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Stories from Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Big Adventure

michelleWe are showered with Namaste, the traditional Hindu greeting, wherever we go in Kathmandu. We arrived in Nepal a couple of days ago and are still overwhelmed at the friendliness of the people. We've had little time to sight see though because our days have been full running errands and preparing for our next adventure. Tomorrow, joined by two friends we met in Thailand, we take a plane and helicopter to Lulka, a small village nestled in the Himalayan Mountains in the Kimbu region of Nepal. There, we will begin a three week trek to the Mt. Everest Base Camp as well as other surrounding trails.

Spring is coming to Kathmandu - flowers are blooming, fruit hangs on trees, and during the day the temperature reaches 70 degrees. But we are heading into some of the highest mountains in the world. Trekking at heights over 18,000 feet, where sudden snow storms and extremely cold nights are the norm, we have to be prepared for these conditions. So we have rented -20 degree sleeping bags and down jackets, and bought gloves, scarves, thermal underwear, and camping gear. Trekking is the number one activity of visiting tourists and Kathmandu's streets are lined with plenty of shops selling gear. We will be sleeping and eating in basic lodges and teahouses along the trails, so thankfully we won't have to carry much food and water or tents.

So we apologize for our site being quiet for the rest of the month. Picture us high up in the mountains, trekking among beautiful lakes and mountain peaks, in view of the highest mountains in the world. When we return we will be sure to update the site with stories and photos of our time with Mt. Everest! top

Butter lamps burn on the stairs of Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. Crowds climb the stairs to the Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. Buddha's eyes peer from behind prayer flags at a stupa near the massive Bodhnath temple. Crowds and incense smoke circle the stupa at Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. A woman sells dried chilies, garlic, ginger, and other dry goods from a booth in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. People gather to talk and buy vegetables from a market in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. A collection of brass Buddhas and other religious items for sale in Kathmandu. A sadhu, or Hindu holy man, poses for a photograph in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. Sadhus are Hindu holy men who live beggar-like existences in their search for enlightenment. This one lives a profitable existence in Kathmandu, charging tourists for photographs. A rickshaw carries its bloody passenger through Durbar Square, located in the center of Kathmandu. Nepalese Buddha eyes peer from the stupa of Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath). A slaughtered goat gets butchered in Kathmandu, Nepal. Two men try to keep the stupa at Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) brightly whitewashed during an important Buddhist celebration. A woman stands next to Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. Four rickshaw drivers wait for business on a busy Kathmandu street. A woman buys oranges from a vender who carts his goods around on his bicycle. Colorful decorations adorn the back of a Nepalese rickshaw. A view from up high of Kathmandu's skyline.

Namche Bazaar Area, Nepal

Beginning the Trek

michelleThe dust swirled fiercely, stinging our skin. We hid our faces in coat collars and crouched low to the ground, waiting for the helicopter to lift off and the dust to settle again. The airport consisted of a gravel runway and a dusty field on the side of a mountain. We arrived by a twin engine plane and were waiting for our turn to helicopter to Lukla, where we would begin our three week trek to the Everest base camp and surrounding trails.

Our group was made up of Tim and myself, Catherine (Irish) and Nicole (Swiss) who we met in Thailand during our Thai massage class, and Aaron (Kiwi), a last minute addition we met on the flight. Our helicopter finally arrived and we lifted into the air. It was my first time in a helicopter and I felt like I was in a giant puppet suspended and moved my invisible strings. Far below on the terraced mountains were trees, buildings, rivers, and thin walking trails. Then suddenly a mountain ridge would appear directly under us, and the helicopter would swoop closely over the treetops, taking my breath away. I felt like a child on a new ride in a mystical land.

We arrived safely in Lukla and began our journey into a world of Sherpa people, where the major highway is a dusty trail, where the biggest mode of transportation is a yak, and where the mountains are the highest in the world. top

First Day

michelleOur party number is seven now. In Lukla we hired two porters, Nima and Lac Ba, local village men who will accompany us, help carry our gear, and keep us on the right trails.

