A Winter’s Tale* Part I: Nepal

February 27, 2010

*This blog post is in no way intended to violate copyright infringement. All characters appearing in this work are real. Any resemblance to fictional persons, or the work of William Shakespeare, is purely coincidental.

I waited for my flight from Busan to Kathmandu, on the precipice of a true adventure, with a subdued elation.  Ahead of me was solitary quest through the Himalayas of Nepal,  the bustling cities and placid beaches of Thailand, and the ruins of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization–something that my six-year-old self would certainly think worthy of respect and admiration.

I landed in Kathmandu and hired a taxi from the airport to Thamel, basically a tourist ghetto of backpackers and trekkers. Kathmandu is a dense, sprawling, dirty city, as can be expected from the capital of a country crippled by years of poverty and civil and political unrest. On some of the less crowded streets, people warm their hands around improvised fires and Dickensian children dodge speeding motorbikes; there is often too much rubble and trash for cars to pass.

The more crowded intersections are packed with people and cars alike. Hindu faithful offer pujas, lighting candles at temples abutting fruit hawkers’ carts; and taxis, most of which are older than I, crawl through the throngs of people, belching noxious exhaust from their tailpipes.

[Video to be inserted soon.]

Soon after I had arrived in Kathmandu, I felt as if I needed to move on and begin the Himalayan trek that I had set out to do. I spent only two nights in Kathmandu before taking a bus to Pokhara, a smaller city to the west of Kathmandu that serves as the starting point for most treks in the Annapurna region.

I had planned on trekking independently, but after talking to some local guides, I decided to take one along. They would say things to me like, “Well, if it was spring, I’d say go ahead, but since it’s winter… and what will you do if you don’t know where to go… and what if something happens, like you break a leg, and you are alone…” While listening to all this, I was trying to weigh the fact that these are all legitimate concerns against the knowledge that these men really just want my business. Did I trust that their concern was genuine when I had read that this trek is quite easy to do in any season? No. But what do I know? So I played it safe, and I hired a guide. This was probably the biggest mistake of the whole vacation. My guide, whose name was A(s/z/sh)i(s/z/sh) (let’s ignore the ambiguous pronunciation and call him Aziz from now on), was a really great guy; what was really upsetting was that A) every single caution proposed by the various guides I had talked to was negated by my actual experience on the trek (The fact that it was winter proved nugatory, there was never any point in time where I was in doubt of the correct path to follow, and I was passing other trekkers at least every half hour), B) Aziz’s guidance came at a high price, and B’) Only about one third of this high price actually went to Aziz, who is struggling to feed his family and send his children to good schools, while the most of my money went to the tour company by whom he is employed (and they don’t really do much of anything.)

Now this “mistake” of hiring Aziz did not by any means ruin my trip. As I said, he was a good man; and there was a lot I experienced, thanks to him, that otherwise, I would have missed. In one village, after we had checked into a guest house for the evening, he asked my two Swedish traveling companions (they hired a guide from the same company and we were on the same path for a few days; their English was perfect, and we enjoyed each others’ company, while our guides could banter and quip with eachother in Nepalese) and me if we would like to go drink some of the local alcohol, a brew known as Mustang Coffee. We followed Aziz and the other guide down a dark alley, and he led us past a curtain and into a room that was far blacker than the moonlit and densely star-scattered sky. The only light in the room came from a small wax candle at each table, which provided barely more than the faintest glow on the faces seated around it, and from the roaring wood fire, used to cook up the Mustang Coffee and the tasty snack that came with it–salted, seared buffalo meat. Without Aziz, I would have never ever found this place, let alone know what to do once I got there.

The trek was phenomenal. Dedicated readers of this blog, of which there are SEVERAL THOUSAND, will remember my plan to hike the “Annapurna Circuit”; this plan changed when I arrived in Kathmandu. I decided instead to trek to the Annapurna Base Camp–that being the base camp for those mountain climbers attempting to summit the peaks of Annapurna. While the Annapurna Circuit  is like walking 360 degrees of a circle, the Annapurna Base Camp trek (a.k.a. the a.b.c. trek) is like starting from a certain point along that circle, A, walking 90 degrees along the perimeter circle to a second point, B, then proceeding along a radii towards the centerpoint of the circle, C, and then returning along a new radii back to point A, more or less at a right angle from your inward radius; basically you are cutting a one quarter slice out of the pie.

