walk and would be getting our legs ready for any upcoming trekking. After a few days with Izzy she left for Kathmandu and we were on our own with Amma and Bikram.

A view from our walk
The Chicken Bus


The Annapurna Self-Sustaining Orphan Home was a small building on a good sized lot with a large garden, 3 goats, 1.5 cows, and a pregnant buffalo. Usually chickens were present as well, 200 on the last round and an expected 700 forthcoming, but we arrived only to find a empty coop. They ran the same methane gas and fertilization system as at our home stay. At the time we visited there were 22 kids ranging in ages from 2.5 to 13, mostly younger than older. Sensing new blood they immediately swarmed and without hesitation attacked the human jungle gym that is Peter and Meghan. We each were surrounded and had more kids climbing on us than we could possibly hold. As the initial dizziness faded away I focused in on the general chaos that was happening all around me. It looked like the smaller kids were human snot factories and keeping the constantly runny noses clean was a full time job. Toilet training a work in progress and occasionally one could see the younger boys running around naked while decorating the place with erratic streams of urine, sometimes wile still on the run from an un-approving house mother! The clothing was a hodgepodge that was well used and communally shared. Trying to keep it on the kids was a whole other issue. The little ones had no problem taking it off but were completely incapable of putting it back on without adult supervision. Impromptu games played with balls made from rubber bands tied together sprang up in a small dirt patch that was not taken up by the sprawling garden. It was obvious that they barely had enough to get by on, and did all that they could to make ends meet. Their were no cupboards full of food in the kitchen, no shelves stocked with books, or closets with balls and kids games to play with. Despite this everyone came off as incredibly happy and optimistic. All this was run by the 32 year old Sarada and 3 incredibly hard working house mothers. Sarada was the visionary and the House mothers, Hari, Bati, and Kishna, were the backbone of the operation. They were not short on love but in the first few days it felt like that was all we were capable of giving. The house Mothers were resistant to giving us tasks to complete and Sarada simply told us to do as we pleased. This brought on feelings of worthlessness and at first we felt a great disparity between the help we were providing and the added strain on the orphanage that our presence created. After a few days we were able to settle into a routine and pick up on some chores to help out. We also realized that just being with the kids, as part of a constant presence of volunteers, showed them that they were cared for and loved in a world that in some ways had not been so kind to them.

Back of the Orphanage, viewed from the cabbage patch
Rear courtyard and play area
One of the goats
View of 21,000 foot Machapuchhre Towering over the orphanage’s green house. Green house is made of Bamboo and clear tarps.

Posted by pmunson 11:19 Archived in Nepal Tagged volunteer Comments (2)

Annapurna Self Sutaining Orphan Home

Jugi Mori and the Orphanage

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A typical day can be described as follows. We would usually get up around 6:00 or so and Amma would have tea for us shortly after. It was hard to sleep in as Amma was usually up well before and the noise and traffic on the dirt lane started early. Before any of this we would hear grandma hawking up phlegm and sending it out the front door. Haaaaawwwwkkkk, Phhhhheeeewwwwww! Nepali people love to spit as much as the Indians do and Grandma had a winner every morning. Even with the early light our windowless room was dark and it was always nice when we had power in the morning to light up the room. This happened about 1/3 of the time. The load shedding power scheme was far from convenient and some days the power would be on just when you needed it and some days it would not. If we were brave or stinky enough we would go in for the cold bucket bath in the morning followed by “breakfast” or Daal Bhaat at 9. Daal Bhaat is the national dish and what we ate for two meals every single day. Daal is lentils and Bhaat is rice. There was usually a vegetable curry in the mix as well. Sounds boring and repetitive? It was, but before long we were craving it. Amma mixed it up a little bit with different veggies, some sort of veggie meatballs, and on two occasions chicken and goat. We all would sit in a circle on the floor in the kitchen and proceed to chow down. Amma would usually wait until we were close to done before serving herself more than double the amount I could possibly imagine eating. She would go in with her hands and put down the mountain of rice and lentils before I could finish the last few bites of what was on my plate. It was a primal display of consumption violating any sort of western table manors. After this she would sprinkle some water on the dirt floor and wipe up with her hands. This was all a little bit to get accustomed to but we love Amma all the same.