Today was our first full day of hiking and the scenery is gorgeous. We are hiking along an ice blue river, flowering cherry trees, through small villages, and over long swaying bridges covered with flapping prayer flags. I stop often to marvel at the height of the mountains as they disappear into the clouds û only to look farther up and realize their peaks continue above the cloud line! As a sign of spring the trail is dotted with lady bugs. Some land on my jacket and travel with me for a while before flying off. top

A view of Namche Bazaar from above. Seemingly small, this town offers plenty for trekkers to dream about while they hike farther up the mountain - a return to a pizza baked in a real pizza oven and a hot shower. A calf gets a closer look at my camera lens.

Amazing Strength

timTengboche: With no roads nearby, the Sherpa porters are to the Khumbu region what trucks are to the American highway. They carry amazing loads up and down the mountains and, unlike their tourist counterparts with fancy $300 backpacks, load their goods into simple baskets carried on their backs and suspended by straps across their foreheads.

I'm constantly amazed by the amount of weight they can carry up steep mountain trails. Look up any trail and you will see a pair of legs sticking out from a bundle of hay larger than a commercial refrigerator. Or perhaps, you will see eight ceiling beams that are 6 x 6 inches wide and 10 feet long. Or four cases of Coke, three 12 kg packages of creamer, and some other heavy miscellaneous items.

Everything here is carried by hand - from the bottled water, to the glass windows in lodges and occasional washer/dryer.

Today we saw the most magnificent example, a 95-kg (209-lb.) television in the Tengboche Monastery's visitor's center. Surely, I asked the staff, this mammoth thing was airlifted up by helicopter? But no, not only was this carried by hand from a small bush airstrip half a day away, it was carried down 650 meters (2,132 ft) and back up 616 meters (2,001 ft). And the load was fought over because the porters were paid 7 rupees per kilo. I had to do the math. For all of his effort, the porter was paid about $9 US!

And you thought your job was hard. top

Chanting Monks

michelleTengboche: I wake up to the sound of monks chanting, their hums sounding like a distant airplane engine. I lay in my warm sleeping bag a while listening, watching the early morning light stream through the window. Then braving the cold air, I slip on my down jacket and meet Catherine outside.

We are in Tengboche, the half way point from where we started our trek in Lukla, to the Everest Base Camp. The monastery in Tengboche is the oldest in the region. Although destroyed twice - once by earthquake and another time by fire, it has been rebuilt and is a sacred place to the Kumbu people.

Catherine and I walk the short distance to the monastery entrance, passing colorful prayer wheels and a large white stupa. Taking off our shoes at the temple entrance we enter silently and sit on Tibetan rugs against the wall. In the center of the room five monks sit on benches, wrapped in red wool robes, chanting in a low melodic murmur. Every morning and afternoon they gather here to chant mantras - Buddha's words of compassion, peace, and well being.

As their chants swirl around me I look around the ornate temple room. Colorfully painted murals decorate the walls and a large gilded gold Buddha sits at the front, observing and smiling over the proceedings. The monks deep voices pause for a tea break as another monk scurries in with a large tea pot. Each monk holds their cup with both hands, white steam enveloping their heads as they sip noisily.

When the chanting begins again instruments are introduced. Horns, drums, and cymbals accompany the swaying monks, adding a distinctly oriental sound. Local sherpas enter the temple and a man falls prostrate in front of the monks and Buddha. He rises and falls many times, a ritual to receive blessing.

The sun hits the mountain outside and brilliant white streams into the dark room, making me squint. My feet are numb from the cold and sitting so long but I feel I could sit here for hours. Even though I can't understand the Tibetan chants, I am filled with peace. Watching the monks practice their own spirituality brings my own spiritual life into clearer focus and I feel closer to God. My soul is quiet and at peace. It is a great way to start the day. top

AMS

timPangboche: Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS, is caused by ascending to high altitude without allowing enough time for your body to acclimatize properly. It can cause symptoms ranging from the simple: headaches, sleeplessness, shortness of breath, nausea, and dizziness, to the very serious: vomiting, loss of coordination, cerebral edema, pulmonary edema, and even death. It is a very dangerous problem in the altitudes that we were trekking in and something that we had to take very seriously.

Increased urination is a minor symptom, but one that has caused me the most danger so far. Thanks to AMS, I really needed to use our lodge's outhouse. But standing in between urgent release and me, stood a huge furry black yak with a white spot on his chest and rather large menacing horns. He stood his ground firmly, blocking the threshold of a stone wall that I needed to cross.

