Thursday, November 17, 2011

Driving to India (Carolann's Story)

(Carolann's thoughts about our last few days in Nepal. This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

Our visas are expiring. It's time to leave Nepal. So we we're driving to India.

Drive? Why?

Because for one thing, we never like back-tracking. If we flew from Kathmandu to Calcutta, in order to be reasonably close to where we want to go in India's northeast, we would end up going south just to connect domestically to fly back north. Secondly, I've read some nasty things about the Calcutta airport and I want to spend time there as much as I want to sunbathe in the tar sands.

Most of all, however, my strategy has always been to ease Dan into India by avoiding the big cities, at least at first. Dan's been reluctant for many years to go to India. Too much distressed humanity. Too much chaos. Too much heat. But in the end, he's been getting too much encouragement from our friends to ignore India any longer. Our friends are coaching us on how to do India well. But the selling point, admittedly, is that it's inexpensive.

My thinking is that we'll first spend some time in West Bengal's leafy Darjeeling tea estates and from there into Assam's rhino-rich jungles. It's a good idea to seek out green spaces, elephants, birds, and try out a safari, Indian style. We'll deal with the grit and urban chaos later.

So I'm standing at the wall map in our Kathmandu guest house with Ganga, the owner, former guide, and our advisor.

"How long to get to here?"

"Five to seven hours."

"And after that, to here?"

"Five to seven hours."

"Perhaps, we can stop at this protected area. I hear there is good birding there."

"Five to seven hours to get there."

These are not large distances. Our first 200 km will take us a day because the road is so bad through the mountains. After the mountains, we're in the flat, arid part of the country, very much like India, which runs parallel at that point. Those further 200 km will take another five to seven hours because the road is so bad and busy. Whole chunks of road are regularly washed away in the monsoons. In the rainy season, there will be flash floods careening through the river bed, up and over the banks, water belching out of the Himalaya and surging into India.

But it's dry now, so driving over several sandy, rocky basins is possible, but slow going. We cross what in a different month is the life blood of India, feeders of the Ganges River.

Although driving to India is not most people's first choice, it's a gift that we can even move around the country like this. Until three years ago, Nepal was in the grip of civil strife. The Royal Family had been massacred in 2001 by a deranged Crown Prince, weakening an already tenuous future for Nepal's monarchy. The country disintegrated into factions, armed conflicts ensued. Maoists, notoriously anti-monarchists, disrupted tourism and violent crime increased. Atrocities were committed on all sides. While a peace was struck in 2008, the newly elected Maoist leadership still must bring in a new constitution by the end of November. The Canadian government posts a travel warning on Nepal suggesting that strikes and protests may precede the constitution.

Curiously, we're not seeing any volatility, but perhaps we're just insulated. Instead, weather is on everyone's mind these days. When these mountains get socked in by clouds and haze, tourism stalls. People lose money. Flights are being cancelled around the country because of the weather, not politics.

But back to the exit plan.

I see logic and value in driving out of Nepal. It will take three nights and four days. We'll see something of Nepal that's not about mountains. It will cost us each about $350 including our private jeep transportation, our hotels, meals; by comparison, if we flew to Calcutta and connected to another domestic flight, we might pay almost as must after incidental fees.

Over and above those costs, we're paying $300 for birding at Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. This co-operative tent camp is installed within an important sanctuary where ornithological research is done. We will be provided with an expert guide for a three-hour jeep run through the jungle and guided walk at dawn. This is the kind of enterprise we've known in Costa Rica. It's important that Nepal be part of the international work being done in tracking bird DNA and banding. And a group of Italian birders have logged nearly one hundred sightings over two days here.


 An enthusiastic birder for 50 years, Dan's in his element. I couldn't care less but I'll tag along. I enjoy walking in nature. And in fact, I'll even source opportunities for Dan.

We have an understanding that for any uncomfortable jungle tripping to see birds, I get one opera. And as it happens, I've just found out from a vacationing sound engineer from Abu Dabi that Dubai has just opened an opera house. And since this visit to Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve has us sleeping in tents, and walking up a lane to outdoor toilets during the night, and that there's cobra in this area, and our camp is surrounded by electrical fence to keep out the wild elephants.... I expect dress circle seats at the opera.

(Note to self: figure out how to include Dubai on our flight plan in 2012).

 For two days we do not see one western tourist...nor one western toilet for that matter. But squatting is good for me, especially since I threw out my back the morning we departed from Kathmandu.

Two extra-strength Robaxicet tablets later, and a well-placed lumbar cushion, I sleep a good part of the way though the mountains. At each stop, I stretch and do exercises that I've been taught by my trainer. I know Lynn is shaking her head at this moment and probably thinking that I've not been doing my core-strengthening exercises as much as I should have. She's probably right. But it was bound to happen given the demands of trekking in this country.

While it's fascinating to walk around a Nepalese town that sees few tourists, it's challenging to find dinner in a Nepalese town that sees few tourists. Locals generally don't eat out. The two hotels of Hetauda are noisy, one less filthy than the other, and both have restaurants we cannot stomach. And that's the end of the restaurant options. There are a few stalls selling a kind of deep fried donut. There are some chicken skewers over coal - but meat handling and storage techniques here are fast making me into a vegetarian.

Still there's hope.

The first delightful thing we discover about Hetauda is that it's not just another crumbling, dusty, gritty mess of commerce with grey buildings, and grey air that you can chew and wear at the same time. It's main street is lined end to end with hundreds of large, leafy trees. The sun shines on a town that's green. The road becomes an avenue.

And the sun shines on us when Vider approaches. A young man in jeans and a nicely pressed shirt introduces himself and offers assistance to help us find a restaurant.

My senses are alert to touts. Likely, his uncle owns a restaurant.

"My uncle owns a restaurant, just down the road there. I will show you."

Dan and I exchange knowing glances but start enjoying Viber's company nevertheless as we follow him to his uncle's restaurant. The restaurant is decent enough and we order our safe egg-fried rice.

Viber is a journalism student and minors in English.

"Do you know that the ABC of journalism is: Accuracy, Balance, and Credibility."

Now I'm feeling uncomfortable. I've already flunked out of trekking in Nepal (another story). I expect I'd also fail the ABCs of journalism. I have always lacked credibility in Dan's eyes since we see the same world so differently. And Balance, well it depends on the day. Accuracy is linked to credibility. Maybe journalism is a matter of Faith. Do you believe the world through another person's eyes? But I don't want to confuse our young idealist by introducing the "F" acronym.

