January 4th, 2010
Amber fort in Jaipur

Amber fort in Jaipur


Reading area in our $35/night room in Udaipur

Reading area in our $35/night room in Udaipur

First of all, India is too big to see in one trip unless that trip is somewhere in the neighborhood of a month or more. You just can’t do it. There is too much to see and getting around is not easy at all (more on this later). Our trip was primarily located in Rajasthan which is in the north of India and borders Pakistan. This would actually be relevant to us because the heightened security in Rajasthan was pretty intense. Our bags were checked as we entered airports and then screened again through normal security, and then hand checked one more time before boarding the plan. Each of these checks was handled not by your standard TSA type of security personell, but instead by an automatic rifle wielding member of the Indian military. Another surprise note: the military has a very strong presence in India and upon learning more about India’s history, it became obvious that the military and fighting have actually been an important part of Indian culture for many centuries.

We had dinner with some friends before we left and during that conversation it was hard for the individual describing India (who had been there traveling for at least a month) to really convey what it was going to be like. I think we would have the same challenges. India is vibrant, poor, dynamic, stuck in time, dirty, opulent, difficult, passive, militaristic, spicy, and a myriad of other adjectives. But they all combine into one primary thing: India is VERY interesting.

India was such an intense experience…a total assault on the senses. One of the main reasons that India made it on our trip agenda was that Celia’s Dad was going to be there for work and we had played with the idea of traveling together to a few places he had always wanted to visit. Most notably Jaiselmere which is an old fortified city in the desert. Before we got to India we realized that the timing for Jaiselmere wouldn’t work out but we decided we were still curious about what India would be like and Rudy would still be there.

The place where we stayed in Delhi was recommended by a co-worker of Celia’s dad which we would definitely recommend to anyone heading there. We stayed in a Guesthouse in an old historically protected neighborhood in “New Delhi”. The house was in a nice tree lined neighborhood, and enclosed behind high walls. It had a great garden in back where you could sit on the patio and watch the parrots and birds playing in the trees.

Guesthouse in Delhi

Guesthouse in Delhi

There were about 30 parrots! We loved staying here and it kind of reminded Celia of her backyard in Dhaka when she was a child, which was the first time on the trip she had any kind of association with the memories from her childhood, so that was neat. Delhi itself is a city of about 13 million people…so it’s a pretty wild place as far as traffic, infrastructure, etc goes!

A MAJOR highlight from Delhi was the restaurant Pindi. Which is located in a strip mall but served the best Indian food we had ever tasted, and the best we had in our trip. Sadly we took no food pics there , what were we thinking! But if anyone ever goes to Delhi you have to go there…it is absolutely worth the trip.

Incredible Indian food!

Incredible Indian food!

To see Delhi we hired a driver who spent the day with us waiting while we saw the sites. Driver in Delhi for the day: $10. We headed for Old Delhi to see what it was all about. The highlight was hiring a rickshaw driver to take us through the narrow streets of Old Delhi and through all the various markets there – cloth, electronics, spices etc. The streets were SO narrow with pedestrians everywhere and traffic flowing both ways. It was incredible. There were so many wires hanging down that we could practically reach up and grab them. While there we also checked out the Jama Masjid mosque which has a total capacity of 25,000 people. Also of note, the Jama Masjid was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who also commissioned the Taj Mahal. More on the Taj Mahal later.

Old Delhi:

Street scene in Old Delhi

Street scene in Old Delhi

Second street scene in Old Delhi

Second street scene in Old Delhi

Like Vietnam…more wires hanging from above:

Look up!

Look up!

Old Delhi storefront

Old Delhi storefront

As a side note, but certainly a quality one, the description of the rickshaw driver should be left to the experts. See: Adiga, Aravind; “The White Tiger.” The book itself was a winner of the Mann Booker Prize for 2008 and for anyone interested first in a good read, and second in a book that gives a very accurate view into an interesting slice of India…pick up this book. Adiga’s description of the rickshaw driver (who is the main character’s father):

A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank.Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog’s collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.

Here is our rickshaw driver:

Rickshaw driver

Rickshaw driver

The commotion and general sense of “business” on the streets is exacerbated by the fact that people are going in every direction and the streets, like the rest of India, are totally packed. So for our driver to energetically, enthusiastically, and most importantly…successfully, pull this off was pretty amazing: he hopped out at one street and got us a Samosa for $.15 which came wrapped in newspaper and was the tastiest thing ever!

