Namaste! Long time no post! We’ve actually tried to make the post five times now, and each and every time there’d be a problem with the internet, or the power would go out before we could finish & upload it. We also did a 5 day trek, which further delayed an update. We’ve used the time to write quite a long post, and take a lot of photos.
Here is a pic of Everest on our ride into Kathmandu, Nepal from Paro, Bhutan.
Anyway, after a Shawn had a slow recovery from a virus or something in Kathmandu we went to Phokhara, Nepal. Phokhara was an amazingly beautiful and laid back town with stunning views of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas reflected in a lake. We could hardly imagine a better place for Shawn to recover. We both agree that this is the most relaxed we have felt so far on this trip. We woke up really late every morning and went to bed really early as well. It’s been nice to take a little time out from our go-go-go itinerary.
We have met many great people who are doing similar trips as us (we are not the only crazy people in this world!) and some for even LONGER! Many of these people were telling us how great the trekking is up higher in the Annapurnas. Even though Shawn was just starting to feel better, we knew we would regret it if we left Nepal without trekking through at least a little alpine scenery, so we decided to go up and see sunrise from Poon Hill- a 5-day round trip.
About the time we decided to do the trek, a little guy (under 5’) showed up at the Asian T-House- the little hole-in-the wall spot we’d usually eat at. He was the cousin of the proprietor, and happened to be a trekking guide looking for work. We weren’t sure if we even wanted a guide, but we were running short on time in Nepal and hadn’t seen much yet. We couldn’t afford the time of making a wrong turn, and his price was only 500 rupees per day- about $8. We decided to swallow our pride and take him on.
To our surprise, the trek took place mostly in jungle. We had only seen one mountain by the end of our first day, but the scenery was beautiful all the same. Unlike trekking in N. America, trekking in Nepal is fully supported. Every few hours along the trail, there are little towns with little hotels and restaurants. Every day you think “OK…NOW we’re somewhere truly remote!” only to come upon a town of 200 people, complete with internet (albeit REALLY expensive and unreliable) and a concrete basketball court, all brought in on mules! Rooms could be had for as little as 100 rupees, or $1.60, which provides a couple of beds, linens, and maybe a light. There was never any heat, but it beats the hell out of a tent, and you can’t complain about the price. A private bathroom and shower (solar or wood heated) could make the bill spiral to as high as $4.80 in some cases, however. To get the room rates, you had to eat at the hotel, too. That was fine since all menus had the same items at the same, standard prices- which were slightly higher than in town due to the remote locations. Most of the meals that we had on the trek were cooked over a wood burning stove and were very fresh. Many times we spotted the cooks running out to the garden to pick some fresh vegetables and herbs to add to our dishes. The dish that is the most prevalent in Nepal is the dal bhat, which means dal and rice. Dal is a lentil soup and is poured over the rice. Dal bhat also comes with greens, curried potatoes (which were Shawn’s favorite) and pickle (this can mean many things, but was never cucumber and was frequently radish).
Here is a pic of the dal bhat.
and…. Here is on of the rooms we stayed in for 100 rupees ($1.60).
One of the first notable events of the trek was making a “donation” of 100 rupees per day to the Maoist gangs who control the area. They hand out pamphlets saying how all their donations are voluntary, and how they abhor the very idea of extortion. Nevertheless, the week before we arrived a Swiss man was severely beaten for not paying, and they give you a receipt so you can prove you “donated” the appropriate amount on the way down. Strange you need to prove anything when it is voluntary. Although it pained us to do so, we paid the extortion of 800 rupees so we could get on with our trip with less risk of injury.
