Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

The Tragedy in Nepal   19 comments

Soulful bells echo through the mountains at dawn, calling the monks to prayer at Tangboche Monastery.

I want so much to be able to return to the mountain kingdom of Nepal and help them in their hour of need.  To see all those wonderful people again would be so great.  That may seem a strange thing to say.  But I know for a fact that even in the midst of tragedy they remain an optimistic and warm people.  Right now I’m missing them and praying for their safety.  I wanted to post some pictures of Nepal that I’ve never shared, and also go into some background on how and why this happened.

THE GEOLOGIC STORY

You may have heard that Mt. Everest is getting taller, and we just saw dramatic and horrific evidence of that fact.  India collided with south Asia some 55 million years ago, and the mighty Himalayas began then.  But that slow motion and awesome event continues today, as huge slabs of the earth’s crust continue to be shoved beneath the Tibetan Plateau.  The zone where they come together, along the 2400 km. (1500 mile) long Himalayan mountain front is complex.  But north-directed subduction, or underthrusting, is the dominant process.

Mount Everest

Mount Everest

Ama Dablam in black and white.

Ama Dablam in black and white.

The earth’s most recent and currently most dramatic tectonic collision has resulted in shortening of northern India and southern Nepal, bringing Delhi and Lhasa closer together.  This in turn causes the crust to greatly thicken (mostly in the downward direction).  In other words, most of the long mountain range lies beneath sea level.  Like a giant iceberg, active mountain ranges have roots that are hundreds of times more voluminous than their visible parts.  The north-south shortening doesn’t just create crustal thickening; it also causes the region to widen in an east-west direction via a series of large strike-slip faults (like the San Andreas).

Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Having climbed Everest 8 times in his career, this Sherpa I met taking a walk above his home village had a great way about him.

Having climbed Everest 8 times in his career, this Sherpa I met taking a walk above his home village had a great way about him.

Deep beneath the Himalaya, collision takes the form of a slow, hot, plastic deformation.  There are no sudden jerking motions.  But in shallower regions, where the rocks are cooler and brittle, this is impossible.  Instead, the stress builds up until it’s finally released with a sudden rapid slide along a plane of weakness (or fault).

It is at those times that we on the surface of this planet are reminded that ours is a dynamic planet.  These events, which can vary from a gentle rocking that lasts only seconds and which you only notice if you are in a quiet place to violent minutes-long shaking that can bring down buildings and even whole mountainsides, are called earthquakes.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

3 man at airport

Waiting for weather to clear at Lukla, this gentleman’s beard was too cool I had to talk to him.

 

The earthquake of April 25th was centered about 80 km. (50 miles) NW of Kathmandu,  It was magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale.  It was located about 15 km. (9+ miles) deep.  That is fairly shallow for a quake of this size.  Combined with the dense population and low quality of construction in most of the region, this made for a major disaster.  Considering what is going on here, the coming together of two of Earth’s greatest tectonic plates, historic earthquakes are relatively few.  The last one to affect the same area was in 1988 and killed 1500.  The 1934 Bihar earthquake killed some 10,600 and severely damaged Kathmandu.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

I don't like thinking about the orphans.

I don’t like thinking about the orphans.  Just too sad!

 

Most of the people here, with the resources to live from day to day and not much more, have been deeply affected by this disaster.  The current count is over 4000 and still rising.  Many people live far from roads, so the final tally could take weeks or even months.  Undoubtedly many of the deaths will turn out to be caused by major landslides.  In any mountainous region, a big quake leads to landslides of epic size.  Snow avalanches also occurred in the alpine regions, including one caught on video that roared down the south side of Everest and hit base camp.

The spectacular Khumbu Himal.

The spectacular Khumbu Himal.

They are sacred but with the wonder they inspire comes a dangerous dynamism.

They are sacred but with the wonder they inspire comes a dangerous dynamism.

So much misery can be brought by earthquakes.  They strike without warning of course, and this makes them truly terrifying.  I have been in a few small ones, and get a visceral thrill out of it.  I get the same feeling witnessing a volcanic eruption.  That’s partly because I’m a geologist and know about the connection between a living breathing planet and life.  But I’m sure my reaction would be one of pure terror if and when I’m caught in a truly big event.  Once, in 1999, I flew out of Istanbul less than 24 hours before a major quake hit that city, killing 17,000.

