Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What a difference a day makes

Alternate title: one step at a time.  

There were times yesterday morning, the first day, that I thought I wouldn't make it. I couldn't imagine how my exhausted legs would carry me any further let alone up thousands of feet which are mostly steps. But after lunch it got progressively easier and today was great!

The walking view for the day
Firstly,  we could see the Himalayan peaks for nearly the entire six hours of walking, which is so inspiring.  Langtang is gorgeous!! Secondly,  I finally got to a place where I felt like even though I was climbing at a turtle's pace, I didn't need to stop and I could go on at that pace indefinitely. Instead of seeing the next steep uphill that seemingly goes on forever and praying there wouldn't be another immediately following, it's just one step at a time and before you know it, you're up! Also, we saw a one day old yak. I did subsequently see a goat being birthed on the last day, but that's not such a photogenic occurrence.

Baby Yak!
You may notice my grammar getting a little less precise and my sentences shorter.  Maybe even lacking prepositions? The more I get immersed in trying to communicate with someone who has limited English skills, the worse my own language gets. 13 days from now? I may have only a five word vocabulary. Slowly, slowly (note: combined those are one word), up, up (also one word),  down, maybe and 10 minutes. Because as it happens, somehow, everything seems to be quoted at 10 minutes. I finally had to tell my guide that he had to be honest with me about the timing. He said, "but for some people..." - I said yes, but for this person you know now how slowly I walk, so tell me based on ME. And he agreed, and for the most part he complied. Except for the last long day. He was afraid I would be unhappy with the washed out, run-out slot canyon we had to climb so he didn't tell me about it. I was *pissed*. After 6 hours of hard climbing and descent already? You need to know about a slot canyon that's 80+ degrees and dead still. Breezes don't descend down in the walls. Only garbage. The mountain people apparently don't like that they are meant to take care of their own trash (this according to my guide), so they throw it wherever, which tends to be on or near the trails. At that point of the trek I had been walking in a general grouping with 5 other guys for about four days and they all agreed it was the worst once I reconnected with them at the "hotel" for the night. A swiss guy Alan and a San Francisco guy (the only I met from the US actually and ironically the one whose name I couldn't remember), a french guy Max, a french guy Vincent and a guy from Mauritius, James. 

A word on the accommodations: rustic.  That probably makes them sound more glamorous than they actually are. The word tea house evokes some sort of far east romance and mystery... for me at least.  Not one communal squat toilet outside in a separate shack with rooms that don't even have full walls or windows. Or electricity.  Did I mention it gets cold at night here and is super windy? They are all named Lovely Teahouse or Peaceful Teahouse. Or some combination of Lovely, Peaceful, Namaste and Moon.  So tonight's accommodation has the communal squat toilet inside! I feel like I am living in the lap of luxury here.  Seriously.  And the electricity turns on at 5! No outlets but for a very expensive fee they will charge one device for you. The nook? Not sure it was the best idea. It only lasted one night. Game of thrones reading  withdrawal commencing...


That was what I was naming this post in my head for the morning portion of Day1 of trekking.  Where you wonder what in the world you were thinking and also why you would once again believe what someone from a "yes" country says. That's what I call the countries where it is impolite to ever say no or something bad even if the answer is actually no.  Or bad. Because as far as I am concerned,  4000 vertical feet gained on day 1? Frickin torture. That doesn't even scratch the surface of the feet we wet down. For the first number of hours all climbs had an equivalent down. It made me want to cry. 
The very start - looks innocent enough. Our first destination is the mountains in the upper right.

The guy from the trekking company who provided me the guide and itinerary? I believe he said something like "you do not need to be an athlete to trek here. All you need is an open heart and desire for " some bullshit or another. Are you kidding me? I completed a half marathon four weeks ago and thought I might actually not be able to complete trekking Day 1 on more than one occasion.

Now mind you, I have gotten a bit out of shape. I trained for a half marathon right before I left but haven't since exercised once except for yoga and in fact anti exercised in Bhutan where I was prior to Nepal.  (Flashback to Bhutan for a moment or two) Two weeks in a bus every day,  most of the day. This is what photography tours consist of.  Our photo group did one hike and I had a sinus infection so only did about a third of it.  Have you ever eaten EVERY SINGLE meal three times a day for nearly two weeks at a buffet? I now have! Cross that off the bucket list. Not only that but the Bhutanese are a strong and very hard-working people,  so they need a lot of fat and carbs to keep going. Understandable.  Tourists on a bus all day? Do not need buffet food high in white carbs drenched in oil as it turns out.  Perhaps my new bus butt will come in handy as a caloric reserve for this trek? 
The first village - maybe 15 minutes in.

However, once I got my breathing pattern ironed out after only about four hours, which originated from some fantastic advice Atlanta gave me about running (you need to take in more oxygen than you exhale), the afternoon was not nearly as bad as the morning.  I just had my guide chhabi's voice in my head - slowly, slowy. And we trudged on. 

Kids in the first village - and last we would see until the end.
Unfortunately we were not alone and in fact there were some huge groups ahead of us and coming back down from the later days of the trek (this first part is an out and back) so the place we were supposed to stay had no beds.  And the place a little lower didn't either.  And the last hope place said they didn't but asked a very nice German woman Monica, likely my age, if she would share with me and she did.  And so I didn't have to sleep out back in some ratty broken tent or on the dining room floor. On the way up I had thought to myself I will literally sleep anywhere tonight.  Turns out I did not exactly mean that!

