Monday, November 17, 2008
The daylight was spreading across the sky when I arrived at the airport. Once there, I found myself amongst several mini vans unloading groups of tourists with their shiny new boots, jackets and back packs all looking like they had been purchased just minutes before. For each person, there was also a bright blue waterproof duffel bag that was bigger than any bag I have seen in my life. Staring at the size of the bags, I felt sorry for the porters that would have to carry the useless and excess things that these people felt they could not live without on their short trip to Everest Base Camp. What was inside their bags? A change of clothes for each day of the fifteen day journey they would be making? A stack of books for when they were bored in the afternoons? I have no idea what these people needed for the trip but as I looked at my backpack, which I previously thought heavy, I was glad to be independent, not relying on porters and guides to make the climb to base camp for me.
After waiting in line outside the airport, I made my way through the so called security line and waited on my Slovakian friends, Joe and Maria, who would be joining me on the trek. I met Joe and Maria while trekking in the Annapurna Region. We had eaten lunch at a small tea house towards the end of the Annapurna circuit and were all heading into the Sanctuary for the walk to Annapurna Base Camp. That night, after an incredibly long and difficult day of trekking that ended with an enormous uphill climb in the rain, we found ourselves at the same guest house in the village of Chomerong. That night at dinner we found we had a lot in common and quickly became friends. For the rest of the trek, Joe Maria and I found ourselves walking at the same pace and sleeping in the same tea houses, sometimes even sharing a room when sufficient space wasn't available. Since the three of us were all planning on heading to the Everest Region after the trek and though Joe and Maria already had flights, we decided if I managed to fly on the same day we would make the journey together.
It didn't take long for Joe and Maria to show up and it turned out that we were all actually on the same flight to Lukla, the small mountain town where our trek would begin. At the check in counter, in a typically Asian fashion, the small airline decided I would be going on an earlier flight and rushed me out the door and on to the plane leaving me not knowing exactly what was going on, nor where my backpack had managed to disappear to. I was a bit confused but took the change in stride and hoped there would still be a seat on the mountain side of the plane so that I could take in the views of the Himalayas along the way.
Boarding the small plane, I was towards the back of the line of Sixteen passengers. Since the door was at the back, they all began making their way forward leaving an empty seat at the rear of the plane. With a few passengers still waiting behind, I happily took the last seat on the plane that would provide mountain views from the air. Since a similar plane had crashed into the tiny mountain runway just a week before I said a prayer, buckled my seat belt and hoped everything on our flight would be ok.
The tiny airplane with it's roaring propellers lifted smoothly off the runway and within a few minutes we were flying alongside the Himalayan Mountains. The snow covered peaks lined the entire Northern horizon and were gently lit by the early morning sun. As the short flight continued, I looked out the window to find us flying over and around mountain ridges that were needless to say a little to close for my comfort. It didn't take long before the plane began to descend back towards the ground and as we crossed another mountain ridge, I looked down to see a small Nepali hut and we were close enough to it that I could see the smile on the children looking up at the sky pointing at the airplane that crosses over their home every day. Again, I checked my seat belt as the plane began turning and now rapidly descending with the towering peaks soaring high over head. With a loud thump, the landing gear came down and I could see the tiny runway ahead approaching. Avoiding the nearby mountains, we began our approach and within seconds were on the runway with an enormous concrete wall not very far ahead. With a slight jolt that made me wonder if we were still alive, the plane quickly came to a stop and within seconds, the door was open and we were rapidly rushed off the plane.
Before I was able to traverse the short distance to the tiny terminal, three more planes had landed and mine had already reloaded and was taking off. A helicopter flew in as well and the chaos that had ensued after being the first flight of the day on the ground was gripping. There was only room for four planes at the airport and the flight schedule was a race against time. The mornings here are clear but as the day warms up, the moisture from the mountains begins to rise forming fog and clouds rendering the airport useless. It was one of these clouds which suddenly came in as the airplane that recently crashed was landing causing the accident killing all 19 passengers and crew.
Shortly after I landed, Joe and Maria stepped off another plane and we gathered their bags, ate a quick breakfast, and set off on our trip up the valley. Having had several difficult days in the Annapurna Region as well as plenty of time to make the trek to Base Camp, we agreed not to rush and to take it slowly here. For our first day, we planned on walking about four or five hours and to stay in one of the villages along the way to Namche Bazzar. We began our walk and found that the first couple of hours were mostly down hill. Along the way, we found the views up the valley to be incredible and the weather to be hot and sunny. Though it was early in the morning when we arrived and the air in the mountains was cold enough to make you pull out a jacket, we now found ourselves in shorts and t-shirts sweating profusely looking forward to the cooler air high above.
Eventually, the downhill turned into a series of ups and downs following a cascading turquoise river flowing down from the mountains and glaciers far beyond. By lunch time, we found ourselves at a small village called Monjo, our intended destination for our first day of trekking. We nourished ourselves at a small tea house that served excellent hot chocolate and tasty bowls of soup and decided to push on walking into the afternoon. Looking at the map, we found that Namche Bazzar, a bustling mountain trading town situated at the convergence of four valleys was the next logical stop. Located 700 meters higher than where we were eating, it was a pretty tough climb to make before dark. Feeling pretty good however and ignoring our earlier decision to move slow, we decided it would be easy and pressed on.
The sun was setting after the tiring climb and as we crested the hill, we came over a small ridge to where we could finally see Namche Bazzar. I couldn't believe the size of this town located high in the mountains and so isolated from the world. Isolated from cars and from airplanes by a long and exhausting day of difficult walking. Five and six story buildings were everywhere and you could buy anything from Yak Cheese to Knock off North Face Jackets. Bakeries, souvenir vendors and Internet cafes lined the pathways between the quaint little hotels while porters and yak herders passed by ready to deliver their astoundingly heavy loads. There were tourists everywhere buying and browsing the variety of goods, all which are available in Kathmandu for half the price. It was a fascinating place to be and exactly what I expected along the trek to Everest Base Camp.
It's strange that I have met so many people traveling in Nepal that have no intention of trekking in the Everest Region. It seems to be mostly group tours that were organized from far over seas that are making the trip. Most of the independent travelers I have met tended to set out on shorter and easier walks throughout the country. When I asked them why they have come to Nepal and are not taking the opportunity to see the tallest mountain in the world, they usually respond that they heard there was too many people there. Now if that was actually the only reason, they could easily come in early December or mid March and make the journey practically alone. Sure it might be a bit colder and you walk through snow every now and then but essentially you would find that the trail was empty. Personally, I think they are too scared to attempt a trek at such a high altitude. Of course there is a lot of people here. It is the tallest mountain in the world! What do you expect? It's like going to see the pyramids in Egypt and expecting a full days walk across the desert to where you would have the pyramids to yourself for the day. If you choose to see any of the seven wonders of the world, in this day and age you are going to have to share that experience with a lot of other people!
After a night of eating yak steaks and drinking more hot chocolate, Joe, Maria and I enjoyed a long relaxing breakfast before heading out for the day. We didn't have any idea where we would be sleeping that night but we had taken note of several view points along our intended route and had aspirations of catching our first glimpse of Everest that morning before the afternoon clouds began to roll in. From Namche, it was a steep climb up the mountain to the first view point of the day. High on top of the hill above Namche we found a hotel operated by a rude and unfriendly staff. A cup of tea there was impossible as they only sold it by the pot which in turn would cost us about ten U.S. Dollars. That's highway robbery as far as I'm concerned! Near the hotel however we found plenty of wide open space to sit back and enjoy the incredible first views of Mount Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. From where we stood, the peak of Mount Everest could be seen soaring high up into the jet stream with the wind blowing an enormous cloud of snow from it's peak and off into the air over Tibet.
We continued down the path to the Sherpa town of Khumjung where we were happy to find cups of hot tea for about thirty cents and a menu filled with cheap food. From the table at the tea house, relaxing in the noon day sun, snow covered Ama Dablam towered high above giving us a spectacular setting for another meal in the mountains. With our batteries recharged, we set off into the afternoon being watched along the way by the snow covered peaks that were now beginning to surround us. The trail continued climbing high up into the Gokyo Valley and we were now separated from the typical route to Everest Base Camp by a seemingly endless wall of impenetrable mountains.
The end of the day left us in the village of Mong, nearly 4,000 meters high already. It was cold and we were happy to take refuge inside the warm dining space of one of the three tiny tea houses that were located there. The clouds came in late in the afternoon and didn't leave us with much to take photographs of that day so we managed to pass the time in the warmth of the dining hall, sipping on hot chocolate and talking with the Nepali family who owned the home we would be sleeping in.