Getting to spend time in a Sherpa kitchen, drinking tea, is a special thing.

Getting to spend time in a Sherpa kitchen, drinking tea, is a special thing.

A friend who suffered a broken leg in the quake but otherwise is okay.

I played around with this little Sherpa girl as her mother sewed in a small sun-warmed courtyard.  She is a teenager now.

I played around with this little Sherpa girl as her mother sewed in a small sun-warmed courtyard. She is a teenager now.

A Gurkha I met whitewater rafting, he emigrated to Hong Kong, and hosted me there.  Nepalis are so nice!

A Gurkha I met whitewater rafting, he emigrated to Hong Kong, and hosted me there. Nepalis are so nice!

Please give if you can to the legitimate aid organizations helping in Nepal.  And in any case, please keep those beautiful souls in your thoughts and prayers.  I’ve never seen a harder working people.  I’m sure they will recover, but big aftershocks continue as I’m writing this.

Friends of mine are camped outside in pouring rain, afraid to return to their homes.  So right now I’m hoping and praying the aftershocks are many and small, not fewer and large.  Namaste to all Nepalis and all those who have connections to the country.

I'm holding up the rafting party, but I wanted these kids to say Namaste without laughing, haha!

I’m holding up the rafting party, but I wanted these kids to say Namaste without laughing, haha!

Stupa at Boudhanath

Alpenglow over the Khumbu

 

 

 

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Single-image Sunday: Island Sunset – Thailand   6 comments

Traditional fishing boats are secured in a placid little bay on the island of Koh Lipe in the Andamon Sea off the coast of Thailand.

Traditional fishing boats are secured in a placid little bay on the island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand.  Click on picture for the high-res. version & purchase options.

I wanted to do a follow-up to Friday’s post on giving your photos a sense of place.  This is a travel image from my month-long trip to Thailand several years ago.  If you’ve been there or to any neighboring countries, or seen photos, perhaps you guessed the location.  That was the idea!  I composed the image so that the traditional Thai long-tail fishing boats were silhouetted against a wonderful sunset on the little paradise called Koh Lipe off the coast of southern Thailand.

I wanted to include the little boy fishing off the boat (at right), but in this shot he’s a bit too small.  Right afterward I got a few where he was more prominent, but by then it had gotten pretty dark.  This image turned out to have the best balance between the overall scene and the slow-paced, sea-focused life going on here.  That really is the core idea behind including a sense of place into your photos.  The goal is to include elements that will help to add some key details, and yet capture enough of the scene to both take advantage of the light and put the viewer into the scene – all in a well-composed, attractive image.  The small things you do to give your images a sense of place will breathe life into them.  And that can definitely be a challenge!

Koh Lipe was, when I visited, undergoing a transformation.  It had been ‘discovered’ by tourists recently and so the vanguard of (mostly) backpackers had arrived.  A small-scale building boom was going on.  No resorts..yet, but there may be now.  Next to the largest harbor and beach lies the island’s only real village.  It’s a busy warren of rustic little lodges, eateries and a few gift shops.  Definitely a buzz about the place.  Outside of that it was still pretty quiet.

The beach in the above picture is on the other, quieter side of the island, accessible via a walking trail through dense jungle.  I arrived just in time for sunset after a full day encircling the island on foot.  I stayed in a sort of shack perched above a rocky section of coast not far from the backpacker village:  a half-hour walk or 10-minute boat ride.  My simple wood bungalow was open-air, had no electricity, and was much quieter and more peaceful than the village.  Great snorkeling was steps away.  And best of all, it cost $7/night.  I suspect Koh Lipe is not the same now, but it has a ways to go before it becomes Koh Samui or (gasp!) Phuket.  

A great option near Koh Lipe if you really want to get away from it all is Koh Tarutao.  It’s a National Marine Park, so is nearly undeveloped and very pristine compared to many of the Thai islands.  The best way to visit is to simply bring along a tent and food, walk down the road from the ferry terminal and set up camp at one of the beachside sites.  There is one restaurant near the dock.  I’m guessing it hasn’t changed much, being inside a park.  It’s a rather large island with dense, mountainous jungle and a seemingly endless rugged coastline dotted with empty beaches. 

