Finding Nemo

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Philosophy Part XI: Human Rights, a Nutty Idea

Read Philosophy parts I-V and VI-X here

Team America: F- Yeah!!
If you like philosophy, you have to take a minute to appreciate the unique country that is the United States.  It was the first true democracy in the world.  And as an American, it became very clear from the book that I owe a huge debt to a small handful of British and French philosophers.  Without them, America might not exist, or at least might be a very different place.

Locke: a goofy looking dude
John Locke and David Hume had perhaps the greatest impact on the ideas that make up our country.  These "British Empiricists", together with the "Continental Rationalists" like Spinoza and Leibniz, managed to turn Europe on its head.  They attacked the decadent monarchies as backwards and corrupt; they decried the antiquated social and economic structures as impeding progress and encouraging intolerance.  Most importantly of all, they argued for the universal human capacity of reason, which was their weapon against the endless tribal fighting that had killed so many millions and still divided Europe.  "Modern philosophy" was a defense of humanism and tolerance, a plea for conversation instead of deadly massacre.  Irrationality was their true target.

Hume rocking a sweet 'do
Hume was a self-styled pagan and a naturalist (perhaps why I like him immediately!)  He said that "if reason cannot justify the belief in God and the religious prejudices that go along with it, then so much worse for religion."  "Commit them to the flames!" he famously said of the tomes of theological metaphysics developed over the past thousand years.  Now I'm not one for burning books of any kind, but I definitely felt a kinship with this free-thinking Briton who was disgusted with the layer upon layer of soggy doctrine that the church had accumulated over the centuries.  The original simple teachings of that carpenter, a Jew or perhaps an Arab, that we should love one another, had been buried under mountains of sediment.

Hume believed that all knowledge should come from experience or logical deduction.  Religion cannot be proven by either method.  But importantly, he did believe that where religion failed, nature nevertheless provided us with the good sense to make our way in the world.  Our human natures provide us with the moral compass to behave reasonably towards one another.  This idea that humans have a "built-in" sense of justice, altruism, and good behavior is supported by both evidence and intuition.

Locke was Hume's contemporary.  Locke's ideas were so revolutionary at the time that he made nations tremble, and yet today they seem so ingrained in us that we don't even question them.  To me, that is the ultimate testament and power of a great idea.  He proclaimed that humans have something called "inalienable" rights.  We are born with certain liberties like the right to own property, freedom of expression and religion.  These are rights which can never be granted by some king or ruler, they are "natural."  Along with Rousseau and later Kant, these Enlightenment philosophers stated that the very purpose of government was to "serve the citizens"!  Rule was not granted by divine right or by superior strength, rather it was given by the will of those governed. This was the birth of the concept of the "Social Contract"--that a government existed only within the framework of a "contract" to the society it oversees.

Of course, these radicals were still locked under the thumb of the old Europe and its oligarchies; their ideas caged birds.  But the Americas (after the extermination of the natives) were a blank slate.  Luminaries like Thomas Jefferson carried the torch of humanism across the ocean.  They had the opportunity to start fresh, to unleash a new age.  The modern sages sparked revolution first in the New World and then in the Old.  But the one in America is the one that still stands today as it was first conceived: a symbol of humanism, personified by the Statue of Liberty.  And it could not be a better symbol, for much like Lady Liberty was a gift from France, so too were many of the greatest ideas of our American government gifts from the Europe.

Not just ink and paper
Now its hard not to get a stir of patriotism when one reads something like this, so with my new perspective I took the time to google our Declaration of Independence.  As I read the words, it gave me pause as I thought of the Arab Spring, where people at this very moment are suffering and dying for their own inalienable rights, their own just government, their own pursuit of happiness.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

What hope and naked optimism it symbolizes for our human race!  It is truly a masterpiece of the Enlightenment, the first genuine instance of a Social Contract.  In a tragic twist of irony, David Hume passed away that same year: 1776.

Guillotine: not just a WWF move
When the French radical Antoine lay in prison, awaiting death by execution during the French revolution, he wrote these words:

"How consoling for the philosopher who laments the errors, the crimes, the injustices which still pollute the Earth and of which he is often the victim, is this view of the human race, emancipated from its shackles, released from the empire of fate and from that of the enemies of its progress, advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness."