The highlight of the trek was the lookout tower on “Poon Hill”, which, at 10,570’ is about as high as Sandia Peak in Albuquerque. We started climbing at about 5:45 AM with Jo and Suze- two young women from New Zealand that we’ve coincidentally bumped into at every major location on the entire trip. Sunrise was beautiful, but very similar to the views of sunset and sunrise we were getting most days. It was incredibly beautiful and it was even more fascinating watching the human activity in the Annapurna area. People would use the trail for transport for all of the goods that the area required. We saw rucksacks full of grains, rice, gas, chickens…all being carried by porters who were amazingly strong and quick. They made us feel VERY unfit! Of course, mules were also used as porters and we would see teams of them regularly with their bells ringing going down the trail. Also, teams of sheep would flood the path and we would need to move off to the side to let them pass. Water Buffalo would frequently stand idle in the trail giving us an inquisitive look, but not budging. All the way we saw people living out their lives- bathing and doing laundry in the rivers or the community faucets, drying food out in the sun, gardening, and sometimes singing and playing games with family.
The trek finished off descending through a small snow field and down staircases (there are stairs EVERYWHERE) through steep canyons full of cascading streams, 40’ rhododendron trees, and 20’ poinsettias. It is also a common site to see the “very Asian” look of terraced rice patties. By this time, unfortunately, some personality quirks of our guide were really getting on our nerves, so we were happy to be finished, but would like to come back to Nepal later to do more of the fantastic trekking that the country has to offer.
On the taxi ride back into town, we were reminded of the incessant noise and honking of Nepali roads. They honk at E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! Oncoming car? Honk. Driving near people or animals? Better honk. Blind corner? Better honk. Behind, or passing, a slower vehicle? Better honk. Is there a tractor or bus trying to back out of the road into a parking spot as quickly as possible? Better lean on the horn for that one. People honk so damn much that it just becomes a very ugly background that people more or less ignore. It still makes me jump, however, when cars honk loudly as they drive past me- while I’m standing on the sidewalk. Frustrating.
Immediately upon our return to Pokhara, we began to make arrangements to see Chitwan National Park- one of the few places where tigers and rhinos still roam free. Since we only had 6 days left in Nepal, we decided a package would be the easiest way to get as many sights in as possible. Just to make sure we had a good time, we decided to skip the super-budget hotels and stay at a slightly more expensive one right on the water.
On the ride out of town, we met David and Sarah- a couple who are currently living in Ohio (although David has spent much of his life in the north west, and even knew where Lucia Falls is). He brought about twice as much photo gear as I did, so we hit it off pretty quick talking about cameras, places to go, mountain biking, etc. They were, coincidentally, staying at the same hotel as we were, and had booked a special “Jeep Photo Safari” through them, which they had been planning for months. It was scheduled to take them to remote areas of the park that few people make it out to. They graciously invited us to go along, which we gladly accepted in lieu of our scheduled itinerary of ‘watching elephants bathe’ and “canoeing’.
After we arrived at the “Tiger Camp” hotel, we visited the elephant breeding center. Out front there were four juvenile (about 6 years old) elephants playing soccer! They were surprisingly good at it- probably better than the average 6-year-old human, and seemed to be having a great time!
Once we went into the center, we were introduced to a baby (Clydesdale sized) elephant, and fed him biscuits. He came running like a dog when he saw treats were being handed out! The rest of the elephants, unfortunately, seemed extremely stressed out and unhappy. Most of them were on chains that would be considered cruelly short for a dog (otherwise they could get a running start and break them). Nearly all of the restrained elephants were exhibiting disturbing, nervous frustrated behavior, such as pacing around, swaying their heads, or poking their tusks into the dirt. The ones that were being “trained” had their front feet tied together and were almost unable to move. Elephant training tends to be a very cruel affair. It was really a sad sight. (As an aside, we just read an article that said a Finnish man is here to teach the mahouts how to train the elephants with incentive rather than punishment, and he’s had a great deal of success. I would’ve thought it amazing that a man from Finland can better train elephants than the people who’ve been doing it for thousands of years, but after spending a few weeks here this doesn’t surprise me anymore). On the way out, we stumbled upon a one-horned rhino. Fewer than 3000 of them remain world wide.