This morphed into a travel post I guess.  I’m going to cheat and include a second image (from Koh Tarutao).  There are many islands in southern Thailand, but unless you want a resort experience or the (full-moon) party scene, you would do well to research the natural areas, then when you arrive look further for relatively undeveloped places that may not even show up on the web.  They are out there.  Thanks for reading!

A beachwalk on Koh Tarutao, southern Thailand.

Walking the beach on Koh Tarutao under yet another glorious Andaman Sea sunset in southern Thailand.  Click on image for purchase options.

The 60th Anniversary of Hillary & Norgay’s First Ascent of Everest   4 comments

Everest (center) stands tall between its almost as enormous neighbors.

Everest (center) stands tall between its almost as enormous neighbors.

A quick break from extolling the virtues of the Palouse and channeled scablands of eastern Washington to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the climb of Mount Everest for the first time.  I happen to think George Mallory and Sandy Irvine made it in 1924 and died on the way down, but a successful ascent to me includes getting back down alive.  So Edmund Hillary (an amazing Kiwi among many amazing Kiwis) and Tenzig Norgay (an amazing Sherpa among many amazing Sherpas) have the honor of standing on Earth’s highest point for the first time.

By the way, I don’t go in the now-popular sport of bashing Everest.  Smug people, most of whom have climbed nothing of consequence, promote the myth that it has become a walk in the park.  True it is getting too crowded.  It’s called the world’s highest traffic jam because of a few major bottlenecks.  But this is one heck of a huge mountain, poking up into extremely thin air.  Though it is easier (and much more expensive!) to ascend now than it was in Hillary and Norgay’s time, it is still a very difficult and very awesome undertaking.

The 7165-meter high mountain of Pumori on the Nepal - Tibet border is a classic climber's peak.

The 7165-meter high mountain of Pumori on the Nepal – Tibet border is a classic climber’s peak.

 

I have traveled to Nepal twice.  The second visit brought me up to the Khumbu region of Nepal, where I trekked and climbed for a few weeks.  My best view and photo of the big boy Sagarmatha (Everest) was from a viewpoint called Kala Pathar.  This is a small ridge-top peak overlooking Everest and its huge neighbors.  When trekking to Everest Base Camp, you normally stay one night in the small group of teahouses at the base of Kala Pathar.

From this place, called Gorak Shep, you can hike up to the 5400-meter high Kala Pathar for a view of Everest, Lhotse, Pumori and more.  Most go in the early morning, because of the better chance for clear weather.  I don’t like getting up before light if I don’t have to, so took the chance and hiked up there in the late afternoon after I arrived and stoked myself up on a quart of tea.  The weather cleared for me and I had the place to myself.  It was magical!

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

 

So these are the images I made there.  I remember being very impressed with both Pumori and Nuptse.  Pumori is just plain beautiful, a classic mountain.  And Nuptse’s west face is so incredibly steep and rugged!  What a view!  I definitely recommend that you include this in your trek.  Amazingly, some people are so fixated on the Base Camp that they blow right by this side-hike.  Everest Base Camp actually has a much poorer view of the mountain than you get from Kala Pathar.

The image below was my best of the mountain itself.  The alpenglow was perfect.  When I show this to people they wonder where all the snow is.  This is Everest’s southwest face, which is much too steep to hold the snow.  Enjoy!  Just click on the photos to go to the high-res. versions, where purchase is possible.  Sorry, they’re not available for free download without my permission.  Go ahead and contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for looking!

Alpenglow on Mount Everest from the 5400-meter high viewpoint of Kala Pathar in Nepal.

Alpenglow on Mount Everest from the 5400-meter high viewpoint of Kala Pathar in Nepal.

Happy in Danum Valley   2 comments

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This is rare for me, a post with only two pictures and few words.  But I was thinking recently about what actually makes me the happiest.  I found these shots hiding out in my collection.  They were taken in 2009 and are not great photos, but they brought home exactly what makes me happy.  They are from a little paradise called Danum Valley, in Sabah, Borneo.  The one of me was taken by a “guide” (actually a biologist working there who I convinced to go hiking), and the one below is a shot I took when I woke up at dawn, with a literal riot of birdsong in the air.