He eyes stared at me sideways and spoke clearly. It was clear he wasn't going to move without a fight. I yelled like a Sherpa, "Heh! Yah!" I waved my hands and jumped up and down. He turned his head a few degrees and said that if I didn't stop this nonsense soon, I'd see the business end of his horns.

Just as I was about to flee, a burley Tibetan looking woman ambled over, bent down, and scooped a handful of stones from the ground. Suddenly the yak didn't seem so tough. She hurled a couple of stones over his back and he went running like his tail was on fire.

And thus, I was saved from dire consequences of AMS. top

Everest Base Camp

michelleWe started our hike to Everest Base Camp under low hanging gray clouds and fast dropping temperatures. The threat of snow was obvious but we were anxious to see Base Camp. After all, we had hiked nine days to get this far.

We walked for a couple hours along a glacier stream, among huge gray boulders and on a thin path along a mountain ridge. A glacier sat below and mountain peaks towered above us. From here we could just see Everest Base Camp, the tents distant colored dots.

Our group climbed down the steep ridge, amidst a sea of rocks and began our hike on the Kumbu Glacier. I didn't really realize I was walking on a glacier until I looked down and saw a huge crevasse along the side of the trail. Peering inside there seemed to be no bottom, only darkness. I joked that jumping in would be the fast and cheap way to return home, on the other side of the world. But I also made a serious mental note to watch my steps more carefully. The stark terrain made me feel like I was on another planet. Large boulders, the size of small cars, balanced precariously on small nuggets of ice. Impressive ice forms jutted out along the way, at times looking like an ice forest.

A thunderous sound echoed and we stopped to watch an avalanche cascade down the nearby ice fall. The resulting roar and displaced snow reminded us of nature's power. It was then I saw a line of small dots on the left side of the giant ice fall - Everest climbers practicing for their climb to the summit. I couldn't imagine what they were thinking at that moment, being so close to the avalanche. Later, a sherpa told me many sherpa climbers had died there due to the instability of the ice.

Mid-afternoon we arrived at Base Camp (17,600 ft). It was a colorful "tent city" in a landscape of rock. The first group of tents to greet us belonged to the Korean expedition, their flags waving in the wind. I peeked in their dining tent and saw people eating lunch. I wondered what it was like to live in this cold world of rock and ice for weeks on end.

Base Camp is especially busy this year with 14 expedition teams. It is not a cheap undertaking to organize an expedition. Nepal charges $70,000 per seven member team and an additional $10,000 for each additional climber. Add the cost of equipment, supplies, and hiring sherpas and porters, and it equals a small fortune.

One team had a satellite dish and I assumed that was the American group. I had heard there was a morning news show there to document and televise the American climbers. Porters had carried the satallite dish in in small pieces. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the wind, no doubt, sending up protection prayers to the heavens for the climbers.

The clouds became more thick and menacing and we could see the snow falling in the distance. Relunctantly, we decided to head back to our lodge. Halfway home it started snowing and made the world a winter wonderland. It was a perfect ending to an exciting day. top

New Heights

timGorek Shep: Some would say it isn't the destination, but the journey. And certainly, 12 days into our trek into Everest's Khumbu Valley, the journey has been fantastic. We have gradually acclimatized from Kathmandu's 1,400 meters (4 595 ft.) to Gorek Shep's 5,170 meters (16,962 ft.), met lots of good friends in lodges along the way, and walked through amazing scenery.

But today we faced the destination of our journey: the 5,600-meter (18,373-ft.) peak of Kala Pattar. A mountain that, though it requires no guides or climbing experience, could offer us a beautiful view of Mount Everest and its surrounding ranges and take us higher in altitude than we have ever been before. (Pictured here as the smaller of two peaks, next to Pumori at 7,145 m.)

When we started up towards the peak early in the morning, a cloud line hung above 5,400 meters and blocked the view from the top. Many trekkers considered the climb worthless and descended to wait for fair weather. We just remained optimistic and kept moving up the snow-covered trail.

The track rose up the mountain gradually, but at 5 500 meters the air pressure was 50% that of sea level and we struggled just to inhale enough oxygen to keep moving. After 12 days of walking up hills I felt great, and yet I still stopped, gasping for air every few minutes to catch my breath.

We rose slowly up the mountain, scrambled up the final rock pile to the very top and arrived to 5,600 meters and a great view of... clouds!

