Monday, October 18, 2010

On the Beaten Path

Everyone I had met who had been to Nepal had their stick-shift in fifth gear, so to speak, over Pokhara.  So I was eager to get here, and I have to say, it's pretty much lived up to the hype.  Lakeside Pokhara is a tourist oasis, a long strip of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs and hotels with any amenity a weary traveler could want.  The strip runs along Phewa Tal, a lake surrounded by mountains and an entire panorama of snow-capped Himalayas that reflect off the blue water.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, a status I do not bestow lightly.  Looks a little something like this:

Given all that, I decided to anchor down here for a week or so and live like a real human being: eating three meals a day, reading the newspaper, getting a haircut, enjoying sunset runs around the lake. The Nepalis of course, always seem to get a kick out of my daily jogs, watching the crazy white boy run around in circles for no apparent reason.  On every run at least one or two of them are kind enough to offer to relieve me of my exercise via a ride on the back of their motorcycle.  Not exactly the point, but thanks guys!

As for the haircut, it was performed at a little curbside set-up, and it took a team of two Nepali barbers working in tandem to get the mohawk done right.  At the end of the haircut, one of the barbers started in on a pretty nice head, neck and back massage.  Noah thinks:  "Oh, a massage is included... well who am I to buck their custom?"  Fifteen minutes in, the stylist/masseur informed me that the "massage extra", though of course fifteen minutes into a massage he could have told me it would have cost my left pinkie and I wouldn't have stopped him.

Tomorrow I am starting the Annapurna Circuit, a 2-3 week trek through the Annapurna mountain range, that is supposed to be one of the best hikes in the world.  I am told we might get sporadic internet access throughout the trek in some of the tea houses along the way, but I'm quite sure I won't have time to blog.  So wish me luck and we'll talk about it on the flip side!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh, Wut Up Nepal?!?

Since I had booked my jeep ride to the Indian/Nepali border two days ahead of time, I had my choice of seating, and blindly went with seat number one, cause, you know, that's how I roll.  Well, turns out seat one was in the front row three seater wedged between the driver and another passenger, with my legs straddling the stick shift, such that every shift into fourth gear was a bit unnerving (though vaguely exciting!).  The situation became less humorous (though only slightly so) when it started raining and the dude who was riding on the roof had to squeeze in between the driver and I.  Now whenever operation of the vehicle demanded a change in gears, the driver had to reach over his buddy's lap and either over or under my right thigh, depending on the gear transition.  Four hours later, the driver and I had developed a wordless system of cooperation, each of us anticipating the movement of the other as I positioned my leg in just the right place at just the right time, so he could reach, grab and pull the stick into the appropriate placement, our bodies working together in perfect synergy.  We could have been great lovers together, me and my Gurkha India-to-Nepal chauffeur.

I also endured nineteen hours of Nepali bus rides in the last few days, but this blog has to include something other than transit stories, so I will sum up that block of time by listing just a few of the passengers who shared the seat adjacent to mine during the journey:  A mustachio'd sleeping beauty who used my left shoulder as a pillow for two hours, a shirt-cocking (i.e., naked from the waist down) five-year old boy, a goat, a woman puking into a plastic bag (wasn't the first time I've been puked on, and, Insha'Allah, won't be the last!) and Ishwari, a very kind Nepali who missed his own bus connection to ensure that I made mine.

Believe it or not, I don't just ride around the Indian subcontinent taking one vehicle to the next, I occasionally actually stay in a place for a day or two.  So let's talk about one, yea?  Janakpur.  Janakpur is a holy city for the Hindus, but is nonetheless the kind of place that most travelers don't hit unless they (a) have a lot of time on their hands and (b) want to break up the seventeen hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu or Pokhara.  Accordingly, there isn't much in the way of tourist infrastructure in Janakpur; my Lonely Planet-recommended hotel looked like it had been bombed out in a war, with doors leading to nothing but rubble, and the sink and shower in my ant-infested room spewing only rust-colored water.  So I spent some time in the one internet cafe I could find, catching up on the world's happenings and contemplating whether I would have been better off taking my chances with one of the notoriously dangerous Nepali night buses that run directly to Pokhara.

After the fourth power outtage in an hour, I finally gave up on the internet cafe in frustration and stepped out into the newly arrived night, only to have Janakpur greet me with an explosion of colors and sounds.  Turns out I was fortunate enough to be in the holy city during Dashain, the biggest Nepali festival of the year.  The entire center of Janakpur, which is more a less a winding complex of temples and shrines, had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere.  Huge colored tents were lit with bright lights leading from one holy spot to the next, while music and chanting blasted through different speakers around every corner.  The people were out in swarms, the women wearing their most colorful saris, lighting candles and saying prayers, the men in paint chanting the Ramaya, clashing symbols and ringing bells.  Cows and ash-covered sadhus (see here)  roamed the maze of lights in equal numbers, competing for space and devotion from the Nepali masses.  The rainbow of sights and sounds was so great and intense as to be almost overwhelming.