This was my first genuine experience with a real (and I mean real) rainforest.  In the top photo I was enchanted by the calls of gibbons (not to mention the enormous trees) and could not seem to spot them.  Little did I know that by this point in the hike, probably because of a soaking rainstorm earlier, several leaches had found their way into my shorts.  They were busy choosing quite embarrassing places to draw blood.  You cannot feel them, and only when the blood starts to flow do you notice.  But this was one of the most amazing hikes I’ve ever done – truly a land from a story book.

So here it is:  me definitely not looking my best but happy as a clam.  If you go to Malaysian Borneo, go to Danum Valley.  Let me be more specific: if you go to Borneo, and want to see wild orangs (not in a sanctuary) in a wild forest, spend a few days in Danum Valley.  ‘Nuff said!

Rainforest at dawn, Danum Valley, Borneo.

Rainforest at dawn, Danum Valley, Borneo.

Nepal and the Himalaya (a return)   1 comment

I traveled back to Nepal for the fall trekking season.  Flying once again into Delhi, this time on Cathay Pacific, I had learned a lesson from my first trip.  On that flight I had done it all in one go from Portland, Oregon to Kathmandu.  Thirty-some hours is entirely too long to be traveling, especially if you can’t sleep on airplanes, like me.  I did fly Singapore across the Pacific, which helped (Or did it? Come to think of it, the beauty of their attendants hurt my chances for sleep).  This is the best airline in the world, and the reasons have to do with service.  The beautiful flight attendants are only part of the story.  But Cathay is no slouch either.  With the length of flight from America to south Asia, it pays to use a quality airline.  I got smart this time around & stopped for the night in Bangkok.  I then spent a few days in India before continuing to Nepal.

Alpenglow highlights the spectacular western face of Nup Tse near Mt Everest in Nepal.

By the way, all these images are copyrighted and are available for an easy purchase and download by simply clicking on the image you’re interested in.  You can also order prints, framed or unframed.  If you have questions, or a special request, please contact me.  Thanks for your cooperation and interest.

Upon arrival, I stayed a night in Old Delhi, then hired a taxi for a two-day trip down to Agra to visit the Taj Majal.  This only cost about $100, and I had two guides for two days (try that in the U.S.).  I could have taken the train or a bus and gotten there for about half that price, but we made numerous stops that served to give me a strong feel for the average Indian’s life.  So I think it was a steal of a deal.  The Taj was the Taj, stunning but crowded.  Weeks later, on the way back from Nepal, I visited Calcutta, and I’ve never seen streets so lived in, so dense with humanity.  It was really amazing walking the streets there.

But this post is all to do with Nepal.  When I landed in Kathmandu on a bright beautiful morning, I had a strong feeling of being  back among friends.  I was met by the folks from my chosen guiding company, Himalayan RST, the one I rafted with in the spring of the same year.  But it was more than that: I feel at home in Nepal for some reason.

This time I had over a month in the country, and I was very excited on that morning, being back to see the highest mountains in the world. I spent 3 weeks on a trek and climb in the Khumbu region, home to Everest, and one week hanging around Kathmandu.    By the way, Mt Everest is called Sagarmatha in Nepalese.  I didn’t waste too much time getting started, buying last-minute supplies (including pills for altitude sickness that I ended up not needing).

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

Drying chili peppers in Khumjung, a delightful side-trip from Namche Bazaar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the densely packed streets of Thamel, the backpacker haven in Kathmandu, you can find anything related to trekking and touring.  If you wait until you arrive to buy your gear, you will not be charged too much, provided you can bargain.  But the gear will not be of the same quality that you find in the U.S. or western Europe.  Much of it is knocked off of companies like Marmot and North Face.  But there are real items from these companies available too.  It’s a little confusing.  I would recommend bringing most that you need from home, but there’s nothing wrong with supporting the community by buying some things in country.

A small stupa in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

After a delightful chat with Sharada, of Himalayan RST, in a tea garden in Thamel (there are little havens like this all over Thamel), I decided on the so-called “three passes trek”.  I went with this one because it included the big boy, Everest, and because the trek includes trails that are not so popular.  I also decided to take a guide, again since I wanted to explore some relatively untraveled trails.  This is by no means necessary on routes such as the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit.