Our beer is served. Viber continues, looking for that spark of conversation that will turn strangers into friends.

"Do you know the meaning of life?

Dan quickly responds. "Forty-two."

Viber is puzzled but he's not the only one. Who would guess we'd run into a philosopher in Hetauda.

Dan tries to summarize the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (a novel in which it's revealed that the meaning of life is a meaningless "forty-two").

Viber grows thoughtful. "Maybe you're right and no one knows the meaning of life and never will."

Dan sees a potential convert to his godless belief system (I regularly remind him he's going to hell after he dies) and continues:

"You see that guy pushing the cart stacked with bags of rice? Does he ask himself the meaning of life? He's probably just focused on making enough money to feed his family."

Viber nods his head. Dan continues.

"And since he doesn't ask questions about the meaning of life, do you think he's a happy man or an unhappy man." Dan is trying hard for dialectic discourse.

"He is a happy man."

"How do you know?"

"He's my father's cousin. He smiles a lot."

Viber adds: "I know what you mean. I think that most of these people here are in the cave. Plato says they will never see the light. But I want to change that. I know that Nepal can be a beautiful place."

"I think so too, Viber. Just look at the trees in Hetauda and how they give beauty to the town. They stand out, like the pink and red saris that women wear. There are flashes of colour in the dust. And look at your future. You're young and educated and going to make a difference."

"Yes, I will do that. I'm a Maoist."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Trekking in the Himalayas – It’s not Soft and Easy Anymore!

Annapurna South and "Fishtail" Mountains

On the morning of our trek into the Himalayas, we woke to a lovely sunny, blue sky and had breakfast on the patio outside our room. The majestic white peaks of the Annapurna Range were calling to us in the distance.

We were excited after five days of rain, haze and low-lying clouds to see the sun and the mountains for the first time.

A Belgian couple had just returned from a four-day trek up to Ghandruk and was extremely disappointed that they had never seen the mountains at all. Imagine coming all the way to Nepal and not seeing the majestic Himalayan Mountains. We felt very fortunate that the weather had finally cleared and were impatient to finally start our trekking.

Our young guide/porter was called Tilak. He was quiet and shy and spoke only  broken English, but was recommended by our hotel. He said he was 30, but looked about 19. He slept most of the way to Nayapul.

We were supposed to leave at 8:15, but got a late start because Tilak had forgotten our trail hiking permits for which we had paid 200 rupees each and had to surrender another of our precious passport photos. So we had to drive back to the hotel and start over.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this small delay would become a big factor later on.

Trail to Ghandruk
Our goal on the first day was the village of Ghandruk, leaving from Nayapul. Nayapul is the main starting point for the famous 23-day trek of the Annapurna Circuit. Our meager attempt at trekking was to be 3 days – Nayapul to Ghandruk, Ghandruk to Tokla, Tokla to Damphus.

To reach the start of the trail, you drive one and a half hours from Pokhara to Nayapul, weaving around the mountains through the valleys that follow the river. Along the way we stopped by the river where we had a fabulous view of the Annapurna Range – a full frontal of Annapurna South and “Fishtail” mountain or Machhapuchhre. It’s called “Fishtail” because of its split, two-pronged tail-like peak, but this feature can only be viewed from the side during the hike.

The sun had now risen further in the blue sky highlighting the mountains and promising a great day for our trek.

After a two-hour drive over incredibly bad roads (a half hour longer than estimated), we stepped out of the car surrounded by a swarm of tour buses and taxis, and a mob serious trekkers with tons of equipment, hiking poles, camping gear, and heavy-duty winter clothing.

Nayapul (New Bridge)
Nayapul was a rickety, wooden façade of a town – like in a Western movie. We had wanted rustic and we were about to get it. It was like we had taken a trip in a time machine and had stepped into another world. On either side of a dirt lane were decrepit wooden shacks filled with vendors selling water, supplies, chips, pop and wooden hiking sticks. Running about were yapping dogs, chickens, and bare-bottomed babies, all enjoying the warm morning sunshine.

Waiting for their next load, a team of pack mules was tethered to a wood railing in front of a supply store. The mules were gingerly picking up golden kernels of spilled corn from the ground with their lips. They wore odd-looking coloured headgear and ropes, and had large bells around their necks. Later we saw them laden with all manner of heavy packs – large bags of rice, wood, and propane tanks. These pack animals were the only means of transporting the heavy goods that porters couldn’t carry up into the villages in the high Himalayas.

After a 20-minute walk through this maze of a mediaeval village we came to a steep mud slope strewn with large uneven boulder steps. This broken path led to an old swaying suspension bridge and I started to get a feeling this hike wasn’t going to be easy. We thought hiking in Bhutan had prepared us for trekking, but we were about to be surprised.

Naypul means “New Bridge” in Nepalese and, in fact, there was a new bridge made of concrete and steel a little further on. Trekkers and mules had their own older narrow bridges on either side. But the new two-lane bridge in the middle led straight into a stone face and a jumble of boulders and dirt over which we had to scramble. It went nowhere and even four-wheelers couldn’t use it.

At this point the trail split into two – left to the 23-day circuit and right for the shorter trek to Ghandruk and beyond. We went right.

The beginning of the trail is along the raging Modi Khola river, a steely blue torrent of glacial runoff smashing into huge boulders the size of houses and inexorably grinding them into smaller stones.

"Fishtail" Mtn. from the Side
We followed the trail for a half hour or so to the tiny bazaar village of Birethanti where we caught our first fleeting glimpse of ‘Fishtail’ Mountain through the trees. It looked close but was still far, far away.

We started out wearing our Gore-Tex jackets, but quickly removed them and hiked only in our t-shirts as the temperature climbed to 25C in the sun. After an hour we were sweating as we started climbing in earnest.

The trail opened up as we entered a pastoral area with golden rice fields ready for harvesting.

A young boy sat by the side of the trail selling oranges. He kept pointing to his swollen toe imploring us with his eyes to buy an orange, so we did.

Other kids ran up to us saying “Namaste” (the ubiquitous greeting in Nepal meaning both “Hello” and “How are you?”) and putting their hands together in greeting then asking in Nepalese for “chocolate” or money. Not something we want to encourage! In fact, in Bhutan, guides caution tourists not to start this bad practice. Bhutan seems so unspoiled in comparison.

