Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year from Singapore!

See all the pics w/o reading the post (like a lazy bum).

Now that we're having a rest at my Uncle's house in Singapore (for both Christmas and New Year's Eve), I've been trying to update the blog with photos (see the three posts below). Unfortunately, I haven't had much time to write about what we've been doing since we left India, so here it goes. Before that, however, I want to say thank you to everyone we've met over the last few months and especially thanks to our amazing travel agent at STA in Los Angeles, Chai V., who continues to be an excellent source of information for us and always gives prompt replies to our numerous questions! I also owe Molly C. from UCLA Chemistry a shout out here on the blog, since I promised her one many months ago before we left. Hi Molly!!

We arrived in Singapore from New Delhi early on Dec. 21. And let me reiterate 2 things about India: (1) Delhi is a great city. It's fun, lively, and nearly hassle free. (2) The rest of what we saw of India is worth skipping except for the Taj Mahal, Fatephur Sikri, and Varanasi. So it was a relief for us to get on that red-eye flight to Singapore.

My uncle met us at the airport early in the morning, and our first few days here were relaxing and refreshing. Do you know how good a nice bed and a clean hot shower feel after 2+ months in Nepal and India? Do you know how nice it is to be able to drink tap water? And not have to worry about power failures? Or grubby guys checking out and grabbing your wife? It's the perfect break for us because Singapore is so cushy (all links in this post are pictures) and there are no touts anywhere!. Plus, we were getting a bit homesick, having been away for so long already, so being with family here for both Christmas and to usher in the new year is a great feeling. Plus, my grandma is cooking excellent vegetarian food for us every day; curries, soups, stews, noodles, and today she's making spring rolls!

We mostly spent the first few days watching movies (Curse of the Golden Flower and Night at the Museum) because it was raining all the time, and in different shopping centers around Singapore, because we needed nice clothes for Christmas and New Year's but only had our grubby travelling gear! But after Christmas (which included a mellow party here at my Uncle's house with amazing home-cooked food!), my cousin took us around a bit and to another Christmas party the next day (26.Dec), and my uncle took us hiking at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (on 29.Dec). We climbed to the peak of Bukit Hill (163.63 m... compared to our trek in Nepal (link to Nepali Treking Post), even our out-of-shape and sluggish bodies could handle that one!). After that, we went out to lunch with him at the Tanglin Club and had some excellent Italian food and amazing fresh salads (do you know what it's like to be vegetarian and not able to eat a salad for 3+ months?!).

Then on the 29th, J and I took a bumboat up to Pulau Ubin, a small island nature reserve off the north east coast of Singapore. There, we rented bikes and rode around observing weird mud skippers (fish that live as much in the water as they do on the land, where they walk around with special pectoral fins!), the rare Oriental horn bill (a bird), tiny crabs with one huge claw, and gigantic spiders amongst an endangered black mangrove swamp. (Justine's note: I also was attacked by the elusive Singaporean mosquito, which ruined my legs for the new skirt I wore for NYE. Drat!!)

Last time I was in Singapore, my days were filled with endless mahjong tournements, where my aunties and grandma robbed my brother, Chris, and I blind! Finally, two days ago (on 30.Dec.), I got my aunt and cousin to play mahjong with Justine and I, but not for real money since we're still novices. It was a great time and Grandma helped Justine climb out of the hole before my cousin took all the chips.

My sister, Lisa arrived yesterday in the morning (31.Dec.) and promptly went shopping with Justine (at least I'm off that duty for a while!) (Justine's note: Puh-leaze! I am on an island of huge shopping malls, haven't seen decent clothes for practically five months, and barely visited any stores here. Of course Lisa is going to the mall with me!) After lunch, we took up another mahjong tourney while Justine napped. I was ready for real money (S$7 buy in), but Lisa insisted on a practice game. Of course, within an hour, she had everyone's chips after she won with a well-played limit hand!! Good thing we didn't go in for real! After taking a nap myself, L, J, and I got ready and took the bus downtown for NYE festivities at the Esplanade (fireworks over the harbor) and had drinks at Harry's bar. Although it was really crowded, it was super fun, we got good seats, and the fireworks were quite nice over the water after the rain cleared up. Note that it's not October, because Justine and I almost went to Thailand before NYE, like we had planned, and we likely would have been in Bangkok last night for these bomb blasts (link goes to news story).

Justine and I do leave for Thailand on 3.Jan, going to Bangkok first, then working our way south to meet my sister on Phuket, where she's staying for business. After that, we'll spend time on some of the other islands, like Phi Phi, Ko Samui, and the nature reserves in the south. Sometime in late January, we fly up to Chiang Mai for some more hiking, camping, and elephant riding before crossing into Laos to take a slow boat down the Mekong.

Well, that's all for now, and we wish everyone a really happy and healthy new year! Don't forget to check out the rest of the pictures from Singapore here!


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pictures of Kolkata, India (aka, Calcutta)

When we left Nepal, I had already been sick for a two days. After that Nepali doctor on the plane told me I probably had malaria, I decided to have my blood checked. Turns out I didn't have malaria, but by the time I was admitted to the hospital with a blinding headache, legs so sore I could hardly walk, a 102-degree fever, and nausea, Justine started to get sick. By the time dinner arrived, she also had a high fever, headache, and was vomiting. It was like an October nightmare all over again (for those not in the know, October is historically a bad month for us!). Anyway, enjoy the pictures of Kolkata, an interesting and diverse city that isn't the Mother Theresan slums you've seen in movies (though there were extremely poor areas).

Here's the pictures.

Pictures of Varanasi and Bodhgaya, India.

Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city in the world, is situated on the River Ganges (or the Ganga River, named after the river goddess, Ganga). It's famous for the river and the fact that Hindus come here to cremate the dead (adults only, no children or pregnant women) at one of the two burning ghats, which are the stairs leading to the shore. Although we saw dozens of bodies burning daily (sometimes as many as 6 pyres at once with a lineup of shrouded bodies), it's not acceptable to take pictures of the ceremony. Hence, the total lack of fires in this album. Varanasi was a 14 hr. train journey west from Kolkata, and it sits roughly in the middle of the northern border of India. Interestingly, one of the four holiest Buddhist sites in the world, the temples and ruins of Sarnath, is only 10 km away from Varanasi. Sarnath is known as the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon in the Deer Park. The place was lost and forgotten to the ages (and pillaged regularly by locals) until it was unearthed by British archeologists over 100 years ago.

Bodhgaya, about a 5 hr. train ride from Varanasi north and east, is the holiest Buddhist site in the world (FYI, the other 2 pilgrimage sights for Buddhists are Lumbini in Nepal, where the Buddha was born, and Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died). Bodhgaya is the place that the Buddha supposedly achieved enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree. The lineage of that tree are quite well known, and its offspring sits in the place of enlightenment behind the Mahabodhi temple.

Enjoy the pics!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pictures of India

Enjoy the multitude. I've annotated most of them, and the ones I haven't are self-explanitory. The first 2 sets are:

1) New Delhi


2) Agra/Rajasthan

You'll recall that I blogged a bunch about our drive around Agra and Rajasthan here. Enjoy!

Note that these aren't all of the pictures of India... it's just a few places, but we have so many dang pics that they'll never all get up here, but if you're anxious to see any of the places we've talked about (and haven't posted pictures of), or if you'd like to see more of a place, just let me know and we'll try to put up more pictures.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Whirlwind tour of Rajasthan

The Indian state of Rajasthan is supposed to be this romantic, splendid place in India. This is the state where you'll still see the excellent Rajasthani mustaches, beautifully colored saris and scarves on the women, and romantic palaces in the desert. So, off we went, from Delhi, in a hired car (with driver for way too much money) for an 8-day tour. Here are the details.

Day 1 (13.Dec.06) - Our driver took us around Delhi, which we didn't have time to see earlier, having just arrived late on the 11th and having spent all day on the 12th setting up the trip. He took us around to some excellent places, including Raj Ghat, where M. Gandhi, his daughter I. Gandhi, and her son were all cremated. There is now a big park there with memorials to all of them. Across the street (which was so huge it took us literally 10 minutes to cross!) is the Mahatma's museum, which was both excellent and free! Inside they had The Man's glasses, staff, clothes, pictures, and a history of his life, as well as artistic paintings and drawings. The whole museum was very well done. In the last room of the museum, they have the clothes Gandhi was wearing when he was shot, as well as the bullets they took from his body and the urns they used to carry his ashes to the various parts of India after his cremation.

We also went to the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid, where they let you climb one of the huge towers to get expansive views of Old and New Delhi, if it weren't so smoggy outside! The place was simply gorgeous, the views stunning, nevertheless, and since we went early in the morning, we basically had the place to ourselves.

