Tuesday, January 8, 2019


I am not sure how anyone ever describes the sheer beauty that is the country of Nepal.  I think that I have waited over a year to write this blog post shows just how complex of a topic the entire country can be, and my lack of ability in the written word will probably not shed any new light upon a country that might be best explained as existing in some sort of limbo.  A mixture of old meets new, recent revolution meets a desire to modernize.  A countryside that still has girls who are menstruating live in separate quarters (which is a practice that they are trying to do away with, thankfully), and an urban capacity that is complete with coffeehouses and upscale shopping.  Nepal is a practice in trying to understand that these two different facets of culture and life can exist together, though they will struggle deeply at times to rationalize the behavior of the other.  During our time there, there were constant reminders of the recent civil war, people younger than myself talking about how they were involved, and bullet holes still in the walls of the palace, where many of the monarchy met their end.  Nepal still has old villages where children get numbers for names (first son, second daughter, etc.), and many of the history is a combination of lore and legend mixed with small facts to the point where you are not sure what is real and what is a tall tale.  Yetis are real.  There are hidden places of power.  People can speak to their ancestors.  There are gurus and sages living deep in the mountain caves.  Travelers on the trail can be spirits.  Anything is possible in Nepal.  The one common that you will see in the city and deep in the countryside, besides the ever-present animals and dal (a dish of beans that is the staple of every meal), is the tagging spray painted in English saying "Buddha was born here".  If there is one thing that all of Nepal, the countryside and the cities can agree on, it is that Buddha took his first steps in that country, and they are proud of their heritage in this religion.  
We landed in Kathmandu in the very early hours of the morning, or maybe it was late at night, but needless to say the city was pretty much just dirt roads and dogs roaming around.  I honestly was having many second thoughts, as we got off the plane and eventually made our way to the hotel.  I think it was a mixture of seeing nothing but dirt and dogs that really threw me off.  I am not sure what I was expecting, but perhaps I was just tired.  After checking in and getting the promise that the hotel manager would turn on a little hot water for us, we slept and then went in search of our trekking permit.  The trekking permit is a required piece of paper that allows you into the back-country of Nepal, and while some people are against the idea of paying to enter these areas, I think it is a great idea to help control the flow of people and to manage some very sensitive and dangerous areas. 

I think that it can be a little hard to picture Kathmandu, but this photo, for me at least said quite a bit.  Cows, dogs, birds, and people all exist in a fashion that seems chaotic but somehow works.  Of course, cows are sacred in the country, and harming one actually comes with jail time, so they just roam and do whatever they please.  I found this out much to my surprise a few times on the trip.  Nothing wakes you up like turning down an alley and coming face to face with three large bulls, or not being able to enter a rural town until an extremely ill-tempered cow wandered off to bother a different group of people. 

Kathmandu had been devastated by an earthquake that hit only a few years prior, and everyone had lost loved ones.  For the most part, the buildings were all learning at angles that seemed to be anything but vertical, and most of them had some sort of support beams put in place.  Alleys snaked through, under, and around these buildings, and you could find yourself seeing new and different things in every part of the city.  In fact, as we found out later, one of the coolest electronics areas in the city was accessed by going into the small door, near a fountain, under some low hanging debris, around a dark passage way, and then suddenly finding yourself in an area that sold electronics.  After we were guided to it the first time, it took us an hour to find it to show our friends the second time.  I am still not sure if it was real or some weird dream brought on by dehydration.

With permits secured and bus passage booked, in a few days we set out for the Annapurna region.  We had backpacks, and were all set to walk in one large loop, planning to take about two weeks, and covering about 140km.  We were planning on reaching a maximum altitude of about 5,416 meters (about 17,769 feet), with an extreme chance of running into many problems including altitude issues (the percentage of oxygen at that altitude is only about half of what you will experience at sea level, with our altitude bordering between very high and extreme when compared to how much oxygen people need to survive).  There were also many risks such as landslides, cold weather, and just anything else that might go wrong when faced with being days of hiking away from medical care. 

The natural beauty of the Annapurna region made it hard to even think about the risks, though I cannot express how understated the brutality of the hike was in some guidebooks. 