The story of India is written everywhere you look. You can’t miss the absolute poverty and if you look hard enough, you can see serious wealth. But the truth comes out in the details and if you find them on your ride to the restaurant where your destination may exist in a strip mall that lies in a residential neighborhood, or your 6 hour car ride to another city passing towns where wealth is measured by whether or not you own a camel, or if you look close enough at a group of children and notice that the luckiest of them may have 2 shirts…you see the truth of India. India’s grit is far different than that of Vietnam. India’s grit elicits a sense of sadness. A voyeuristic perspective that makes you feel guilty looking but at the same time is quite possibly the reason you are there. Begging is a profession and subsistence seemed to be a step up for many people and places we saw. But that grit again significantly contributed to the experience of traveling in India. It wasn’t about feeling great about where you came from or bad for what you were observing. It was about seeing the reality of the place and there is very little hiding the truth of that reality in India. Adiga is, again, a far better source for conveying the detail:

I am proud to inform you that Laxmangarh is your typical Indian village paradise, adequately supplied with electricity, running water, and working telephones; and that the children of my village, raised on a nutritious diet of meat, eggs, vegetables, and lentils, will be found, when examined with tape measure and scales, to match up to the minimum height and weight standards set by the United Nations and other organizations whose treaties our prime minister has signed and whose forums he so regularly and pompously attends.

Ha!

Electricity poles — defunct.

Water tap — broken.

Children — too lean and short for their age, and with oversized heads from which vivid eyes shine, like the guilty conscience of the government of India.

Of course this description of India does not apply to ALL of India, and in its literary context was intended to elicit an image and sense of a village that was the backdrop for a rather poor and depressing childhood. Is all of India this way? Of course not. But this India most certainly exists today and in far greater abundance than the PR that we all consume about the growth and economy of India would lead one to believe. A country of 1.2 billion people is going to have its challenges and infrastructure may be India’s greatest. The village described by Adiga certainly exists and its existence is more than obvious once your travels take you outside the primary cites. Some would say that the delta between rich and poor is exactly India’s future. And while that may be entirely true, the current reality reflects far more poverty than it does explosive growth.

Interesting notes about India:
Everything takes twice as long to get to as anyone tells you because the traffic everywhere is so bad
You can be driving 50 MPH down a 2 lane highway and suddenly find there is a tractor coming directly at you heading the wrong way
You can be driving 50 MPH down a two lane highway and have to pass; oxcarts, donkeycarts, busses with people piled on the roof, cows in the middle of the road, and last but not last…stopped vehicles
Men in India will pee anywhere and everywhere, so you get used to seeing someone peeing off the side of the road or on the sidewalk about once every two minutes

James Bond Interlude: this is the palace (in Udaipur) where James Bond jumped his car out of in Octopussy. Pretty sweet…

Octopussy!

Octopussy!

And then…you go to the Taj Mahal.

Early morning at the Taj Mahal

Early morning at the Taj Mahal

Of important note, I know we both agree: The Taj Mahal was likely the 2nd most amazing thing we saw on our trip.

The Taj Mahal was the most magical experience we had in India, and aside from the Himilayas, probably the most magical experience of the whole trip. No matter how many pictures you have seen of it, nothing compares to the feeling we had when we saw it in person. It is truly perfection and the most beautiful man made creation we have ever seen.

We were at the entrance to the Taj by 6:30 in the morning, in hopes of avoiding the crowds. This turned out to be a great decision, because it was nice and quiet, and although there were definitely lots of other early risers it wasn’t packed. There was great early morning light, and the rest of India seems to be kept away when you visit the Taj Mahal.

You have to walk through the exterior courtyard, and then walk through the main gate and look ahead to see the reflecting pools and the Taj directly in front of you. We probably spent 10 minutes at that spot just taking it all in. You did not want to move away and when we finally did, we spent about 3 hours at the Taj, just walking around and taking it all in. There are lots of benches and spots to sit and enjoy the view. The Taj Mahal is “can’t miss” and we mistakenly approached it as “the thing to see in India while you are there.” Almost as if our expectation was to be underwhelmed. It’s not…it’s a “thing to see no matter where else you go in the world.” In other words, if your sole reason for going to India is to see the Taj Mahal…it would be worth it.

All the carving is amazing

All the carving is amazing

Side view

Side view

Celia at the Taj Mahal

Celia at the Taj Mahal

Our time in India was cut shorter than we had originally intended because we realized that we needed more than the 2 weeks we had left to see what we would really want to see. We had been told that India was a “second trip” and that was pretty obvious at this point. So we left the Taj Mahal, took the 6.5 hour car ride back to Delhi, stopped at a “mall” as we had 5 hours to kill (thinking it would be one of those crazy modern new malls in Delhi and it wasn’t…it was a very low grade version of one) in Delhi, had Chinese food in a nice restaurant, headed to the airport, and realized before we got on the plane that we both had food poisoning. That was not awesome…but we were off to Hanoi (again, yes we loved it that much!) for a final farewell for 5 days which was totally awesome!