Finally, we saw the ruins of Qtab Minar, a combination mosque, school, and victory tower for a Moghul conqueror who established the city of Delhi in the late 1100's. Then we set off for the city of Agra, which houses the Taj Mahal.

Day 2 - We got up early to visit the Taj before the sun rises, and after a huge hassle with security and "government" lockers (everything in India is a scam... some people, including Justine and a German guy we keep meeting in India, got to carry their backpacks in, but mine was confiscated and I was forced to put it in a locker, which I refused to pay for), we parted ways with a huge sum of money and walked into the courtyard facing the Taj. I know everyone says this, but you really can't believe how huge and gorgeous it is. But really, I couldn't help but think, "what a waste of money... think of all the good things that could have been done instead of building a tomb for yourself and your wife." Of course, everyone knows that the classical story of the Taj is that one of the Moghul rulers as a testament to his love for his favorite wife. Most people don't know that there's also a Mosque built on one side of the tomb (which is easily over 7 stories tall) and an identical structure used for public gatherings on the other side. Most people also don't know that the marble mausoleum (complete with amazing semi-precious-stone inlay work of jade, onyx, etc. from around the world) was completed many many years after her death. Plus, the whole grounds are designed to look like the Koranic description of Paradise (ie, heaven). Most people also probably don't know that the guy who built the place had a huge head and the perfect symmetry of the place, the gorgeous grounds, and the use of waterways to re-create Paradise means that the Shah (who is ALSO buried at the center of the Taj) probably had another idea about what the Taj's meaning really is. Draw your own conclusions... Our guide book also says that the traditional story of how the Shah was inconsolable after his wife's death is totally bogus. Instead, the guy died during a drug-and-alcohol-induced orgy. So, there you go.

After spending about 3 hours at the Taj, we left with our driver (who needs serious night-driving help and glasses, to boot), we went to the ghost city of Fathapur Sikri. One of the Moghul emperors decided to move the capital city from Agra to F.S. during his reign, but when the water situation there didn't pan out, the whole complex had to be abandoned. The two major areas that remain are the palace grounds and the mosque. Both are spectacular. The palace grounds consist of several palaces, one built for each of the emperor's three "official" wives: one Hindu, one Buddhist, and one Christian. Each structure is different and reflects the wife's particular religion. For example, the Christian wife's palace consists of 5 rooms laid out in the shape of a cross. There is some stunning art and architecture in this place, including the secret meeting hall, where a huge building, whose center is supported by a single giant column of red sandstone (actually, everything in F.S. is made from red sandstone, making it's near-uniform color scheme a feast for the eyes) had a place for the king to sit while his 9 ministers could address him from platforms around the walls 10 feet up.

In the mosque area, there's an excellent marble tomb for a famous Muslim cleric. The walls of the tomb are these huge (5 ft. by 5 ft.) marble slabs carved in the most fine, intricate designs that you couldn't believe. The marble is so thin in some places that you can see right through it. Just think of the artisan who was working on these things... one slip up and the whole thing is trash.

After F.S., we drove to the small town of Bharatpur, where there's a bird sanctuary.

Day 3 - We got up early to visit the bird sanctuary, Keoladeo, which was pretty cool, and we rented some really crummy bikes to ride through the place. Unfortunately, Rajasthan is in the midst of a 10-years long drought, so the lake that's supposed to be in the middle of the park was mostly dried up! That's okay, because we still saw tons of cool birds, including kingfishers, spotted owls, and a huge black-necked crane. After lunch, we drove to Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, and went up to Nahagar fort to watch the sunset over the Pink City. Although it was quite hazy from the hilltop retreat, the sunset was still beautiful. The fort was nothing to crow about, except for the views.

Day 4 - Spent the day touring Jaipur's famous sights within the confines of the Pink City, the ancient walled city, which was painted a uniform color in the 1800's to welcome a British king. Everyone we had met in India said "oh, Jaipur, it's great! You'll love it!" But of course, we have a different idea. First of all, the city isn't pink. It's brick-red or orange. Secondly, the city is a major hassle. Now, you have to understand that everywhere you go in India, "touts" are trying to get your money. People yell and scream at you, throw their goods in front of your face, and demand that you come into their stores or buy whatever cheap crap they have. This is a given, and something you have to learn to deal with if you're going to have a decent time in India. In Jaipur, it was absolutely the worst. There was no sense of friendliness to the city, it was all shove, shout, glare, etc. At least in Varanasi and Kolkata we had a good time looking around, touring, and shopping. I can speak for both of us that Jaipur is the worst Indian city we've visited. Not only was it the most hassle-filled city, it was also super expensive to eat and sleep there (compared to the other cities we've seen), and the sights weren't even that good. The city palace was quite boring and the museums inside were terrible (that is, they had some nice things in them, but the layout was awful and descriptions of textiles, art, artifacts, etc. were non-existent in Hindi or English). The only semi-redeeming sight in Jaipur was the observatory, which was built in the early 1700's. It contains 18 instruments, including a gigantic sundial which has 2-second resolution and a device that allows you to follow stars, zodiac signs, and predict the strength of monsoons!

Day 5- We were supposed to go to Ranthambore National Park, where people are almost guaranteed sightings of Bengali tigers, but it was closed due to a strike. Instead, we went to Sariska Tiger Reserve, where they haven't had any tigers since 2005 thanks to a corrupt warden who devised a scheme to poison the tigers and sell off their carcases (according to our guide book). Although it was quite expensive to get in, we were anxious to spot some wild-life and hired a jeep, a driver, and a guide to drive us through the giant park looking for crocs, leopards, deer, birds, etc. We saw signs of a leopard, including a female Sambar (a huge deer) making alarm calls and stamping her feet to protect her fawn, but never actually saw one. We did get to see a huge croc, though, and many species of bird and of course, tons of monkeys. But overall, I wouldn't recommend coming here because the layout of the park is crappy, the guides and drivers let people stop to feed the animals, and it's too expensive. Our guide was silent for almost the entire time, never once offering information about the habits of the animals or pointing out any of the marked features that are in the map provided by the booking counter. It was a pretty lousy experience, even though the terrain was nice.

Originally, this was supposed to be an 8-day trip, but since Ranthambore was closed (we were going to spend two days there, skip Sariska, and go to the desert town of Pushkar), we decied to head back to Delhi early, since there was so much there we didn't get to see before.

Day 6 - In the morning, we returned to Sariska to walk through part of the park, but since you're required to have a guide, we had to hire the same lousy guide as yesterday. We walked along a mostly-dry river bed for an hour, spotting no wildlife except the "jungle crow" and a song bird or two. Finally, as we approached a watering hole, several monkeys were searching for food and we saw two kinds of kingfishers and a great eagle. It was a nice spot to stop, but as our time was up, we only got to watch for about 15 minutes before heading back. After the long drive back to Delhi, we found a really crummy guest house which charges too much to stay there (10 bucks for what is one of the two worst rooms we've seen in India... and we've stayed in some real $hi*-holes) and went to sleep. Oh yeah, we also had a really expensive dinner at a place called Ruby Tuesday's (I think this chain exists in the States, but I was really desperate to have something other than Indian food, which actually hasn't been as tasty as we had hoped for... more on that later) which served me a frozen pizza that they microwaved and a 7-dollar Heinekin. Worst money we've spent on this whole trip!

And now here it is, the 19th of December, and it's hot here in Delhi (thou. at night it gets quite cold). I don't know why everyone says "get out of Delhi as fast as you can." Justine and I both find the city quite charming and the least hassle of any Indian city we've been to. People are calm and relaxed here, the facilities are great, and the sights are some of the best we've seen in India (besides Varnasi and the Taj). It's a great town, but to tell the truth, I can't wait to get out of India (we fly to Singapore tomorrow night to celebrate Christmas with my Grandma and my Uncle's family!). I haven't had the experiences here I expected and I've been let down many times and in many places. China was really difficult to travel in, but being there was so rewarding to us. For all the complaining we did on this blog a while back, I had such a good time there that I will surely go back to China before too long. I can not say the same thing about India. India, too, is difficult to travel in. Things are far apart, transportation is difficult (unless you pay huge sums of money to hire a private car, but since we were short-changed by our hospitalization, there was no way we could have seen half of the sights we did in Raj. in even 10 days), and things are mostly really filthy when you're travelling on a budget. These things we can put up with, as we did in China and Nepal, but the experiences I have had here do not even come close to the ones I had in China and Nepal. If I came back to India, I'd like to see Delhi again, because I've liked it here, but I would not visit any of the places I've seen in the last month.