No big surprise - after all, we were walking in fog. But in the space of five minutes, the clouds lifted up out of view like a curtain on our mountain stage. Suddenly we were surrounded by 360 degrees of the world's largest mountains: Nuptse at 7,861 m, Lhotse at 8,501 m, several peaks over 6,500 m, and of course the king of all - Everest at 8,850. Below it all ran the Khumbu Glacier, sweeping miles of rock and ice down towards the lowlands at a rate of four inches per day.

I sat thunderstruck and felt a genuine sense of joy. The immensity of these surroundings humbled me in a way that is indescribable, like standing on a cliff overlooking the Grand Canyon, but without the roads, phones, cars, and help nearby. I'd walked 12 days to get here, dealt with diarrhea and sleeping in the cold. I'd cast off the warm sense of security from my life at home. And now I felt fully alive on top of the world.

This is what my year is all about - learning to live life as fully as possible. top

A view of the Khumbu Glacier from Kala Pattar, 5600 meters (18,300+ feet) above sea level. The majestic peak of Pumori stands at 7161 meters (23,494 feet), rising almost 1500 meters higher than the peak of Kala Pattar below it. The first rays of morning hit a peak near Everest. It is thought in this Buddhist area of Nepal that prayer flags release blessings of compassion into wind. Prayer stones carved along paths in Nepal are thought to release blessings of compassion to those who walk by. When turned clockwise, prayer wheels, like this one at the Tengboche Monastery, are thought by Buddhists to release blessings of compassion.

Gokyo Region, Nepal

Sore Body

michellePhortse Tenga: My whole body aches! We have been walking for 14 days straight up steep mountains, down into valleys, and back up more mountains. Today we walked six hours until my body refused to go any further and we have camped out in a very basic lodge with thin plywood walls, no insulation or heating. There is not much to do here. Tim and Catherine play cards and sip lemon tea to pass the time. Although it is only four in the afternoon I am already in my sleeping bag, resting my weary body.

I wear several hats on my head and Tim laughs, saying I look foolish. But I do not care, I just want to be warm. It just started raining. I look out the window and watch a wet cow saunter by, nibbling on grass, surrounded by tall pines and rhododendron plants. ItÆs beautiful here and I wish I had enough energy to explore the nearby river shore and forest. Instead, I long for nightfall, so I can sleep and start over tomorrow with renewed energy.

We have finished out two week trek to the Everest Base Camp and today began the Gokyo trek û up into the high mountains along a mountain valley to see glacier lakes and different views of Everest. The next two days will be tough - the trail climbs consistently over 1 000 meters. I am thankful for some rest time. top

Happy and Warm

timI'm looking out our lodge window at a row of trekkers in tents. As they pace back and forth warming themselves in the bitter cold wind, I reflect how happy I am that I'm in a warm sunroom heated by a woodstove.

There are many ways to trek in Nepal. We are "teahouse trekking" and ironically enough, we are in relative comfort while the others freeze because we chose the less expensive option. The people outside have paid thousands of dollars for guides to guide, cooks to cook, and teams of porters to carry tents (dining, sleeping, and toilet), tables, stoves, food, and gear.

As independent travelers, we sleep and eat in the many stone lodges along the way. They are simple, yet cozy and comfortable. We have even hired two porters to split between five people, at only $9 per porter per day. So as I sit here in my $1.50 a night room and sleep on a real mattress, I wonder why anyone would pay thousands for a 21 day trek when one can be more comfortable paying only the $300 that it will cost me. top

At the Top of Gokyo Ri

michelleStanding at the top of Gokyo Ri I breath in deeply, filling my lungs with the cold air which carries the scent of remote wilderness. It snowed all day yesterday and the landscape, as far as the eye can see, sparkles white in the sunlight. Rich turquoise water peaks through the edge of a snow covered glacier lake below. Boulders, silt and snow decorate the huge glacier in the valley. From this height the village of Gokyo seems so far away - our lodge is just a tiny speck and the herd of yaks living in the adjoining field is undetectable. Mountain ranges fill the horizon: Nuptse, Cholatae, Kangchung, Makalu, and the most famous, Everest. I think of all the people who have died trying to climb to its top and the sacrifices and risks people take to fulfill their dreams.