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November 23rd, 2009

40 degree temps and fried dough have a way of helping you to get going at 6AM. On top of that, we were able to look up into the valley we would walk up and we could also back where we had been. And, given that we had “slept” in a utility closet with corrugated tin for walls, we were ready to get moving. I got some words of wisdom from various people before we left, but one good friend in particular had texted me and said: “Not everything is going to go perfectly. A lot of the fun is dealing with the challenges and making it through.” Those were wise words and words that we often re-affirmed to ourselves when some glitch developed in our plan. And this was no different. As cheesy, cliche, trite or hackneyed as it may sound…we were surrounded by soaring peaks and about to walk through amazing rhododendron forest and beautiful rushing rivers. The lack of sleep was not an issue.

Map with most of the villages along the way.

Map with most of the villages along the way.

Our day would take us from Sinuwa to Bamboo (about 2 hours) then on to Dovan, Himalaya, and finally Deurali. And the plan was for us to stop no sooner than Himalaya and no later than Deurali. That was the plan. The variable in the “plan” was essentially that we would stop where we could have a room. We learned a valuable lesso after this day, a lesson that would have served us well had we known it. Trekkers who had a guide and a porter (guides are about $8/day and porters $6/day) were sending their porters ahead in order to find rooms. Great call by the folks that were doing this. Anyhow…the other thing you are looking is spelled out pretty clearly in this pic: a HOT shower. And for those of you who are thinking “HOT” shower…think “pretty warm” is how any normal western person would describe it! But…taking a cold shower in cold weather is, well, about as fun as it sounds. Not so great.

This is what you are looking for on a trek like this!

This is what you are looking for on a trek like this!

trek like this!” title=”Hot Shower sign” width=”300″ height=”225″ class=”size-medium wp-image-192″ />[/caption]

We made our way through Bamboo and up to Himalaya. Among the streams we passed, bridges we crossed, and flowers and forest (and stairs!) we hiked through, we also passed a huge waterfall on the other side of the valley that had monkeys bounding up and down. It was pretty crazy to see…literally 20 monkeys bounding up and down this very steep and sheer waterfall. It was quite something to see. Although I have to admit, I was not expecting to see monkeys in the mountains like this!

After Himalaya we were all feeling good and decided to move on to the next village, Dovan, to look for a room. There were no rooms in Himalaya so we really had no choice. There were no rooms in Dovan. Still ok…we’d only been hiking for 5 hours and we had plenty of energy to keep going. We pushed to Deurali which really started to go up. More stairs and more longer uphill. We also left to forest and were starting to rise above the treeline. That’s a great feeling (for me personally) as there is something nice about emerging from the forest into the stark landscape above the tree line.

Yep, no rooms in Deurali. And now we have a legit problem. We had reached about the distance we wanted to hit for the day and the next stop, Macchapuchere Base Camp was another 2 hours up the trail and a significant hike uphill. We were tired (Celia and I…Pushkar could have walked for another year uphill) and after some deliberation, we agreed to push on to MBC. We had to make good time as it was getting dark and the walk itself turned out to be another one of those magical moments that Dominick had describe three nights back at dinner. We turned up into a high alpine valley that was as amazing as anything we had seen (size and beauty).

View up the valley.

View up the valley.

View up again with Celia.

View up again with Celia.

View down from about 35 minutes before MBC.

View down from about 35 minutes before MBC.

We had pushed on through to MBC and the extra two hours was tough. For the first time our feet (which were still in Nike and Mizuno running shoes) were starting to hurt and we had been walking all day. It was also getting cold. We had gone up well over 3,000 feet on the day and it was our 3rd day. We were tired and psyched to have a bed.

A Bed?

A Bed?

View of MBC

View of MBC

No beds. Three fairly good sized lodges at MBC and no beds. An now it was windy, and cold, and the clouds had rolled in. Think of it this way…everyone staying there was now in the dining room reading, playing cards, writing in journals, meeting new folks, etc and everyone still had nearly all of their warm gear on. Celia and I would be sleeping in this room tonight with the guides and the porters knowing that we were getting at 5AM to head up to Annapurna Base Camp. Yep…there we were…after sleeping in the storage closet with corrugated tin walls, getting up at 6AM and trekking hard for 8 hours…we were sleeping in a community dining room with no less than 20 guides and porters.

In the dining room with the guides and porters!

In the dining room with the guides and porters!

Was frustrating at times and hilarious at others. More hilarious than frustrating and we took it all in stride, got fairly good nights sleep and looked forward to our payoff the next day. And our efforts would be rewarded. Here’s a tease of the next morning:

Annapurna at sunrise.

Annapurna at sunrise.

