His Holiness, the DL
Dharamsala, India - (map)
I hoped to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama while in Dharamsala, so I was pleased to learn that our arrival coincided with two weeks of his annual teachings. All I needed to do was show my passport, fill out an application, relinquish my camera and pocket knife to security, and I was allowed entrance to see the man himself.
Most of the foreign attendees listened to the teachings from outside the auditorium in the less crowded backside of the temple. We spent a couple of days there as well, soaking in the scene and listening to the English translation through an FM radio.
Since I am not here specifically for the teachings, I tended to be far less concentrated than the average attendee and found myself laughing at the monkeys playing in the trees, gazing at a storm brewing over the mountain vista, or watching the eagles circling in thermals above the pine trees. The temple is an attractive place to learn and I envied those who took to the time to listen to all two weeks of sessions.
So many people had traveled so far to listen to this one person, a leader famous for his compassion and positive attitude. The man sat radiantly in the front of a sea of maroon robes. And though I couldn't understand him speaking his native tongue, his laughter came from the heart and needed no translation. I'm so glad I had a chance to see him in person.
Delhi, India - (map)
Walking down the street in India is like participating in a complicated obstacle course testing one's ability and competence. It is essential to always be aware of your surroundings. A careless step could land your foot squarely in a fresh steaming cow pie or black sludge of a sewer gutter. A wrongly angled foot, knee, or elbow is in danger of being smashed by a vehicle flying by.
Cows, which dot the streets, add special pizzazz to any stroll. They might look innocent but they actually offer several hazards. It is wise to keep your eyes on them as you pass. A rising tail is an important sign to hurry by. When a cow rids itself of excrement many times it shoots out like a cannon. If you are in the line of fire it could be a smelly, nasty mess. Equally important is to watch the head and horns, as some cows have unpleasant dispositions and sharp horns. A couple of days ago I was standing in a narrow alley in Jaisalmer when I was pushed hard from behind. Shocked, I turned to find a cow's lowered head and horns pointing at my chest. It kept bumping me hard, pushing me farther and farther into the dead-end alley. (Luckily the distance between the horns was so wide that they framed me on each side and missed me entirely.) I was alarmed and felt trapped. Locals sitting on roofs above peered down, laughing and pointing at my predicament. Finally, a man with a stick came to my rescue by pushing the cow to one side, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze by. It was a close call.
To successfully complete the obstacle course, you must watch your stamina. The constant barrage from rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, and touts can be draining. The easiest solution is to hide in your hotel, which becomes an oasis from the hassles. But locked in a hotel room you won't see India! Therefore, a positive attitude is essential - smile at shopkeepers, joke with the rickshaw drivers, and ignore the touts (who lie, misdirect and cheat). Remaining calm and positive keeps your dignity and your energy.
India is two thirds the size of the US but its population is over one billion - lots of people, lots of poverty. Beggars add a whole other element to the scene. Children with large eyes tugging persistently at your sleeve, mothers pointing at babies in their arms, lepers without limbs, deformed men on wheeled carts, old women pleading for a rupee confront you when you step out into the street. It is emotionally draining to see all this human suffering and it's a struggle to know how to help. I know plopping down a few coins doesn't really alleviate the problem and it's impossible to help everyone who asks. I don't give any money to children beggars because I was told many times parents keep their children out of school deliberately so they can beg instead. I don't want to encourage this practice. I fight guilt knowing I can afford a trip around the world and yet many of these people can barely afford to eat. There are no easy answers.
If you finish your walk unscathed, you can breathe a sigh of relief. It is not easy to be flung into so much commotion, to be the target of unwanted attention, and to constantly keep your guard up. But if you can successfully avoid the obstacles, you will be richly rewarded with new sights, sounds, and experiences. India is a place like no other.
Just Follow Me
Delhi, India - (map)
We had just stepped off a harrowing 13-hour night bus and the last thing we wanted to do was to put up with Delhi's famous touts. But there we were, dressed as suckers, wearing backpacks and lost expressions while searching for guidance from a Lonely Planet map.
With a fair way to walk, our journey turned into quite a game. Here were the rules:
- Our object was to buy tickets at the New Delhi Railway Station's Tourist Booking Office.
- The object of the touts was to misdirect us to private tour companies, who would then lie to us about the availability of rail tickets and offer their bus tickets or tours as an alternative.
- These private tour companies were always labeled as being "Official Government Tourist Offices".
- Touts would say ANYTHING to get you to come with them, as in:
- I am a student and here to help. Just follow me.
- The office is over there (Pointing to wrong direction). Just follow me.
- The tourist booking office is closed today. Just follow me.
- There is a major festival and the streets are closed, so you must go to the other office. Just follow me.
- Etc. Just follow me.
We crossed several major touristy areas in Delhi and as more "helpful" people approached us from all sides, more rules became apparent. Our journey was like a real life logic puzzle:
IF 100% of the people in Delhi who offer unsolicited help lie...
BUT 75% of the people whom YOU ask for help tell the truth to the best of their knowledge...
HOWEVER 50% of the people who try to answer truthfully do not know the answer, but make it up to avoid looking foolish...
HOW many wrong turns will you make walking to the Tourist Booking Office?
It didn't take long before we ignored the tout's constant advances and stopped listening. Even walking up to the second floor office, under a big sign labeled Tourist Booking Office with an arrow pointing up the stairs, someone pointed us into an incorrect office. I couldn't believe their lies - one after the other and all with a straight face. It was comical to a degree unmatched in 10 months of travel.
Namche Bazaar Area, Nepal
Beginning the Trek
Namche Bazaar Area, Nepal - (map)
The 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.
Namche Bazaar Area, Nepal - (map)
Our 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.
Everest Region, Nepal - (map)
Tengboche: 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.
Everest Region, Nepal - (map)
Tengboche: 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.
Everest Region, Nepal - (map)
Pangboche: 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.
Everest Base Camp
Everest Region, Nepal - (map)
We 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.
Everest Region, Nepal - (map)
Gorek 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.
Gokyo Region, Nepal
Gokyo Region, Nepal - (map)
Phortse 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.
Happy and Warm
Gokyo Region, Nepal - (map)
I'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.
At the Top of Gokyo Ri
Gokyo Region, Nepal - (map)
Standing 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.