It was now the third day of the trek and the views were continuing to get better. While there was still a few tour groups floating around the Gokyo Valley, we found ourselves to be trekking alone throughout the day only occasionally passing a few hard working porters or a man and his line of yaks bringing goods and supplies to the villages of the Gokyo Valley. From Mong, we continued our climb into the mountains through beautiful alpine meadows that were filled with grazing yaks and stone shepherds huts. The hilltops were covered in prayer flags flapping in the strong winds that raced up the valley. After another long day of walking and beginning to feel the effects of the cold, we found ourselves in a tiny tea house at an elevation of almost 4,500 meters. While Maria took refuge inside the warmth of the little tea house, Joe and I braved the icy cold to watch the sunset on the mountains. Though clouds continued to block our views to the East, at the end of the valley, Cho Oyu could be seen towering high into the sky with a colorful array of clouds drifting past it's summit. As the sun continued to set, the 8,000 plus meter peak of Cho Oyu began to glow orange in the distance. It looked like a giant smoking volcano with fire spewing from it's conical peak. It was a spectacular way to end another glorious day of trekking in the Himalayan Mountains.
We set off early the next morning for the village of Gokyo and it didn't take long for the first of the six lakes in the Gokyo region to show up. While the first lake wasn't much more than a wide and shallow spot in a small stream, you could already see the brilliant color of the turquoise water in it's shallow depths. Shortly after the first, the second lake came into view followed shortly there after by the third with the picturesque village of Gokyo quietly resting on it's shore. I couldn't believe the setting for this tiny village high up in the Himalayas. The mountain backdrop behind the lake was incredible in itself but that wasn't the half of it. A few hours climb up a nearby mountain would provide us with spectacular views of Everest and the surrounding peaks as would a short trek further up the valley toward the border with Tibet and the base of Cho Oyu.
In Gokyo, we managed to negotiate a good price (about sixty cents) for a room at a tea house that we found had the best price on yak steaks in the entire village, a very important item for my survival in the Himalayas. It was still early morning when we checked in and after a second breakfast followed shortly after by lunch, Joe, Maria and I headed up to the top of Gokyo Ri, a nearby mountain peak, to watch the sunset on Mount Everest and all of the other surrounding peaks. Most people, or at least those with the energy, make the climb up Gokyo Ri in the early morning of their second day here, trying to catch sunrise. It makes sense to allow them a days rest in the village and then a good nights sleep before making the six hundred meter plus climb to almost 5,400 meters. They then typically return to their guest houses for breakfast and head back down the valley to one of the villages below. Both being photographers, Joe and I couldn't understand their mentality. Everest is due East of Gokyo Ri and you wouldn't see a single ray of light strike it's face until at least around noon. It is the perfect place to be to watch the sun set on the mountain and everyone seemed to be doing just the opposite. Happy with the ignorance of the other travelers around, Joe, Maria and I were excited about the opportunity to have the mountain top to ourselves.
With the sun low in the sky and the clouds rapidly moving in, Joe, Maria and I arrived at the top and happily found ourselves to be the only ones around. Since we knew the temperature would drop rapidly as soon as the sun was completely gone, we all immediately changed into our thermals, heavy coats, gloves, hats and extra socks. The clouds by now had filled up the valley and were blocking most of our views down but all of the mountain peaks in the area being the tallest mountains in the world, were poking through the clouds high up above. Joe and I began taking pictures while Maria, already starting to freeze, headed back down the mountain. As we snapped photo after photo of all of the mountains around including Mount Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, and Ama Dablam, everything just kept looking more and more incredible. My photos of that sunset will never do the experience justice but I now find myself being unable to quit looking at them over and over again.
After watching the last rays of light of the day turn the tips of the mountains the brightest color of orange you can imagine, Joe and I now freezing to death, packed up our things and began the steep descent in the dark of night down the face of the mountain. Today, the clouds which typically disappear just after sunset decided to stick around. We walked down the hill hoping we were following the right path with our headlamps reflecting off the surface of the clouds that were now engulfing us. Since it was well below freezing, Joe and I kept up as fast a pace as we could trying to keep the blood flowing to our already numb fingers and toes. It didn't take long for us to suffer the first of several falls on the way down but eventually we found ourselves below the cloud level and could see the shore of Gokyo lake not too much further below. The few lights of the dining halls in the village could be seen glowing and both Joe and I couldn't wait to get inside to warm up by the stove that was filled up with dried yak dung and sip on a hot chocolate to revive the feeling back into our fingertips and toes.
The following day, Joe, Maria and I continued our exploration of the Gokyo region further up the valley towards Tibet. We packed lunches of canned tuna and cheap crackers and headed off to visit the upper lakes of the region. Our legs were pretty tired from the day before but it wasn't too long until I came across the fourth and fifth lakes of the Gokyo Region. The shores of the fifth lake were as beautiful as the other four so waiting for Joe and Maria, I found a rock to shelter me from the frigid wind that was beginning to pick up speed and amongst the beautiful setting I sat there alone and ate my simple meal. A half hour or so passed when I finally spotted Joe and Maria climbing up a nearby ridge on a pile of scree. They were heading away from the lake and up to the top of an embankment that looked down on the nearby glacier that we were going to eventually have to cross on our way to Mount Everest. Neither of them seemed to see me by the lake so I walked over to wear they were heading. At the top of the hill, across the glacier, I discovered the reason for the climb. You could see more of Everest from here than from anywhere we had been so far. There were no people around and the three of us spent a couple of hours just sitting on the rocks and photographing the incredible vista that surrounded us. It was a magical place to be at the convergence of three glaciers surrounded by the highest mountains in the world.
As the afternoon wore on, we hoped to stick around for as long as we could to catch the afternoon light descending on the mountains. The wind however had different ideas in mind. It had been picking up all day long and since we were at an elevation of over 5,000 meters, the icy wind had a nasty bite on our unprepared skin. With Joe still taking photos, I decided to head back down the valley and retreat to our tea house for a much needed bowl of sugary hot porridge. As I left the relative shelter of the pile of rocks we had been resting behind, I couldn't believe the strength of the wind in my face. It was coming right at me and I had several hours of walking directly into it. I tied the hood up on my jacket and closed all my zippers but it still felt like something was pushing me back and trying to keep me from my destination. Breathing the thin oxygen up there (50% less than at sea level) wasn't helping much either. I quickly became tired, cold and hungry and wanted nothing more than to finish the days walk. The views no longer mattered to me, only getting out of the relentless wind which was blocking my path home. After over two hours of walking up and down hills and staring at the mountains I knew to surround the village of Gokyo, I finally began to see the shore of the lake and the rooftops of the buildings that would provide me with some shelter. It was a welcome site to see and as always, I couldn't wait to get into the tea house and have a warm cup of hot chocolate!
Another cold night passed with me inside my sleeping bag wearing all of the clothing in my bag and I awoke to find the water in my bottle mostly frozen. We were heading over the Cho La Pass and possibly making our way to Lobuche that day and I knew it was going to be the most difficult day of all of my trekking in Nepal. Earlier along the way, we has spoken to several guides and discussed options for going over the pass that connects the Gokyo Valley with the Everest Valley. There is a place to stay at the bottom of the mountain on both sides and combined with the distances and steep climbs involved, they all told us that the journey from Gokyo to Lobuche via the Cho La pass was a two day journey, minimum and most people do it in three.
At 6:00 a.m. Joe, Maria and I made our way back down the valley to where we found what we thought was the path that led us to the glacier we needed to first cross. It went over a ridge and dropped steeply down to the scree covered glaciers. As we walked up and down amongst the enormous piles of rocks and ice, we finally found our trail came to an end. The mountains on the other side of the glacier came down to what we figured would be the beginning of the trail over the path and in the distance we could see a few prayer flags marking the tea house on the other side of the glacier where we planned to have breakfast. With the trail at an end, we found ourselves quite unsure where to go as much of the rock piles were unstable and there were small lakes and streams wandering across the surface of the ice everywhere.
Not too long after we began forming a plan of how to get across, we spotted a group of porters carrying enormous loads and moving fairly quickly. They seemed to be on a path across the glacier and were passing a point that seemed easy enough to get to. We headed straight for them, found the path and easily followed along. From the point where we picked up the right trail, it didn't take long to find our way to the tea house where we warmed up with coffee, tea and a couple of bowls of oat porrige. It was now 8:00 in the morning and we were in a small settlement known at Dragnag that rested at 4,700 meters at the entrance to the pass. From what we could tell on our map, the trail climbed fairly steadily all the way up to the pass at 5,300 meters. It is supposed to be a pretty difficult traverse often requiring crampons, ropes and ice axes but back in Kathmandu, the local people had said that there hadn't been too much snow and ice lately so it shouldn't be a problem to make it over without all the gear. Sitting at breakfast, Joe, Maria and I were all hoping they were right.