Annapurna just below ABC

Annapurna just below ABC

Annapurna South is a big mountain…in fact, it tops out at 23,684 feet. For those looking for a reference, Squaw Valley’s peak is 9,110 feet. So as we stood there, somewhat cold with all the proper gear except gloves (meaning our hands were cold), we were struck by the massive beauty of early morning light on such huge peaks. We were up at 5AM, well before dawn and made the 2 hour walk from MBC to to ABC (and yes, there would by fried dough upon our return to MBC!).

Beginning of Base Camp

Beginning of Base Camp

We made it!

We made it!

We had warmed up by now...

We had warmed up by now...

We stayed for about 2 hours up at the base of the mountain, proud of our accomplishment and humbled by our surroundings. These mountains were as big as they were said to be and I know we both will always remain somewhat in awe of being there. It truly was, “the greatest walk”…which brings me back to our new friends Dominick and Sophie. Way back when in Pokhara, before we had any real sense of what wanted to do but after Celia and struck up a conversation in the Kathmandu airport with them, Dominick had said that this was his “favorite walk in the world.” As with many things on this trip…that statement also over-delivered…and as we sat in the sun back at MBC finishing our fried dough…Celia spotted Dominick and Sophie heading down the trail from ABC with their porter! Amazingly, and to make a long post just a tad bit longer, they had stayed at MBC as well and gone up to ABC at the same time we had…they had just been in the building above us (and had a room)!

So we ended up spending the next 2+ days trekking back down with Dom, Sophie, and two new friends they had met. Asaf and Naja were great additions and solid trekking companions as well as great card players! And when you are in a Tibetan guest house at night with rapidly fading light outside and temps creeping into the 30’s, you need a few good games of cards.

The whole crew (MB, Celia, Dom, Sophie, Asaf, Naja)

The whole crew (MB, Celia, Dom, Sophie, Asaf, Naja)

Pretty sweet breakfast spot

Pretty sweet breakfast spot

The crew with guides and porters!

The crew with guides and porters!

I would be leaving something out if I did not point out, as Celia did a couple of times, that trekking outfits are not that style-y for the ladies no matter what. I think a San Francisco friend of ours might have put this into our heads before we left! That said, I do agree with a bit of that statement and I think this picture shows ample supporting evidence:

Hmmmmm...going bird watching?

Hmmmmm...going bird watching?

For some reason, it is hard to summarize the Himalaya experience. There are so many elements that contribute to the overall experience that it is hard to pick out 1 or 2 things that just stick out. Is it the enormous spirit and sense of humor of the Nepalese people? Is it the sheer beauty of the mountains and peaks that rise above you? Is it the, at times, exhaustion and then ultimately the sense of accomplishment of reaching ABC and then returning? Is it the food? The views? The waterfalls? The anticipation of going on a trek? It is the worst form of a cop-out to say it is some combination of all of those things (and more). But there is no better explanation. Those things, when taken together, are overwhelmingly positive experiences. Physically and mentally the exercise is a good one. You cannot walk away from this place without feeling incredible about having been there.

As I mentioned earlier, this was Dominick’s 3rd time on this same multi-day trek. In this age of shortened vacation allotments (even for Brits!), making the time to do this trek 3 times is perhaps is the best endorsement it can receive. I definitely intend to make it back I know this for certain:

You cannot walk away from this place without feeling incredible about having been there.

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November 18th, 2009

Now, this would probably have had a considerable amount more meaning many years ago when Syracuse and Virginia Tech were still in the same league for football. Actually, it would probably really be more interesting if Syracuse were even moderately relevant in the world of College Football. That said…the fact that I ran into this Indian guy at 7AM at Annapurna Base Camp is pretty incredible:

Indian Guy with a Virginia Tech Hat!

Indian Guy with a Virginia Tech Hat!

How incredible is that? Should have had my Cuse hat with me. That would have made a great shot.

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November 3rd, 2009

Range with lake

As we stood in the airport in Kathmandu, we both felt a bit of relief to be leaving and heading up into the Himalayas. Kathmandu, as previously stated…is crazy high-paced. So getting out of the cramped (yet fun and amazing) city to the open spaces of Pokhara was welcoming. Celia started talking with a British couple who we ended up having drinks and dinner with as well doing a portion of our trek with. While we had a sense that we wanted to do a trek, we were not sure how much time we were going to have and we also were not sure how many days we actually wanted to trek. But at dinner, Dominick was very persuasive as this would be his third time doing this same trek. So, while this trek would be a day or two longer (even if we did it fast, which we did), he had us both bought into what sounded like a pretty incredible experience. He could not have been correct.