Rice Ready for Harvesting
Other than the western trekkers, most of whom had split off for the longer, much more serious, 23-day Annapurna Circuit, the only people we saw on the trail were school children in their sparkling clean uniforms, old men and women, porters, and people working the rice fields.

The porters were carrying heavy packs, camping gear, backpacks and traditional dokos (wicker baskets) filled with food or firewood. The packs seemed larger than the porters, some only 17 years old. They carried them with a strap wrapped around their forehead, bent over almost in two.

Our other companions on the trail included goats, massive water buffalo with menacing sharp horns, and the aforementioned mules.

Occasionally we would heard the sound of jangling bells and quickly learned that this meant get out of the way – quickly. A mule train was coming around the corner with their funny ribbons, coloured headgear, and heavy packs twice as wide as they were.

Our guide didn’t have to warn us about the dangers of the mule trains, but he cautioned us anyway to stand on the uphill side. Apparently, trekkers have been knocked off the hill more than once by the bulky packs on the mules’ backs. I was nailed once on the arm by a solid wooden frame and from then on held out my camera monopod/walking stick to ward off the beasts.

Get out of the Way!
The worst was when they broke into a gallop if the herder at the back slapped one of the laggards. It didn’t matter then where you were standing, you had to climb up out of the way as Carolann did several times, hoisting herself up onto a stone wall.

Even worse, however, was the pervasive stench of donkey piss and shit. It wasn’t so bad on the rare flat stretch, but the pungent odour was suffocating on the steep stairs when you’re straining to suck enough oxygen in your lungs.

But unlike Bhutan, it wasn’t the altitude or even the steep uphill climb that took its toll on us. In fact, the vertical climb was the same at roughly 900 metres. No, it was the length of the trek that was the problem. We were told it would take about 5 hours on the first day, which we thought was fine. Little did we know that the distance we had to climb was 15 kms UPHILL. At least, that is what Tilak told us in his broken English. It may have been less, but it felt longer. To be honest, we’re casual walkers, not “trekkers,” and by no means would we call ourselves experienced trekkers. Even on flat ground, at sea level, 15 kms would be a lot for me. Up a steep incline at altitude it was a killer. Maybe you should just call us naïve.

I was carrying my camera backpack and my walking stick/camera tripod, the guide carried our small pack with clothes, sleeping bags, toothbrushes, and Carolann carried a light day pack with her small camera, some snacks, and a water bottle.

My camera pack holds my camera, extra battery, filters, extra flash cards, binoculars, Carolann’s Polaroid camera for taking gift photos, and my water bottle. Empty it weighs 5 lbs. 4 oz. (2390g); full it comes in at over 15 lbs. (7kg). As the day wore on, I was thinking maybe we should have hired a second porter!

After two hours of trekking, we were already tired. At bends in the trail, the mountains would appear and then disappear again, winking at us, taunting us, daring us to come closer. It was like they knew we were hurting and they were teasing us. But at least they gave us the motivation we needed to carry on as we panted and sucked air one steep hill after another.

Thankfully there are numerous teahouses and small open-air eateries along the trail where you can stop for lunch, take an “outhouse” break, or buy water. With the thundering Modi Khola river and tall mountains as a backdrop, it was quite pleasant to rest up in these places. They had wooden tables and benches with basic fare, like sandwiches, beer, stirred fried noodles, eggs and rice, and "dal baht" the Nepalese national dish of rice and lentils, all served outdoors in the fresh clean air.
"Carrom Board" Game for Porters

Some of the porters would stop to rest themselves and play a board game called “Carim board.” It was similar to our Crokinole, but without pegs in the centre.

We passed through Syauli Bazaar, a small settlement of Gurungs and Magars with its shanty houses and small inns. Here the trail winds through steep terraced rice fields that flank you on either side right down to the river. Harvesting had begun and it was interesting to stop and watch the women cutting the rice stalks with their scythes then stack them to dry in the sun.

Others were knocking the rice from the stalks by beating them against cloth sheets. Still others were tossing the rice into the air or fanning the piles of grain to separate the chaff from the kernels.

As a final stage, the stalks were piled on the ground, and water buffalo, lashed to a centre pole, were led around in a circle to soften up the stalks so they could be used as winter feed for the animals.

On other steep terraces, red millet was growing. After harvesting, these red seeds were laid out to dry in the sun on mats in front of the stone houses. Harvested beans stalks, leaves and all, were placed on top of the slate roofs of the houses to dry and to keep them away from rodents.

Red Millet
Soon the trail became even steeper and the stone steps more uneven and difficult to navigate. The trails and steps were made by the Gurung people and are paved with large, sometimes flat, sometimes rounded-top stones that make climbing difficult because of their large size and slippery, polished round surfaces.

After the rain of the previous five days we were afraid the entire trail might be slippery, but the sun had dried most of it. In some places, however, the smooth stones were wet with stream water or donkey droppings and we had to watch our step to avoid slipping or stepping into a smelly mess.

All the while, the entrancing view of the mountains was distracting. But I was reminded of a sign we saw on Hua Shan, the holy mountain we climbed in China, that read in English “Look, don’t walk! Walk, don’t look!” And so we watched each step, carefully picking our way around the messy piles and choosing the most secure stone to step on; the one that looked the steadiest, the one that didn’t have any loose stones or sand on it.

Several of the bridges that crossed over the steams that cut across the trail were made from single slabs of stone, 10 to 12 feet long. Others were made of logs and covered with packed earth or crossing wood planks. We treated all of them with caution because of their age and condition. The wooden ones, in particular, had taken quite a beating from the constant pounding of the mule trains.

A little later on we encountered a jumble of rocks and boulders, the aftermath of a huge landslide in 1995 and another last September caused by an earthquake, according to our guide. These were fairly easy to traverse, and the trail was much wider than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. But Carolann kept looking up at the hillside, wary of another slide that would push us off into the river below.

As if to reassure us, our guide said that he was always listening for the telltale rumblings that would warn us of a landslide. That actually had the opposite effect on Carolann.

Initially we moved along at a good pace – at least for us – and stopped regularly for photos or to buy water. As the afternoon wore on, however, our pace slowed dramatically, our legs hurt and our lungs were burning. The frequent sightings of the snow-capped mountains kept us motivated in spite of the guide’s warning that we still had three hours to go.