Now, maybe I'm not being fair to India. Maybe we were just in a bad frame of mind, since we did start things off badly in Kolkata. Perhaps we were not mentally prepared. Maybe we're hitting the 4-month lull (Dec. 16 marked 4 months since we left SF). Maybe if we came back again, re-freshed, we'd have a totally different experience. But the fact is, we've been looking forward to leaving for SG for several days now, and I don't think I'd chose to come back to India any time soon.


PS - Pics to follow soon of India and Nepal when I get to Singapore. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

From Bodhgaya, India

Seriously... sorry for the severe lack of posting since we got to India. I know you're all desperate to know what adventures we're on now, but I just don't have time to do a full entry now, so once again, here's a shorty. Also, since we haven't done an audio blog in a while, I think we'll record one tonight and I'll try to upload it tomorrow to fill you all in on our fabulous train rides from Kolkata to Varanasi (the holiest Hindu city in the world, where people still bathe in the river Ganga, aka the Ganges river, and still come to be burned on its shores) and from Varanasi to Gaya/Bodhgaya. So check back soon.

Well, as I mentioned in our previous post, we made it safely out of the Kolkata hospital, had a decent time in the city, but mostly spent time recovering our strength and resolve to be in India. Because we lost so much time in Kolkata, our plans for the country had to be really altered. First, we weren't going to go to Varanasi at all, but our friend Lana (whom we met in Nepal... one of our yoga buddies from SF) insisted on it. I'm so glad we did because the Ghats (the stairs on the western shore of the Ganga) are full of celebrations of life and death. Although the Ganga is filthy as all heck (pollution from industrial plants up-river, dead humans and animals, sewage, garbage, etc.), people bathe daily in the water (mostly men and women only on special occasions), make pilgrimages there to die and be burned at the shores (because they believe that the waters are so holy, thanks to their god Shiva, who built the city, that dying in Varanasi takes you instantly into paradise). Nightly, there are also special ritual offerings to the river goddess, Ganga, and to Shiva. These are called a puja ceremony, and it lasts for about 1 hour and is peformed by 10 Brahmin priests. The city was also very lively and although poverty and annoying touts were seemingly endless, Varanasi was totally awesome and inspiring. People living near the Ghats are living as they have for literally thousands of years. That kind of living history can not be found in most places, and Varanasi is highly recommended. Also, they have an excellent silk shop there, where we spent a crazy small amount of money for a bunch of nice stuff that my sister will take home from Singapore! Finally, we saw an awesome animatronic museum/memorial to the Hindu story of the Ramayana built in the 1960's; think: Chuck-E-Cheeze style but worse! It was hilarious but housed in a beautiful white marble building (see right) with Hindi writing on the inside of the entire Ramayana story, along with gorgeous etched and painted mirrors inside depicting scenes from the story.

Okay, so after Varanasi, we took a long terrible train ride over to Gaya, 10 km from Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is known as the most holy Buddhist site in the world because this is the spot that the Buddha supposedly gained enlightenment 2500 years ago. In fact, they're replanted an offspring of the tree he was sitting under in the spot. The lineage of the tree is quite well-known, appearantly. It goes something like this: An Indian king named Ashoka destroyed the tree when he came across all the monestaries that sprung up around the site after the Buddha started teaching (we also visited the site of his first sermon, called Sarnath, near Varanasi). But, the tree was not destroyed before a Sri Lankan monk had taken a cutting of the tree back to his home monestary in SL. An offspring of that tree was brought back to Bodhgaya by Ashoka after he converted to Buddhism (Ashoka is famous for spreading Buddhism around Asia by force and for builiding many huge temples, monestaries, and pillars that praise Buddhism). The granddaughter of The Tree has since died, and the one here now is a granddaughter of that and has been at the site for over 125 years now. In the last 50 years, Bodhgaya has seen a revitilization as a Buddhist pilgrimage site, with no less than 20 monestaries from around the world being built up here (most of them since the late 80's). It's a beautiful place.

I should also mention that we've met a ton of really cool people in Varanasi and Bodhgaya, both Indians and other travellers. And to be perfectly honest, we don't love India the way we thought we would or the way other people have told us the love it. It's a strangely fascinating country, but I couldn't spend 2 years here like some people we've met.... it's frustrating and tireing. In fact, until recently, we didn't think we'd even get a chance to meet Indians outside of people who wanted our money (those are the most annoying kinds of people, and they're the same in every part of the world, it seems!). But if you eat at local restraunts, ride the trains, and just hang around long enough, the riff-raff starts to ignore you and you get a chance to meet the real people of India, which has been really rewarding.

Well, more on the annoying stuff in the audio blog... 'till then,


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Kolkata, India

Sorry for the total lack of posting in the last 2 weeks, or so, but this is just a quick update to let you know that we are, inded, still alive... just barely.

Our last two days in Nepal (17th and 18th of Nov.) were spent in Bodnath (also called Boudha), a town about 5 miles north-east of Kathmandu and known as a place for Tibetan refugees. There's a giant stupa (huge Buddhist mound/monument that usually houses a relic of the Buddha or other saint... this one is said to house a bone of the Buddha) there about 100 feet high and a few dozen monestaries (called gompas) that also act as universities. In fact, we met a few Americans who were doing 1 to 3 year study abroad programs there in philosophy or Buddhism. A strange thing was happening to me, however, which is that at night I'd get a nasty fever and severe aches in my legs... it was debilitating and I'd usually turn in to the hotel and watch Animal Planet after losing my appetite and only eating half of myt dinner.

On the plane ride over to Kolkata on the 19th of Nov., I sat next to a Nepali pediatrician, who I told about my symptoms. She said, "oh... you have Malaria. Go to the doctor and get some drugs when you get to Kolkata."

Since we arrived at night, we stayed in our hotel (a sketchy place near the Howrah train station with people sleeping on the floor of the lobby and no hot water) that night and then moved to the YWCA downtown the next morning. After that, we went off to find a western-style clinic so I could have my blood tested. After a few hours of intense pain and fever (I was now sick all the time, not just at night), I found out that I tested negative for Malaria, which they don't have much of in Nepal, anyway, certainly not at this time of year. After begging to see a doctor, he suggested I get admitted to the hospital to be observed and so more tests could be performed (like checking for Dengue, Chicken Gunya, etc.). By the time my dinner came, Justine was running a fever and vomiting, so the doctor admitted her, too!

Fast forward 6 days, when we were discharged from the hospital... diagnosis: "Viral Fever". Every day since then we've been a bit better and done a bit more. One day we went to the Indian Museum, which was huge and ancient and silly (they had an exhibit on "How a Volcano Works," which consisted of a paper-mache volcano in a glass case with a red lightbulb that flashed on and off... no joke!). We've also toured much of the city on foot, seen Casino Royal, and bought our train tickets to Varanasi for later this week.

So that's my update. I'm not sure if we ever mentioned this on the blog, but it turns our neither of us had giardia back in October. Our near-death experience of river rafting (the story of which will be posted as soon as Mrs. Blogbum finishes writing it!) was quite enough for that month, and now our viral infections.... what's next? Stay tuned to bedardhearntravel to find out what India will throw at us, and a belated Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! We had tomato soup and sandwiches on Thursday... what did you eat?


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Trekking in Nepal (Part II)

Read Part I here.

Just the pictures.

Before I continue, I want to make something perfectly clear. When I said that the trails are just the roads that Nepali people use to move around between the mountain villages, I don't want to suggest that the roads are flat or paved or in any way easy to get around on. There are the cut stone stairs (made of slate taken from the mountains), which makes steep ascents and descents possible, and on the "flat" ground there are usually stones of some kind to keep the roads from falling apart, but they are still very rough (see an example of one of the nicer sections of the road here). These walks are not for the faint-hearted (James, I'm looking your direction), but we did see a woman being carried on the back of a porter in a special chair, followed by another porter carrying her wheel chair (so James, maybe Meghan can carry you on her back!). The walks also aren't too difficult, since the trails are well marked and you don't need special gear or climbing tools... we just wore sneakers and the same clothes every day. And since you stay in lodges, you don't need a tent or food, just a water filter or Iodine (or money to buy tons of bottles of waters, which as I discussed before, is something we're not interested in). Because the trails are really just roads, J and I always laugh at the people who are walking around in huge hiking boots and gore-tex jackets and huge 50 L bags and separate day bags and titanium walking poles, etc.... it's a joke. I'm not sure what these people think they're getting in to, but I assure you, you can do this with just a light water-proof jacket, a fleece, pants, a t-shirt, sunglasses, a sun hat, a warm hat, and tennis shoes.

I also want to mention, since this doesn't appear anywhere in my journal, that the weather and views were pristine for the entire 7-day trek. It was a bit chilly most nights, but during the day, the sun was always out, the sky was so blue you couldn't believe your eyes, and the hugest mountains in the world were just a few miles away... Really, we couldn't ask for better weather that what we had. It was usually around 75 F during the day when we were walking, and although it usually started to get cloudy in the evening, at night the full moon (or nearly-full moon) illuminated the mountains to give us a totally different view than we had during the day.