Nothing that I write will do justice to the sheer size and beauty of the Himalayas. Nothing that I write will accurately describe the sense or the uniqueness of trekking from viallage to village or tea house to tea house. The views of the valleys, peaks, rivers, waterfalls, villages, gardens, flowers and bridges will literally take your breath away. Some of the vistas will actually stop in you in your tracks and others will give you a great spot to stop because you just climbed up 1,500-2,000 feet! Yes, there were a lot of stairs…sometimes for an hour straight…and yes there were times when we were pretty tired. But at no point was there ever a sense of not wanting to do it or not enjoying it. Trekking in the Himalayas is far different than a multi-day hiking/camping experience in the places I have seen. In the Himalayas, there are little villages along the way which break up the journey and make it, IMO, far easier and more enjoyable. So, after procuring about $100 worth of fake North Face gear and getting our guide…we set off for Naypul which would be our starting off point.

To give a little background…the trek itself starts at about 1,000m (3,000ft) and finishes at 4,100m (12,300ft) and the trekking agencies will tell you that it is about an 8-10 day round trip at a leisurely to moderate pace. That generally means 4 hours of walking per day and stopping in more viallges. At a fairly good pace and walk 5-7 hours per day, the hike can be done in abour 6-8 days depending on how many stops you want to make and whether or not you want a rest day. I think we both would agree that a rest day (primarily because it would be nice to stop and enjoy somewhere) would have been nice, but we did not have or want to take the time. We were going to go fast and that turned out to be the correct call. So we did the entire route in 5.5 days and since we did not want to buy new hiking boots (which were cheap imitations that certainly would have given us blisters)…we did it in our running shoes! They actually worked out great!

Other travellers on the trail:

Donkeys

Day 1 took us by car from Pokhara to Naypul which is about a 1.25hr car ride. From Naypul we started our ascent with a day 1 goal of Ghandruk at 1900m. The trail itself started off as a dirt road that eventually took itself done to path about a carlength in width. Heavily used, this portion of the trail is still in cosntant use by the locals as Ghandruk is very much still a “town” with people living there other than just in support of the tourists. Day 1 turned out to be a pretty easy day and we arrived in Ghandruk after about 5 hours (probably 4 hours of hiking with an hour for lunch…my first dall bhat…incredible rice and lentils with usually a veg curry on the side. This would become my staple lunch and dinner for the next 6 days!). Upon reaching Ghandruk, we checked into the Trekkers Inn and found our room to be amazingly nice. With sweeping view out of windows and our own private bathroom with western toilet (ie: no squat toilet), we were pretty psyched. I know we were both thinking that “Hey, this is pretty solid!”

Gandhruk Village

Trekkers Inn

After a really good nights sleep, we awoke to incredible views. The clouds come into the mountains around the high peaks in the early-mid afternoon and clear out overnight. So the mornings are incredibly clear and cool with some beautiful views on the peaks in every direction. After a quick breakfast, we were off. A lot of up and down on Day 2 and before we got started, we had to make a big deicision. And the decision itself really involved…do we go to the place that nearly all the tourists go to (Poon Hill), or do we head up into the actual Himalayas themselves (Annapurna Base Camp)? The primary difference between the two is that from Poon Hill you can see a broader ranges of peaks and the trek is shorter with less uphill, and from ABC you are literally up IN the Himalayas and right next to the mountains. After some discussion…we were off for Base Camp.

This is the valley that takes you up to ABC

This is the valley that takes you up to ABC

Valley to walk up

Day 2 took us to Chommrong and having reached this spot at about 12:30…we went lightning fast accoding to our guide…we had a quick lunch and decided to press on. Now, the primary motivation here, and Celia was the driver/decision maker on this one, was that the uphill to get to Chommrong was very difficult and the uphill the next nmorning had we chosen to stay in Chommrong was equally as bad…so we pushed on to Sinuwa.

Sinuwa Lodge Sign

Sinuwa Lodge Sign

As some of you may know, we had been travelling in the off season in Southeast Asia. It was the edge of the rainy season everywhere we were and while we certainly enjoyed good weather everywhere we went, it was still off season in terms of rates and occupancy. That was NOT the case in Nepal. We were in the absolute highest of the high season in Nepal and essentially started our trek 2 days after there had been heavy rains and heavy snows in certain parts of the Himalayas around Annapurna. What that ment was that some people had either stopped on their treks or had not started and things were slightly more crowded than normal. Nothing that made a difference during the day…but the limited space in the tea houses was definitely an issue! Our room on that night in Sinuwa was under the kitchen and essentially something they probably used as a storage area other times of the year!