Funny thing was people who arrived after me got rooms.  I thought they didn't have any? Well what they meant was I have no room for you, but if you are three people,  I have a room for you. My guide only after the fact explained that because I am only one person,  they don't want to give me a room if they can get three people into it.  Assuming I can trust chhabi's promise, this will be the only night for room contention. The other areas have many more places to stay. Let's hope!! (editor's note: that
was not the only night this was an issue)

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bhutan: retrospectively

I had no desire to write anything when I was in Bhutan.  Photography tours tend to do that - at least that was my experience with Patagonia as well. If you have a spare minute, which you rarely do, you want to edit more photos.

What did I think of Bhutan? Firstly,  It is sparsely populated.  There are more people in Kathmandu than in the entire country of Bhutan (pop: 700K) by a factor of three.  Secondly, there is one road that goes across it east to west, and aside from the far south that borders India, it is extremely mountainous.  Read: hair-pin-turn-sheer-drops-always-under-construction-landslides road. The scenery is beautiful, but pretty homogenous. Magnolias, rhododendrons, and beautiful orange ferns growing on old gnarled trees. But days and days and days of this.

For photography it's a wonderful place as there is no shortage of dzongs (the monastery and temple combinations) 

and ornate doorways for monks to walk through.  

Beautiful doorway. Monk.
Did I mention the prayer flags and stupas? 
Prayer Flags
Incredible amounts of both. And the baby stupas!! I like to speak in my baby voice when I speak of them as Arjen can attest to because they are so damn cute. Only an inch or two tall.

Baby Stupas!
But Bhutan really reminded me a lot of Mongolia - the opposite in terms of topography - steep high mountains versus open steppe,  But the kind of place that time really hasn't caught up with yet.  Lots of seemingly unending undeveloped open spaces, not a ton to see, but a vastness to be experienced. If their high fees and limited visas continue, which it seems they will, then I suspect it will remain like this for some time to come. Fishing is illegal, rock climbing is illegal, other things I have forgotten.

Some interesting tidbits: hydro electric power is their main export and it goes entirely to India. India gives Bhutan large subsidies to keep it that way and to keep China out. We would be told how a whole town had burned down - three times no less. When I asked where the money came from to rebuild it, the answer was the government - from Indian subsidies. Also of interest, the laborers are all Indian as well. There's a two year road building program that brings over Indian workers because they can make more money there, and apparently Bhutanese don't know how to build roads. ?Interestingly I also just learned that all of the hydro electric power from Nepal is also sold to India - and then India sells it back to Nepal at a 3 rupee mark-up! This is why Nepal has such a shortage of power and it is off for 10 hours each day in Kathmandu.

I'm going to have to say the quality of construction is poor. Not of the local farmhouses, those seem very well made, but of the the tourist accommodations. The buildings are fine-ish, but I can attest first hand to the lack of skilled labor - specifically plumbing and electrical.  Open wiring with uncovered splices for the fans inside more showers than I can count. Inside the shower! Where water is spraying on them! One night I went to turn off the bathroom light and got a massive shock. Another time I unplugged the phone and then plugged it back in, but it wouldn't stop making a ringing noise so I picked up the receiver and sparks flew out of the side and it started burning! That was hysterical. I'm still laughing about it remembering it now. That was the same room whose hot water heater didn't work and had wires coming out of the end of it and they told us we just needed to wait a little longer. Another time in a "high end" brand new hotel I thought the bathroom smelled terrible so I asked Arjen and he confirmed it was raw sewage. We asked for another room but instead they said they fixed it... which was clearly not possible without venting the main stack and resealing the toilet. Needless to say we went back in to a strong stench of ammonia which 15 minutes later was back to raw sewage. So we moved rooms. You can see why the rest of the group thought we had very bad luck with rooms. We did.

The local bus

So yesterday I took the local bus from Kathmandu to a town whose name I can't remember which is the starting place for the Langtang trek I am now on.  The bus was not as large as a regular commercial bus and on the back it had painted "express". 

First of all,  it was completely rusted out and totally falling apart. Had I known how many people would cram on it, I might have been more concerned. The bus had seats for approximately thirty people.  Small people.  The seats were bench seats like a school bus but seemed to be made of cement.  It wasn't more than two minutes before my tail bone was crying.  Did I mention the trip took 10 hours? 

It turns out that for locals they can come on the bus for free and stand in the aisle.  The aisle which was approximately 2 feet wide and 8 feet long (this is not a full-sized bus, if it were it couldn't get over the mountain roads).  There were no less than 30 people at any given time in the aisle.  They were draped over the seats as well and sitting on top of seated passengers.  My guide got two small children on his lap for half of the trip.  
Note the person outside as the bus is driving.
The fascinating part was that even though there's a law that no one can sit on the luggage on top of the bus,  as soon as we got out of the city people poured out to climb on top.  Whenever we came to a security checkpoint they had to either cram inside which was already a sardine can,  or walk around the checkpoint when it was possible and meet us further along. The bus had about 90 people on it.Some of whom were just hanging off of the side of it while the bus barreled along at moderate speeds.

Did I mention the woman in the seat directly in front of me was throwing up out of our shared window for about 8 of the 10  hours? She kept trying to eat at each stop and i knew I'd see it flying by my seat 30 minutes later.  Sure enough! 
Just hanging on to the side. The woman in front of me had taken a break from vomiting so I could take a picture.

Or that the reason it took two hours longer than expected it's because we got not one but two flat tires? And these tires are bigger than tractor tires.  At least three feet in diameter. 

And as goes without saying the road was very twisty and very rutted with a sheer drop thousands of feet on one side.  Like bhutan! At one part where they had earthquakes a few months back and had a massive landslide the road was barely wide enough for the bus and was seriously banked.  I was half expecting to see some of our fellow top side travelers falling past the window.  Luckily we all made it safely! And next time I am taking the tourist bus. 
Yes, this is the road.