Following a small ice encased stream, we began our way up the pass. The air was thin but the path wasn't too steep and gradually we began to climb. Up, Up, Up we went as trail continued on. Eventually, I found myself in the front of our group climbing up to what I thought must be near the top. I figured it would be a false summit or in this case, a false pass but in my mind, the pass couldn't be much further beyond. I easily reached the top and when I was there, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. While I had been right about the pass not being too far away, the trail dropped back down a couple of hundred meters before leading up to the face of what seemed to be an impenetrable wall of rock, snow and ice! Another man that was leading another group across that day was standing nearby, resting and waiting on his group, who had left an hour before us, to make it up the hill. He was wearing an Altimeter that read 5,100 meters. In theory we were only two hundred meters from the top but with a two hundred meter descent, that put the final climb at another four hundred meters. I stared at the path down below disappearing into the rocks along the base of the mountains and after unsuccessfully locating a good way up, I asked the nearby guide where the pass was located. He pointed to a snow and ice covered gap that wasn't much more than a sliver of light shining through the mountain ridge. I couldn't believe that there was a safe way up the vertical face lying before me to this tiny gap high up in the mountains!
We descended down and made our way across the barren valley floor and found ourselves staring up at a steep wall of rocks with a a few scrapes here and there designating our way up the mountain. The climb was difficult and slow forcing us to stop and rest every couple of minutes to catch our breath in the thin mountain air. I don't know how long it actually was before we reached the frozen top but by then we had all decided that maybe the journey we had intended was a bit long and we should try and take refuge in the tea house located at the bottom of the pass on the other side.
After a few minutes up top for photos, a snickers bar and a bit of rest, we began traversing the glacier that led down the opposite side of the mountain. Though not as steep, it was an equally difficult and slippery journey down. In the flatter sections, there was enough snow to walk on to keep you on the mountain. As the trail descended however, it yielded to slick ice causing us all to suffer several small falls along the way. An hour or so after setting foot on the glacier the ground began to reveal the rocks beneath the snow and ice and the trail dropped steeply down the back side of the mountain ridge. We could see the tea houses in Dzonglha down below and were looking forward to a healthy lunch though it was already past 2:00 in the afternoon.
In Dzonglha we discovered an expensive menu, an extremely rude staff and the worst dorm room you could ever imagine. Two layers of beds stacked on top of each other, all built as one. There weren't even separate sheets, just one big bed with each spot designated by a dirty pillow. Not able to believe the fact that this place was so expensive and dirty, we found it even harder to believe that it was packed full of people who had either come over the pass earlier that day or were planning on heading over in the morning. Compared to everywhere we had slept along the way, this was by far the worst place yet. There was no way Joe, Maria or myself wanted to have anything to do with it. Though we were tired, the food had given us a bit more strength to go on and we continued on our way to Lobuche, another three hours climb further up the Everest Valley.
In Lobuche, we found the accommodations to be as bad if not worse than Dzonglha but somehow we managed to get our own room with three separate beds. The lodge was packed and lit by candles and even in a small room filled with people crowded around a wood burning stove, the bitter cold was still coming through. We ate dinner in our warm hats, jackets and gloves and all headed off to bed early. It had been a 12 hour day of walking and climbing, the hardest of any of my days trekking in Nepal but we were just a few hours walk from the last settlement along the way to Everest Base Camp.
We all awoke to another freezing cold morning and I was beginning to find the hardest thing for me to do in the morning was to pack away my sleeping bag. Within minutes of exiting the bag, it would quickly drop to the temperature of the air around. Gloves inhibited my movement too much to stuff it in efficiently and I found the pain of the extreme cold on my hands to be almost unbearable. Later in the journey, I began bringing my sleeping bag into the dining space and resting it near the wood stove before putting it away making it a much more tolerable experience.
After a moderate two hundred meter uphill that morning, we finally arrived at the village of Gorak Shep, the end of the line of tea houses along the way to Everest Base Camp. After checking in and enjoying some warm drinks and food, we spent the remainder of the morning relaxing and enjoying the views of Nuptse high ahead blocking our view of Mount Everest nor much futher ahead. For the afternoon, we planned to head up to the top of a nearby mountain known as Kalla Patthar and again watch the sunset on Mount Everest.
Gorak Shep is located at 5,140 meters and the top of the mountain we were heading up was 5,550 meters high. The trail didn't look anywhere near as steep as the previous one up Gokyo Ri and by now, we were all very well acclimated so Joe, Maria and I were looking forward to an easy afternoon climb up the mountain. Around 2:30, Joe and I set off alone up the hill as Maria was feeling tired and didn't have enough clothes to brave the extremely cold temperatures that we would be experiencing from the top after sunset. It was a beautiful afternoon walking and it didn't take long for the summit of Everest to begin to appear. There were only a few clouds in the sky and the wind was blowing strong. Joe and I were taking our time, in no rush to reach the top and though breathing heavily at times, the excitement of where we were kept us moving along.
At the top, we found the last few remaining people who came to visit earlier in the day making their way back down. Joe and I had the mountain and the incredible panorama of 360 degree views all to ourselves. We took a few pictures at the peak amongst the colorful prayer flags and each found a spot to set up our tripods and sat back to enjoy the show before us with the sun changing the sky and mountains into a bright and beautiful display of colors. When the sun was no longer shining on us, the temperature quickly began to plummet. We were wearing everything we could but were still freezing cold. High up above however, the sun was still striking the top of Everest along with all of the mountains that surrounded it. Gradually, the white snow caps turned gold and then bright orange. With only the peaks of Nuptse and Everest lit up and not much color left in the sky, the color on the summits changed to a brilliant burning red leaving the peaks flaming amongst the evening sky. I have never before beheld such a beautiful sight. I had waited for this moment for my entire two years of traveling. Here I was, I had finally made it to the only place I had intended on visiting since leaving home and I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular experiences of my life. With a few tears in my eyes, I said a prayer thanking God for giving me the opportunity to have seen so much of his beautiful creations and in the darkness of early night, I began packing away my things for the journey back down the mountain.
There was no rush to be anywhere so we decided to take it easy the next day, visit Everest Base Camp and spend another night in the freezing cold lodge at Gorak Shep. In the morning, it was colder than usual making the task of getting out of our sleeping bags even more of a challenge than usual. There wasn't as much light coming in the window as normal so I could tell that something in the weather had changed. Looking outside revealed a cloud covered sky, the first time we had awoken to clouds since beginning our trek. The weather was changing and I hoped it would hold out for the day so we could have the opportunity to explore base came and the face of the Khumbu Ice Fall.
Outside it was windy so we took our time with breakfast and hoped the weather would begin to clear up. It wasn't showing any signs of improving but also wasn't showing any sign of getting worse outside. We decided to bundle up in our warm clothes and head on out, besides, if the weather began to worsen or snow heavily, we could always turn around and come back. Though not that far away and only a further 200 meter climb, the walk to base camp definitely took us a bit of time. Most of the trail was loose rock that had been piled up by the movement of the Khumbu glacier and once we were on the glacier, it was a series of ups and downs over boulders, loose rock and ice. Along the way, it began to snow a bit but further down the valley we were already beginning to see blue skies.
After walking for eight days, we finally came upon the prayer flags and tents that were scattered around the portion of the Khumbu Glacier that everyone refers to as Everest Base Camp. Though this is not the time of year for people to be summiting, there was a bit of life amongst the few tents there that were set up for tour groups coming to have a look. This day however, we found ourselves sharing the experience with just a few people who all departed shortly after our arrival.
Around Base camp you could see the small clearings amongst the rock where various tents had been pitched in the past. I was impressed with how little trash had been left there as even though I had read that the many mountaineers along with the government had helped get the remnants of past expeditions cleaned up years ago, I still expected to find plenty of debris lying around. Though there was nothing large on the ground or any piles of plastics or rubbish, a quick glance almost anywhere would reveal a few artifacts from the past. Tent stakes, old Budweiser cans, an old warn out glove and numerous other small articles seemed to be popping out of the glacier everywhere, testaments to the history that is still being made with new ascents to the top each year.