In fact, on any trek where the route has tea houses to stay in, you can be sure that the route is easy to follow, and that you can always ask which way to go if you are unsure.  On treks where you camp, only go without a guide if you have good maps and have experience backpacking and route-finding in mountainous terrain.  But in any case, it’s a fairly simple matter to trek independently in Nepal.  Regarding altitude, take it slow and allow your body to acclimatize.  I saw quite a few people who did not get very far into their trek before having to turn around because of sickness.  Each person is different in this regard, but everyone benefits from simply taking enough time while ascending.

The 3 passes route takes off from Lukla and follows the Everest Trek to Namche Bazaar.  It then departs the well-worn path and heads west to Thame and on up to 5400-meter Renjo La (La means pass).  Then the route descends to the gorgeous Gokyo Lake and joins a more heavily-traveled route over Cho La.  Then it descends to the Khumbu Valley, rejoining the Everest Trek and on up to Gorak Shep.  From here you can go up to Base Camp or take the hike up to the stunning viewpoint of Kala Pathar.  The final pass, Kongma La, is not heavily traveled.  This will take you over to Dingboche, where you descend past the beautiful Tengboche Monastery and back to Namche.

I did this trek a bit differently (surprise surprise!).  From Gokyo Lake I skipped the well-beaten trail over Cho La in favor of the quiet side of the valley that leads to Gokyo.  We descended from the busy trekking center of Gokyo (where I taught the manager of the tea house all about breakfast burritos) to Phortse, a charming, unpretentious and untouristed Sherpa village.  We saw plenty of wildlife on the way.  In the Himalaya, if you trek the major routes you will most likely not see wildlife.  But if you take any route that is less traveled, your chances shoot way up.

A young Sherpa boy in a remote area of the Himalaya of Nepal gives a soulful look.

A cute little Sherpa girl takes a break from her sewing lesson (her mother is behind her) to smile and joke with the foreigner.

 

After staying with a Sherpa family in Phortse, we headed up the Khumbu for the most spectacular alpine view I’ve ever taken in, at Kala Pathar.  I took a chance and hiked to the viewpoint in the afternoon, when clouds would normally obscure the view.  But the weather had been very clear the past couple days, and I figured with everyone heading up in the pre-dawn, that I would, as usual, be different.  I was rewarded with a gorgeous alpenglow on Everest and its neighbors.

Descending from Renjo La into the valley of the stunning Gokyo Lake, Nepal.

I had caught a serious cold.  Staying in teahouses you are exposed to all sorts of germs.  People from all over the world are sharing fairly tight quarters, and dishes are being washed in lukewarm water (water boils at low temps. at this altitude).  Since I was to climb a peak later that week from Chukung, I decided to skip Kongma La and head down the easier way.  I barely made it to Chukung (base camp for the climb), very weak & running a temperature.

I was not able to join the climbing clinic that was held over the next few days, instead resting and downing huge quantities of tea.  I rallied for the climb though, after convincing the guides I could do it (it took my best persuasion).  Island Peak at about 6200 meters (nearly 22,000 feet) is the highest mountain I have ever climbed.  I feel that given proper time for adapting to altitude, and with help from the invaluable climbing Sherpas, I could climb even the bigger peaks of the Himal.  It’s not Everest that stokes my passion but Pumori, an absolutely gorgeous mountain.  This costs some serious coin though.

Some highlights of the trek:

  • The flight in and out of Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport, was exciting.  The runway is actually laid out on the slanted side of a mountain.
  • I met an older Sherpa along the way, a man from Thame, who has climbed Everest 8 times without oxygen.  His face said it all.  The North Face parka he wore was the most used I’ve ever seen, really the best advertisement for that company you could find.
  • Renjo La and the descent into Gokyo was probably the most spectacular hike I’ve ever done.
  • The hike to Phortse not only had many Himalayan tahr (a mountain sheep), but tons of yaks, beautiful mountain farms, and an intact Sherpa culture.
  • The view from Kala Pathar is unbelievable, several of the world’s highest mountains (including the highest) all in a row.
  • Reaching the top of Island Peak you can see an ocean of Himalayan mountains all around.
  • Tangboche Monastery is one of the most mysterious places I’ve ever been.  We attended evening prayers with the monks, and at dawn I was woken by the mournful sound of the gong echoing through the mountains, calling the monks to prayer (and me to one stunning photograph – see below).

The evening light is beautiful at base camp the night before climbing Island Peak in the Everest region of Nepal.