Room in Sinuwa

Having just pushed on an extra 90 minutes…most of it uphill (1900m to 2300m)…we were under the impression we would have a nice cozy room like the night before. When we realized the situation, just having a bed at all turned out to be (foreshadowing warning!) a blessing. So, with plywood on three sides of us and corrugated tin on the other…we slipped into our sleeping bags in the 40 degree weather and got as much sleep as we could. But just before we went to our room, we were treated to the opening night of the 2nd largest festival in Nepal called Tihar. Tihar is a family focused festival where the primary tradition is for the brother to give his sister a gift and n return she paints and imaprts a small blessing on his forhead. This portion happens on the last day of the 4 day festival. On the first night, the entire village comes together for dancing and singing. Was interesting to see and great to be a part of something so cultural that was clearyl quite important to the people. Given where we were and the relative poverty and agrarian nature of the cuontry, it was quite easy to see the place these kinds of festivals held in binding communities together.

Tihar Dancing

There was a super treat in the AM though for me.

For those of you that have been to Upstate NY (or those of you that are reading this there now), you know that there are certain foods that are defining foods of the region. Chicken wings, salt potatoes, etc etc etc…but perhaps nothing is more defining of both the New York State Fair and every Field Days in every Upstate NY viallage than Fried Dough. And would you believe that Fried Dough (and I mean it is EXACTLY the same minus the powdered sugar) is actually called Tibetan Bread and served as a breakfast in the Himalayas?!!! Had it every morning of course!

Tibetan Bread Close Up

Tibetan Bread Wide MB

So with, breakfast in us and the knowledge that things were likely to be crowded at all of the tea houses going forward, we were essentially the first ones on the trail in the AM. Looking back, I now know what Pushkar (our guide) had in mind: the sooner we got out on the trail, the better chance we had to hit more villages to get an actual room for the night. But before that…a word about food on the trail. On of the unique things about trekking in this region is that people still live here. So much of what you eat (nearly all actually)…the rice, the daal, the vegetables, the curries, the potatoes…it is all grown on terraces built into steep mountain sides (REAL steep mountain sides…some of the spots the trail goes through are not for those who have issues with “looking down”). So each of these villages have large gardens most of what look something like these:

Garden

Garden 2

Day 3 took us further up into the valley where would encounter (yes, much more uphill) some rivers that required a bit of effort to get across. Some of these bridges were suspension bridges, but most were just a couple of logs from one side of the stream or river to the other with stones laying on them to cross. Here are some pictures of a couple of them.

Bridge 1

Bad Bridge

Bridge with river

Bridge 3

So we pressed on from Sinuwa and were feeling good in the sense that we had actually bought ourselves another day. In other words, by making the move from Chommrong to Sinuwa (and not staying the night in Chommrong) we were essentially a day ahead of schedule with the early AM start. We knew we could now stop in Bamboo (2 hrs away) or Dovan or Himalaya and be in good shape to find a room. So we set out feeling pretty good about things. We were making excellent time, crossing bridges, taking pictures, and even seeing monkeys running and bounding up and down waterfalls on the other side of the valley. It was a really amazing sight to see.

Day 3, or more accurately the night of Day 3 will have o come in the 2nd Himalaya installment!

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November 2nd, 2009
Paragliding

Paragliding

Pokhara is a very col mountain town at the base of the Himalayas. ore on that later…but there is a ton of stuff to do there: rafting, trekking, and check out this pic of paragliding! Talk about a VERY cool way to see the Himalays. The flight itself lasts about 45 minutes and you actually start at about 1300m. From there, you literally run off a cliff (with a pilot) in a tandem glider and you catch thermals up into the sky. A couple of different we went a couple hundred meters above where we had actually started. It’s a really amazing thing…a bit unsettling at first, but after the first couple of minutes is really quite comfortable.

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November 1st, 2009

Do you leave the beach? Should we really leave here? We were sitting on the beach, or maybe in the water…I can’t remember…and we were looking at each other trying to figure out what to do next. Did we want to leave the next day for Nepal, or should we just extend our beach time a bit and shorten up Nepal? I know, I know…good to have the “problem” of those kinds of “tough” decisions. ;) But, when you are sitting in perfect water with a white sand beach that entends out into the water for about 100 yards without a rock or single piece of coral around…it was tough to make the call! But we did…got our tickets, flew to Bangkok and made the connection (with only a 90 min layover) to Kathmandu.

Matt Durbar Sqr

We had changed worlds. We knew it, but we did not know it. We would find out…FAST.

We landed to brilliant bright blue skies and views of the foothills of the Himalayas. We did also see Everest rom the plane which was pretty neat. The weather was considerably nicer in the sense that we had gone from humid SE Asia to drier and slightly cooler temps. It felt like a nice break from the heat. That was about the only “break” we got because Kathmandu makes Hanoi look like a a finely tuned engine! Imagine a country where the literacy rate is below 50%, boys and girls generally only make it to school through age 10, and GDP per capita holds at about $1,000 (that’s $3 a day). Nepal stands as one of the poorer countries in the world and look no farther the infrastructure of the country and you will see that poverty reflected.

But…in no other place on our trip did we meet better people.