At base camp, Joe, Maria and I took our time enjoying the experience. I collected a few rocks as souvenirs and gifts, small pieces of Mount Everest that have traveled far down the face of the mountain along the Khumbu Ice fall and resurfaced at Base Camp. In my bag, I had carried a set of prayer flags which in the tradition of the Nepali and Tibetan people and out of respect for the sacred mountain, I hung them up to fly in the wind, a way of thanking God and the mountain for the experience at hand. With the prayer flags flying, a few rocks in my bag, and now alone as Joe and Maria had already turned back, I sat down on a pile of rubble and stared up at the Khumbu Ice Fall, the treacherous highway that leads climbers to the top of the mountain. The wind was blowing and the only sound in the air was the flapping of the prayer flags. Further down the valley, the sky was nearly clear now revealing the deep and rich blue that can only be found so high up in the mountains. There was nothing more to see now, nothing more to do. I took one last look around and again thanked God for the experience and turned around and headed back down the valley to Gorak Shep for another nights sleep in the freezing cold.
The next day with the thrill of the journey now gone, Joe, Maria and I headed back down the valley. It was an easy walk down as it was all downhill and we quickly found ourselves far away from the mountain. Though still surrounded by the phenomenal beauty of the peaks of the Himalayas, our journey was complete. I still took time to look around and enjoy the scenery but even though we were traversing new ground through the Everest valley, a place we had not seen before, something was missing now and it just wasn't the same as on our trip up. At the end of a long but easy day, we found ourselves half way back to Lukla where the journey began. We slept at a small tea house in Phuki Tenga off the main tourist route and were happy to be out of the freezing cold now already having descended to 3,250 meters. The air felt thick and our lungs no longer struggled for oxygen. Without even needing to zip up my sleeping bag, I got the best nights sleep I have had since the beginning of the trek.
The following morning, on our last day of trekking, I stopped along the narrow path we had been following alongside a steep mountain heading towards Namche Bazzar. It was the last point on the trek from which we would be able to see Mount Everest and I wanted to have one last look. I took a picture with only the top of the snow covered peak barely showing it's face amongst the surrounding mountains and said goodbye to the mountain that has brought so much joy and devastation to the lives of so many people. For this trip, it was the last time I will see the mountain but I know that one day, I will come back. Nepal has captured a place in my heart and it's spirit will remain with me throughout my journey home and to many other places around the world. There is still so much to see here and I feel I have only scratched the surface. Perhaps to the summit one day, who knows what the future will behold. For now however there is nothing more I can do but say goodbye to the mountain and continue on my journey back towards civilization.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
The rapid change upon entering Nepal was astounding! In India, people were constantly pissing and shitting everywhere you looked. In the early morning light, looking out the window of my train I witnessed every person that lived near the train tracks squatting down and shitting in their back yards. Why after living there for year after year, it never has occurred to them to dig a pit, I will never know. Riding in cars and buses throughout India, around every corner is someone else pissing out in the open. It is impossible not to notice, it is everywhere you turn your head. I have never seen so many penises in my entire life, nor do I care to ever again! Combine all of that with the constant filth of trash, shit and cows on the streets and everywhere I visited in India outside of the Himalayas was like one giant slum! I am not kidding. Trash everywhere! Massive amounts of it of all sorts. There was not one single rubbish container anywhere in the country and no one ever cleaned up what was laying around!
Riding along in my bumpy bus up a winding mountain road I immediately noticed the change. No one using the toilet along the road, no trash along the way and everyone was ten times as friendly to us. When I finally arrived in Pokhara, I couldn't believe how clean the streets were. Not a bit of trash to be seen. The hotels looked like royal honey moon sweets compared to those in India and the white table clothed restaurants that lined the streets were a welcome change to the dirty places I found myself eating throughout the low lands of India.
Now I have awoken after a good nights rest, finished a pot of coffee as I sit on my balcony watching the mist clear from the nearby tree covered hills. The sun is still low in the sky and the steep snowy peaks of the Annapurna range are glowing in the sun. With a lake that is deep blue and surrounded by lush green rice paddies, the stark contrast of the white snow on the peaks and the blue sky overhead is a breathtaking sight to behold. I am already regretting now coming to Nepal sooner and find that I may be hard pressed to ever leave.
Coming in on a 12 hour train ride that was delayed a further five hours, I fought my way through the hotel touts and moto rickshaw drivers and managed to get to a point where I could walk down the maze of narrow alley ways toward my hotel. Fortunately a man on the street began talking to me and leading the way. At first I was reluctant as this type of person is usually after a commission from bringing you to the hotel you want to stay at. Without him however, I would still be out wandering the streets.
I arrived at a dirty hotel, as dirty as any I have ever been in but the roof top restaurant that overlooked the city made up for it and most likely I would only be here for a couple of days anyway so that didn't really matter to me, at least not to much. After recharging my body on a ridiculous amount of food at the restaurant, I decided to take a sunset stroll along the riverside ghats (bathing and washing areas). I could see smoke coming from the closest ghat to my hotel and I assumed that this was the ghat I had heard they burned bodies at. A few turns through the alley and there I was, immersed in the middle of a giant outdoor crematorium. People from all over India were burning the bodies of their loved ones while others were still waiting for their turn in the hospice building that overlooked the ghat. A man began explaining to me the different processes the families went through with the bodies and how much money it costs to burn each body with the special wood while all the conversation, ash from the burning corpses rained down upon my head.
After being persuaded to make a small donation to the hospice to help pay for funeral wood, I found myself in the middle of some kind of a religious procession marching down a narrow alley way. Along the way there were stones that people touched, shrines that were kissed and bells that were rung. I never determined where it was going as I turned back toward the river at the first chance I had. Alongside the river again I found myself immersed in a crowd of people bathing, swimming and washing in the Ganges river. Keep in mind now that this river has over 30 sewer systems flowing into it just upstream from the city. It is supposed to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world yet people from all over India come to bathe, wash, drink and sink the bodies of their loved ones into it.
I was enjoying all of the activities of the historic ghats of this holy city but since I was feeling tired, I sat down on some steps overlooking the river to take a break. As I looked out at the river, an old woman dressed in a beautiful purple sari walked down to the edge of the stairs on the riverside. She turned around to face me and then squatted over the water. As there is urine covering almost every inch of ground in the city as well as enough cow shit to make you feel like you are walking through an obstacle course, I figured she was just being polite and urinating in the river. The fact that people nearby were scooping water out with their hands and drinking it didn't seem to matter to anyone and she continued squatting. After a minute, it occurred to me she had been squatting a bit too long to be just urinating. A few more minutes passed and she finally stood up and walked off. Left in her place was exactly what you would you would expect, an armada of little chocolate boats! As they floated toward the people who were drinking the water and swimming, I couldn't bear to watch so I began the confusing journey through the twisting maze of alley ways that lead in the direction of my hotel.
Monday, September 8, 2008
Friday, September 5, 2008
I had crossed the highest and the third highest mountain passes that were just down the road from where we were now and neither looked like this. One had bits of snow here and there and was tucked in between a few glaciers while the other was engulfed in a blizzard while I was there causing me to nearly freeze to death on the motorcycle I was riding. Seeing as how I was trapped in that snow storm just a few hours back, that is most likely the same snow storm that caused all the snow to cover the ground here. As I look out the window and observe the skills of the bus driver, I begin to relax as there are tire tracks embedded in the road from other vehicles that have passed before us. We are driving slow and the road doesn't seem to be covered in ice so I begin to relax.
The sun never rises but the sky begins to lighten. We take a break by stopping the vehicle in the middle of the snow on this one lane winding mountain road. I am grateful as I have been staring out the window at one of the most photographic opportunities I have ever seen. There are snow covered mountains everywhere and down the valley in the direction we are heading, you can see the snow line on a mountain with the blackness of the unlit portion of it's base supporting a graceful transition to the snow covered top. There is enough light to see everything clearly and the cloudy sky is lit by the early morning light. I jump out of the bus and take one of my favorite photos from my entire trip. Even though I am nervous about the twenty hour bus drive I have ahead of me, it looks like the endless scenery provided by the Himalayas is going to make up for the difficulty of the journey.
We transition from snow back down into a valley where the stark desert scenery of the Northern Himalayas returns. The road winds back and forth for hours at a time and actual sections of pavement are rare. We cross streams, mud, fields of boulders and road construction sites yet we do not break down. Not only can I not believe the condition of the roads but I can't believe that this is the most popular journey to do by motorcycle in the area. It takes three to four bone crushing days to make the journey on motorcycle and I had actually considered doing it. After learning that the cost to rent one for the journey was almost the same as buying a bike, I thankfully elected to travel by bus. There isn't much for roads here and we are averaging about twenty kilometers an hour. I don't sleep for the entire journey as the road is so rocky and bumpy that my whole body is being tossed around in my seat. Thank God I am not on a motorcycle!