A climber nears the summit of Island Peak, a mountain in the Everest region of Nepal, as the Himalaya stretch away to the horizon in bright early morning

 

I returned to Lukla on a beautiful day (our entire trip was blessed with great weather) and next day I was back in civilization.  Chilling out in Kathmandu with some new-found friends, visiting Boudhanath Stupa, taking walks through the city, and visiting some of Kathmandu’s attractions was very relaxing after three weeks in the mountains.  If you stay in Thamel, you might find like me that you can only take so much of its energy.  It is crowded and there is always something happening.  But it is also not the real Nepal but a sort of tourist village within Kathmandu.

Two Himalayan Tahr descend from the high country in the Khumbu of Nepal.

The great monastery at Tangboche in Nepal’s Khumbu region wakes to a spectacular morning.

 

 

At the end of my stay I traveled up to a place called the Last Resort.  It is a camp about 10 miles from the Tibetan border that offers all kinds of adventure sports.  From whitewater rafting & kayaking to canyoning and bungi jumping, it is basecamp Nepal for adrenaline seekers.  But it’s also a beautiful place to stay and hike to nearby small villages where the people and their culture are relatively untouched by outside influences.  I met some great people there, including a Nepali Gurkha (soldier) now living in Hong Kong who was visiting home.  Later in my trip, he was good enough to show me around the amazing city of Hong Kong.

It sounds cliche to say that I was sad to leave Nepal, but this is one time that I really, really felt that way.  And it is the people of Nepal that made me genuinely feel this.  Next time I would like to trek a more adventurous and remote route through  the Himalaya, perhaps around Kanchenjunga.  Also I would love to raft the Tamur River in eastern Nepal.  I flew out of the country on my way to another adventure through Southeast Asia, part of what ended up to be a three-month trip.  As the Himalaya melted into the distance, becoming indistinguishable from the puffy clouds, I promised myself I would be back to this kingdom of mountains.

The Himalaya (Finally)   Leave a comment

Since I just started blogging not long ago, I am going to start an occasional series on recent travels, where I wrote only for myself.  I don’t journal on my laptop while traveling, only with pen and paper.  I carry a small netbook simply for photos and internet acces while traveling, but the idea of burying myself in a computer for my journal is anathema.  I would much rather sit at a cafe and people watch while writing.  I simply can’t do this when on a computer, plus nearly all screens are unsuitable for outdoors.

Alpenglow on Mount Everest from the 5400-meter high viewpoint of Kala Pathar in Nepal.

I’ve traveled pretty extensively over the past few years, at least for me.  As soon as I got the chance, I went to Nepal.  The Himalayas were at the top of my list.  I just did not want to wait until I was too old to see the highest mountains in the world.  Nepal was the obvious choice, but I went to north India as well.  I actually went twice in one year, once in Spring and once in Autumn.

The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal, draws Buddhists from all over Asia.

I traveled to Delhi, then to Kathmandu.  An amazingly chaotic and energetic city is Kathmandu, and I loved it.  My favorite was renting a mountain bike and doing a big loop up into the upper valley.  I definitely recommend this way of seeing the other face of the Kathmandu Valley.  It’s not all traffic and movement, as in the city.  The children run after you yelling Namaste! and if you stop they shyly smile and hide behind each other.  Utterly charming.  And such a great ride.  Do it if you find yourself in Kathmandu.

Another must if  you’re in Kathmandu is the pilgrimage site of Boudhanath (image left).  This is a huge stupa (temple) in a suburb of the city.  Just grab a taxi there and prepare to soak up an absolutely amazing atmosphere.  This could be spiritually transformative for you, it’s that powerful.  I’ve been three times, and will never miss it on any future trip to Nepal’s capital.

I stayed in Thamel (of course) and I found a nice little guiding company.  I just clicked with the woman running things in the office.  I still consider her a friend, and very much hope that she will be able to visit the USA someday, where I will be so happy to show her around.  She has been experiencing much trouble getting a visa to visit, since U.S. immigration assume every person from a 3rd world country wants to come to stay.  Even though she has a company, a family, a life in Nepal, they still think she wants to escape.  Amazing!

I arranged a trip with her company, Equator, now called Himalayan RST Expeditions, to head to western Nepal.  I was to spend a week rafting the Karnali, one of the world’s classic river runs.  Then I would visit Royal Bardia National Park.  I first traveled to Pokhara.  My hikes were only dayhikes, no trekking this time.  Also, I rented a motorbike to head into the rural areas around the touristy Pokhara.