Others who had also risen at dawn to climb the peak sit on rocks, taking in the views, snapping pictures, and resting. Black ravens perch on rocks nearby hoping for crumbs from trekkers eating biscuits. I had seen animal tracks in the snow as I ascended up the trail. I let my imagination run and imagined a snow leopard prowling on the peak. Reaching the top, I was disappointed to realise it was only the prints of a dog, who now lay exhausted in the snow. I recognised the dog from the day before where in the village I had watched him bark and nip playfully at the yaks. I stoop down, pet him, and offer him some peanuts which he gratefully accepts.

I start to descend as the sun gets higher. People bound past me, hurrying down. But I descend slowly. For one reason, the snow is melting and the trail is slippery. But I also go slowly because I want to stop every few moments to absorb the view. This will be the last peak I climb on this trek and I don't know when I will ever see views like this again.

At one point I pause to watch an eagle soar above in the sky. Its mighty wings spread, it circles round and round. I marvel at its freedom. Another trekker, a young woman, stops next to me to also watch. We say nothing, just look up and smile, sharing in the sacredness of the moment. After a while, the eagle flies away, lost in the vivid blue sky and I continue on. I wonder how many things I've missed in life because I was in a hurry or too busy to look around. I vow when I return home to try to live a quieter, simpler life - one where I take time to look up. top

A green valley in Nepal meets the snowline. The ice covered surface of the 3rd Gokyo lake.

Gokyo Region, Nepal

Perfect Colors

michelleDole: Hiking down the thin mountain trail I am in awe of my surroundings. The smell of damp earth greets my nose, I listen to the brook as it flows past my feet, and I try hard to memorize the details of my surroundings: the bark peeling from the trees, the change of light as clouds pass over the sun, the white magnolias as they bloom.

I study the colors and can't help but think they are perfect. Perfect is the green of the moss on the rocks, the red of the bird's belly as it flys overhead, the blue of the sky, the purple of the crocus flower, the white of the snow covering the mountains.

Up here, colors are richer, brighter, and more alive. It might be because the air is so clean and unpolluted that the colors are more vivid. I am more convinced though, the truth lies in the eye of the beholder. Traveling for such a long time has given me new eyes to see. The colors at home are just as perfect û in the flowers, butterflies, and sunsets. But here I see them, appreciate them, and cherish them.

One of the most profound results of travel is my new appreciation for nature, the environment and our need to protect it. Over the past year we have visited rainforests, marshes, desert, mountains, tropical beaches, glaciers, and jungle and seen multitudes of animals in the wild. My heart has been full with the beauty and diversity of the earth. Equally, my heart has been hurt by the pollution, deforestation, and disrespect I have witnessed.

I know I am a changed person for what I have seen. I am now much more aware of how much water and electricity I use, which items I can recycle and which I can not. I feel much more like a partner to the earth instead of only viewing natural resources as something to use - a valuable lesson in today's world.

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A green valley in Nepal meets the snowline. The ice covered surface of the 3rd Gokyo lake.

Namche Bazaar Area, Nepal

Civilization

timNamche Bazaar: We had just arrived back from our trek to Namche Bazar, the nearest place to what one could call civilization. (That is, if one defines civilization by the number of bakeries with real pizza ovens, stores selling Snickers, electric lights in the outhouses, and telephones - it is still a six-day walk to the nearest road.)

We headed straight down to one of the bakeries, ordered pizzas and beers, and prepared to lounge away the later afternoon in the bakery's comfortable sun room, which had an atmosphere somewhere between a ski lodge and a Starbucks.

A bar out front cranked Bob Marley tunes that seemed harsh to my ear. Bob Marley playing disturbing music? Bob Marley, a man whose tunes provide the ambient noise in almost every guesthouse restaurant in the entire world, annoying me?

It took me a while, but then it hit me. For over two weeks I've been listening only to natural sounds - the sounds of yaks being called and the ring of the bells around their necks, my own footsteps and breathing, wind through the mountains flapping Buddhist prayer flags, birds singing, avalanches crashing in the distance, soft conversation. It has been a quiet two weeks without cars, auto rickshaws, radios, yelling, and other noises of the city. top

A view of Namche Bazaar from above. Seemingly small, this town offers plenty for trekkers to dream about while they hike farther up the mountain - a return to a pizza baked in a real pizza oven and a hot shower. A calf gets a closer look at my camera lens.