The day winds on and the scenery continues to be as incredible as ever. I can't even believe the things I am seeing out of my window. How can there be so many enormous mountains and endless valleys with no one living in them and it not be named some sort of National Park. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen and could possibly exist in the world and yet so few people outside of India even know about it. I think about how lucky I am to be here, smile and open my window fighting the bitter cold wind every chance I get trying to take just one photograph that will come close to telling the story of the epic journey I am making on the highway from Leh to Manali.
We are getting closer to Manali, I can feel it. The desert environment is gone and grass and trees are beginning to cover the hillside. There is a small river flowing through the valley we are in now and the air isn't as cold or dry anymore. I can't imagine that we have any more mountain passes to cross before I arrive and then I realize I am wrong. We begin going up the hill on a rocky and muddy stretch of road. The bus continues to climb and I continue to hang my head out the window to photograph the snowy peaks that the clouds are slowly exposing on the opposite side of the valley. Up and up we continue to climb and I can't see the top of the mountain, only the craziness of the winding road that lurks beneath us. Some parts of the road are washed out by the streams that flow over them and there is barely enough room for our bus to cross over yet we continue to press on. Our climb continues toward yet another pass. Two hours after we begin our ascent from the valley floor, the road levels out and we accelerate up to at least forty kilometers an hour. This lasts for about four minutes before we get to the other side of the ridge and I look down to see an endless snake of road ahead coiling around itself trying to keep it's grip on the near vertical cliffs that tumble far down below to Manali.
This seems to be the worst stretch of road yet and to make matters worse, there is an endless stream of trucks, buses and jeeps making their way up the hill. Uphill traffic has the right away on this single lane mountain road and we are continually tucking onto the edge of the cliff with the wheels nearly falling off the side to let the traffic pass. We are traveling slow, as slow as we have been traveling for the entire journey. I can see Manali up ahead and the last sign I saw put us only thirty five kilometers away. It is now dark again and our headlight barely light up the road ahead. Fortunately the lights of the endless stream of vehicles ahead continues to light the way for us. Down we continue for another two hours. Again I am looking at the road and feeling every bump and the bus slip and slide through the mud and wondering why anyone would want to make this journey on a motorcycle which is made to travel on smooth pavement.
Buildings begin to appear on the sides of the road and I can tell we are close. The last sign I saw put us just a five kilometers away from Manali. The journey is almost over and while I am happy that it is nearly over, I am sad that it is ending. It has been one of the most amazing trips I have taken, crossing the Himalayan mountain range on a slow bus over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. I am tired and stiff from the journey. It is nearly nine o' clock at night and I have not had dinner. A warm meal before crawling into my sleeping bag is the only plans I retain for the evening followed by a deep deep sleep. I am here, I am in Manali.
Finally I reach the top and take a couple of pictures. There is a military base that provides free tea and coffee to warm up the weary travelers that make the journey over the pass to Pangong Lake. I take in the views while I sip my coffee. Everything is incredible except for the threatening clouds that loom on the horizon and mountain tops. I thank the army official for the coffee, kick start my motorcycle and begin the bumpy journey down.
The views and the road continue to become even more amazing. I am weaving through a narrow canyon where boulders the size of homes have fallen by the road side. As I exit the canyon, I am in a steep valley riding alongside a small stream on a fairly decent road. I must be close to the lake. There are creeks crossing the road which come up out of nowhere causing me to have to slow down rapidly but the brakes are good on my bike and there are no problems at all. I round another corner and get my first view of the lake. Though it is cloudy, I can see the rich color of the water and the mountains that surround it. I can't wait to explore!
The road disappears into a rocky off road vehicle path. I begin to wonder where in the hell I am and start to wish that there was someone else in the area. It is just me and the rocky road ahead. I cross a small river on the motorcycle and somehow avoid falling over into the freezing cold water. My spark plugs get water on them from the river and my bike won't make it up the hill. I am pushing the bike and running the engine at the same time trying to get it going again. What if it is broken and I am stuck here in the middle of nowhere? What the hell am I doing here anyway?
The bike begins to work again but the road continues to deteriorate and I even consider turning around. A bit of pavement appears but only briefly and I realize that this must actually lead to the lake. Another few turns and there it is! The end of an incredible mountain lake sitting at 4500 meters in the heart of the Himalayan mountains! The colors are stunning and the mountains that surround it are absolutely beautiful. I can't believe how wonderful this place is, more than worth the six hour ride over the mountain.
At sunset, the clouds briefly break giving me the opportunity to snap a few good photos in the cold evening light. It is not just cold but freezing. I ask a man running a camp nearby how cold it will get tonight and he says -7 (Celcius). Brrr! It is going to be a cold night in the tent! I eat a dinner consisting of several packs of instant noodles and a chocolate bar. It is still early so wrapped up in my sleeping bag I spend an hour or so reading before falling asleep. The rain begins. I don't know how long I have been sleeping but I think it is a good thing that it is raining now rather than tomorrow. Maybe all the clouds will be gone when I awake. I fall asleep again but the rain and wind continues to wake me up throughout the night.
It is morning and I don't hear rain. I feel the sunrise coming through the tent so I put on some warm clothes and crawl out of my tent. Outside I find a sliver a sunshine has penetrated the cloud cover. The light shines in my face blocking out the views of the lake. It is cold and the weather looks much worse than the day before. It begins to sprinkle and snow at the same time. I take shelter in a nearby parachute tent where I find some coffee. The rain and snow picks up and continues for several hours. There is nothing more to do than try and stay warm by holding a cup of coffee so I drink four cups of coffee this morning. Every time the rain and snow eases, I step outside only to see more coming our way, straight out of the valley from which I came and which I will need to leave by in a few hours if I want to make the bus I have already paid for that is leaving tonight.
A break in the weather finally appears and I spend a half hour struggling with my cold motorcycle engine trying to get it started. Finally the choke begins to work and the carburetor warms up a bit and the engine starts. I let the bike run and my weather window continues to look wonderful. The valley I am heading up has a small window of blue sky above even though there is a thick layer of clouds covering the mountains not far over head. I can see the snow coming down on the mountains but this is my only chance so I take it.
I pass over the obstacles I crossed the day before without any problems and the weather continues to hold out on me. Occasionally it rains a bit but quickly stops not causing any problems for my drive. I begin to make my way up the mountain back towards the pass I must cross to return to Leh. It keeps getting colder and there is no sign of blue in the sky anymore. The clouds are looming just above and I can see the snow covering all of the mountains hovering just below the clouds. I continue on up the mountain.
Oh my God I am freezing! I can't believe the situation I have gotten myself into this time! I am on a motorcycle, it is snowing as hard as I have ever seen and I can't see but a few feet in front of me. The snow hitting me in the eyes hurts and is making it difficult to even keep my eyes open. My face is frozen to the point that when I touch it I can't even feel my hand rubbing upon it. There isn't much left of the road anymore, just a series of puddles and rocks. I can't turn back because the weather is now just as bad where I came from and I have to catch a bus tonight. I press on in the freezing cold wondering where the mountain pass is and hoping that I arrive at the top where I know there is a warm drink and some shelter waiting.
Where is that damn pass! I don't know how much more of this I can take. Should I stop and wait? Will this end in an hour? A day? A week? There is no choice, I must keep going. I have to be close, I can feel it. The snow is easing just enough that I can now see a little further. It must be near. I see something, a building maybe? No, it is an army truck. It passes me along with several others. There are more but they aren't moving. The road is now flat, a few small buildings appear! I am there, I am at the top! I am alive and not yet frozen. I quickly park my motorcycle and with my entire body trembling, I make my way into the small shack to warm up. The coffee is warm and sweet and warms my entire body with each sip I take. The blood is beginning to flow again to my extremities and the I am beginning to feel my face again. I am not going to die, I am not going to freeze to death.
Back outside, the weather is clear now. Was it like that when I arrive? I didn't notice but I can feel a bit of sun upon my face. I easily kick start my motorcycle and begin the rugged journey down expecting to have good weather for a while. Five minutes later, it is snowing again and I can't see anything. The remnants of the cliff side road are shaking every bone in my body though I can't see how much further down I must go to get out of the snow. I am shaking again but there is no option now, the only way to warm up and get out of the snow is to continue on down.