Finally, instead of including pictures in the actual entry, I've linked to them in the text, so when you see a link on this entry, they all go to pictures of the things I'm talking about. Not all the pictures are linked, however, so feel free to read and click pics as they come along, but also to look at all the pics I've posted (only 23 more than yesterday) when you're done (see above).

Day 4 - 6.Nov

To lower Chomrong (~2100 m)

Start time: 9 am
Lunch: Noon (1 hr in Taglung; good Daal Bhat)
Finish: 315 pm
Dinner: 6 pm (excellent Daal Bhat!)

Started the day with monkey watching (pic is of the comon langur) in Tadopani before taking a steep descent through a mossy oak forest. We soon emerged in an open river valley (pic) with terraces on all sides. We climbed up and down (as usual!) two ridges before cutting across the tops of 2 more ridges and then reaching Chomrong. Since most of the scenery was terraced farm land, it was uninspiring to me (compared to the previous 2 days), but J enjoyed it a bunch and I must admit that it was somewhat interesting for the sheer amount of terracing. Justine also picked up a tomato that grows on trees here, and is used to make the spicy pickeled stuff in the daal baht, which I don't personally like. But when we tried the tomato fresh, it was quite delicious; simultaneously spicy, sweet, and juicy.

The last climb we had, just after lunch, was probably the steepest set of stair we've ever seen: we climbed at least 6 or 700 m in only a 1 km distance! This wasn't the usual road to Chomrong, but a landslide had destroyed the old trail, so we had to follow a new one up to the top of the ridge. On the plus side, most of the rest of the hike after that was on a nice soft dirt path, not the slate stones, which made it seem more like hiking and less like walking the porters' road. We also met up with the German couple from yesterday's lodge on the trail, and we walked and talked with Birget for much of the day (her husband had blazed on ahead, as he's trying to make it to Ann. Base Camp in four days).

Day 5 - 7.Nov

To Jinhu Danda
Start time: 9 am
End time: 10 am

To the hot springs
Start time: 1030 am
End time: 1115 am
A short walk downhill from Chomorong today took us to the tiny village (with only 3 lodges!) of Jinhu Danda. Our hotel was a "short" 45-minute walk (pic) down to the river and 3 natural hot springs (pic). The springs are man-made pools (of slate stone... what else?) that collect the hot water that comes right out of the side of the mountain). We bathed in them for about an hour before it got cloudy and started to rain (just as we made it back to the hotel!). Besides Bharat and the pool's donation collector, we were the only ones there to enjoy the springs and the views from the bottom of the steep canyon were amazing, with lush greenery on all sides! At night, it got really cold and we drank about 3 pots of hot chocolate and played Big 2 and gin for hours.

Day 6 - 8.Nov

To Deurali
Start time: 830 am
Lunch: Noon (1 hr in Landruk)
End time: 5 pm(!)

The longest and possibly the toughest day on our trip, we finished with 2 hrs. of stairs (maybe we climbed a thousand or more for 1 km uphill) up to Deurali. This extra-long session was designed to have us avoid any climbing for tomorrow, our last day. The terrain today was quite diverse, beginning with a climb down to the river, which housed lush nearly-tripical vegetation and huge bolders in the areas nearby the water flow. A slow climb through a thinly-packed forest brought us to terraced hillsides above the river (probably 500 m up) and back towards civilization (Landruck is quite a large village). All around us, as far as the eye could see, the hill were being farmed and grazed, and whereas most of the morning Annapurna South and Hiunchuli were in clear view out the western end of the canyon, from the terraces the mountains fully disappeared until we reached Deurali. In addition, because we walked so long and so late, the sun was mostly down by the time we finished climbing the steps to Deurali, so we were sweaty but freezing because it was dark and the wind picked up a bunch. Although we both "showered" (using a bucket of hot water each) when we got to the lodge, it wasn't until we got into the dining hall where the fire was that we began to warm up.

At the lodge, we met a nice Australian chap named Greg, and his porter/guide named Prim, who joined us in playing Big 2 with Bharat. The food was good, the fire hot, and the babies (of the lodge owners) were super cute! In the morning, we ate pancakes, muslei, potatoes, and Justine just had to order some apple pie!

Day 7 - 9.Nov

Back to Pokhara
Start time: 945 am
Lunch: 130 pm (Phedi)
Took a taxi back to Pokhara and arrived at our hotel (pic) at 230 pm

A rather boring walk down from Deurali through Dampus (pic), which has gorgeous views of the whole Annapurnas, to Phedi was somber and sad. Worst of all was the 20-minute walk down the road at the end of the trail to the Phedi and the HORRIBLE daal bhat at the restraunt while we waited for our taxi (the rice tasted like cigarette smoke... blech!). After so many good meals, slience, stunning views, and clean air, it's a total bummer to be back in the world. Even yesterday was a sad reminder that the trip was ending, as we were greeted with numerous "one rupee, pen, sweet?" calls from the kids in Landruck.* We also saw several groups of trekkers numbering 12 or more making noise and carrying around their huge bags and shoes, which was another sad reminder that our time here is done.

* These are the usual things that kids in Nepal beg for, even though they rarely need food or pens for school. It seems that some tourists, rather than giving money, started giving out candy and pens, or letting kids try on their sunglasses. This means that now, every child in Kathmandu and Pokhara demands that you give them something, whether or not they even need it. It turns out that the kids just turn around and sell the pens to other tourists, and it has become quite annoying. It had been days since we had heard these calls, so Landruck was a powerful reminder that we were almost back.

It's strange that I really feel as if part of myself is left back in those mountains for me to come back and rediscover. I spent a lot of time in my head these last 2 days and I've come to two conclusions that are probably the same thing:

1) I'd like to be more giving of myself and my time. [Part of the reason we started volunteering at the Nepal Children's Welfare Association after our trek, though we had planned to do this, anyway... see Part I and we'll have another post about this later.]
2) The world is so huge, but people aren't so separate.

Basically, we saw that people here and everywhere (cities and villages in Nepal, China, Japan, America) live and breathe and work the same as you. They might do different things, but you really get a chance to see that you're the same. You meet other travellers, too, and they instantly know you and bring a sense of community, trust, and belonging. Really, you are the same as everyone else and to do wrong or harm to others (or to hold grudges) is to do wrong and harm to yourself. How can you live if you can't forgive yourself? How can you survive if you don't give to yourself? It seems silly or maybe obvious now that I'm writing it, but I can't express in words here how I really do feel more connected to other people through this trekking and all of our travelling experiences.

Day 8 - 10.Nov

Dinner at Bharat's (see here for pictures) in Pokhara.

Bharat cooked us Daal Bhat tonight, and it was possibly the best dinner we've had this whole trip! Here's how it breaks down (Bharat, please correct me if I made any mistakes in the ingredients!):

-Tons of spinach/chard, chopped. Cook in a bit of water with oil, salt, chopped onion, and shredded garlic and ginger

-Daal/lentil soup, cooked and served plain with a bit of oil, salt, and termuric.

-Veggies, cubed potatos, cauliflour, minced onion, shredded garlic and ginger, salt, turmeric and cumin. Fry in a bit of oil the potatos with the onion and salt. Add the cauliflour and other ingredients when the potatos are half-way finished and add a bit of water, if necessary, to soften them.

-Sauce (Baan?), Hemp seeds, toasted (substitute with toasted almonds in the States where hemp isn't available?). Fry some tomatos with chili powder, garlic, and cumin. When done, blend the tomatos with the seeds/nuts until smooth... add water if necessary. (This was the tastiest part of the meal!)

-Plain white rice.

-Pickeled stuff that was made before we got there.

Serve all together on a huge plate and enjoy!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Trekking in Nepal (Part I)

I can't possibly describe our whole trek right now in any kind of detail, but I'll try to do it a bit of justice using a fraction of a percent of our photos and some of my journal entries. The northern boarder of Nepal is all Himalaya, with Everest region in the east and the Annapurna region in the west. The gateway city to the Annapurnas is called Pokhara, which is where we've been staying and doing yoga for several days before beginning our trek, and where we currently are staying until Tuesday this week, when we return to Kathmandu to prepare for our flight to Kolkata, India on Sunday. Here in Pokhara, we met a ton of really nice people, including our Belgian hotel owner/NGO operator, Sabine (hotel, Nepali orphanage, Belgian NGO) and her Nepali husband Ram (both of whom helped us organize our trek), our German yoga/meditation teacher, Ms. Petra, an Australian lawyer named Christy, a Canadian TV producer working in Mumbai (Bombay) for the last two years, Lindsey, and an American salesperson/traveler from San Francisco, Lana; both Lana and Lindsey became our yoga partners for 6:30 am sessions with Ms. Petra!