Amma Serves up some breakfast Daal Bhaat
Mmmmm…. Daal Bhaat

After eating we would either walk or catch the bus to the orphanage. I will go into more detail later but we would go right into playing with the kids and trying to help out were we could. The children were on summer holiday when we arrived. They played and mainly entertained themselves with in the orphanage. We were able to help out with some light cleaning and a few odd chores in the garden but the house mothers were reluctant to give us too much to do. There were two other volunteers from Scotland, Katie and Jessica, who were staying at the orphanage and we all tried entertaining the children. We had coloring time and other games but it did not take long to feel completely powerless to the group of 22 loosely supervised kids and after a few hours we would be ready for a break. Typically we would sneak out for a cold drink or some internet time at a nearby internet café. The little kids went in for nap time in the middle of the day and things usually quieted down for a hour or so before the afternoon mayhem would resume. Sometime between 4 and 6 we would call it quits and head back. The last bus ran at 6:00 and if we were not walking by then we would not make it back before dark. Back in the village we would go out and explore if we had the energy or just hang out and read until round 2 of the daal bhaat sometime around 8:30. It was usually quick to bed after that, especially if the power was off. We had a lot of meals by candle light which was actually really nice.

Another night in the room without power. They call the electricity “light” as that is its primary function in the village.

Three Generations. Amma, Daughter, and Grandson

The mountains coming out on a rare clear day

The children returned to school on the 19th of April and were in class from 10am to 4pm. These were the hours we had been going to the orphanage so it was tough for us to see them for too long. We loved the village but over time wished we were staying at the orphanage. I am not sure how we would have handled this after hearing about the complete lack of privacy or break from the kids. We started heading to the orphanage early in the morning and eating with them as opposed to eating with Amma. Doing this we were able to see them for a few hours before they went to school but we felt guilty about using up the limited resources. We took advantage of the quietness around the place and did some painting and made a trip to a wholesaler to purchase food and supplies. We would again see the kids for a few hours in the afternoon usually stretching it to catch the last bus or making it a late walk home. This made for long days with a big boring stretch in the middle. We tried to do what we could but wound up spending a lot of time just chatting with Jessica, Katie, and Emily. Looking back we were glad we had the first two weeks during school break because it did give us a lot of time with the kids.

Lining up the good shoes for the first day back to school
Sarada walking the kids to school
Meghan Walking them Back

All in all we really enjoyed the opportunity to live in the village and go to the orphanage for a few weeks. It was really difficult at times but rewarding on many levels. We got to know the personalities of the kids over time and they came to know us as well. The amount of love the house mothers, especially Hari, had for the children was immeasurable. Sarada was able to make it all work with next to nothing and the children were really happy. Living in the village put us in the lap of Nepali culture, something most visitors do not see on their quick trips into the mountains for trekking. We reunited with some friends we met in India and they said visiting us at the orphanage was the highlight of their trip to Nepal. After this experience I have a new appreciation of all that Meghan and I had growing up in loving homes with opportunity to do anything we desired to achieve. The kids and the Nepali people do so much with so little it is really inspiring. Hopefully with the care and the education sponsorships they receive, they will be able to provide a better life for their children.

If anyone reading this is interested in sponsoring a child to go to school, as Meghan and I hope to do when we are back on our feet again and earning an income, please let me know and we can put you in touch with the right people. This is an opportunity for direct sponsorship with no middleman.

Hard Working Hari

The Kids

Fist a few shots from our friend Brad who came to visit the orphanage with his superior photography skills!