As I got lost wandering through the festivities, I surrendered a piece of myself to the atmosphere, unlocking what I believe to be a key to the Hindu heart and mind.  For as long as you are a standoffish passive observer, the people are happy to ignore you or, just as frequently, stare at you unabashedly.  But if you take the initiative to celebrate with them, if you answer their questions with games and laughter, if you dance to their music and sing with their chanting, it you pray with them and perform their rituals, then the Hindu people will open up to you with gracious smiles and laughter and excitement, offering an invitation into their experience like no one else in the world will do.  If you not only participate, but join in the encouragement, helping them to get others to join in the song, sitting with them while they eat and sell their religious headbands, if you become (in my not-so-humble opinion) the best religious headband salesmen Janakpur has ever seen... if you show them your willingness to live a moment with them, they are enthused (most often overly so) to live a moment with you.  If you take the first sip of their festive-drunkenness, they won't let you drink alone.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pala's Place

One of the Foreigners-of-the-Round-Table I met at Yuksom was a twenty-four year old Israeli named Sagy.  Over a shared pizza - my first outside NYC in quite awhile (no comment) - Sagy gave me the hard sell on a place of lodging called "Pala's Place" in Khachapuri, a small Sikkimese village known for its lake revered by Himalayan Buddhists.  Khachapuri is the kind of town that gets only a couple of paragraphs and no map in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but on my new friend's recommendation it now had a place on my itinerary.

By the time (2 hours) the jeep I was in made the 27 kilometers from Pelling to Khachapuri, I was the only passenger left, the remainder having bailed to their respective homes along the way.  Stepping out of the vehicle I took inventory of my final destination:

Police Huts:  1
Restaurants:  1
Tiny Bodega-like Huts That Sell Just Candy and Water and Miscellaneous Buddhist Paraphernalia: 2
Sacred Buddhist Lakes:  1
Hotels: 0 (though I later learned there was a trekkers hut about 200 meters back down the round)
Miscellaneous Shanty Structures: about 3 or 4

So there I was.  My only life raft was Sagy's instructions telling me that Pala's Place was a twenty-minute walk "uphill".  Having driven in on a flat road, the only "uphill" I saw was an unmarked rock and dirt footpath disappearing into the woods behind me.

This kind of impromptu traveling - especially in India - requires a little faith.  Faith to wait three and a half hours by the side of the road when someone tells you in broken English that a jeep to Khachapuri will come along.  Faith that when you get to a small village there will be a room available or a kind soul to take you in.  And so with a little faith in Sagy and my intuition, I started the steep climb through the woods towards what I hoped was Pala's Place.

The footpath up to Pala's is so steep that, walking with my backpack, I had to rest after only about ten minutes of climbing.  Luckily, at this point in time an angel in the form of Pala's son Puchin appeared and alleviated not only my concerns that I was about to be lost without a place to stay, but also the heavy load of my pack.  After some token resistance, I agreed to let him shoulder the weight, and watched in awe as the nineteen year old carried my bag the remaining fifteen minutes up the hill without breaking his stride or a sweat.

Arriving at the top of the hill I gave thanks to Puchin for his labor and, internally, to Sagy for his suggestion, for within moments I knew that Pala's was indeed a special place. In anticipation of our travels we often create idealized versions of the places we will visit, taking our cues from movies or guidebooks or conveniently incomplete tales from other travelers.  It is, of course, inevitable that once we actually arrive, we are let down by the reality of the place we've dreamed so much about.  This has happened to me more times than I can count.  But Pala's Place is the kind of place you fantasize about when you dream up a Himalayan vacation.  Pala's home, consisting of only a few wooden structures, sits at the apex of a hill from which the land slopes down from both sides, only to rise up again into lush green mountains.  When the clouds clear, one can see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas rising up above these green hills to meet the sky.  Just beyond Pala's home and blooming garden is a Buddhist stupa surrounded by prayer flags and a monastery under construction.

Pala, an eighty-four year old Tibetan monk and former cook to the Dali Lama, greeted me from his bed, using the best of his English to explain that he was tired from the day's puja which involved six hours (six hours!) of chanting.  Though Pala's English was rudimentary, I like to think that over the two days I spent in his company we developed a good relationship based on eye contact, smiles, broken conversation and comfortable silences.  When more foreigners came in the final hours before my departure, Pala and I shared a smile and laughing eyes at the incessant talking provided by the newly arrived Japanese tourists.

So after two nights, some use of Pala's yoga/meditation room and some time at the sacred lake, I paid the $15 (about $7.50 a night) I owed Pala for the lodging and three deliciously home-cooked meals a day he had provided, and I was on my way out of Sikkim and on to Kalimpong, my last Indian stop.