Anyway, you can think of the major peaks in the Annapurnas as a crescent-moon shape, with the opening to the south and the peaks called Annapurna South and Hiunchuilli at the south-west tip of the crescent, and Machhupucharre, or fish-tail mountain (so-called because of it's twisted double peak), at the south-east. The two most famous treks here are the Annapurna Circuit, which goes around the outside of the mountains and takes about 20 days, and the trek to Annapurna Base Camp (also called the Annapurna Sanctuary trek), which takes you into the middle of the crescent moon and takes about 10 days round trip. Of course, there are tons of trails and we met people who had been in the Annapurna region (a protected area under the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, or ACAP) for 40 days and more! We took a simple 7-day trek starting in a village called Birethanti, south and west of Annapurna South. We walked north and east until we were literally 5 miles from Ann. South, cut across the mouth of the crescent moon to the Sanctuary trail near Fishtail, and turned south out of the mountains where we caught a taxi from Phedi back to Pokhara.

I should also explain that hiking up here isn't like it is back home in the States, or elsewhere in the world. The "trails" we're walking are really just the roads that the local people use to walk between the villages, farms, rivers, and cities of Nepal. There are little to no camping facillities anywhere along the road; instead, people stay in the guesthouses that have sprung up in each of the villages. Some are really nice, but most are just modest rooms with two beds, no heating, and plywood walls. If you're lucky, there's a toilet and shower inside the building somewhere. If not, there's at least a toilet outside. Accomodation at these guesthouses for doubles runs from about 100-200 Nepali Rupees (that's 70 NRs per dollar, so 100 NRs is about $1.50), and food is about the same. So in any given day, Justine and I spent about 2000 NRs, not including our guide.

Speaking of which, there's a new rule in Nepal that was implemented just days before we left: In addition to the ACAP entry fee (2000 NRs each), the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN, which is just a travel agents' union) started requiring people to book treks through them, which costs an additional 250 NRs each. This means there is no more independent trekking in Nepal... you MUST book a porter (dude to carry your stuff), a guide (a dude to tell you where to go), or a porter/guide (a combo), AND the booking must be made through a unionized agent. We got a single porter/guide, named Bharat, to carry our one backpack (stuffed with a few clothes, two rented sleeping bags, meds, and our water filter) who is a friend of our hotel owner (Sabine).

On the first day, we took a taxi out to Birethanti from Pokhara, which took about 90 minutes, registered ourselves and our trek, and that's where I'll start. For height references, one meter is about 3.3 feet, Everest is 8848 m (~29000 ft), Mt. Whitney in California is 4421 m (~14500 ft), and altitude sickness usually sets in at about 3000 - 4000 m (~10000 - 13000 ft). Also, on our horse trek in China, we camped at almost 3500 m and the Ice Mountain lookout we went to was at 4500 m. Also, when we were in Pokhara, we spent 1100 NRs buying two trekking poles. Naturally, we left them behind in our hotel and bought two excellent bamboo poles for 100 NRs about an hour along on the trail; these would serve us extremely well. Okay, here we go:

Day 1 - 3.Nov

Birethanti (1025 m) to Uliri (2010 m).
Start time: 930 am
Lunch: Noon (1 hr)
End Time: 345 pm
Snack: 4pm (Pancakes and porrige)
Dinner: 715 pm (Daal Bhat, the traditional Nepali meal of Lentil soup, rice, veggies, pickels, and other stuff, depending on who makes it.)

Climbed the dreaded "Stone Staircase" today after descending an additional 100 m into a river valley and past a landslide which has killed the power in Uliri and other villages up here. At the start of the day, we were "asked" for a "donation" of 100 NRs to the Annapurna shrine. Saw many spectacular waterfalls and riverside scenery. The dogs here are huge and gorgeous, and the chickens numerous and cute! Of course, Justine is obsessed with them. Her Nalgeen went "missing," taken hostage by two teenaged Nepalis who seemed like they'd only give it back to me in exchange for money. We'll just buy another one when we get back to Pokhara, rather than give encouragement for steeling people's sh*t. Anyway, after lunch, we walked along a river for a short time before crossing over on a rickety suspension "bridge" and started up. The climb lasted for almost 2 hrs.!

Bharat, our guide, taught us to play Canongat (sp?), a billiards-type game played on a square table with giant tiddly-winks... you flick the cue disc (called the "shooter") with your fingers. The views of Annapurna South and the ridge across it to Hiunchuli were stunning after the clouds lifted. [See for yourself:


The Maoist checkpoint at the start of the trail was efficient and professional, but lame anyway. At the lodge, a guy from Singapore and his 5 friends from HK lugged a bunch of Absolute vodka and limes up here. They gave us a bunch while Justine, Bharat, and I played cards and sipped Nepali tea. [ed. note: the Maoists are a group of rebel separatists in Nepal who have been waging war with the King until he relenquished power back in April and the democratic parties of the parliment (called the Seven Party Alliance) since at least 1999. Two days ago, the Maoist leader agreed to join the SPA and make the Maoists a ligit member of the Parliment, which means a cease-fire has been arranged. Almost none of the Maoist activity directly effects the tourism industry of Nepal, except for the trekking fees levied by the Maoists, which is a form of extortion, since it is not government authorized. Back in the day, Maoists roamed the trails with guns and took money as they saw fit, charging some tourists, specifically Americans, 100 USD! More recently, they have set up tables and started charging 100 NRs a day to everyone (except Nepali people) in the trekking regions, don't wave guns around tourists, and give you a printed reciept. Someone told me they sold their reciept to another American on eBay as a keepsake... why?]

Day 2 - 4.Nov

Uliri to Ghorepani (2750 m)
Start time: 845 am
Lunch: Noon (1 hr in Nangethanti)
Finish time: 2 pm (Hungry Eye Guesthouse)
Dinner: 6 pm (Dall Bhat)

I thought we were done with the stone staircase, but it just continued for another 1.5 hrs. this morning! We then entered an oak and rhododenderon forest area, whcih was much flatter and had beautiful rivers and huge waterfalls everywhere. We met a woman at lunch named Julia (from Seattle and who sounded exactly like Sarah Vowel) who knows all the same people in Pokhara as we do, even our guide, as this is her tenth time trekking in Nepal! A very small amount of rain fell on us today but the sun was strong, anyway. In the evening, we did laundry outside in the freezing cold wind, but used the fire inside to dry our stuff. We played cards with a Welsh couple (Tristan and Jess) who were finishing the Ann. Circuit trek on their own. Although we rented sleeping bags from Sabine, I got stuck with her daughter's bag, which barely covers me up to my chest. Tonight, I'll get blankets from the lodge and use those, instead. Tomorrow at 430 am, we'll start our walk up to Poon Hill at 3200 m to view the sunrise over the Annapurnas. I think there will be about a million people up there with us...

Day 3 - 5.Nov

to Poon Hill (3200 m)
Start time: 5 am
Finish time: 540 am
Breakfast back in Ghorepani: 8am

to Tadopani (2590 m)
Start time: 915 am
Lunch: 1 pm in Banthanti (1 hr.)
Finish time: 340 pm

View of Dhaulagiri (far left, 8167 m, 7th tallest mountain in the world), and Annapurna I (8010 m, 10th tallest, with a bit of light on it at right) with Annapurna South (7219 m) just starting to get cutoff on the right.

With our guide, Bharat, standing at the Poon Hill sign with Ann. I and Ann. South in the background.

The climb to Poon Hill was straight-forward but up a steep flight of stairs... I guess that's how all the trails/roads will be up here: Everything is "paved" with cut slate stones and the stairs are all uneven and so steep. But I guess that's the reason why: if they were dirt roads, everyone would be slipping and sliding everywhere and porters wouldn't be able to bring in supplies easily. ANyway, the sunrise views we shared with 100+ people in literally freezing weather were amazing, even though it was loud and annoying to be with so many people. I felt the views from the hill across from Poon Hill that we had around 10 am were far more rewarding and moving for the sheer silence. Also, the entire range was lit up and I swear you could see the earth's curvature from up there (see below). For the first part of the hike (after the better-view hill), we walked through an open and airy oak/bamboo forest area. The sun was bright, but the canopy above caused it to be just perfect inside, and the air was cool. For the first time, we walked on some Nepali-flat ground (a little bit up, a little bit down), but it wasn't as bad as the previous two days. The forest was like a happy, magical place, with views of the Himalays on the left and an open valley with trees of orange, red, and green on the right. After lunch, the trail went downhill past amazing river scenery, and the waters coming out of the mountains cascaded down countless 5, 10, and 20 foot waterfalls. We then started up a steep (they're all steep!) and exhausting ascent through a tropical, lush jungle... not quite the kind of terrain I'd expected in Nepal, but again, totally awesome. I think today was the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen anywhere, from the highest mountains in the world to colorful river valleys and open forest and jungle... we ran the gamut today! Unfortunately, we ended up in a dump of a place with a ton of loud Australian trekkers. The walls in our room don't reach the floor or ceiling, the windows don't close, and there's no light, but the food is good and we played cards all night again with Bharat and a German couple (Birget and ???), as well as another porter. We've been playing gin rummy and a game we call Big 2, but I think it's also called a$$hole. The funniest thing is that Bharat is totally enthusiastic and laughing and really enjoys playing. He's so excited when he wins, slamming down his last cards and gloating! Earlier today, he laughed for like 10 minutes when J joked about wanting me to carry her up the stone stairs... I thought he was going to pee himself.