And then, despair hit us. At a point roughly two-thirds of the way to Ghandruk, someone had painted the following sign on a rock: “Nayapul 8,848 steps/Ghandruk 4252 steps.” This was truly a killer. We had been trekking for four hours and were only two-thirds of the way.

We still had 4252 steps more – over two hours to go, according to our guide. And by my calculation this meant we would arrive after sunset around 6:30, in the dark! Our late start and slow pace were coming back to haunt us.

At some point, as we climbed another set of hundreds of stone steps – I don’t remember where because I was concentrating so hard on the placement of my feet that I couldn’t look at the stunning scenery – I started counting the steps by 10s and then stopping to catch my breath. When we were still an hour from the top and facing still more hundreds of steep steps, I was so tired that I started taking only five steps at a time and then I had to stop and rest. My heart was pounding, my lungs ached and I wanted to sit down, but by then the sun was starting to set.

Annapurna South at Sunset
I have to say, however, that the view of Annapurna South at 7,219 metres (23,684 ft) and “Fishtail” at 6,993m (22,943ft) is spectacular. In spite of our exhaustion and fear of having to hike the trail in the dark, we just had to steal looks at the peaks as the sun set and lit up the snow-covered mountains in flames of gold and orange. “Spectacular!” Deep breath. “Stunning!” Deep breath. “Tell me again why we’re doing this!” Deep breath.

But night was quickly falling and the trail, which up until then had been quite warm, was getting chilly. We had been dressed only in t-shirts, but, as the sun set, the wind picked up and carried a cold winter chill down upon us from the glaciers. We stopped and put on our Gore-Tex jackets again.

Our guide had gone on ahead and we were now getting concerned about finding the trail and our footing in the dark. Luckily it was a full moon and moonlight guided the way. If we hadn’t been so exhausted, it would have been quite romantic with the moon glinting off the snowy peaks and Venus shining just below it. But then we had to go back to carefully putting one foot in front of the other. We climbed the last 200 metres in the dark.

Finally at the top, we discovered that the guesthouse we had thought our tour agent had booked in advance was all full, and we had to move to one even higher on the mountain.

After a thankful 10-minute delay, while our guide found the key and then pounded on the door to get someone to open, we were led to our Spartan room and flopped down on a hard, bare mattress.

But this was only for a minute. We cleaned up with the cold water in the tiny bathroom and prepared for dinner.

The dining room was a plain sitting area with long wooden tables for eight. The food was basic and dull, rice with vegetables, chicken curry, or “dal bhat” the Nepalese national dish of rice and lentils.
As the last to arrive, we took the only two seats left with a quiet group of four others. No one was talking. Even as tired as I was, I was determined to change that.

I engaged the others in conversation and discovered that the “quiet” looking couple were Lebanese, but living and working in Abu Dabi; she as an architect and he as an engineer. The more animated couple were from France and Monaco; she was a recently divorced Californian and wannabe actress living in Paris and he was a young Italian originally from Milan and now a rich banker in Monte Carlo.

Soon table talk became animated. We talked about the difficult trek, the Middle East, France, and Canada. We discovered that the Italian was in Asia to see a Formula 1 race, but couldn’t get tickets so decided to come to Nepal at the last minute. His Ralph Lauren bag was stuffed into a backpack he had hastily bought in Kathmandu. After Nepal, he was on his way to another Formual 1 race in Abu Dabi. It turned out that his partner had been married to a Lebanese and spoke fluent Lebanese Arabic. What a small world.

It wasn’t long before we learned that the Lebanese woman was a gifted singer. With a bit of teasing and coaxing from me, she was persuaded to sing a Lebanese love song for us and it rocked the room. She had a tremendous, lovely voice.

Upon hearing the singing, our “shy” guide Tilak came over. I asked if he could sing a Nepalese trekking song for us. I thought he would decline, but he suddenly grabbed another guide who took up a traditional Nepalese drum called a “madal” and the two began to sing wonderfully melodious mountaineering songs. This shy young man also had a lovely voice.

The evening turned out to be the second best thing about our trek, after the mountain viewing. It was one of those rare, magical moments that appear out of nowhere, like the smoke from a Genie’s lamp, and transform an ordinary evening into an unforgettable experience. Another wow moment!

Sunset on the Trail
We retired to bed, leg sore and weary. The room was damp and cold, but we had rented sleeping bags from our hotel in Pokhara and had also brought along our own silk liners for them. Thank goodness because the single cover was thin and dirty. We wore our Marino wool shirts and long underwear to keep warm. But we were too tired to care about the conditions and slept like logs in spite of the cold.

The next morning, we discovered that not only did we not have any hot water, we didn’t have any water at all. I had to hike back down the hill to a spring outlet and wait for a young boy to brush his teeth and wash his feet in order to fetch water to flush the toilet. It was only a couple of hundred steps down, but hard to climb back up with a full bucket of ice cold water.

Then before breakfast we hauled ourselves up another series of steps for 20 minutes to a look out at the high point in the village of Ghandruk to watch the sunrise. The morning light lit up the snow and glaciers on Annapurna South and “Fishtail” like torches.
View from Ghandruk just after Sunrise
It was truly special.

After breakfast, we faced a hard decision. Our original plan was to hike straight down to the bottom of the valley, then climb back up the steep mountain on the other side to the small village of Tokla for our second night.

When we reached the fork in the trail a half hour after our start, our guide still hadn’t been able to book a room in the village of Tokla. Faced with the prospect of no room, or at best another cold night in a room with no bathroom or no water, we weighed our options.

Tokla on the Other Side of the Valley
The view of the mountains would be the same for the next two days of trekking, so there would be little to gain by going down a 1,000 metres only to climb back up another 1,000 metres to stay in a damp, cold room with no water, if we could even get a room.

Little to gain for lots of pain. We opted to follow my brother-in-law Jim’s motto, which says, “No pain, no pain,” and headed back down 15 km to the start of the trail at Nayapul and drive back to the relative comfort of Pokhara.

But going down was faster, not necessarily easier – stepping down onto loose rocks was tricky. And not less painful; it was harder on the shins and our toes kept jamming into our boots. Ouch!

In the end though, we were glad we had done the trek. It wasn’t a major trek, but it was more than enough for us. The weather was ideal, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. We had a memorable evening with fellow international travellers and had seen Annapurna up close and personal as we had wanted to.

Now on to the next adventure – wherever that might be.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pokhara, Nepal – Where are the Mountains?