Market Day

michelleSaturday is market day in Namche Bazaar. Locals walk for miles to sell their wares or buy weekly supplies. The market takes place at one end of town on stone-walled terraced levels, merchants displaying their goods on blankets spread on the ground. Like a department store, everything is laid out in sections: goats, chickens, and butchered meat on the top level, clothes and spices on the second level, and miscellaneous items such as eggs, batteries, incense, and yak cheese on the bottom level. It is a crowded sea of activity with people pushing and shoving to move forward, dogs barking, roosters crowing, tourists clicking cameras, women socializing, men bargaining, and merchants yelling out prices.

Yesterday, walking eight hours from Gokyo, we passed many women walking to Namche for the market. A procession of laughing, chattering women, I could tell this was an important weekly social event. Without radios, television, and roads in this remote region, market day must be an anticipated time to see friends and buy much needed items. top

Trekkers

michelleWhat kind of people hike in the Everest region? We have been pleasantly surprised at the diverse group of people we have met. One would assume a trek of this nature would only be for the young and fit. But we found, more than anything, it is for those with adventurous spirits. For those of you who want to do a trek like this but feel you are too old or unfit, here are some inspiring trekkers we met along the way:

- A 72-year-old Swedish man with a pace maker and replaced hip.

- A woman in a leg brace and limp, hiking the trek for the second time.

- Mark, whose blind brother, Erik, is climbing to the top of Everest! Mark had walked with Erik to Base Camp and was heading back down the mountain when we met him. Imagine, climbing to the summit blind! top

A view of Namche Bazaar from above. Seemingly small, this town offers plenty for trekkers to dream about while they hike farther up the mountain - a return to a pizza baked in a real pizza oven and a hot shower. A calf gets a closer look at my camera lens.

Kathmandu, Nepal

Our Return to Civilization

bothAfter a helicopter ride, plane ride, and taxi ride, we are back in busy Kathmandu. We have returned to the comforts usually taken for granted: sinks, running water, hot showers, fresh fruit, electricity, clean clothes, and internet access.

It is time to give our tired bodies a break - so the most walking we will do in the next day or so is to the nearest coffee shop! top

Butter lamps burn on the stairs of Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. Crowds climb the stairs to the Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. Buddha's eyes peer from behind prayer flags at a stupa near the massive Bodhnath temple. Crowds and incense smoke circle the stupa at Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. A woman sells dried chilies, garlic, ginger, and other dry goods from a booth in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. People gather to talk and buy vegetables from a market in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. A collection of brass Buddhas and other religious items for sale in Kathmandu. A sadhu, or Hindu holy man, poses for a photograph in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. Sadhus are Hindu holy men who live beggar-like existences in their search for enlightenment. This one lives a profitable existence in Kathmandu, charging tourists for photographs. A rickshaw carries its bloody passenger through Durbar Square, located in the center of Kathmandu. Nepalese Buddha eyes peer from the stupa of Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath). A slaughtered goat gets butchered in Kathmandu, Nepal. Two men try to keep the stupa at Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) brightly whitewashed during an important Buddhist celebration. A woman stands next to Kathmandu's Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath) during Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of Buddha's birthday 2545 years ago. Four rickshaw drivers wait for business on a busy Kathmandu street. A woman buys oranges from a vender who carts his goods around on his bicycle. Colorful decorations adorn the back of a Nepalese rickshaw. A view from up high of Kathmandu's skyline.

Pokhara, Nepal

Tough Life

timThe Lakeside area of Pokhara is a touristy little center that marks the beginning and the end of most trekker's visit to the Annapurna region of Nepal.

We are here with lots of good friends from our Everest trip. Since yesterday, we have done nothing but sip cappuccinos, drink beer, and pack on all the weight we lost from our trek in the areas many fine restaurants. top

Chitwan, Nepal

Jungle Walk

michelleRoyal Chitwan National Park lies close to the border of India, in a subtropical plain. Home to rhinoceros, tigers, sloth bears, monkeys, deer, and over 450 types of birds, it is a superb place to view wildlife. On our first morning visiting the park we decided to take a canoe ride into the park and from there, walk through the jungle on a guided trek. Walking through the jungle is not particularly safe, but it is the most exciting way to see the wildlife up close.