Since we had to wake up early for our Jeep tour in the morning, we decided to turn in at about 8:30 and get some sleep. We tried to take showers, but the water from the solar water heaters had already cooled (funny- the same heaters seemed much more effective up in the mountains). Our room looked better appointed than most rooms we had stayed in, as it should since it was more expensive than any of them. It had a cool tropical feel, with walls that were actually made of bamboo (not just a façade). Of course, that left gaps in the walls, so we were forced to sleep under mosquito canopies. As we lowered the canopies, a bunch of dirt, dust, and debris fell off the top. Strange- where did that come from? My question was answered at about 2:00 in the morning. I had heard occasional scurrying through the night, which I thought were pigeons on the tin roof. After being woken enough times, I found it was not something running on the roof, but something running, and occasionally squeaking, on the bamboo ceiling. Shit- there are rats walking above our heads! After a few ineffectual “go aways!”, I decided to scare them off for good by turning on the lights and banging on the ceiling with a stick. As soon as I did I quickly learned where all of that dirt and debris- no doubt including rat feces, came from. Oh yeah- it is real bamboo planking and not just a façade. Only this time it didn’t seem very cool. I decided to put in earplugs and finish out the night, but before I did I needed to use the bathroom.
When I walked in, I found one of the water valves under the sink had sprung a leak where it joins with the pipe, and was spraying a fine, but powerful, mist of water against the wall. It seems the water at the junction was being retained entirely by Teflon tape instead of copper. I carefully jiggled the pipe and slowed the spray to a fast drip, thankful that switching rooms should be even easier tomorrow.
When our guide, Krishna, woke us in the morning, I first mentioned the rats. He smiled and replied “oh yeah…you have the building with the big vines growing up the banister, so the rats climb up it to go between the roof and ceiling”. What!? He KNEW about this. We were paying $80/day for the room, food and activities- many times more than any place we stayed at in Nepal, and they didn’t even TRY to maintain the same cleanliness standards as the $1.60 rooms in the mountains!? We were not happy. Then, I explained the water mist and the bathroom. He saw the fast drip, smiled, and said “it is OK now”. What…does he think copper heals? I insisted that it was not OK. He reiterated that it was, in fact, better now. I’d had about enough, so I gave the valve a little jiggle. Water came gushing out of the wall in all directions! “Is it still OK?”, I asked. Problem solved.
The night was rough, but we were excited and ready to put that behind us and head out for our Jeep Photo Safari. Krishna said that we were nearly certain to see most animal species in the park, and even had a 25% chance of seeing a tiger- MUCH higher than we expected! As soon as we left town we began seeing a constant flow of animals, including more deer than I’ve ever seen (spotted dear, many with enormous antlers). We weren’t even in the park yet, so our expectations continued to grow. Eventually we came to the river that forms the park boundary. Krishna announced, “from here, we walk”. We replied something to the effect of ‘OK, but we’re really excited to drive further into the park while it is still early, so lets get back to the Jeep soon’. Nope…from here, we would walk the rest of the day! David and Sarah had spent hundreds of hours planning this, and had cancelled a visit to a national park in India so they could visit Chitwan, so they were more than a little surprised. The explanation was the park did not issue driving permits this time of year. I’m sure David and Sarah would’ve liked that information months ago when they were planning the trip, and were receiving emails back from the hotel that a full day, photographic, Jeep safari would be possible. Still, we thought we’d make the most of it, so we walked down toward a canoe to take us across the river. These canoes were made from hollowed kapok logs, and were leaking badly. David and I had about $9000 worth of photo equipment between us, and no sort of water protection for any of it, since we’d be in the Jeep all day. David, an avid whitewater kayaker, stepped into the tippy canoe saying, “This is the stupidest thing I have EVER done”. The water was pretty smooth, and the river was shallow and only about 120’ wide. We all managed to make it through OK, but we later found out that this two-minute river crossing constituted the “canoeing” portion of our package.
After we were across, he began telling us of all the dangers, how we had to be very quiet, and the protocols for avoiding and defending against attacks from various animals, the most dangerous of which were tigers, the extremely rare wild elephants, and rhinos. Oh yeah- now we remembered the other reason why Jeep safaris were better.