Down I continue fighting the snow traveling as slow as possible without falling off the motorcycle. An hour passes and the fog thins. It is still snowing but I can see smooth sections of road down below and the snow line on the mountain is now almost parallel with my position. The snow is breaking. My entire body is covered in ice but now I can see! There is no pain in my eyes from the snow and ice crystals hitting me while I try to see the way ahead. I am alive and have survived! It has been the most intense motorcycle ride I have ever taken and I am happy to be alive. To have ridden through a blizzard in the Himalayas is an amazing event. It is a perfect example of a trip where it wasn't so much about the destination as it was about the journey. Though I am still cold and covered in ice I am smiling and happy. I have completed an amazing ride facing difficult obstacles and persevered through the face of adversity. It is an incredible feeling that is not easily obtained and I have a story I can tell for all the years to come. I would do it all again without a doubt.
After spending a day in Leh organizing permits, renting crampons and ice axes along with figuring out what kind of food we could take along for the journey, Rick and I boarded an early morning bus across the valley to the village of Stok where the mountain ascent would begin. The bus ride in itself was a cultural experience filled with local minority culture farmers, traditionally dressed, turban bearing Indians, children on their way to school and a few Buddhist monks heading to the monastery that stands guard over the small village of Stok. At the end of the line on the bus stop, Rick and I climbed up onto the roof of the bus to retrieve our backpacks which would provide us with all our food, shelter and clothing for the journey up the mountain. No porters or mules for us, we were going to be self sufficient!
Now, I should mention that this trek is typically done in four to five days. We were accounting for this same time period for our trek when we rented some of the gear we would be taking as well as when we purchased all our food for the trip. Rick had even made the comment to someone who asked what all we were taking, “We aren't going to go hungry, that is for sure!” For now, let's just say that Rick and I decided to do things a bit differently than you typically would.
The first half of our first days trek up the mountain went quite well. The path followed a small river through steep and jagged canyon lands. At times, the trail crossed the river so we had to gently hop across small stones to follow along. The weather was beautiful and the altitude hadn't started to affect either of us. Our only breaks were for food and to take the strain of the heavy packs we were carrying off of our shoulders. We were making great progress and began to discuss our options where to camp that night.
Typically, you would camp about half way up to base camp on the first day at an altitude of around 4300 meters. We had already passed that point and feeling that we were both pretty acclimatized, we decided to go ahead and make the trek all the way up to base camp (4900 meters) on that first day. After a lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, we headed on up the hill towards base camp. The trail became steeper and the altitude began to affect us both. It was slow going with lots of stops for rest but we pressed on and eventually we could see the snowy summit, the tip of the glacier we would need to cross and the prayer flags flying in the wind at base camp. Step by step, base camp became closer and after a hard day of trekking, we finally arrived.
While you are supposed to spend a night at base camp acclimatizing, followed by a day of rest before departing for the summit at 1:00 in the morning, Rick and I decided that we should just eat a big dinner, get some sleep and press on to the summit that night. I wasn't feeling 100% but I thought it sounded like a good idea. We ate a big dinner and realized that throughout the day we had eaten nearly all the food we brought along and decided our decision to climb that night made plenty of sense.
At 8:00 we wrapped up in our little tent wearing plenty of warm clothing and kept the zippers tight on our sleeping bags. I don't think either of us slept much as I only recall the sound of Rick trying to breathe in the thin air and rolling around all night. One o' clock a.m. finally rolled around and we gathered up a few things in the dark freezing cold night, put on our headlamps and set off for the final push up up to the summit.
The first part of this leg of our trip led us straight up to a ridge. In the first half hour of our slow paced trudging up the mountain we ascended 300 meters putting us just 900 meters from the top! Rick said he felt like he was going to throw up but other than feeling a bit short of breath, I was feeling pretty good. We continued on our way and as Rick began to feel better, I started to feel worse. The higher we climbed, it was like someone was putting rocks in my boots, my pockets and my backpack. Our pace became slower but we expected this delay and we pressed on. With just a crescent moon and the light of our headlamps lighting up the landscape before us, the reflections of the snow stood out from the rocky landscape guiding us to where we needed to be. We had made it to the glacier that we would eventually need to cross and the sounds that it made were quite eerie to hear in the middle of the night. Knowing the dangers of crevasses and wash outs I have to admit that the sounds being emitted from the glacier in the darkness began to intimidate me and made me second guess what the hell I was doing here in the middle of the night trying to climb a mountain.
As we followed alongside the glacier, the creaking and popping became louder and sometimes was loud enough to make you jump. We put our first footsteps on the crunchy snow that covered the glacier and slowly made our way across. Along the way we came across several large crevasses and small streams that were slowly eating their way through the glacier. We walked up and down the obstacles that were blocking our path and managed to find places where we could leap across. It took about an hour but we finally made it safely across the glacier to the scree covered slope up to the final mountain ridge.
At this point, I was definitely feeling short of breath and trying everything I could to control my heart rate when I walked but it seemed that with every few steps, my heart would accelerate to the speed of a heart attack! This is pretty typical for extreme physical activity but the idea is that you simply slow down and keep the pace just under the red zone. No matter what I did, I couldn't go slow enough. Every step made my heart pound continuously and I would have to rest for a minute or two until things slowed down. Rick was cold and didn't want to stop moving so he pressed on ahead as he was now feeling much better than I was. I continued up the mountain towards the final ridge at my slow pace, resting continuously and starting to feel like I was going to eventually have to turn back.
Rick was now a good ways ahead of me and rightfully so having a good bit of mountaineering experience and being much more acclimated from his treks in Leh while I was trying to recover from my stomach virus. I knew I would not see him again until we either crossed paths on his way down and my way up or back at base camp.
I went to take a sip of my water that I had been carrying and found it to be frozen. Just a half hour before however, I had filled up an extra water bottle on the glacier but I quickly discovered that it too had frozen. The lack of water stressed me out a bit but looking up towards the ridge I needed to get to that was now so close at hand, I knew that I had to try to keep moving. I continued the steep climb resting continuously with my heart still racing and I knew there was going to be no way I could make it to the top. I should have spent that day at base camp to acclimatize and not made the assumption that I could make it to the top without that stop! At about 5700 meters, just 400 meters from the summit, I sat down for a break to control my heart rate and decided it was time to turn back. I was cold, I had no water and I felt as if I would throw up the snickers bar I had recently eaten.
It took me a half hour of resting before I felt good enough to descend to base camp. I slowly made my way down the mountain, back across the glacier and down the final hill to our tent. By now, I felt horrible. My head hurt, I was nauseated, dehydrated and tired. Inside my tent, I found a bottle of water that wasn't completely frozen and took a big gulp before lying down in the early morning sunlight for a rest.
Rick returned around ten o' clock in the morning having made it to the summit but not feeling so great himself. He followed in my footsteps and climbed into the tent for some much needed rest. A few hours later, we both awoke, not feeling anywhere near 100% but we knew we did not want to spend another night sleeping at 4900 meters. We packed up our gear and ate a small bit of food as we had now consumed almost all of the food we brought along for the journey. As we made our way down, the headaches began to disappear and though neither of us really felt like eating much, we forced the last of our food down for lunch. The food made all the difference in the world and at that point we were feeling up to making the journey all the way back to town.
The rest of our trip down the mountain turned into a hell of an adventure on it's own. The river had risen and crossing became difficult including a solid hour where Rick and I managed to get ourselves stranded high up on a cliff side trying to find a way around the river. We were at the point where we were going to pitch our packs down in order to allow us to make the climb down when we managed to figure out a reasonable way to down climb the steep cliff we had ascended carrying all of our gear.
Less than 36 hours after we began our four or five day journey, we were back in town. We both felt better and after a hot shower, we headed out for a much needed recovery dinner. Though I didn't make it to the summit, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure both up and down and saw some of the most striking scenery imaginable along with a sunrise that lit up the mountains like fire. Even though I was too weak to even take a photo of it, the memory of that sunrise will last me a lifetime. 5700 meters was the highest point I had ever made it to in my life and considering how sick I had been before hand, I felt pretty good about making it that far. I am going to be in the Himalayas for at least another two and a half months and with plenty of 6000 meter peaks in the area, I should have the opportunity to climb yet another!
Friday, August 29, 2008
Years ago, I read a magazine article about someone making this same journey and I couldn't resist the opportunity with it being so close at hand. The journey began by renting a Royal Enfield, a classic British designed motorcycle that is the bike of choice throughout India. The bike wasn't running so great and to complicate the journey even further, the gears and the brakes were on the wrong sides. While this added a bit of difficulty to the trip, I decided it would be easily overcome along the way with a bit of practice.