Now, when you’re in the Himalayas, ABC is not, as the Jackson Five put it, as easy as 1-2-3. There are massive changes in elevation, and the paths are more suited for mule trains than people. I climbed broken, crumbling stone stairs for hours, only to descend for the rest of the day and end up at the same elevation from which I had started in the morning, only with sore knees. I passed through terraced mountain farmland, mountain jungle, mountain forests, mountain tundra, and finally to a glacier surrounded by… mountains. Aziz and I were basically like Frodo and Sam carrying The One Ring to Mt. Doom. But for as difficult as it was, I realized that, somehow, I am in pretty great shape. I was on the same path as many other trekkers, and we would often stay in the same guest houses, but every day I would inevitable pass anyone who had left before me and be the first one to reach that night’s guest house. And when I finally reached the Annapurna Base Camp, Aziz was about a half kilometer behind me. As grueling as it was, it wasn’t that bad, if that makes sense. Also, the trek was advertised as 10 days, but I finished it in 7.

I also want to note here is how many Korean people I saw and met while trekking. I can frankly say that more that half of the trekkers I saw were Korean. Every once in a while I would drop some Korean on them, eliciting a reaction as if I had literally just dropped something on them. The first night on the trek, I even met a great group of college students from Busan. And after reveling in the fact that an American currently living in Busan was speaking Korean with Koreans, not to mention Busan-ites,  while on vacation in Nepal, a Chinese man from Beijing who had been sitting aloofly aside, smoking a cigarette on the guesthouse deck, joined in our fun by announcing himself as a college student currently living in Daegu (another city in Korea). Here we are (not pictured: Chinese man) during sunrise at “Poon Hill,” one of the best viewpoints on the trek:

Anyway, that was as far as they would go; they returned to Pokhara and I trekked on to ABC, meeting many more Koreans along the way. And even at base camp, 4,130 meters above sea level, I couldn’t escape Korea:

Look closely...

The specter of Mao lives on in Nepal (how’s that for a transition?). Anyway, the Maoist situation in Nepal was difficult to grasp. Some people think the Maoists are good; others think they are terrible. I got the impression that, overall, the Maoists don’t have much support. But they do have a lot of guns, which is almost as good. And in some of the remote villages along my trek, this support (coerced or not, was clear). And I just love this picture:

After finishing the trek, I returned to Kathmandu and spent a couple of days visiting various temples. Since I finished the trek early, and a refund from the travel agency would be “not possible,” Aziz was nice enough to accompany me for these couple days in Kathmandu. This was especially helpful for taking taxis, because I would usually be charged triple or quadruple a fair price to go anywhere. I would be lucky to be able to bargain down to double. This was one of the most frustrating things about Nepal. I consider myself a pretty smart traveler. I am aware of the scams and the swindles; I know how these things work. Nevertheless, when you look like me, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting ripped off. Being with Aziz was a big help. So we went to the Bouthanath stupa (Buddhist):

And here, Pashupatinath temple (Hindu):

And also to Swayambhunath, another Buddhist temple, also called the “monkey temple.” At both Pashupatinath and Swayambhunath, there were monkeys EVERYWHERE.

That’s basically an enormously reductive account of my trip to Nepal. I didn’t write much about the trek itself, because for the most part it was just a lot of walking. There are plenty of great pictures in high resolution from the trek and from the whole trip on my Picasa page, here: CLICK.

In the next installment, Thailand and Cambodia.


2 Responses to “A Winter’s Tale* Part I: Nepal”

  1. Pete said

    Well, compared to my trip through midtown Manhattan to my high level service industry job. I ask myself, what indeed am I doing with my life? You’re an inspiration to us all. Those pictures are way amazing and as always your gift for story telling is impressive.

    I love you. Next time bring take me with you.

  2. Ben said

    Nice dude. I throughly enjoyed reading that. I’m even more gagging to go there now.

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