Himalayas from our Room

After 5 days of disheartening rain, haze and clouds that masked even the closest mountains, the sun finally broke through. We were starting to believe that the photos of snowcapped mountains were fake.

We had paid extra for a rooftop room at the Sacred Valley Inn in Pokhara partly because it was quieter, but mainly for the view. And it was a beautiful room, with windows on three sides and a private washroom, all for $25. The only problem was the rain and the haze that even hid from our view the bright white stuppa on top of the large hill across the lake.

Of course we were the fortunate ones. We, at least, had a room. Over 2,000 people were stranded up in the Himalayas by the same unusual weather system that had socked in all of Nepal and luckily had delayed our own trekking. Flights were cancelled across the country and no one could get in or out of the mountains for days. Some tourists were forced to sleep in tents, food was running out and vendors were charging exorbitant prices for basics. Had we started our trek on schedule, we would not only have seen nothing, but we might have been stranded on the mountain.

Finally the weather system broke and rescue efforts began, first by helicopter and then by plane. Desperate to make connecting flights, tourists were charged up to $2,000 by the government to be ferried down to Kathmandu.

Downtown Pokhara
In the meantime, we were disappointed by the weather, but were in the relative luxury of Pokhara, a surprisingly large “town” of close to a million inhabitants (if you include the surrounding areas). It was probably quite pleasant 20 years ago, but now it’s just a smaller version of Kathmandu with noise, pollution and the usual tourist traps. That was a bit of a surprise to us, as we were expecting something more “rustic.” The odd cow was a nice touch of rustic, but not what we were looking for.

Tourist Strip in Pokhara
The tourist area runs all along the lakeside with shabby hotels and shops selling trekking gear, souvenirs and tours. Some nice restaurants and even a few nice hotels dot the strip, but basically it’s one long string of boring, tacky sameness. Behind the strip is a large, dull and dirty city like any other in Asia. There are a few tourist attractions in town, including paddling on the lake, parasailing off one of the mountains (when you can see it), a Buddhist stuppa, and a Gurkha museum, but for the most part the town is just a jumping off point for trekking around Jomsom or closer around Ghandruk in the Annapurna Range.

Oh, wait a minute, I forgot about the river rafting.  It’s quite popular here, as are a lot of the “adventure” activities. We met a couple who had been river rafting on the way between Kathmandu and Pokhara. They flipped twice and the wife lost her glasses. I'll stick to kayaking on Georgian Bay!

Of course the big attraction is that three out the ten highest mountains in the world can be viewed closely from Pokhara. Nowhere else do you see mountains rising so quickly – from 800 metres to over 7,500 metres within a 30-km area. It truly is a wow!
Lakeside in Pokhara
Nepal is Warm!
The biggest surprise so far, however, has been the temperature. We were expecting the Himalayas, and Nepal in general, to be cold at this time of year. But even with the bad weather, it has been quite warm – warmer even than Bhutan. Temperatures have been in the mid to high 20s during the day and dropping down a bit at night. Nepal has five seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, winter and spring. The Himalayas protect the valleys to the south from the cold winter winds of Central Asia and so the climate in the lower regions can be either tropical, sub-tropical or temperate.

Hence the profusion of flowers in bloom everywhere in town and in the wild. Poinsettias, marigolds, coleus, ageratum, glorious Bougainvillea, and flowering trees brighten up the landscape even now in November. They don’t get snow here except at high elevations. Local mythology is that they might get snow on the tree-covered mountains once every seven years, but it rarely snows in Kathmandu or Pokhara.

By day four I was getting tired of the gloomy weather and I decided to hire a bird watching guide to do a bit of hiking up the mountain across the lake from our hotel. It was grey out and I couldn’t even see the white stuppa, but visibility was good enough to see the brightly coloured birds that make this part of Nepal home.

Lake Phewa Tal in Pokhara
I hired a small local boat to take the guide and me across the lake to the starting point for the climb up to the stuppa. Within the first hour, we had already spotted over 20 species of birds, many of them “lifers” for me.  Red Vented Bulbuls, Yellow Cheeked Tits, Blue Whistling Thrushes and Greater Yellownapes, among others were flitting around the chestnut trees and other fruiting trees. A large troupe of monkeys was noisily feeding on the fallen ripe chestnuts.

My legs had recovered from our climb up to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, but it was still a struggle to hike up to the top of the mountain because of the rain soaked mud trail and slippery rocks.

At the very top, we met a local woman collecting firewood and she warned my guide in Nepalese that some tourists had been robbed a few days earlier. I hid my extra money in a secret pocket and joked with my slightly overweight guide that I would be okay because I could run faster than he could. “Not on this muddy trail,” he replied.

A little further on, we encountered a patrol of five uniformed police, three men and two women, who were scouting the area for the robbers. At this point, my guide kindly, but belatedly, informed me that he knew them quite well because some of the police often accompany him on hikes wearing plain clothes to try to catch crooks. Thanks for telling me now, I thought.

Strange Procession
Then I heard the sound of horns and drums and, looking down into the valley from my vantage point, I saw a procession of people carrying two large towers of marigolds down to the river. My guide explained that local villagers were helping a widow in a special ceremony for the departed.

This event occurs at a certain time of the month following a death. They take the flowers to the river, where cremations occur, and cross back and forth on bridges stringing garlands of the flowers over the river as they go. The purpose is to assist the soul of her dead husband to cross over the "rivers of vices." The music was haunting and I stood and watched for a long time as the procession made its way down to the river far below.

Back at the hotel at the end of the day, I scanned a few weather websites our friend Chuck in Detroit had given us and learned that the weather was going to improve in two days. So we quickly planned a two-day trek up into the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas.

Annapurna South and Fishtail Mountain from our Hotel
Weather Finally Breaks
Sure enough the next day, the sun burned off the haze and lit up the mountains like beacons calling out to us. Finally we had our first glimpse of the Himalayas from our hotel room. It was astonishing to see how close they actually were for five days and we couldn’t even see them.

Close Up of Annapurna South
People in the other rooms came up to our rooftop patio to stare in awe at the marvelous sight that suddenly revealed itself. What a splendid display of jagged peaks, glaciers and stunningly bright snow!
Our mood changed from depression to elation. We’re pumped up and ready to trek!