As you can imagine,k it was a bumpy and curvy cliff side road all the way up to the top. The backwards controls on the bike were manageable but it seemed that every time I wanted to hit the brakes in a hurry, I wound up slamming my foot down on the gear shift instead! Keeping that in mind, I drove relatively slow the whole way and kept a close eye out for any oncoming traffic that seemed to always come whipping around one of the corners when you least expected it.
After two full hours and only traveling about 60 kilometers, I finally made it to the tip of the pass! 5600 meters or just over 18,000 feet and freezing cold except for the warmth provided by the noon day sun. The views from the pass were absolutely stunning! Looking South you could look down the valley between snow covered mountains and glaciers and see an endless chain of the Himalayas stretching from the East to West. To the North, the road tumbled down towards the Nubra Valley where any further progress was blocked by the Karakorn range in Pakistan.
It took another bumpy four hours to make it to the town of Diskit where I would be spending the night. While the permit I obtained to visit the area allowed me to go a bit further North, the drive on a rickety 350cc motorcycle had taken it's toll on me and I was ready to relax. I spent the afternoon reading beneath the massive granite mountains that surrounded my guesthouse and after an early dinner, fell soundly asleep. The next morning, I awoke to beautiful blue skies and spent some time exploring a local Gompa as well as the incredible views of the immense valley I was in. It was incredbile to see the dry rocky mountains soaring as much as 9000 feet above me. I can't even desribe the scale of how it felt to be there! Mountains everywhere you looked as far as your head could tilt back.
I slowly began my journey back over the pass toward Leh. The ride back turned out to be a bit more eventful than on the way over. I spent a good deal of time trapped in the middle of a military convoy of massive trucks. The convoy finally came to a stop in order to take a look at a car which had recently tubmeled over the edge of the mountian killing the 3 occupants inside. Appareantly, this sort of thing is a pretty regular occurence here as people tend to drive extremely fast down this treacherous road.
Getting closer to the pass it started to look like it was going to rain. I was wrong however, it decided to hail upon me instead! The hail didn't last long as it quickly turned into snow. Crossing the pass, the snow continued to fall and I have to say that I actually had a smile on my face to see snow falling in the middle of August! The snow gradually ended and I slowly rolled down the opposite side of the mountain back toward Leh. Happy to still be alive after surviving a journey over the world's highest road, I arrived at my guesthouse where I hoped for a hot shower to be waiting but instead settled for one that was quite luke warm. Having not bathed in three days, it sufficed to do the job and I followed it up with a banana shake and an enormous meal before wrapping myself up in my sleeping bag to avoid the cold cold night.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Monday, August 18, 2008
Coming in to land was probably the most fantastic airplane journey I have ever taken. The plane wound it's way in and around the mountains so it felt as if we were flying through a series of giant canyons. As we made turns barely missing the lower mountain tops you could look out the window and see ridge lines still soaring high above.
We touched down in Leh, elevation 11,000 feet and were greeted with mountain views and rich blue skies. It was quite a change from the polluted and overcast weather in Delhi. It looks like it is going to be an incredible place to explore and I can't wait to get started. I only hope this damn stomach problem doesn't hinder me along the way!
Sunday, August 17, 2008
I was originally going to fly to a city called Leh today but fortunately the flight was cancelled and changed till tomorrow. I say fortunately because I have come down with the worst imaginable Indian Stomach sickness that ever existed! Seeing as how I only left my hotel room to get water and a bowl of cornflakes today, there is no way I would have ever made that flight!
Friday, August 15, 2008
There were several taxi stands at the airport and all were pure chaos of Indian men and women pushing their way to the front of the window. After attempting to join several different hordes of people and making no progress what so ever, I decided to try a different approach. Inside customs, I had seen a pre paid taxi stand similar to the ones that people outside the airport were fighting for but there was no one there. With a little careful planning, I managed to slip through a few security checks and make it back to the taxi stand. There weren't that many people there and at least none of them were pushing and shoving. I stood in line for a minute and quickly realized that no one was moving. I asked someone in line what was going on and they informed me that there were no more taxis. I didn't understand, how could a city with 13 million people run out of taxis? It didn't make much since so the British girl and I decided we would brave the crowded bus into town.
We found the bus stand immediately and saw people loading onto a bus that we assumed must be the correct one to our part of the city. Outside there were at least a thousand people waiting with the most enormous collection of baggage you have ever seen. While people shoved their way into the back door and we debated what to do, I grabbed the British girls arm and dragger her on the front of the bus where we found just enough room to stand. For some reason, no one else followed us on and the over crowded bus closed it's doors and we slowly began to pull away from the airport. Happy to be moving now as it was already 10:45 and I was beginning to feel tired so I didn't mind be crammed amongst a ridiculous number of people standing in the aisle of a hot and sweaty bus.
Traffic was really bad and I didn't think much of it at first but as our journey slowly inched away from the airport, I began to realize it could turn into a miserable ride. Cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles filled up every inch of the road. We would stop in one place for a solid ten minutes before creeping forward a few feet only to stop and wait again. An hour and a half into the ride, sweating profusely and extremely tired, I began to see signs for the domestic terminal that would be coming up in three km. It was only Eight km away in the first place! The comedy of the situation at that point was somewhat entertaining but I new as the night wore on and I became more and more tired, my attitude would take a turn for the worse.
As miserable as myself and my British friend were, the people on the bus were so kind and friendly. Everyone was offering to make room in their seats for us and some people who had bottles of water kindly offered us sips. We talked amongst those who could speak English about the different aspects of life in New Delhi and the different parts of their history that would help us to understand their culture. It was an incredible experience so different from how I would have felt in a similar situation back home and I knew that I was really going to enjoy my trip to India!
At 1:30 in the morning, we were still on the bus creeping along in a mass chaos of traffic. The people on the bus explained that it had to do with the fact that it had rained heavily that day and there were extreme security checks along the way because it was their independence day in the morning. It was hard to believe that was the cause of all of this traffic in the middle of the night but thus far having seen no signs of accidents or anything, I was beginning to believe it.
Around 2:00, the traffic finally broke apart as we passed a check point with literally thousands of people standing on the road side. Five hours now after I landed, I finally arrived at the guest house I would be staying at for the next few days. It was 2:30 a.m. And I felt horrible. I wanted nothing more than to lie down in a bed no matter how clean it actually turned out to be and get some sleep. It was a difficult beginning for my trip to India but at the same time it was exactly what I expected. Irritating yet exciting, it was the essence of what you can expect from traveling in a country like India. I can't wait to get started!
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Well, it has been a long trip to Hong Kong and I am glad to be leaving and moving on with my life. Things went really bad with Allison and I had a tough time dealing with the circumstances that it caused. It definitely wasn't anything to enhance my trip to Hong Kong but I did manage to spend plenty of time walking around the streets to discover that most of what Hong Kong has to offer is shopping. I have never seen an entire city that is so geared for just shopping! On top of that, it is really really expensive here. I mean, the people here must make a ridiculous amount of money just to survive.
Mixed in with wandering the streets, I managed to get out to a few of the sights around town. The skyline of Hong Kong at night is a pretty amazing site. The only place I think I have ever seen more electricity being used was the opening ceremony for the Olympics. A couple of days ago, I made my way over to Macau. It is a Portuguese settlement about 65km away by ferry. Macau was an interesting mix of old Colonial buildings interspersed between enormous casinos. Sky scrapers are going up everywhere yet there are plenty of pockets that still maintain a bit of old world charm. It also feels a bit more tame than the chaos that surrounds you at every moment in Hong Kong so it was nice to have a bit more relaxing pace to my day.
Yesterday, I finally managed to get my Indian Visa in hand, the only thing that has been keeping me in Hong Kong. I am flying to Delhi this afternoon, a city that is know for a mix of damn near everything. I am not a city person and only plan on spending a couple of days there before venturing out. The Taj Mahal is needless to say a big priority for me so I will most likely end up there not long after I arrive and then it is off to the Himalayas! I can't wait to get up there! The photos I have seen look amazing and I hope to spend plenty of time trekking, mountain climbing and riding motorcycles along the highest road in the world! It should be an amazing time and I can't wait to get started!
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Well, here I am in Hong Kong. I flew in from Mongolia last night, met up with Allison for a bit and am now I am sitting at a starbucks, waiting out a typhoon that has the city in total lock down. Strange however that the starbucks is open? The worst part of the situation is that I have finally made it to Hong Kong where I get to spend the last bit of time I can with Allison, she even has the day off work because of the storm and there is no way to get to see each other today. I think I enjoy the hurricane parties that we throw in the dark back home a lot better than this sitting around watching the wind blow and the rain fall with nothing to occupy your time.