Floating down the river in a dug-out canoe offered a front row seat to the bird life: white egrets stood gracefully on the water's edge, a huge stork (the largest I have ever seen) stood in a small cove eating in seclusion, a rust colored duck dunked happily, kingfishers sang along the shore while sandpipers peered out of their nests, holes in the sandy river bank. The variety and multitude of birds was amazing.

Forty minutes down stream the canoe hit the shore with a thud and our two guides jumped out. Immediately they both started jumping up and down in frantic motions - I thought is must be a strange Nepalese ritual dance asking the gods for protection before entering the jungle. But then I understood their funny movements when I saw a snake slithering between their unprotected flip-flopped feet and escaping into the river. Welcome to the jungle.

We walked across a sandy area and entered woods. The guides stopped to give us brief "survival" lessons:

Lesson 1: Rhinos have terrible eyesight but have keen senses of smell and hearing. Their bad eyesight makes them vulnerable so they compensate by charging when they sense danger. So upon sighting a rhino, climb the nearest tree, scaling at least eight feet off the ground. If there are no trees, throw your backpack to the ground to cause a distraction and then run in a zigzag line (rhinos have a hard time turning their large bodies quickly). As if that wasn't enough to make me cautious, the guide informed us it was rhino mating season and the male rhinos are much more aggressive than usual. In fact, a Nepalese student had been killed the previous month by a charging rhino.

Lesson 2: Sloth bears can be extremely aggressive. When encountering a sloth bear gather in a close group and start yelling and waving your arms, pretending to be one large foe. Both our guides carried large intimidating sticks to defend the group in case of an attack. Later, they admitted of all the animals in the park, they most feared the bear.

Lesson 3: Tigers hunt by night and would be a rare sight. If one did attack, there is not much we could do about it, so try not to worry. Very comforting.

None of these lessons made me feel particularly good about our walk but now there was no turning back. We were in the heart of the jungle, far from any roads. Lessons over, we began our trek. Every tree I passed I wondered if I could climb. As a kid I climbed many trees, but that was decades ago and I am not so confident in my climbing abilities now. The best time to perfect rusty skills is not when a rhino is charging, but it is a good inspiration to try.

A couple meters later the branches overhead began crashing and swaying. Gray Langur monkeys jumped through treetops, fleeing from our intruding group. Soon we passed wild chickens and then barking deer in a small clearing. Barking deer are quite small and bark like a dog when alarmed. The amount of wildlife we saw in ten minutes of walking amazed me.

Our group left the wooded area and entered grassland scattered with small trees. The elephant grass, taller than our heads, surrounded us and made it impossible to see more than a couple meters in any direction. As we followed a dirt trail the thought we must be crazy to walk in the midst of wild animals crossed my mind several times and I gave Tim stern glances to communicate this. Careful not to make too much noise we talked in whispers and made our steps as light as possible. The temperature was scorching hot and the humidity so thick I could swim in it. Sweat dripped off our noses and down our backs.

Suddenly, both guides stopped and motioned us to stand still. My body froze and so did my heart. Not far ahead two rhinos grazed. I could see the big round behind of the closest rhino and watched as it slowly turned toward us. The guides made quick upward hand movements signaling us to climb a tree and at lightning speed I quickly scaled the nearest tree, my heart beating so hard I was sure it would break through my chest. High off the ground I had a clear view of the closest rhino. It was a magnificent creature with gray thick skin resembling layered metal armour.

It's ears perked forward and it's nostrils widened, taking in deep breaths of human and absorbing our presence. Tim was still looking for a tree to climb when the rhino began running and let out a thunderous roar. I screamed and could only breathe again when Tim was safely high in a tree and the rhino had passed. We waited in our trees for what seemed a very short time when the guides told us to climb down. I think I could have stayed up there all day. I hugged the tree, thanking it for being there for me when I need it and descended. It took all my courage to begin walking again for the last few minutes had been some of the most frightening in my life. Only four more hours of walking left!

The rest of the walk was comparatively uneventful. Thankfully, we had no more live rhino encounters but saw lots of evidence of their proximity - huge fresh heaps of rhino dung, deposited to mark their territory greeted us often and their immense footprints in the soft mud reminded us to remain alert. By lunchtime we were safely back in town and I was never so glad to see civilization. People eating at outdoor restaurants, motorbikes, and souvenir shops insured me there were no charging rhinos around - besides, there weren't any good trees to climb. top

Elephant Safari

timMichelle and I sat on the back of the elephant with two other passengers. The four of us were crammed uncomfortably on top of a square railed platform with our backs to each other and our legs hanging off the corners like the four points of a compass. The driver sat along the elephant's neck. He steered its leathery ears with his bare feet and we lumbered down the dirt road to the Royal Chitwan National Park.

