Thursday, October 21, 2004

the third night of the trek

Tonight we are at Bamboo, a guest house one or two days' walk from Annapurna Base Camp - ABC as everyone calls it here. We've finished our third day of walking.

On Sunday morning (October 17), Ewan, Nini, and I left Kathmandu on a bus bound for Pokarah - another major city in Nepal. We knew we had until Nov. 2nd before our bosses returned from their trek to Mustang. Mustang is the restricted area of Nepal just opened to tourists about 10 years ago, which has a USD700 charge to visit and has complicated rules. The gov't regulates how you must camp, and you must take an official "liason" officer with you at all times. They are in a group of nine trekkers, all American, with 20 employees - porters, guides, cooks, and the liason officer. The rules state you must carry all your own water. It's routine for a porter to carry 40kg on his back, with the weight supported on his forehead. Some porters carry 50 or 60 or 70 kg, all the while on the same pace or faster than trekkers. Porters have been known to carry 100 kg trekkers with injuries like broken legs - that's 220 pounds. These porters are tough. But this army-of-porters style of trekking that our bosses are doing in Mustang is not at all close to what we're doing.

We're doing tea-house trekking. Each day, there's a village with guest houses that serve lunch. Each night, these same sorts of places provide places to sleep and have dinner. At higher altitudes, where there aren't any more real villages, there are clumps of guest houses every few hours on the trail. Some of the places have solar-powered hot showers. Others have cold buckets of water. Each night, we're served daal bhat (lentils, rice, and spiced vegetables). In the morning, there's something like French toast, tea, Tibetan bread, and eggs available. It's certainly not camping, but it's the way things are done in the Annapurna area. The room costs about $1.50 each night, and there's no heat so you need a sleeping bag. Each day comes to about USD8, plus your share for the guide - an expensive day by living-in-Nepal standards, but an hour of work over the this last summer pays for a whole day. It was 2000 rupees for the permit to enter the area (~USD30) that says I'm Canadian, plus we've all set-aside 1200 rupees for the Maoists. They charge a tax for entering the area if they stop you on the trail. We're told by other trekkers that they give you a receipt, so that when you're stopped further on you can show you paid and don't have to pay again. I thought that was wild - it's really a political group collecting "park fees" for the area they control, not men-with-guns robbing travellers. They also give you a pamphlet in English explaining how the monarchy and their financial backers, the US, are the oppressive devil who take and give the people nothing. The maoists particularly dislike the US because it supplies the monarchy's military with guns, training, and helicopters explicitly for fighting the maoists.

Monday, we spent in Pokarah at the Sacred Valley Inn. It was recommended by our bosses, who are a great resource on travel in Nepal since they've been here for 13 years and traveled extensively. We arranged a guide, got sleeping bags (30 cents/day) and got those last minute essentials like sun lotion and soap. We debated for a while about getting a guide. When I got to Nepal, the idea of retaining employees, whether a cook or a cleaner or porter or guide, seemed out of consideration. But, reading up more on how trekking goes in Nepal, hiring a guide seemed like the way to go. The paths are pretty well beaten - they're used by locals as the only way to get to these remote villages, so tourists are not the only traffic, by far. The trails see school children running 1 hour to school, porters carrying goods for the locals, and more. But anyway, about the guide - it's not strictly necessary to have one. There are people who travel alone with big back packs like they're hiking in Yosemite. But, the locals don't like it much when Westerners do this. If you come to their land, their villages, and you employ one of their own - as a guide who you put your trust in - it's seem favorably. Besides that social dynamic, a guide tells you what the things you see mean, acts as an intermediary in interacting with locals like you couldn't otherwise, and more. We got a guide, and we've been very happy we have. In addition, a guide will carry ~15 kg - ours carries 2 sleeping bags and two fleeces that don't fit well in our bags.

Our guide is Shiva - he's great and his English is good. It's been an especially good time to have a guide, as right now is the 2-week Nepali festival Dasain, when celebrations are happening and otherwise uncommon things are going on. Shiva explains what it's all about to us. Families slaughter goats, they bend bamboo trees into rope swings - all sorts of stuff just for Dasain.

So, I sit here in the Bamboo guest house. At 8250 ft, we're having millet wine (rakshi) and dried spiced goat meat. Shiva's offered us the meat, which is a complementary special from the guest house for Dasain. The guest house has a common dining room, with one large table that has blankets skirting all four sides. There's a stove under the table and to warm up, just put your legs under the table. Between the 16 people around the table, the conversations are in Nepali, French, Japanese, and the Queen's English. The two Japanese girls who live in Nepal and speak Nepali are getting a lot of attention from the guides and porters. Most tourists here are from France, the UK, and Japan - since the Maoists presence, most Americans have stayed home. A couple hours ago, when we first sat down, I used 3 of the 10 Japanese words I remember to turn to the Japanese girl next to me and ask her if she was Japanese in Japanese. She looked back startled - after hearing us speaking English and being white - and put her index finger on her nose and said "me?". She's been friendly since. Nini speaks French, and she tells me that the French people at the other end of the table are having a conversation about how the most important thing is to take care of your feet.

It's been an amazing three days. We've seen the incredible hills and valleys and mountains - each village perched on the edge of hills. There have been 500 vertical meter walks down valley edges to river crossings, and corresponding 500 meter walks up the other side, just to get back to where you can look straight across to where you used to be. We've met other travellers - British, Alaskan, a Singaporean cop, and Israelis. Most of the travellers have been in their 20's. We played with children on swings supported by four bent-over bamboo stalks. We've had lunches on decks overhanging huge valleys. We've dodged bats to get to our hostel rooms at night, and woken up to cloudless mornings with incredible views of Machupuchhare, Annapurna South, and Annapurna I - from 6900 to over 8000m.


At 2:44 PM, isabel said...

You're Canadian?


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