By the way, I took pictures of Khachapuri from the spot the jeep dropped me off and the footpath up to Pala's in the hopes of including it in the post, but after an hour or so of struggling with the Kalimpong internet connection the first picture has still not won its proper place in the blogosphere.  So we go text only, sorry folks!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Himalayan Trekking Part 1: Sikkim

The journey from Darjeeling to Yuksom (the small village in Sikkim that serves as the trailhead for the trek I was to do) was a three-jeep endeavor.  Jeep #1 was filled with eleven people, including one on the roof and the Sikkimese man to my right who insisted on having a conversation despite that he spoke no English and I no Nepali.  Because the "road" we were traveling on was under "construction", we had to get out and carry our bags about 200 meters to Jeep #2, picking up three more people - including two children of about ten years old - to throw on the roof.  Jeep 2 took us to a transit hub of a city called Jorethang, and after a two and a half hour layover, we picked up Jeep #3 to carry us the rest of the way to Yuksom.

Riding along the Sikkim roads is a bit of an adventure in itself.  Your body is continually contracting into a smaller and smaller ball so that the additional passengers who join the ride en route can slide in.  Only jeeps can handle the pot-holed, rocky, winding roads that connect one village to another, and each time I climb into one of the vehicles, I can only think that the religious incantation (whether hindu, buddhist or general praise to God) that inevitably adorns the windshield will offer little comfort when we go careening off the side of the mountain thanks to the freewheeling driver.

So the jeep rides were an experience and along the way offered not only a view of the beautiful mountains, valleys, villages and elaborate monasteries of Sikkim, but occassionally also a glimpse into Sikkimese life.  For example, Jeep #3 came to an abrupt stop just outside of a village so that one of the passengers could pick up some fish from a hut on the side of the road; fish that would of course otherwise be unavailable in his village, still over two hours away.  By the way, if you're wondering how a crowded, winding and bumpy jeep ride can be made better, it is most definitely by having three and a half dead fish stored underneath your seat.

Anyway, in the end all the traveling fun was worth it.  Sikkim is a rather small part of India that is bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.  In just about every aspect it is more similar to these Himalayan kingdoms than it is to the rest of India.  I absolutely adore the Sikkimese, who are, without exception, the warmest, friendliest, most trustworthy and helpful people (the man sitting next to me in the cyber cafe reading this post over my shoulder notwithstanding (hey guy!)).  The food, oh the food!  Tibetan, Sikkimese, Indian and Chinese like you'll never get anywhere else.

Besides my affinity for taking rides that leave me right on the verge of motion sickness, I came to Sikkim to do a little Himalayan hiking.  The walking  route was a 5 day trek from Yuksom up to Dzongri.  The company was Andrea (27), a Swiss woman with whom I made the trip from Darjeeling, Paul (40something), an Indian man living in the U.A.E with a head full of interesting facts and strong opinions, and Mark and Katie (27 both), a fabulous couple from the U.K.  Our fearless leader was Sanjay (19), a Sikkimese youth with two wives and a stated goal of becoming the youngest Sikkimese to summit Everest.

At about 42 miles total (including our side treks), with a cumulative vertical rise and fall of approximately 5180 meters (16,995 feet), the trek was quite strenuous, massively more difficult than the Inca Trail in Peru, my only prior trekking experience.  Our highpoint was 4350 meters (14,270 feet), which is pretty high (by comparison, Denver is at 1620 meters).  I was fine for our two nights at 4050 meters, but the climb up the last 300 gave me a pretty good altitude headache, which is somewhat disconcerting since its only about 85% of the altitude that I plan on hitting during my Nepal trek. Not only was the hike a feat of physical exertion, but our accommodations were rustic, to put it mildly.  At Dzongri my four trekking companions and I spent two nights sleeping shoulder to shoulder in sleeping bags and as much clothing as possible to battle the below freezing temperatures.  Our beds were thin, overused mats, laid on the wooden floor of a glorified hut.  But despite the hardships, the trek was fabulous, taking us through a multitude of terrains and providing great views of Himalayan peaks, including a close-up of Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world (see picture below (not mine).  This blog is going multimedia!).

I fell in love with Yuksom, the dirt road village where all the trekkers, guides and porters begin and end their journey into the mountains.  Yuksom proper is a dirt road lined with just a few hotels and two dusty, outdoor restaurant stands.  Each restaurant has only one large circular table where a rotating cast of foreigners eat, drink and exchange travel and trekking stories.  Because of the remoteness of Yuksom and the intensity of the trek originating from its outer boundaries, only the most hardened trekkers and travelers make it to these tables, and over many a cup of chai I met some fascinating people, listened to stories that crossed the line from adventurous to crazy, and received some valuable travel advice.

I was pained to leave Yuksom and my trekking group - particularly Mark and Katie with whom I had grown especially close - but it was time to move on to Pelling, a slightly larger Sikkimese town, where I now sit typing.  Today I enjoyed a 3 kilometer walk to Pemayangtse, an ornate monastery down the hill from Pelling.  I also had the privilege of serenading a few locals on a rusty 5-stringed guitar that was sitting in one of the many hotel/restaurant/vantage points that line the Pelling road.  I'm not sure where the kink in the supply line can be found, but Sikkim is suffering a serious shortage of guitar strings, as this instrument was the closest to completion of the five or so I've seen thus far.  To the Sikkimese authorities: forget about the crumbling infrastructure (no problem, I am sure), get on the guitar string famine, pronto!