Hong Kong is going to be the most difficult part of my trip so far. I am saying goodbye to Allison and don't know when if ever I will see her again. After entertaining the idea of a long distance relationship while she is back in Canada and I am trekking through Nepal, we have decided that it is not in either of our best interests to even attempt it. As difficult as it is going to be, I am going to try and not let it get me down while I am here and enjoy the last few days we will have together. She has been an incredible addition to my travels and my time with her has meant more to me than any other aspect of this trip. Though she is so different from anyone I have dated before, I found myself in love with her never wanting to let her go. If she would only ask, I would stop this trip tomorrow and take my life to her to further discover the reality of where our feelings could lead. I am heart broken, sad and at the same time happy to have found someone I can care about so deeply.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The sky gradually began to clear and the landscape turned to rolling hills that eventually dissipated into flat plains extending as far as you could see. With the sun setting last night, I thought we must be passing through the most beautiful part of the journey. I was wrong. I awoke this morning in the middle of the Gobi desert. Rocky and dusty plains extending everywhere only broken up by the occasional camel wandering the harsh desert landscape in search of it's next source of fresh water. After several hours of the dusty plains of the Gobi desert, the earth began to reveal small patches of grass, usually surrounded by wild horses, camels and cows. The patches of grass became fields and the fields began to stretch out as far as your eye could see. The occasional camel was now replaced with herds of wild horses, sheep and even gazelles. With an enormous blue sky overhead extending out over a sea of green, this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my life.
I chose to visit a couple of sections of the great wall that were a bit more remote than the main tourist destinations. They haven't been restored like most of the tourist spots and you could actually walk for about 8 miles between the two sections all on top of the wall. It sounded like a great way to experience the Great Wall and now at the end of such a wonderful day, I can say it was everything I imagined it to be and more.
As a child, I remember learning about the Great Wall of China in history class and it brought up all kinds of visions of how work on the wall was done. I pictured what it looked like and how anything like it was humanly possible. I think we tend to build up a lot of sights in the world to be something more than they actually are but the Great Wall more than exceeded my expectations. Stretching to the horizon along the ridge of the mountains and still slowly crumbling beneath my feet, it was a spectacular experience to be following in the footsteps of time and history. There were hardly any tourists where I was which made it the type of exploration you conjure up in your mind when you picture something as ancient and grand as the Great Wall. Old guard towers were still crumbling down to the rugged path on top of the wall while grass grew between the mortar and all the while the whole structure just sat clinging to the narrow ridge of the mountain where it has stood for the last thousand or so years.
After I picked up Allison at the airport, we dropped her bags off at the hotel and headed out on the town to find some dinner. Since she had been here before, she recommended we head into the Muslim Quarter where we could find numerous great places to eat. There are all kinds of different food vendors, stalls and restaurants lining the narrow cobbled streets of one of China's oldest Muslim populations. It was a beautiful area to walk through and the smell of all of the tasty foods filled the air. After eating a bit of “street meat” as Allison calls it, we noticed a popular restaurant that spilled out into the streets. It was filled with Chinese people sitting at tables with piles of meats and vegetables all cooking them in a dish with a couple of kinds of boiling liquid. It looked familiar to Allison from her previous trip to Xian a couple of years ago and to me any place where you cook lots of meat in a big pot at your table is always a good pick.
Dinner turned out to be pretty good and a great time as well. We cooked all kinds of things in the pot and but seeing as how we were in the Muslim District, there was no alcohol to be consumed. A few bottles of sprite and a fanta for Allison was all that we could find. With our stomachs swelling, we asked for the bill. Fortunately, the Muslim owners of this place spoke good English so there shouldn't be too many questions about it. The bill came and I glanced at it and thought there must be some mistake. It looked like it said 295 RMB which is about $45. This is crazy for China. I mean, I haven't asked the price on any food I have eaten here and I have never had a meal that cost me more than 40 RMB. That too would have been an expensive one. Normally, 20 to 30 is a safe number including a beer or drink of some sort. I asked the owner about the bill and he pointed at the table and said it was correct. It was so obscene that I was in shock. I couldn't even begin to argue with him. I think if it had been less I would have most likely put up a fight but being so high, I just laughed and gave him the money. This simple meal which is similar to food I have had so many times in China costs me almost as much as the room in the four star hotel! I have been scammed! After three weeks in China of never asking the cost of food, I am officially changing my policy! I refuse to believe that all of the Chinese people in that restaurant were paying the same for their food. With prices ten times higher than everywhere else in town, I refuse to believe this place could still be in business.
After a leisurely morning and an enormous breakfast in Xian, Allison and I hopped on a bus and headed out to Hua Shan. I have wanted to climb this mountain for the past eight years or so. In fact the day I met Allison in the Hanoi airport, she mentioned that she had been to China before and I was anxious to find out more about the mountain. She hadn't been there but was definitely intrigued about it from my descriptions. If she ever made it back to Xian, she would definitely climb it. Who would have ever guessed that sitting there in the airport talking to her about the mountain the two of us would be climbing it together a couple of months later!
I mentioned wanting to climb this mountain for the last eight years. I am sure that everyone reading this at some point in time has gotten an email showing the ridiculous photographs of the journey up this mountain. In fact, I received the email again just a few days after climbing the mountain. It starts with something showing a ridiculously long cable car ride followed by a climb up steep granite slopes and ridges, some planks and chains hanging off the mountain thousands of feet in the air and concludes with a small tea house on the mountain top. While the email shows a lot of the mountain, I have to say, it makes things out to be a bit more difficult than it actually turned out to be. It was however one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen!
It was a strenuous climb to the top with a multitude of vertical stairs cut into the rock with only a chain to hold onto but we managed to survive the journey. Sheer granite cliffs lurked around every corner and the higher we climbed, the more incredible the views became. Allison held up pretty well on the journey up. No complaining and she kept up a pretty good pace as well. What more can you ask for? I think I will have to keep her around for a bit longer. Every day that we are together, she surprises me again at how great we travel together! Someone needs to convince this girl to take some time off law school! Well, no, lawyers make lots of money don't they? Someone is going to have to support me when I run out of money!
We spent the night on the mountain and were forced awake for sunrise by the yelling Chinese tourists that were also staying in the guest house on top of the mountain with us. While the sunrise was quite uneventful, sipping coffee in the cold breeze with Allison while the first light of the day appeared was something I will remember for the rest of time. Moments like that are so much better when there is someone around who you care about. I would have enjoyed it alone but with Allison there, it was a truly unforgettable experience. I wish I could keep her around for the rest of my journey.
With our mountain climbing experience behind us, we headed back into Xian for an afternoon of recovery for our now very soar legs. I had investigated some places to stay before Allison arrived and as I can't afford to continue staying in four star hotels, I found us an amazing room in an International Youth hostel right in the heart of Xian. This is one of the best rooms I have stayed in anywhere in the world. Filled with oriental character and charm, our home for the next two days would be more than adequate and definitely put our four star room a few nights before to shame. The rustic granite floors and intricate wood work stained a deep brown hue combined with the rich burgundy drapes shrouding a bed that was about 10 feet across and built into the room taking up it's entire width are just a few of the things that gave our room so much charm. On the bed was a small oriental table with a tea pot and some fancy little tea cups waiting while in the bathroom we found all the surfaces clad in a jade and black colored marble complete with a shower big enough to house a small Chinese family!
Our last two days of in Xian turned out to be pretty relaxed compared to the first two. The most difficult thing we did was a bicycle trip around the city walls of Xian that lasted just over an hour. With legs still soar from the mountain climb, that was about all we had left in us. It wasn't such a bad thing as it started raining shortly after returning the bicycles which gave us the opportunity to rest and enjoy the comfort of having such a wonderful room. Other than that, the next day and a half were filled with walks around the city and trying out the different foods that seemed to lurk around every corner. It was a perfect way to spend my short time with Allison. No pressure to see all the major tourist sights or over exert ourselves with climbing any more mountains, just time to spend together and take the opportunity to get to know each other a bit more. It turned out to be an incredible time with Allison and now I am in Beijing and she is back working in Hong Kong. While I will get to see her in a month or so back in Hong Kong, I can already tell how much I am going to miss having her around. She adds so much to my trip and when she is around it enhances every moment of the day. For now however, she is gone and I am left to make the most of this solo journey around the world that I have chosen for myself.