The next morning we started our 2-day trek up into the Annapurna Range to get up close and personal with these gorgeous mountains.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

We Fly from Bhutan and Flee from Kathmandu

Mt. Everest
We left pristine Bhutan on a sunny, clear day and flew west following the range of Himalayan mountains. For about 15 minutes, we stared in awe out the windows of the plane at the majestic Mt. Everest and its sister peaks, the highest in the world, as the pilot listed off their names. So many passengers on the left side of the plane rushed out of their seats to my side to see Everest that I thought the plane was going to tip over.

The odd thing about Mt. Everest is that because the other big ones were all snow covered and it wasn’t completely, Everest looked shorter. Another passenger noted that Mt. Everest doesn’t have as much snow cover as in the past and suggested it might be because of climate change.

One of Everest's Sisters
At any rate, we were about to experience the effects of climate change ourselves as we started our descent into Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, our next destination. We had just left pristine, unpolluted, undeveloped Bhutan and were about to descend into a polluted, chaotic hell.

But we had been forewarned. So, our plan was to land at Kathmandu, switch to the domestic air terminal and immediately catch a flight to Pokhara, a smaller town closer to the Annapurna range of mountains, and do some trekking. Everyone we had spoken to about Nepal had advised us to get out of Kathmandu as soon as possible. Their advice was spot on.

Shortly after landing, we were swept up in a nightmare of Nepalese bureaucracy. Lining up at airports for customs and immigration is something we are quite used to, given the 50 plus flights we take in a travel year. We have even had bad experiences in other countries with surprise visa applications and fees. But we have never seen anything like the chaotic, surreal, disaster that calls itself the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. It looked like a modern, relatively new building on the outside, but it was chaos inside. The Manila airport has been voted the worst in the world, but I would rank this one right up there.

Usually when you enter a country by plane, you fill out a form that the flight attendants hand you and that’s that. Sometimes, you have to pay a visa fee in cash. We’ve been caught before without enough cash, so now we bring enough US funds to handle surprise visa fees.

But Nepal turned out to be different. “Customs” was several lines for “Visa” applications. Two lines were for Nepalese citizens, one line was for “Diplomatic and Special Visas”, one short line was for those already holding a visa, and two long lines were for those applying for a visa. These two lines reached the back wall of the terminal as two flights had just arrived and disgorged hundreds of passengers, all of whom needed to apply for a surprise entry visa.

No signs, announcements or officials gave any advice on where to go or what to do. For some reason, Canadians cannot apply online for a Nepal visa. Added to that is the fact that some visas have time limits and can expire before we actually plan to visit a country on our seven-month journey. So we did not have an entry visa.

Forms were scattered about on a central stand, which luckily happened to be where we were in the long line or we would have missed them. A woman was going around with a stapler, which we thought was curious until we looked more closely at the form and noticed that the form required a passport photo to be attached for the visa. That’s when we saw people lining up at a “Photo” booth at the back of the hall. Again, experience has taught us to carry extra passport photos and we fortunately had one with us.

A regular traveler and tour leader we had met in Bhutan, happened to be in front of us in the line. He and his whole group from England had to re-apply for visas after their trekking in Bhutan. We explained to him that we had a flight to catch from the domestic terminal in two hours and were afraid we might miss it. He said the line up would take at least two hours and suggested that we pretend we were Americans and just butt in at the front and tell them we had to catch a flight.

That’s not our normal style, so instead I grabbed the lady with the stapler and told her our dilemma. In broken English, she said “Passport, money!” The fee was $25 for 15 days, $40 for 30 days, and $100 for 100 days. Since we were already getting a bad feeling about Nepal, we quickly changed our forms from 20 days to 15 and handed her our US money and passports. I was half afraid that she was going to take the money and disappear, but she signaled for us to follow her and led us to the “Diplomatic” line, which had only five people in it as opposed to the hundreds at the regular line.

She then left us and we stood there, fearing that, once we reached the “diplomatic” bureaucrat at the counter, we would simply be sent back to the end of the regular line to start all over again. Even with only five people in front of us, it still took almost an hour to get through. The official eyed our paperwork and passports, said the word “Diplomat” to another official, kept staring at our paperwork and yelling something in Nepalese to other officials, who just ignored him. We just kept repeating that we had a flight to catch in two hours and showed him our e-ticket.

Finally he indicated to follow him to the counter at the front of the regular line and went from one agent to another while we stood there like idiots under the scornful glare of all the people we had just jumped in front of.

Eventually, another agent came over took our papers and carried them to another counter where someone put them in a pile. Someone else took them to a third agent who shuffled them, pulled out our passports, looked at our faces, stamped our passports and handed them back without saying a word. After an hour we were ready to dash off, while others in the line had been waiting for three hours we later learned.

This was all quite a shock to us. Tourism is huge in Nepal. Someone said Nepal has three religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and “Tourism.” It is a big part of their economy. For a quick comparison, we learned that Bhutan has about 40,000 tourists per year and possibly 900 trekking groups per year. Nepal has ten times that number of tourists and 900 trekking groups per day. But that all seems lost on the bureaucrats who run the airport.

The walk to the domestic terminal was about 10 minutes away along a sidewalk and then up a small dirt hill, where we had to abandon our cart and pull up our wheeled luggage. We found the domestic terminal in even worse shape than the international one. It was crowded, dark and had almost no legible signage.

Our first clue of a problem should have been the large number of people sitting and lying on the floor amidst piles of suitcases. But we were in a hurry to catch our flight so we just stepped over them.

Checking in was a breeze and I was confident that we had time to spare. We went through security, where I got a thorough and all too friendly pat down, and entered another chaotic scene. In one common boarding room, were hundreds of people waiting for several different flights.

Above the din, a boarding agent occasionally shouted out boarding calls in Nepalese, which we couldn’t understand. But at some point just before we were to board, someone said all flights to Pokhara were cancelled. That was why all the people were sitting on the floor at the check-in counter. All flights had been cancelled for two days.

Rather than wait for a later flight, I grabbed our bags from behind the check-in counter (security, what’s that?) and we immediately hired a cab to take us to a hotel downtown. But now we were stuck in a dirty, polluted city that we hadn’t wanted to visit in the first place. Our lungs that we had purified in Bhutan’s pristine mountain air were going to suffer.

Downtown Kathmandu
If we thought the airport was chaotic, it was nothing compared to the insane, hair-raising ride through Kathmandu’s crowded, pollution choked streets. It took almost two hours to travel barely six kilometres, with buses spewing out dense clouds of diesel exhaust, small beat-up cars turning two lanes into four, and motorcycles buzzing around on all sides of our taxi like angry hornets threatening to spear our car.