We began walking down a trail through 10’ tall grass, which reminded Adam of the velociraptor chase in “Jurassic Park”. It would be impossible to see any kind of wild animal here. Soon we encountered a steady stream of noisily chatting locals carrying heavy loads of grass on their backs, as well as others chopping up deadfall wood with axes. Krishna explained that this was the four days of the year where locals were allowed to go into this part of the park and harvest grass (for feed and roof thatching) and wood. There was so much noise and activity that it was essentially guaranteed to scare off any interesting animal. After several hours of walking we came to a lake, and had finally left most of the human activity (although only by a few hundred yards). There was a large lookout tower, and we were getting hungry, so we decided to climb up and look for animals while we had lunch. All we saw was the distant outline of a crocodile, about ½ a second of a boar running into the woods, and some rhesus monkeys high in the trees- about 10 times further away than we’d seen them from our hotels on the trek. We tried to laugh it off as bad luck, and ate quietly, watching out for approaching animals. Our mood was improving when a Jeep full of happy tourists came casually cruising down the trail we had just spent hours walking down. It seemed like something out of a cheesy movie. We looked at each other, simultaneously laughing and furious. Sarah began to ask Krishna a line of questions of how this could be reconciled. “Saving face” is really important in Asia, so he began replying with a bunch of lame excuses and outright lies. We were getting nowhere, but David and Sarah (who paid twice as much as we did) were plotting ways of getting a refund.
After lunch, we saw a crocodile breeding center and a very stressed out captured tiger all by itself in a cage. Apparently, this tiger had been given a taste for human blood by its mother who would hunt humans to feed to her young. We’d seen about enough, so we began heading out. We saw a few more distant crocodiles, but we mostly encountered the noisy Nepali Wood & Grass Cutter. We completely gave up on being quiet.
The walk back gave us plenty of time to ask Krishna questions though. We later found out the reason we spent so much time in tall grass is because we were never more than a few hundred meters from the river. Remote areas indeed. We also got him to admit that you don’t see much wildlife in the areas where they’re harvesting. Amazing! Why he took us to that spot anyway he could not explain. Furthermore, he said he hadn’t seen a tiger in that area in years. I don’t know how he came up with a 25% chance from that- I guess he must be bad at math.
That night, David and Sarah discussed a refund with the hotel manager. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard so many lame excuses (e.g. you’re in Nepal- you don’t always get what you expect, even though we had everywhere else we had been- we told him that he has a great country and not to talk about his country in this manner) and contradictions in such a short period before. He also said that he didn’t know why they were making such a big deal about the money- implying that tourists have lots of money and we should be more willing just to give it to them, even though they did not deliver the promised services. I have read about this mentality of wanting to get as much tourist money as possible- even trying to rip them off- feeling that they are entitled because we have so much and they have so little. David and Sarah said they’d take it up with his representative in Kathmandu. Oh well- at least we were in a nicer room, although one that still lacked warm water.
The next morning we woke up at 5:15 to get in an elephant ride before our bus ride back to Kathmandu. Our expectations were now low, and we started off with a long walk through town in the freezing cold fog. Much to our relief, however, we found our way into the park. This part was jungle- not just grass, and we, our mahout, and our elephant were the only visitors there for about an hour. The vantage point from 10-15’ up also gave us an excellent view.
We started by seeing several types of deer and some peacocks. They didn’t seem to be afraid of the elephant. Then, we saw a mother rhino with her two year old. On foot or in a car this would be a dangerous situation, but on elephant we were able to approach within about 10’! Now THIS is what we were hoping for. The rhino’s kept an eye on us, but weren’t very concerned with our presence. They merely continued to graze- the little one alternating between grazing and nursing. This was a one horned rhino and Chitwan is one of the only places this endangered animal lives. After about 10 minutes we had to head back to eat a quick breakfast and catch our bus. We were back at 8:00, and had a few minutes to feed our elephant bananas and take some photos. She seemed to be a particularly gentle elephant, and was aptly named “Good Girl”.