Okay... I can't really write anymore, right now, but I'll leave you with a few pictures of what happens later in the trip because I've already put them on the page. Briefly, the trek went off without a hitch, we got back and took Bharat out to dinner, and he cooked us Daal Bhat the next night. The day after that (which was yesterday, Saturday) we started some volunteer work at an orphanage in Pokhara and took the kids out to a Japanese-Nepali festival, which was really strange, as Nepali people were doing the cherry blossom dance and judo while Japanese dancers did traditional Nepali dance. Anyway, the last picture is not of our newly-adopted daughter, but of Justine and one of the kids from the orphanage. Enjoy, and hopefully I'll post days 4 through 7 tomorrow.

Walking through the forest on Day 3.

A better view of Dhalagiri from a hill neighboring Poon Hill (which is off the shot to the far left)... a team of horses carrying supplies are walking towards me out of the forsest along the path.

Mike with his bamboo pole standing near the summit of the hill near Poon Hill. The picture above was taken from near this spot, but facing the other way, so Poon Hill is off to the far right in this one.

On the last day of our trek, Justine approaching a water Buffalo family near Dampus.

Playing "Big 2" with Bharat at Cafe Concerto in Pokhara after dinner on the night we returned from trekking

Bharat cooking us dinner at his home in Pokhara the night after we returned from trekking.

About to eat Bharat's Daal Bhat!

Justine and Mamata at the Nepali-Japanese festival.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Newari New Year in Nepal

The Newari New Year celebration took place when we were in Kathmandu about 10 days ago. It's actually a 5-day celebration called Tihar. Although we didn't know much about what actually goes on during the festival or what it all means, it was still pretty exciting to be right in the thick of things, for Nepali people really know how to celebrate! We were actually in a smaller city, just to the south of Kathamandu, called Patan, which is a really fantastic old city. It was a former royal capital, has the most outstanding examples of Newari architecture (which involves incredibly intricate wood carvings and elaborate windows, etc.). Indeed, the structures around the main city center, known as Durbar Square (most cities have durbar squares... it's just a gathering place with tons of temples and stuff), were spectacular (see a few pics here).

On the eve of the New Year (which is the 3rd day of Tihar), both Kathmandu's and Patan's Durbar Squares were positively buzzing with activity. People were buying garlands made of marigolds to give to their families, as well as sweets and gifts for their siblings (one day of Tihar is dedicated to brothers and sisters, who exchange blessings and gifts with each other). The streets were so choked with vendors and shoppers that it was difficult to navigate and we were shoved, stopped, and trapped many times! On Laxmi day (the day that honors the goddess of wealth) of Tihar, the store fronts in Patan (and presumably in Kathmandu and elsewhere) made these elaborate dye poser displays. First, they lay down some red clay from the Kathmandu valley, which is supposed to connect them to their roots. Then they buy these fabuously bright dyes (in powder form) from street vendors in the Sq. They drop the dye down in these really amazing displays that go from the street, up the stairs, and to the store's cash register. For example, we saw footsteps walking into the store, flowers, dancing couples, animals, buddhist designs, and other, more abstract, desighns. They also set up candle and electric lighting displays in order to attract Laxmi to their homes and shops. This excessive demand for power is likely the reason we had power outages every day in Kathmandu and Patan! The topper of the week-long Tihar festival was that every night, despite a government ban, people were blowing firecrackers and fireworks all night long off the roofs of their houses! I should also mention that besides Laxmi and the sibling days, there is a day to honor crows, one for cows, and one to honor dogs, who get marigold garlands of their own and tikkas (the orange mark on the forehead, which is a good luck blessing).

On a totally unrelated note, I wanted to mention that we saw something quite foreign to us the other day. We're currently in Pokhara (it's about 200 km west of Kathmandu), and the views from everywhere in the city of the Himalaya are probably better than the mountain vies of any other city in the world; from here, we can watch the sun go over 8 peaks, all 6997 m or taller, including at least two 8000 m peaks (Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I are two of the 10 tallest mountains in the world)! Anyway, two days ago, in the middle of the afternoon, a police van led a march filled the streets and sidewalks of the lakeside area of Pokhara; they were heading south (towards the police station, I guess). A huge group of people of all ages followed (kids in school uniforms, teens, adults, womend, old folks... the whole town!). They were all shouting and most looked pretty pissed off. In the middle of the crowd (actually, close to the police van), was a man in only shorts and shoes, covered from head to toe in a black goop, with chains and shoes draped around his neck. He was most likely tied at the hands, too, but I don't recall. When I asked a shopkeep what the fuss was about, he siad that the guy was a child rapist and that you can be executed for that in this country. Although I'm not sure what the judicial system is like here, public scorn of criminals (was he even convicted? how do they even know if it was the right guy?) and a total lack of suspect rights is a really foreign concept to us as Americans. Perhaps he was being paraded straight to his death, or maybe to the police station for protection. Someone else told us that the insurgent Maoists were actually circling the man, protecting him from the mob of people who would have killed him in the street. In fact, we know that in Nepal, "justice" is usually served vigalante-style. When we first arrived here, two men were suspected of having kidnapped two kids. One was found dead, the other severely injured. The next day, one (or perhaps both?) of the suspects were beaten to death by a mob. It was not a scary experience, but so foreign and a rather frank and stark reminder that we're not in the States, where although the justice system isn't perfect, at least some people are trying to make it better.

Hope you all had a nice Halloween... they don't really celebrate that here in Nepal, but more than that, Justine and I will be missing out on the best American holliday, Thanksgiving. :( Even for us vegetarians, that's going to be a tough one to miss....


Friday, October 27, 2006

Pictures from China

As promised, here are two sets of pictures from China.

Set 1 - of the Green Ram Taoist temple complex in Chengdu
Set 2 - part of our horse trek in Songpan (Sichuan province) on day 2, from our campsite up to the Ice Mountain lookout.

Enjoy, and later this weekend, we'll hopefully have time to tell you all about the REAL near-death experiences we had this month on the Class III and IV rapids of the Bhote Kosi river in north eastern Nepal! Monday, we begin a 7-day trek through the Annapurna massif, so we'll be incommunicado for a while. Have a nice weekend, everyone!


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Supplies I'm Glad I Brought

I'll leave out the more obvious supplies, like "our guide books," "underwear," "a toothbrush," and "my wife."

1) Our Nalgene bottles - okay this one might be in the "obvious" section, but there is no other item in our packs that we use as frequently, besides our day bags.

2) Water filter and chlorine - Again, maybe this one some people consider "obvious," but other travelers we know either brought one and didn't use it or just plain never brought one. It is true that you can easily get by without one, even hiking in the Himalaya (because the major treks are all so heavily touristed that every village and shop sells bottled water). In contrast, we've used ours extensively since we left Japan, and I fell good knowing that for every liter I pump, we save a bit of money, a bit of resources (plastic), a bit of health (the WHO doesn't even approve of Nepalese bottled water, as we learned from noted photographer and author, Chris Beal), and we help prevent pollution (the Himalaya are litered with millions of un-recycled plastic bottles). A correlary to this item is our 1.5 and 3 L Nalgene canteens, so in any given day, I'll fill up both of our 1 L bottles and the 4.5 L in the soft bags, which we'll go through in a day or two. PS - if anybody is sending things to my grandma's house in Singapore for us for Christmas, a small bottle of MSR brand chlorine solution (from REI) would be appreciated!

3) Cliff bars - A much-needed energy source throughout China when we were looking for real food options (i.e., quality street grub!), and undoubtedly, these will come in super handy when we go trekking in two weeks.

4) Pedialyte and Gatorade (powderd) - the gatorade we'd used before, but I must credit former UCLA chemist and current George Washington U law student Keith O'Doherty for introducing me to pedialyte. Even in the dilute solutions we make on or after really hot and really exhausting days seem to help perk us back up. It also helped with our recent illness (see posting below). These will also come in handy for keeping us hydrated on the trails in the Annapurna region.