It was even worse than in Hanoi with its thousands of bikes because here there weren’t just motorcycles but also big trucks and buses. It was so crowded and congested that I was amazed that we didn’t hit a bus, car or truck. But at one point a bicycle actually hit us.

Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind
Carolann had wisely asked someone at the tourist counter in the terminal to write down the name of our hotel and its address in Nepalese so that the driver would know where to go. It was a good idea, but two things went wrong. The driver couldn’t find the hotel – not surprising in a city of over one million with a population density of 19,500 per km². Compare that to Toronto with its population density of 3,972 per km².

After driving around in circles for over an hour, I hopped out of the cab and ran in to a small Internet shop, quickly looked up the address for the hotel, had the attendant call them and handed the phone to the cab driver. It all took about 5 minutes and we learned that the airport tourism official had given us the address for the “Valley Inn” and we were looking for the “Sacred Valley Inn.” It seems like a small difference, but it took us another hour to navigate through the clogged narrow streets, choking with pollution to find our hotel, which, unfortunately had no rooms left because of all the cancelled flights.

But the Sacred Valley Inn was the hotel that had made all of our flight bookings from Kathmandu to Pokhara and had booked us in at their sister hotel in that town. So we knew we could get help there. And, in fact, they went out of their way to find us a nearby hotel for the night and re-book our flight for the next day.

The next morning, however, the unusual weather conditions that had shut down flights across the country and caused such chaos at the airport continued. Rather than risk the death-defying ride back out to the airport and the ensuing hassles at the crowded terminal with no guarantee that the flights would even resume, we opted to hire a car and driver from the hotel. The ride would take five hours and we calculated that the trip by plane, if it even happened, would take about four if we included the taxi ride, wait time at the airport, flight and ride to hotel at the other end.

Wild Flowers on Road to Pokhara
So off we go again on another adventure through the insane traffic of Kathmandu and out onto an even more hair-raising ride down a jammed highway through the wilds of Nepal playing chicken with trucks, buses and kamikaze motorcyclists. But, believe me, that is far better than staying in Kathmandu for another night.

Wow, isn’t travel fun!

Transition into Nepal (Carolann's Story)

(This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

My years in government have taught me to be prepared. Have contingency plans. Carry a barf bag.

The first indication that it would be a trying day was at the business class check-in counter when I fell to the floor and started vomiting into a plastic bag. I hurled and hurled in front of the line-up in the Bhutan International departure lounge. Certainly this was a new low in humiliation for me.

The attendants were very helpful. I was escorted to the lounge where I regained my strength. Our passports and boarding pass were delivered to us there.

I had felt nauseous even the night before, perhaps out of a combination of stress and bad food. Dan and I had just climbed to 10,000 feet to visit Bhutan's famous Tiger's Nest monastery. The climb was harder than we supposed, but I took it very slowly, a pace that suited my back and congested lungs. The goal was to finish the climb. By that time, one monastery had started to look like another. This one just happened to dangle three thousand feet above a shaved cliff face.

On the way down, Dan and our guide went ahead. It was past 1:30 and Dan's internal lunch alarm puts him in overdrive. I continued to inch along slowly, watching my feet to keep steady and gripping the rock face as best I could. I got into the moment by mumbling a song to myself, better than counting steps.

I was so focused in my descent that when I looked around me, no one was behind me. A German couple appeared around the next bend and told me I had already passed the cafeteria cut-off at least 15 minutes ago.

Angry and depressed, I decided there was no way I was going to struggle upwards again. I did it once, at pain (I took three hours rather than the normal two hours), and I was not going to do it again. Our guide should have been watching for me at the turnoff.

My plan therefore was to descend quickly and tell the driver who waited with our car to call our guide's cell phone. Of course Dan would be sick with worry since I had been so wobbly for much of the way up.

But contingency plans sometimes fail. Along the way I met a Buddhist nun walking with two sticks and favouring her knees. I spent the rest of the descent, slower than planned, inching along with her, keeping her steady, admiring her gumption in even attempting the climb. She had only made it as far as the cafeteria but that's a significant accomplishment. She had descended alone while her companions ate lunch so she would not hold up the group. I suddenly felt ashamed of my lack of consideration for my own companions.

I met our driver on the path. The guide had called him in a panic and asked that he start climbing to look for me. Our guide himself had returned up to the monastery to look for me. When I was found, Dan and our guide both came rushing down the mountain as fast as possible.

So that's the context. I made everyone sick with worry, and in a stroke of divine justice, I fell ill myself overnight.

I know from experience that travelling when you're unwell is best avoided, but our visas were expiring the morning after our climb. Our tickets were complicated in that we would be connecting in Kathmandu, Nepal to a domestic flight for Pokhara. Hotels were booked. The machine was in motion.

Dan took the window seat so one of us could enjoy the view. It was a glorious day high above the cloud cover and the Himalayas appeared on cue, and Everest, poor snow-barren Everest, burst above the clouds. Climate change is impacting the earth's tallest mountain. It's shockingly grey now as it won't hold its snow cap all year.

Normally, a safe landing gives me cause for quiet celebration. But this is Kathmandu. Does one give thanks when you arrive at the lowest level of Dante's hell? Yes, I've not been to India yet, but we've travelled through the urban carnage of Jakarta, been lost in Lima Peru. That should make for some experience. But it takes these kind of experiences in a new place to remind us that we really know nothing at all about the world. We've skimmed its pages, like pulp fiction.

Nepal is the 12th poorest country in the world with a literacy rate of about 50%. Thirty million people squeeze into a landmass the size of the state of Oregon (or a quarter of the size of Alberta) and you might as well reduce that area by three quarters since people mostly settle in the valleys. Like Bhutan, the country comprises the foothills of the Himalaya, foothills being huge tree covered mountains in themselves.

Unlike Bhutan which holds a trifling 700,000 people and is understandably infused with a sense of calm and peace, Nepal is a bubbling cauldron of small economic enterprise. Filthy stores showcase filthy wares, filthy used truck tires, corrugated metal sheets piled on filthy, brittle pavement, unhealthy cows wandering amidst motorcycles, and smoke-belching transport trucks fill the streets churning up clouds as dense as a scourge of locust, a blight to the urban landscape, if landscape is the proper word.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're still at the Kathmandu international airport.

