I recently spent a bad day. The staff at the Kathmandu airport refused to let me on board because the laundry basket with the rope laced across the top supposedly acting as a cover, was not an acceptable container to transport my Tibetan mastiff puppy. No amount of pleading, reasoning, or explanation would sway them. I had to reschedule the flight for the following day, then do the same thing in Bangkok to connect to Seoul, which, by the way, was booked till February. I had to spend a little time there before flying back home. And Iwas on a waiting list. This was not good.
I had been running around the last couple of days in Kathmandu, waiting until the last minute to find a box. My stress level was high, but when I think about it, I accept responsibility for not being thorough. After a little head-banging, I settled down; take what lessons I can from my complete stupidity.
After I returned from the Indian border, I gorged on food and drink, ran into people I had met along my journey, as well as new Nepali friends I had made. I always ended up having dinner with a large group. A couple from Hawaii and I – all veteran travelers – shared a cab one day. We visited Patan: old Hindu temples with blood stains on the stone courtyards from hundreds of years of sacrifices, intricately carved woodwork on every beam, post, trim, window, doors – a temple that replaces the birds and the bees talk – the craftsmanship in the wood and metal are of exceptional quality.
Then we saw Bhaktapur; an amazing medieval village that uses the admission fee to pave the major streets with brick, and to keep it immaculate. It's only a few minutes from Kathmandu, yet definitely a village life, and one of the most interesting on this trip
The side streets are narrow with three- and four-story structures dating from another time; some of the brick walls bowed out, but vendors sell their wares with no worry. I walked on the other side and continued seeing beautiful woodwork. One famous window – the peacock – was so intricately carved out that the peacock's fan spread out in lifelike detail. I saw hand carved buddhas with eyes in meditation so real that the "om mani padme hum" coming from a music store playing the Tibetan chant CD seemed to be emanating from the statue itself.
It was great having a late lunch in one of the squares – a textbook design example of an awesome public space. The temple is the main focus, shops line the sides, with heights of buildings varying from two to four stories. This allows sunlight to all corners, life and commerce thrive, a stage for performances is on one side, with a dance area. The sun was doing its final dance of the day. A roving roar of children's voices drifted in and out as they chased a monkey scampering on the rooftops; the roar grew louder as more children were attracted to the noise. The monkey was the pied piper, with all the children following – a magical scene. I regret not having more days to explore and experience life there.
One night I had dinner with Indra (my trekking guide), his wife, and his wife's sister's family. The delicious food was their family's recipe of dhal baat; beer was plentiful and the atmosphere exhibited a rich culture. I felt blessed to be a participant. Indra's niece and nephew, (14 and 12) are both smart, proud of their culture and hopeful of their future. I recounted the trek and shared some of the knowledge of the culture, people, and language I had picked up along the way.
The thought that loomed on all our minds was "Thorung La". The name echoed like a dark god. Thorung La…Thorung La… This was the pass that separated the trek in half – 17,700 feet between two peaks. On that particular day we had to ascend 3,300 feet, then descend almost 4,000 feet on the other side. We were doing this in the middle of winter, when the views are clear, the crowds gone, but when any day, a snowstorm could close the pass. We pushed on, trying to reach it as soon as possible.
The first day of the trek we reached Bahundanda; a Hindu village where I looked up at the steps leading to the Hillview lodge, and thought, forget the view. I didn't want to have to climb anymore. The sight was of rice terraces cascading down every hill (in the shadow of the greatest peaks of the world, most other places we call mountains would be hills), the river below with houses and farms placed picturesquely in various spots. This was also the beginning of my shakes, exhaustion and sweats; either I was sick, or I was purging out major toxins.
I arrived at Tal completely worn out; a beautiful valley marking the beginning of the Buddhist areas, where the river widens into a lake, where we picked dried seedy buds from plants on the road outside of town. I passed out as soon as I dropped my pack; I had a fever, my stomach was acting up, I couldn't eat. I didn't even take a picture of the black Tibetan mastiff that sat buddha style – a reincarnated fallen monk,
Our next stop was Chame, which I can't really remember reaching because of my illness. We were now at 9,000 feet; the worry of altitude sickness set it. We reached Pisang the next day where the antibiotics starting to kick in; at least I could hold down some noodle soup.
The lodge we were in was run by two children, ages 10 and 12. Their parents had gone to Kathmandu and left them in charge. To emphasize what happens when the inmates run the asylum, the boys took out a jug of chaang, homemade moonshine, and proceeded to get drunk, bringing up the noise level so that we couldn't sleep. Unbelievable.
Our next stop was Manang – the central village of that area. We were at 12,000 feet – much colder. We started seeing yak horns on the doors. We passed three Koreans who had three sherpas, porters, and one guide to carry their food and prepare multiple Korean dishes. Sherpas are not usually in Anapurna; they are in the Everest area primarily. We walked by namaste-ing them (Nepali greeting – meaning, "I greet the god within you").
Manang is an interesting village: stone houses, stone walkways, narrow curves ducking under stone archways, flat stone roofs in the Tibetan style. Prayer flags were everywhere. The lodges were mostly on the road before the main village. I saw a multi-copied, scratchy, sticky DVD of the Matrix – surreal to have watched this in the middle of the Himalayas.
I spent two days in Manang to acclimate. When I felt better, I powered to Thorung Phedi, at the base of Thorung La. Elevation is at 14,400 feet. Everything was easier now, with good health. In the middle of the night, the winds picked up, rocking the building. It was very cold; ice on the ground, snow on the banks. As we got closer to the top, we had continuous gale force winds. The top of the pass was anticlimactic because it is a large rounded pass, not like a peak to look down from. I took the "top of the pass" picture crouching with my pack on, bent over 90 degrees into the wind, trying to look normal.
At 18,000 feet, I had no desire to go higher. After the pass it was all downhill. The wind blasted in my face making it hard to see. I ran full speed down the mountain, the wind kept me up, a sustained air cushion launching me into space. We stopped when the wind abated. We turned our backs, sat down, and rolled on – known as the thorung la special. Whoa!