The Nepalese people have the largest smiles, warmest hearts, and best senses of humor that creates easily the most pleasant disposition to be around. From airline counter employees, to travel agents, to waiters, porters, taxi drivers, and hotel staff…every person had these amazing qualities. Yes, tourism is a huge driver in Nepal, but there are far too many Nepalese to observe dealing with other Nepalese to see that this mentality was in fact the standard as opposed to the “face for tourists.” And perhaps this mentality is most greatly represented in the porters in The Himalaya’s. While I will save the detail for another post, the basic fact is that these porters, most of whom earn far less that national GDP average, would literally make your day with their smile and joy. It was great to be around them and great to be in Nepal.

Back to Kathmandu…back to the infrastructure. So think about your normal cab in the U.S. The cabs in Thailand are far, far nicer and cleaner. The cabs in Vietnam..slightly less nice, but fine and sometimes very nice. The cabs in Kathmandu? They are 95% Suzuki Maruti’s (which I could barely fit in) and they are so beat up (think no shocks) and dusty from the “roads” it’s nearly unimaginable. It breaks down like this…1 backpack goes in the “trunk” and the other goes in the front seat. You sit in the back…the wheel is on the right, but driving on the right side of the road isn’t even something anyone thinks about. You go where you want to go. (Interestingly, India is actually worse in this regard) So now you are jammed into what is essentially a Ford Festiva FLYING through streets no wider in most places than a garage door and a half, dust is swirling everywhere and everyone is using the horn…all the time. Not like in Vietnam when you want to pass or let somewhere no where you are…but all the time. The roads themselves are sometimes pavement…most of the time dirt and the width of that road, which most certainly varies, is for traffic going both ways. Traffic is a MAJOR issue in Kathmandu and you have to plan for it. Long story short…it’s wild! At in Kathmandu…things move fast…really fast.

Kathmandu itself was in a lot of ways what we expected and in other ways not what we expected. I certainly was not expecting the pace and was thinking it to be much more laid back (hookahs, backgammon, etc, etc, etc…not sure why I thought this…but for some reason I did) and in reality Kathmandu is moving all the time. The Thamel area (which I would NOT recommend anyone stay in BTW even though it is the main tourist area and is great to see and hang out/eat in) is paked with what you would expect…trekking companies and shop, after shop, after shop, after shop, after shop…you get the point…of fake trekking and expedition gear.

Kathmandu itself has some interesting sights, in particular Durbar Sqr. Very highly recommended for anyone who makes it Kathmandu.

Durbar Sqr

We got very lucky (we had finally hit somewhere where it was high season and we made a committment to ourselves to not really plan ahead on this trip so we would not be bound by schedules, and flights and hotel reservations. Of course there is some risk in that…) and found a place to stay just on the outskirts of Thamel called the International Guest House.

Kathmandu GH Courtyard

Very cool GH for $35/night and we got a SWEET room on the roof! Literally, our room was above the 6th floor and had views of nearly all of Kathmandu. And…it took us about 3 hours to find a room so we felt good about having a place to stay!

Kathmandu Roof 1

We made the call to head up to Pokhara the next day as opposed to staying in Kathmandu. Pokhara is the jumping off point for all of the treks into the Annapurna region and is a great town in itself (in many ways better than Kathmandu). But more on that when we get to the Himalaya’s portion…

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November 1st, 2009

I’ll caveat this by saying that some of the pictures we would like to post right now are on a DVD and the machine we are using only has a CD drive. So hopefully we’ll be able to get some of the others up a bit later on.

Beach 1

The beaches in Thailand are world famous and we certainly are not the 1st to discover how amazing they actually are. That said, the sheer quantity of awesome beaches in Thailand is literally off the charts. For us, people who love the (tropical) beach, it was like trying to decide which awesome place might be more awesome than the one we had just read about!

Fortunately, mother nature helped us out but putting us in a seasonal position where the beach options were more limited than they would have been in other time of the year. September and October bring monsoon conditions to the West Coast of Thailand (Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Krabi) while mid-October-January bring the monsoon to the East Coast beaches (Ko Phan Ngan, Ko Tao, Ko Samui). So we knew we had to go to the East Coast beaches and our only challenge would be to figure out just which beach we wanted to go to. Here is a map of Ko Phan Ngan:

41[1]

We took a mid-morning flight from Bangkok to Ko Samui and hopped on a ferry (much nicer than the Vietnam ferry!) over to Thongsala on the island of Ko Phan Ngan. Ko Samui is the largest of the islands on this side of Thailand and is filled with very high end resorts where you can have your own house (essentially) on the water complete with your own butler, etc. While that sounded awesome, it was slightly outside of our budget even by Thai standards! So we opted for Ko Phan Ngan which has a much more laid back feel to it.