Yours truly and Safal. Safal was one of the little ones with a huge personality. He liked to sneak out side the gate when ever he could and Meghan and I both found him out on the street (sometimes naked) on multiple occasions! He had an amazing laugh, and it did not take much to get him going.
Ujwall - He was a little scraper and always liked to infuriate me by simply replying “yes” whenever I told him no. He was new to the Orphanage and still claiming his territory.
Bhushan - This was the one usually caught with his pants down peeing on something. I can not tell you how many times I put pants on this kid! When he did have his pants on he was usually up to some sort of mischief. Incredibly cute though.
Sushila - Often confused with Shrijana. Two little girls who looked alike. The little ones were so much fun to play with and loved attention.
Ujwall, Sonam, Shrijana, and Bushan
Shrijana and Sakar having fun as usual

Thanks Brad!

Muna, Sharmila, Sunita, Shanta, and Ajwall. There is a separate girls room at the top of a metal staircase were they all are standing. The kids loved to climb on the staircase like a jungle gym which was terrifying. Nepali kids do not have the sterile safety net that most western kids do. These kids were really tough and the little bumps and bruises that would have most kids wailing were usually greeted with laughter.
Anjali displaying her artwork - She was always interested in whatever we had to do and generally a good sport.
Meghan gets some shade in the staircase with Shushila, Sakar, and Subash.
Nap Time - Trying to get 8+ kids to sleep in the same room at the same time was a nightmare to do and a dream once done. (another bunk on the other side of the room)
Shristi - The youngest at 2.5. She attended her first day of school during our stay and you could tell Sarada had a hard time sending her off.
Asha and Saraswati - The two oldest girls all dressed up and ready for the first day back at school.
Saraswati and Shristi - The older kids did a far share of caring for the little ones.
Shrijana outside the front gate with her contagious big smile.
Big smile on Safal

During our last few days there was a strike that stopped all the busses and closed down the schools for a day, directly after this their was another strike protesting a 15% increase in the cost of private schooling. This meant three days off school for the kids and we were glad to have the extra time with them. We went to a park one day and let them run around and then down to the river to swim on our last day. This was really great and we had a ton of fun. When we made the announcement that our last day was coming up a lot of the kids, especially some of the older ones, really opened up. We left in a flood of emotions as Sarada and Asha presented us with garland flower necklaces and decorated our foreheads with tika (auspicious mark made of rice, red abhir powder, and curd used in religious ceremonies, festivals, and before long journeys). We had already started talking about trying to come back for a week or so after our time trekking but the farewell really sealed the deal. We did not realize how much this experience had affected us until it was over and I know it is something that has made a lasting impression on our lives.

Swimming in the river… A nice break from the heat and a great way to spend our last day

Sabin, the oldest boy, shows off some funky kung-fu stance. The four oldest woke at 5am!! each morning for their martial art training.
Meghan and Bhushan

Everyone piling in as we start to say our goodbyes. Emily and Georgina, two of the other vols also pictured.
Sarada on the left
Meghan gets a mirror to check out her adornments while writing thank you in the guest book
Could I leave you without at least one Nepali sunset?

Posted by pmunson 07:28 Archived in Nepal Tagged volunteer Comments (1)

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

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.

Thare Gompa and the river valley heading up to Tilicho Tal

The Trail became steep in sections…

We stopped at a few nice viewpoints along the way
Meghan waits for a Yak to get out of the trail
Navigating the scree fields. Notice the trail cutting across the rock face in the background!
Tilicho base camp coming into view in the lower right
Getting close to the view point
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.

Mmmmm…. Yak Burger
Pre Dawn light on the mountains from Throrung Phedi
Working our way up above the snow line
View from the pass
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.

View rtw on pmunson's travel map.

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.

Temples in Muktinath
Colorful doorway at a temple in a village outside of Muktinath
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!

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

The road works its way down valley.
White washed walls Of Marpha
Meggy had a little … Kid(baby goat)
Lookout Village of Sikha were we split the climb to Ghorapani.
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
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.

Poon Hill Sunrise
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.
Look Familiar? Meghan and I at an equally good Viewpoint opposite Poon Hill
Meghan enjoys some relaxation in Chhomrong
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.

Digitally enhanced morning sunbeams behind Machhapuchhre
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!

Annapurna South and Annapurna 1
Munslers and Mountains
Expensive Breakfast
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!

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

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

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