The first few days were a brutal adventure of getting used to the terrain, the altitude, and the weight on our backs.  We made some great friends, (one of which we just visited in Poland on our last vacation), and honestly I think that having a few extra people traveling in our group really helped us all push each other to reach the destinations.  Honestly there were many times where we thought about giving up.  Whatever the guidebooks say, the trail is brutal.  This small hill here almost broke us.  It may not look bad, but after a long day of hiking, just having to ascend that hill made us want to die.  At the top though, our friends were waiting, at some long defunct cabin that sold some tea (before the owner wandered off and left to God-knows-where), and we sat and commiserated on our poor life choices. 

I think there is a certain level of camaraderie in shared pain that made us bond during the course of the trip.  We had never met these two people before, but in sharing the same experience, we left with a new family. 

There is so much that can be said about the natural beauty of the areas that we hiked through.  What started as leech filled jungles slowly became rolling green fields, then to pine trees, glacial slips, and finally to nothing but rock and cold. 

This was our last photo before our push to the pass.  We could not have asked for a better day to make the push. 

 This photo was taken maybe... 1-2km from the top of the pass.  Honestly at this altitude, we would hike for 50 meters and then need a break.  It was brutal.  I think that I will forever be grateful to my friend here for joining me on this last portion of the hike.  We said it many times after, but I think it needs to be said again, we would not have made it without pushing each other. 

The top was everything we had expected.  We tied off the flags we brought to the top, including the extra set that was done as a request for another person, and then after taking in the moment for about a half hour, we set off down the other side.  Even in the middle of the warm season, it is not hard to imagine how people die at this altitude.  We all had a bit of altitude sickness as we descended.  I am glad we actually made it over the top and only had that experience on the way down, as the night before we had to help evacuate a person who had altitude sickness at the base camp.  We actually ended up meeting back up with him later and helped him to fill in some of the details of what had happened as the night was a bit of a blur for him.  He did however buy me a few drinks for helping that night.  The funny thing is that before that night, everyone was making fun of me for carrying about a kilogram of medical supplies, but no one laughed after that night.  I guess Boy Scouts really did pay off in the long run.

This photo was almost the last photo I ever took.  I know that I am prone to exaggeration, but even a quick google search will lead to just how dangerous the roads in the mountains are in this region.  Ill be honest and say that there were times were we looked at each other and our friends in the bus and really realized that we were inches from dying.  The roads were all washed out.  At best they were mud and dirt.  Rock slides happened all the time.  Roads were flooded and impassable.  For about 6 -7 hours straight the buss was jumping and bouncing so much that we were flying all over the place.  I was thrown about a meter in the air and hit my head against the metal of the roof.  It was a long day.  We were lucky however, as we later found out that one of the people we had met on the trail died after her bus was forced to let people out to cross a landslide and she and another man were hit with rocks and fell to their death in the river.  This is a very common occurrence in this region.  I would be lying if we did not decide that we were beyond lucky to only escape bloodied.  I can honestly say that we were beyond lucky, and I would never do the bus trip again. 


The last photo is a funeral at one of Hinduisms holy sites in Nepal.  We watched for over an hour as the man was slowly returned to the river, and his family attended to his last wishes of being cremated at the sacred place.  It was a very calm and quiet moment in a country that seems to be far from both inside the large cities. 

Our last few days were also a bit unexpected.  We had gone out with two friends on their motorbikes to see the surrounding area and got stranded.  We ended up spending the night in an orphanage in the mountains and then slowly making our way back the next day.  I think this was the day that we realized that you might make plans in Nepal, but Nepal always fixes those plans for you.  The orphanage was great, and we had fun playing with the kids who wanted to take photos with our cameras and phones.  We were treated to some dinner (dal) and were able to bed down for the night.  Another life lesson from Nepal is this; if you are going to leave your room, always pack toilet paper and soap.  You never know when you are going to be stranded overnight in a place that has neither.  This leads to either holding it or learning how to go to the bathroom in a more local style that you wanted to experience. 

Our last day was actually a wonderful experience.  Danielle had wanted to experience the women's festival, and with out luck holding out strong, we were randomly invited into a party that was happening in a courtyard near the street.  For the price of 2 liters of fanta (never go to a party empty-handed) we ate and danced until we had to go home and pack for our return trip.

 Nepal truly is a land of wonder.  It is nothing like the movies.  There is no Dr. Strange waiting around the next corner.  It is a place of vibrant colors, smells, cultures, and people.  I think it is one of the few places that I still think about on almost a daily basis.  I would travel there again in a heartbeat.  I think it is one of the few places where supernatural and daily life meld together into something that works, people can find happiness in tea, and smiles are genuine.  It is not without a myriad of problems, but somehow, Nepal just works.