We spent the first nights in Hat Yao which turned out to be a great call. The beach was gorgeous and had just the right amount of action (which meant hardly any action at all!). There were 7 or 8 restaurants along the kilometer+ of beach and it’s awesome to be able to hang out at the beach, get some sun, grab some pad thai and then some more sun! The snorkeling was also great right off Hat Yao and very similar to Hawaii.

Hat Yao beach itself was a great mix for us. But a particularly incredible moment was this sunset. I hope these pictures can do it justice because I have never seen anything like it before. The clouds on the horizon were creating an incredible effect with setting sun for about 20 minutes. The sky was continually changing and at first we thought it was just a cool sunset…then this happened:

The shadows created "beems"

Sunset 2

Sunset 3

The weather was ok (not great, but not awful either)…and we were able to escape the daily 1-hour rain shower on our balcony overlooking the beach with some dominoes and some great tunes (with the new speaker system we picked up!).

Now, Ko Phan Ngan is also quite famous for its “Full Moon Party” which happens for each full moon. The actual party itself is on the opposite side of the island from where we were staying (somewhat by design). The build-up (4-5 days prior) also has a lot of parties and loud music (not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not relaxing which is what we were looking for) so we chose to stay quite far away from where the party was actually happening. We did decide to go to the party and while it was interesting to see, it is definitely one of the most over-hyped and under-delivering things I have ever seen. From a people watching perspective it is slightly interesting. From the sheer mass of people partying…it is slightly interesting. From the “Is this a quality party” perspective it was flat out awful. The music was pretty awful and the scene was just what it could or should have been. Final verdict on the Full Moon Party: don’t go. Probably cool 10 or 15 years ago.

As a side note, and to give people a sense for the enmormity of this party, many London and UK travel agencies book tours specifically for people to come to this beach for these parties. Total waste, IMO.

After a few days on Hat Yao, we took a water taxi out around the northern side of the island to check out some beaches that could primarily only be reached by water taxi. Once we saw Bottle Beach…we were sucked in! We literally took a bungalow on the spot and went back to get our bags and moved over! Bottle Beach is good sized strip of pure white sand that has 3 bungalow operations on it. 2 of them owned by the same incredibly nice family. By 10AM the next day, we had a hammock on our bungalow deck which was now more than 100 feet from the beach. It was perfection!

Bottle Beach

Bottle Beach

Let me just say that hammocks are incredible things. Interestingly, I don’t feel like I have spent much time in hammocks and perhaps I should have spent more time there. They are incredibly comfortable (except for the moment when we first hung it…well the guy that works at the bungalows hung it…and I laid in it to test it and after about 3 seconds crashed to deck of our bungalow while Celia roared with laughter) and really are quite soothing. I don’t think I ever really had anything against the hammock, most likely was just never presented with the option of utilizing one. Having now had the chance to spend hours and hours in one, I can say that I definitely recoomend them. They are great!

Celia in the hammock

Celia in the hammock

Yes sir, we'll take the Orange one!

Yes sir, we'll take the Orange one!

Another side note on Bottle Beach…there is this crazy bird that lives there. The thing while beautiful, for some reason scared the absolute daylights out of me! Everywhere I went I was asking where the damn bird was. It liked to swoop down on people (not just me) and would literally come diving in. Totally crazy…and huge! More pics of this bird when we can get them up there.

This bird was nuts!

This bird was nuts!

Off to Nepal…which meant the craziness of Kathmandu and the amazing beauty of the Himalaya’s.

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October 29th, 2009

Bungalow Room

We have a computer in our room today ($28/night hotle in Hanoi…place is great) and there is a little rain so have a chance to do some updating. Was going through some pics and came across this picture of the bungalow where our stuff was stolen! And yes, that is the window on the right that they broke through!

On a better note…some more Lao pics to get a better sense:

View from Muang Ngoi

Celia catching a BIG fish!

Celia catching a BIG fish!

View from Muang Ngoi

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October 28th, 2009

IMG_2923

One thing we forgot to mention (or at least have the pictures of) were that waterfalls in Laos. Just outside of Luang Prabang are some amazing waterfalls with pools that form at different levels below the largest of the falls. Pretty awesome to see a waterfall in the middle of the jungle and then be able to go swimming and jump off some of the lower falls.

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October 28th, 2009

Yes, yes…”Where have you guys been?”, “Where are all the posts?”…we know and we definitely apologize for those of you we went dark on. There are reasons (some good and some not so good) for our inability to participate in the blogoshpere. And…for those that were following along on Twitter…well, let’s just say that my cell bill is definitely going to be considerably cheaper.

So our apologies for those of you we could not get a quick message out to. the details will come out in the posts to come, so in the interests of keeping people reading the good stuff…

Details in the text. ;)

m and c

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