We enter the passport control building and two wickets are open for travellers without visas.


I feel that queasy feeling returning but I say to myself, "Keep Calm. Carry On."  After all, though I may be under the weather, the buzz of Bhutan's peace of mind remains.

We take our place in the line behind 200 people. It goes nowhere. Each transaction seems to take ten or more minutes. People are complaining that they have been waiting three hours. There's a visa form we fill out while standing and thankfully we each have extra passport photos. It's common enough that you can get a visa at the airport, but the processing system in other countries we've known (like Indonesia) is light years ahead of this mess.

An attendant is assisting people in the line by stapling their photo to the form. Dan has an idea.

He shows the attendant the tickets for our connecting flight and asks for us to be expedited. We need to reach the domestic terminal within thirty minutes in order to be there an hour ahead of the flight.

At first she is hesitant. Then she sees the Canadian flag on my carry-on and smiles wide. "You Canadian? You have visa money? I see passport." We give her the documents.

"Come here" and we are taken to the line up for diplomats and "special visas".

We remain hopeful although nothing happens. An agent is processing people ahead. He pulls out a drawer looking for something. He pushes it back. He stands up and cranes his neck to look around. He walks over to another station borrows something and returns to his desk. He leans over to a companion and waves a document and then straightens himself. Papers are handed over and the people are shuffled off to another agent for stage two.

I observe this lengthy, hesitant process and chuckle at how similar we all are in the natural world. My mind goes back to the Galapagos Islands. I close my eyes and watch once more as an albatross preparing to take off. We were standing at the cliff edge looking at Blue-Footed Boobies whipping around overhead when someone spots one of the great albatross birds walking towards our party. We part to make room for the bird that stands waist high. After tentative steps forward, then stopping, then forward, he reaches the cliff edge. Cameras raised. The bird sits down. Cameras lowered. The bird stands up. Cameras raised. The bird stretches out his wings in that magnificent seven-foot span. We hold our breath. Some cameras snap. The bird sits down. "Shit". The bird stands up once more, cranks its neck over the edge of the cliff. Cameras raised. The bird sits down. After fifteen minutes of playing with us, the bird stands erect, arches its wings and silently drops over the cliff.

Bang. Stamp. We are handed our visas. The albatross arches his wings.

But, not so fast.

We retrieve our luggage and pass on a taxi. It's a ten-minute walk across a field to the domestic terminal. We think we can do it. My stomach has settled. Besides, when you have to find the strength to do something, you do.

We cut our way through hundreds of people, taxi touts, beggars, dragging our luggage over chipped cement and then into the garbage-littered brown dirt and eventually push our way into the check-in counter. The checked luggage is just thrown into a pile behind the desk. There are no automated luggage belts. We are motioned towards a third scanner for our respective carry-on computer and camera cases and we separate into male and female lines where a woman will tickle my breasts and legs. My newly purchased water bottle goes through undetected. The detection activity is all show. Someone takes apart Dan's earphones and i-pod, demonstrating competence to his boss.

We funnel into the crowded departure lounge and sink into the last two plastic, black-stained barrel chairs that are not broken. I'm feeling drained and a bit nauseous. I take my last pill.

The albatross backs away from the cliff once more.

After two hours, we strain to hear a garbled announcement telling everyone that our flight is cancelled. All flights to Pokhara are cancelled. Visibility is poor. Come back tomorrow.

Time for some problem-solving.

But first, we need to return to the check-in desk to retrieve our luggage. Already 50 people are lining up and I take my place among them.

Dan is a wonderful travel companion. Very resourceful and scrappy when necessary. He simply walks behind the check-in agent, enters the back room behind a curtain and grabs our suitcases. They had remained there in a pile the whole time we had awaited the flight. I seriously doubt they would have ever joined our flight had it not been cancelled.

"We should go to the sister hotel in Kathmandu of the one we've booked in Pokhara. They can straighten things out and change our booking to here for tonight. Even if they are full, they can find us a place."

The idea is good, but finding the Sacred Valley Inn, Kathmandu is not easy. The address is in an e-mail in my computer and there's no internet service at the airport.

Keep calm. Carry on.

Dan remembers there's a tourist desk at the international terminal so we need to go back. This time however we find a flat-rate taxi desk and negotiate a fare that includes a stop at the international terminal.

Dan remains in the cab with our luggage and I dash into the airport. I'm prevented by security to re-enter the terminal where the full service tourist desk is located. I seek help instead from the kiosk outside. But first I scan the drivers holding signs to see, if by luck, someone is there from our hotel. The albatross has sat down.

I should have been suspicious of tourist kiosk personel who look like taxi touts. This man knows the hotel well so I get him to write down the name and directions in Nepalese so our driver can read it. I'm energized by this good luck.

Two hours later, in the warren of narrow streets, honking cars, choking exhaust, one cursing cyclist, our driver is seeking further directions. We had been led astray. I'm having difficulty breathing because of the stench. My stomach is churning once more. We see westerners on the street and call out from our stalled cab. "Please can you look up our hotel in your guide book. We are lost".

The two Germans came to our aid through the window of the car but our hotel is not listed. Dan then sees an internet cafe, dashes in there and within a few minutes has found proper directions to our hotel in an entirely different neighbourhood.

The day has indeed been trying.

At the desk of the Sacred Valley Inn, I start to explain our situation to the attendant and collapse backwards onto the couch. My strength has finally given out. They take me to another room, give me water. Dan takes over. We're a good tag team.

The hotel is entirely booked up.

Keep calm. Carry on.

It would still take another day before the albatross drops over the cliff. The hotel staff found us a room across the street, we had a good night sleep. The next day, our flight was rescheduled, then cancelled again. We elected to drive to Pokhara. It ended up being the only option since Nepal's domestic airlines have been shut down for five days now. We have found ourselves at the front end of a system of haze and rain showers unheard of in the month of November. Such is climate change. At this moment, 2,000 trekkers are being put up in tents by the army since they are unable to fly out. Hotels are full and food in the region is being trucked in.

Dan and I are resting in Pokhara. We can't trek. There's no mountain view, only white haze. But we need the rest. And in the end, our hosts at this small inn and those in Kathmandu have been outstanding in their service and support. A cheery red bougainvillea vine spills onto our terrace. There's a good vibe here.

But we need to decide by Tuesday where we'll go from here. In this case, it will indeed depend on which way the wind blows.