The park entrance is quite far from the elephant camp, so we spent the first hour bouncing through the villages and forests nearby. Quiet village life went on around us - a group of basket-wielding women in hot red and pick saris laughed and socialized on the way to the fields. An old man cast his fishing net across the knee-deep water of a meandering stream. A young woman made breakfast on the adobe hearth outside her mud and thatched wood home. Close to the park entrance, herds of water buffalo grazed in a green pasture. We tiptoed through it on a multi-ton elephant and although I was dying to take photos of the people, I couldn't bring myself to do it from the back of an elephant. It would have had too much of a "look mommy, natives!" feel to it, don't you think?

Everything changed once we entered the fringe of the park. The foliage deepened, the bird life hummed around us, and we spotted a rhino after only five minutes. To our surprise, the elephant driver bounced us to within a foot of the mud puddle the two-ton animal wallowed in. The rhino barely lifted his head to look at us before dropping it back into the mud apathetically.

He was built to fight, like a prehistoric tank. Thick wrinkled body armor protected him from head to toe and even his tail fit neatly into a protective fold that kept it free from danger. I could picture him fighting off anything from a Jurassic Park movie.

Seeing a rhino on an elephant was light years away from yesterday's experience on foot. We didn't need to worry about climbing trees, for one thing. But even more amazing is that the animals in the park seemed oblivious to our presence. We were invisible to everything, like the two sleeping sabar deer we spotted. If they had spotted us on foot, I would have only seen their rear ends running away. But today, they simply looked up at us a few feet nearby and went back to sleep.

After we realized that we were safe up high on our elephant, we began to talk freely. The rhino's diamond shaped ears perked up with catlike twitches, but his eyes told him that the elephant in front was too large to charge. He looked up at us only occasionally and pretended we weren't there.

Shortly after we moved along, a brilliant blue peacock sailed from tree to tree above our heads. We passed rhesus macaque monkeys on the ground, cuckoos calling their own names, and wild chickens scuttling in the underbrush. But I really wanted to see another rhino and was happy to see not one, but two munching on grass in a clump of trees. Again, we stepped in close and watched freely as they ate.

Five minutes after leaving this pair, we crested a small hill and almost - literally - ran into a rhino on the other side. The driver looked as startled as us.

When it was time to leave, we ambled back to town alongside another group on an elephant. The drivers joked and knew each other well and egged on by us, soon started racing each other down the dirt streets through the village. Racing clearly wasn't a common occurrence here, because the same villagers who didn't look up this morning now shook with laughter as we passed.

Our elephant deftly lumbered into the lead, but the opposition was clearly faster. So our driver zigzagged us across the road like a racecar driver guarding his lead. But our lead proved hard to hold and the challenger soon raced ahead of us. Happily, we stole back to the front when the other driver stopped paying attention.

It has to be said that racing an elephant is really uncomfortable. It is like racing in a car with wood seats and egg shaped wheels - you just bounce in all directions. But in the end, we arrived to the finish line first and were rewarded by being the first group to hop off and soothe our aching butts. top

An Asian rhino takes a break from the heat in the Royal Chitwan National Park. XXXXThis park, located in the lowlands of southern Nepal, covers 932 square km and protects Asian one-horned rhinos, crocodiles, sloth bears, leopards, and Royal Bengal tigers. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Moments before this photo was taken, this family was fishing illegally from the Rapti River in the Royal Chitwan National park. They are seen here being yelled at by a park ranger who is sharing my canoe.XXXXThis park, located in the lowlands of southern Nepal, covers 932 square km and protects Asian one-horned rhinos, crocodiles, sloth bears, leopards, and Royal Bengal tigers. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. A man crosses the Rapti River of the Royal Chitwan National Park. XXXXThis park, located in the lowlands of southern Nepal, covers 932 square km and protects Asian one-horned rhinos, crocodiles, sloth bears, leopards, and Royal Bengal tigers. The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.