Once you get into rural areas, you start running into folks who have walked in to markets from the surrounding countryside.  Back in the foothills of the Himal, where no roads travel, there are small villages of people who subsist on the edge.  They are very poor and very beautiful people.  Many are Muslim, but the majority of Nepalis are Hindu.  Buddhism is also prevalent.

The bus ride out to western Nepal took two days over the worst roads you can imagine.  It was a bone-jarring ride.  If you do this trip, unless you enjoy bus rides from hell, I would fly.  We arrived on the banks of the upper Karnali in the late afternoon.  Villagers joined us in our preparations, but they barely distracted me from the river.  It was utterly gorgeous, a beautiful turquoise color and cold!  The Karnali originates on one of the world’s most sacred mountains, Mount Kailash, in Tibet.  And this water certainly was heavenly.

What a river trip!  Seven glorious days on a river with huge and fun rapids in its upper stretches.  It calms somewhat in the middle stretch, and wildlife is abundant.  The lower part widens out and there are bigger villages.  We had company at most of our riverside camps.  The children were so adorable.  This was only my second encounter with true mountain people (the first in the Andes), and I was amazed at how hard they have to work to survive.  The women especially!  I saw women of short stature carrying huge, heavy loads of firewood on their heads and a baby in their arms.  Tough to do on any terrain, but they were going straight up extremely steep slopes.

A lone farmstead in Nepal’s HImalayan Mountains lies in spectacularly rugged country.

The effect of these small villages is easy to see.  The entire undergrowth of the surrounding forests iscompletely stripped bare.  The people burn to spur more growth, trying desperately to provide their goats with forage.  The big trees are still intact, thank heavens, but the forest is borderline ugly.  I took hikes every evening after our rafting, and I was the only one of the group to do so.  I will never understand my fellow tourists.  They tend to hang out with other white tourists if at all possible, eschewing real contact with either the local people or with nature.  This of course is a general observation that doesn’t apply to everyone.  But it is true worldwide.

I also visited the Royal Bardia National Park, along with one of my fellow rafters.  The park is very near to the takeout on the Karnali.  This park is beautiful, much more like northern India than Nepal.  It lies on a low, hot plain, and hosts a healthy population of one-horned rhino, elephant, leopard, and best of all, tigers.  I didn’t see the big cat, but I did see the biggest snake I’ve ever seen in my life.  It was a rock python, well over 20 feet long and FAT.  My guide said it was the biggest snake he had ever seen, and he grew up in the area.  It had recently eaten a deer, and that explained its girth.

There was a party our first night at Bardia, and I drank a bit too much wine.  One of the guides, an Indian fellow, was drinking pretty heavily too.  I danced with the local Nepali women, and had a great time.  Later that night, in my tent (I camped in their garden), I was woken by someone unzipping my tent.  I saw the silhouette of a man, and reacted on adrenaline.  I burst out of the tent and caught him by the throat, demanding to know what he wanted.  He either did not or could not speak English.  But he was nonetheless convinced that I did not want any company.

Then, in the middle of the night, I had another visitor.  This time it was the English woman from the rafting trip.  She wanted to take shelter in my tent, because someone had tried to get into her room.  She was pretty sure it was the Indian guide, who had been pursuing her much of the previous day.  She was very frightened, and I let her sleep in my tent.  Next day the manager of the lodge was pretty blase’ about the whole thing.  So I wrote an email to the tour company, and they ended up discontinuing their relationship with that lodge in Bardia.  In this part of the world, women do not have the power they have in the west, and so I felt I had to do some sticking up for her.  It made a big difference, let me tell you.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

So this trip was near its end.  I got stranded for a night in the town of Nepalganj.  I noticed there many men dressed in the peculiar drab green that says “marxist”, and was reminded that this region is often the seat of unrest in the country.  I was the only tourist I saw, and I enjoyed the authentic look at the life of Nepalis.  The people of Nepal are some of the warmest, friendliest and most unaffected folks I’ve ever met.  Though I spent about three weeks there, I felt I did not have enough time to do the country justice, certainly not to take a major trek.  But the rafting trip was definitely the best of my life.  I was to return to Nepal with more time later that year, and that’s the subject for the next post.

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