5) Small camera - as most of you know, we have two cameras in our posession: the Canon Rebel XT SLR and two lenses (a 60 mm macro and an 18-200 mm zoom), as well as the Canon 700is, a compact digital camera that takes great pictures and video. I wouldn't dare be without the SLR, since I can do so much more with it than with the compact, but there are actually many days where I don't even carry it around. In fact, the more J and I use the compact, the better we are at getting it to take really nice pictures (although today, J couldn't quite get the sunset pictures she was looking for, but the XT turned out some really beautiful shots that you probably won't see until Christmas). So in general, I'm extremely happy with the pictures the compact takes, the batterly life is excellent, it fits in our pockets easily, and so I wouldn't be without that camera, either. For the record, we bought the compact the night before leaving on this trip!

6) 30 GB video iPod - besides being our storage device for the thousands of pictures we've taken so far, there are nights (and long plane rides) when I'm so happy to be able to put that thing on and just listen to my music. As an added bonus, I spent a bunch of time before leaving ripping a few movies and some of our favorite TV shows (Family Guy, Simpsons, Venture Bros., etc.) onto the iPod for our entertainment; we've already watched Anchorman twice on this trip!

7) Handkerchief (Thanks Bert!) - This thing is great, acting as a profalaxis for dirty pillows, a mask against unbelievable smells and pollution, a cooling device (when wet), and an impromptu towel, among many other things. I can only hope that the laundry place we went to two days ago still has it, because we didn't get it back yesterday when we picked it up. I'll have to check with them tonight......

8) Oragami bowls and a sporknife - Yes, we brought foldable plates, bowls, and cups, as well as a sturdy plastic sporknife (that's a spoon, fork, and knife all at once!). We've used thse extensively, especially for breakfast cereals (hot and cold, thank you Horliks!), but we also made our own dinner a few times, as well as lunches. The utensils have been particularly useful, for example on the horse trek we took in Songpan, where moldy old chopsticks were distributed for each meal, then washed in the nasty river nearby. No thank you!

Okay, there's probably more, and I know Justine wanted to blog on this topic, too, but since she's kind of a "blog bum," you'll probably have to wait another month or two for her take. I'd also like to brag that I've finished a couple of books on this trip, despite having very little time to actually read (but comparatively much much more than before we left for the trip). I have read former punk rocker Joe Meno's book "Hairstyles of the Damned," "Hard Travel to Sacred Places," by Rudolph Wulritzer, the 1984-1991 Royal Kumari's autobiography "From Goddess to Mortal," and am currently half-way through Charles Darwin's first edition of "On the Origin of Species." What have you read in the last two months?

ps - I'm only bragging because I so rarely had a chance to read books before I left, so I feel a sense of accomplishment for having finished 3 and a half in 8 weeks, besides the fact that I've also read huge chunks of the Rough Guides book for Japan, and the Lonely Planet books for China and Nepal.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Blitzkreig of Postings

Don't forget to read the finally-posted "Deep Thoughts, By Justine" (2 and a half weeks in the making!) and "Giardia-Ho!", which you'll find below (both posted today).

On another note, I'm sorry to all our fans that there have been so few pictures, lately, but as I've said before, upload times from Asia have been abysmal. Thankfully, I have family members who are willing to do great things for me and my cousin in HK let me burn 3 GB worth of pictures and videos onto CDs that my sister carried home and uploaded for me! The pics need to be filtered a bit and annotated, but here's a few tastes of what's to come:

Justine at the Beijing Urban Planning Museum

Justine at the Beijing Urban Planning Museum in front of the scale-model of the entire city. It took up an entire floor of the 5-story museum!

A relief carving at the Green Ram Taoist Temple in Chengdu, China (Sichuan Province)

This girl was practicing on a zither-like instrument, learning from a famous musician and maker. Her name is Tingting, and in Chinese, "ting" means "listen." When I asked her about this, she kind of laughed, but played us a few songs, anyway. She's in her 2nd of a 6 year graduate program on traditinoal Chinese instruments.

A lit-up bridge crossing the Yangzi River

Cruising down the Three Gorges area on the Yangzi River

Shanghai City Skyline



Yes, it's October, and for those of you who do not already know, this is the month of medical disasters for J and I. Although the last two years have been busts as far as near-death experiences, rare allergies, broken bones, falling powerlines and the like, this year we have made a resounding come-back with the dreaded parasite giadia lamblia!

Yes, giardia, as it is known, is a very common cause for diarrhea and terrible stomach pains in this part of the world. After forking over a hefty heap of Nepali Rupees to go on a white-water rafting trip down the Bhote Kosi river, northwest of Kathmandu, we decided that we were simply too sick to be useful to anyone else in the raft and cancelled at literally the last minute: After much discussion and frustration, I walked to the pick-up point this morning (19.Oct) at 6am to tell them we weren't going. We were really looking forward to this trip, and were super dissappointed to miss out, but plan on rescheduling for early next week when we're feeling better.

The thing that really sucks is that we're losing days in Nepal to this problem, which first hit me on the 16th of October after eating breakfast at our hotel (and hit J several hours later). I think it was the yogurt I had with my muslei in the morning, and since J had some, too, we both got it. Later that day, we went to a town called Nagarkot on the eastern edge of the Kathmandu valley at an elevation of about 7200 ft. From here, there are excellent views of the entire Nepali Himalaya, from Everest in the east to the Anapurna and Ganesh Himal sets in the west. No doubt about it, the views from atop our hotel were stunning at sunrise. Unfortunately, I couldn't enjoy much of it, as I was extremely nauseous, had severe stomach cramps, and as I tried to walk back to our room at the Top View Hotel (where Justine was already taking care of business!), I began to lose vision and consciousness, having to sit down many times as I climbed down 5 flights of stairs, got lost, and finally found the bathroom by the hotel's restaurant. It was a pretty scary morning. To top it off, the country's commerce consortium decided to put all buses and taxis on strike that day, so we had to pay a crazy fee to some guy at the hotel to drive us the 1.5 hrs. back to our hotel in Kathmandu. Worst of all, because we were sick and buses weren't running, we missed out on a great hike from Nagarkot to Sankhou, half-way back to Kathmandu, through the terraced rice fields of the Kathmandu Valley rim. Such a dissappointment, but alas, we'll get better views of the Annapurnas and excellent hiking when we go trekking in two weeks.

Anyway, the purpose of the above paragraph was to discuss how we're losing days to being sick, which really sucks. We lost part of our time in Nagarkot (including the hike back), and now we've lost two more days because we cancelled the rafting trip, and today we wasted by going to the doctor's office to get medicine (it should be noted that since I, Mike, am feeling pretty much fully recovered, I didn't get the giardia medicine and only J did, but if my big-d comes back, I'll just go over there and get some). Now, the rest of our schedule in Nepal looks something like this:

20 Oct - Recover more and go to Bodnath, where the world's largest Tibetan Buddhist stupa is attended to by a huge number of monks and pilgrims.

21 and 22 Oct - Go to Patan, just south of Kathmandu. The city is an ancient Buddhist center with the highest density of temples and shrines anywhere, as well as excellent Newari (a Nepalese minority people) architecture that doesn't survive anywhere else. The 21st is also the first day of the 5-day Tihar festival in Nepal, which includes the Newari New Year on the 3rd day. Return to Kathmandu on the 22nd.

23 Oct - See the rest of Kathmandu, south of Durbar Square.

24 and 25 Oct - Re-try our river rafting trip. Return to Kath. on 25.

26 Oct - Take the bus to Pokhora, which is the starting point for the Annapurnas.

27, 28, 29 Oct - Hang out in Pokhora, getting ready for our trek by getting some supplies and taking a few day hikes to altitude.

30 Oct through 6 or 7 Nov - Begin the hike up to the Annapurna Sanctuaray (also called the Annapurna Base Camp), but head east at Chhomrong towards the spot known as Poon Hill at about 3150 m. From here, views of the Annapurnas and the rest of the western Nepali Himalaya are supposed to be the best.

8 and 9 Nov - recover with beer and good food in Pokhora.

10 through 13 Nov - Take a river kayaking clinic (with camping) on the Sun Kosi river near Pokhora.

14 Nov - recover

15 Nov - Return to Kathmandu

16, 17, 18 Nov - Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. Return to Kath. on the 18th.

19 Nov - Fly to Kolkatta (formerly known as Calcutta).... Or maybe we're having too much fun in Nepal to move on to India.... stay tuned!