Of course, our 8:00 AM car ride back to the hotel didn’t arrive until 8:40. When we returned, we found out that six guys on the staff went up to David and Sarah and stated “you’ll pay now our there’ll be a big problem”. Nice. Needless to say, we don’t recommend the Tiger Camp hotel in spite of it’s prime riverside location and the fact that the staff was actually incredibly polite and helpful when they weren’t covering up their own ineptness. I think they get a constant flow of business due to connections with travel agents and their location, which has probably made them complacent. This probably worked fine in the past, but this is the internet age, when “word of mouth” can spread globally in minutes. Needless to say, I’m going to post this story on some hotel review and travel forum sites. It’ll probably cost them thousands of dollars.
That brings me to some other strange things we’ve encountered here. The mentality here is just so different, and we found ourselves not being able to comprehend many of the cultural habits. For instance, nearly every night there is a power outage. Instead of raising the price of power, so the people who NEED it can get it, and to encourage more efficient use and more generation capacity, they have rolling blackouts across the country, on schedule, EVERY night. In fact, we’re in a blackout as I write this! The same mentality has lead to long lines at the gas pumps. Also, in order to preserve their ecotourism industry, they’ve banned tree cutting along the Annapurna trails and in Chitwan, which is a good idea. They must go through the forest searching for dead wood instead. The unfortunate side effect is that it forces people to risk their lives to climb trees cutting dead branches for lucrative firewood. We encountered a widow with small children whose husband recently died in this manner. Needless to say, firewood is a relatively expensive, rare commodity. Nevertheless, in EVERY place we stayed on the entire trek, they would leave the front door wide open while they were huddled around the fireplace. We’d shut the door, and the next local who’d pass through would leave it open again. We’d even ask why they always leave the door open, and they’d just shrug. They don’t even ATTEMPT to seal windows and doors, or even put them on straight, even though they have the resources to use concrete in their building construction in these remote locations (in other words, it would be no problem to get a little weather stripping out there). Another example of inefficiency was at the canoe river crossing. Each canoe had a pilot, but the ones that leaked badly enough would have a bailer, who would furiously bail water all day. It seems that one days labor done elsewhere could’ve afforded enough tar to seal the canoes for the next few months, but this just doesn’t seem to cross people’s minds. Another example is idle workers. Many shops will have four or five employees who never seem to do anything. The shop where we rented our trekking gear had four people working when we returned our equipment. The next morning, it was still lying in the middle of the floor where we set it down. They seem to depend on the two or three suckers per month who’ll pay full-price for their goods, which can give one person a months wage in a few minutes. During our “safari”, instead of the guide driving the jeep, we had a separate driver who just sat in the car for seven hours while we hiked. The examples go on and on, but it is a wonder to me why people haven’t figured out how simple it would be to make big improvements to their lives and their economy, but the socialist/communists in them seem to think that giving four or five people idle/non-productive jobs is better than growing the economy and increasing productivity. This is just not how we think, or what we believe in, so this was difficult, as well as interesting to see. Nepal is a very unstable country politically and I hope that the situation improves for them, but it might be difficult when they teach the children in the schools that wealth is evil (which they DO teach, at least in the schools in the Maoist controlled areas if not elsewhere).
Now, we just finished up our first full day back in Kathmandu. We spent most of the day going through our photos and resting from the past 8 solid days of hiking and traveling. Tomorrow, we hope to finally see some of the local sites. Then, on the 22nd, we fly back to Bangkok. There, we’ll spend a few days making arrangements for the next few legs of our trip. Our tentative next step is to float down the Mekong River from northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. Everyone we have ever met or heard of who has been there says “I wish I could’ve spent more time there”. I guess that makes it the latest “backpacker hangout”, but this one is still relatively unspoiled. We plan to spend about three weeks there as a vacation from our vacation. After moving every few days and visiting eight countries in two months, we’re ready for some down time. Hopefully there’ll be a place to update our website there, but seeing as they don’t even have an ATM or paved road in Laos, I’m not counting on it. Fortunately, we’ll finally have time to edit all the video we’ve been taking, so you should see some up on the site pretty soon. After Laos, we’ll try to make a quick stop at the ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and then we’ll be off to some of the beautiful beaches of Indonesia.