Notice that Tibet is a glaring omission from our itinerary (see Note from Justine, below). That's because China is jacking up the prices to visit and it would not cost J and I almost 1000 US dollars each to get there and back for a 5-day trip, which doesn't even include eating or sleeping or sight-seeing, all of which are super expensive, thanks to China. In the last week, Air China (the exclusive flyer into Tibet) raised the price of their tickets to something like 300 bucks for a 45 minute flight (one way!), and China doubled the price of the airport tax to $80. On top of that, the Tibetan visa (which is different from the Chinese visa... go figure) costs 60 bucks and the Tibetan Tourism Permit (which you MUST by before entering the country) costs an astounding 160 bucks! That's just to much to justify. We're making up for the loss, however, by going to Patan and Bodnath and have filled up the days with our giardia!

Thank you, October and Hotel Ganesh Himal, for these fond memories of Nepal!


[Two Discalimers: 1) no positive diagnosis for either of us, yet, but the doctor said he thinks it's giardia and 2) the problem may have stemmed from a fresh salad we both ate the night of the 15th.]

Note from Justine: Blame China. See "That's China's fault" in my previous post. But I can't wait to go back and visit you again soon!
Sigh, China.

Deep Thoughts, By Justine

Although Mike is a "blog hog" as some have accused, the real truth is that I am a blog bum. Today however, Im sick, it's raining outside, and we're still recovering from our horseback riding trip so spending quality time on the computer in Chengdu isn't a bad use of time. (And in fact, by the time I'm posting this an additional 2.5 weeks have passed since I started it on 25.Sept.2006).

Songpan's most eligible bachelor
Meet Zhou, a 20 year old cowboy who can cook, speak four languages, and open a beer bottle with his teeth. He'll serenade you with romantic Tibetan songs while dragging your horse, with you on it, up steep muddy slopes. He enjoys long walks in rocky terrain and a nice bottle of hard grain Tibetan alcohol from a recycled coke bottle. He's good with children, willing to strap your infant on his back for the horseback ride through rockslide territory. He has left behind a lifestyle of tatoos and knife fights to follow the straight and narrow. Women as far away as Korea are ready to move in on him, so ladies, don't pass up this chance!

Yaks: one of my new favorite animals
Seeing a yak on TV is entirely different from meeting one in person. They are quite pretty, with long, silky fur. They are shy but curious -- they were clearly interested in what us humans were doing when we made camp, or hiked through their grazing land, but bolted when we approached within about 15 feet. The majority of yaks we came across were running free in the wild, typically brownish-black, probably part of someone's herd in the mountains, but we also saw some more glamorous ones that were gussied-up in Tibetan costume for the tourists as we blazed through towns on the bus. Yaks make cute short moo sounds and raise their tails like a red flag warning when they freak out and trot away.

"That's China's fault" *
Why China, why must you take perfectly good tourist sites and bulldoze them to build something us Westerners can find at home? The more important question is not so much the "tourist sites" that are being dismantled but the actual homes and livelihoods of the people that live here. This is one of the major quandries of globalization, I suppose -- that while developing countries are doing just that (developing), they run the risk of wiping out cultural and historical sites, traditions, or practices in order to make way for the new and improved. Beijing, as I think Mike touched on in earlier posts, is a prime example. It is an example of nothing existing where communities once thrived, where every restaurant listed in our guidebook that we looked for was either boarded up or appeared blown up, and in one case, with a homeless family living inside. Walking or driving down many of these streets, one sees nothing but eight or ten-foot tall, block-long vinyl billboards advertising what new stores or apartments are to be built on the site. If you happen to duck behind these massive "coming soon" posters, you find the dusty remanants of a neighborhood that may have existed as recently as 6 months ago, but is now a construction site or tent city. Truly depressing. The winning of the Olympic bid is likely the motivator for these "rennovations", but there are larger forces at work -- namely, capitalism. And to my planner friends, if dealing with public input is wearing you out, Beijing may have a job opening for you, because I dont think the public *has* input here. There is, however, an impressive urban planning museum in Beijing laying out all that is planned for the City's future, and save the most famous locales such as Tianamen Sq. or the Forbidden City, it pretty much will look nothing like it does now. Tell that to the people on Huntley (WeHo!)
* quote from Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Call me Auntie Mame
I am now an expert horsewoman, after three days of training in Songpan (read parts one and two). The experience was part Auntie Mame's fox hunt and part Vicky the evil would-be step-mom during the camping trip in Parent Trap. If you don't know the references then you have two movies you need to watch. Hopefully I was more tolerant (and tolerable) than both women during the horse trek, because despite coming back with a cold/fever, it was the highlight of our time in China for both Mike and I. Dare I say that our nest of a bed, created with tree branches, horse blankets, and Tibetan coats with saddles for "pillows", were more cozy and comfortable than some of the hostel/hotel beds we've slept in.

The World's Cutest Kid Contest: Japan v. Chinese Tibetans
As our photos demonstrate, there are some seriously cute kids over here. I thought the cuteness levels couldn't be any higher than those found in Japan, what with the shining black eyes and dolled-up clothes and doting parents. However Sichuan toddlers have given them a run for their money (for scientific proof, see here, here, and here). I will continue my search in Nepal.

Western food is underrated
That's right. I said it. After turning our noses up at western fast food joints the last two months, the Burger King veggie burger in HK brought our noses back to earth. We haven't eaten fast food since pre-vegetarian days (aside from the single experience with the "not buger" from In-N-Out), but once we learned that BK serves up a hefty, loaded-with-condiments, grilled veggie burger, Mike and I forced Lisa to sit and watch while we gobbled down two delicious combo-meals at the top of Victoria Peak in HK. These burgers were wonderful in ways I cannot describe, surpassing its American BK counterpart from what we've seen (but never touched) in Los Angeles. Hats off to you, Burger King of Hong Kong. You will remain a shining memory of my time there.

That is it for now from me, and though I wish I could say I will be better about blogging, it will probably not be true. But please feel free to email me and post comments because I still want to know what is going on back home!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

An update about Chnia from Nepal

I can't possibly do the Three Gorges river cruise justice in a single post; I'll wait until I can post some pictures and discuss it then. Instead, I'll skip ahead from Songpan (our horse trek) straight to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where my sister met up with us and replenished our supplies.

Our first night in Shanghai coincided with the start of the Chinese National Day and the golden week holiday. The entire downtown part of SH was closed to vehicle traffic and 8-lane roads were so thick with people that you could hardly move! The city was fun and lively and there was excellent cheap food everywhere, including Muslim home-made Cliff Bars, flat breads, chow mein, pot-stickers, pastries galore (Lisa knows what I'm talking about... because we were always searching for another pastry for Justine), etc. One day we took the train out to Suzhou, which is reknowned for its fabulous ancient gardens. We got there relatively late in the day and only saw one garden (called The Master of Nets Garden, after some polititian who lived there and liked to fish), but it was absolutely stunning. We also had an excellent Uhigur dinner in Suzhou (the Uhigur people are the Chinese minority people who live in the remote northwest and are of Turkish descent). The same day, we saw the Jade Buddha Temple in SH, which houses two gigantic Buddha statues carved from single pieces of jade. Another day, the three of us went to Old Shanghai and the Yuyuan gardens, which were even more spectacular than the Master of Nets! There's a 9-zig-zag bridge over a pond leading up to Yuyuan, in the middle of which is a famous old teahouse where we drank some excellent tea.

Hong Kong was mostly dissappointing to me, as the sights were few and far between, but the company was excellent as we met up with our long lost cousin, the law teacher I-Ping, and her hilarious husband, a British chemist/sociologist/teacher named Simon. We did cruise around the Kowloon shopping districts, and the HK Island shopping district, and the financial center shopping districts, plus some side-street shopping for Justine and Lisa. And oh... we also did some shopping. Besides that, we took a cruise around Kowloon bay in a sampan (a traditional fishing boat) and went down to the beach communities on the south side of HK. Finally, on our last night there, we helped Simon develop a jet-powered egg-floation device, which promptly caught fire and didn't quite work as planned. But we did get to watch Dr. Who (word up, Terry B.) with them and we pitched in by blowing out 4 eggs for the experiment. I can only hope that his class had more success with the project than we did! ;)

And now here we are, in Kathmandu, Nepal. We've been here for 2 days now, and the weather is just perfect... sunny and 77 F. Kathmandu is an excellent place and the food, people and sights have not dissappointed. Today (15.Oct) we hiked to the temple/stupa complex of Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple because so many monkeys hang out there, and yesterday we walked around Durbar Sq., where they have a three-story high temple carved from a single piece tree (a "There's Something about Mary" joke goes here, if you know the movie). In a few days, we'll be going to a river-rafting trip, then we'll start treking in the Annapurna mountain range in western Nepal. We'll keep you updated!