I imagined Antoine laying in his cell facing death, somehow still having faith in us.  Perhaps it is a good thing he was not around to witness the World Wars, genocides, nuclear bombings, and terrorism.  The Age of the Enlightenment was forever destroyed in the pointless trench warfare of WWI, where about millions of terrified soldiers were annihiliated by the new invention of the machine gun.  Somehow, despite it all, I still share Antoine's hope.  Someone (for once Google failed me) once said that humans are good.  It is humanity that is evil.  What is meant by this of course is that the average citizen is a decent human being, but when they mass as a populace they relinquish tremendous authority to a few individuals at the top, who inevitably become corrupted by this power.

How many socialist revolutionaries who promised wealth and equality to the poor came to power only to stagnate into corrupt dictators?  The list is too long, from Lenin to Castro to Mubarak.  Yet today, the power of the internet and social media has allowed individuals greater access and opportunity then ever before to break through censorship and bureaucracy.  It is more difficult than ever for governments to deceive and bully their own people.  Thus perhaps, just maybe, we are entering a new post-modern age.  An age that might make Antoine smile.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

High on Tibet

Sweet, but definitely not Everest
We were about 10 minutes out of Kathmandu on the way to Tibet, just getting above the high clouds, when I saw something odd.  Some of the clouds didn't look right.  Of course I knew from other flights that it must be the peaks of the himalaya, far away.  We passed a few more, and then a very large peak appeared and grew closer.  It must be Everest!  I looked for the telltale clues, Khumbu glacier and the jagged peak of Lhotse and was having trouble when I noticed a whole new set of much larger mountains.  These were jutting high above the clouds, icefalls and glaciers tumbling off the sharp peaks.  What I had thought was Everest was just a small foothill.  Its strange looking at these monster mountains from the plane as opposed to the ground.  From below, when they rise above you into the sky, you can't get a good feel for how tall they truly are.  But from the plane, the scale was much more apparent.  Looking down upon them you could appreciate the steepness and enormous size.
Everest and Lhotse (back), right before the camera croaked

I got out my camera and started taking some pictures.  As we grew closer, the views got better and better.  I studied the peaks and tried to remember the names from my trek 5 years ago up these valleys.  And then, without any doubt, appeared Everest.  It was so much taller than the others, the famous black triangle peak piercing the clouds below.  A plume miles long streamed off the top.  I zoomed in... and my camera beeped and turned off.  The LCD said "battery low."   Aaarrrrrgggggg!!!!!  I couldn't believe my luck.  It was the picture of a lifetime, and my stupid battery had run out of gas after saying it still had a quarter tank.
From the Space Station: Everest on right with plume streaming behind, Makalu on left
Makalu seen from Everest summit
We were probably cruising at 35,000 feet, but still, Everest appeared to be almost eye level.  Just when I thought we might do a drive-by, we veered south around it.  Perhaps it caused too much turbulence for jets to get that close!  Another peak, almost as high appeared and this time we did get close.  I found out later that it must have been Mt Makalu (8481 m / 27,800'), the 5th highest mountain in the world.  Then, we were over and in Tibet.  The clouds grew thicker and the mountains disappeared for a moment.

Now I wasn't sure what to expect of the Tibetan "plateau", but I suppose I pictured it like the American West: a high flat plain, brown and dry.  I imagined Tibetans riding their horses over a vast open range, moving from village to village like nomads.  When the clouds parted again, I was very surprised at the view.  There wasn't any flat.  None.  The peaks continued on and on in every direction, the Tibetan "plateau" was apparently an endless field of high mountains.  My vision of riding the high desert on horseback, yelling "Yeehaw" in Tibetan, was toast.

The only difference it seemed from the Nepal side was that instead of lush green forests below these huge white peaks, it was brown and lifeless.  I couldn't see a single tree or living thing anywhere.  Even the clouds seemed a little dead.  They had a brown tinge reflected from the earth, and look thin and worn out from their journey scraping over the Himalayas.  Yet there was plenty of snow on the peaks.  It was an odd paradox, the water in seeming abundance up high but no life below.
The Zangbo gorge

We started our descent and I wondered where the hell we would land.  Then, a broad valley carved out by a river appeared.  It was the most meandering confused river I'd ever seen.  It split and re-split, only to merge back together in countless threads.  As we descended further I realized that this was a major river, the Yarlung Zangbo.  I read later that the Zangbo originates from one of the holiest mountains on earth, Mt Kailash.  It cuts right through the Himalaya and the vast gorge I was looking at from the plane window is considered by some to be the deepest canyon in the world.  It eventually becomes one of the biggest waterways in India, the Son of Brahma (Brahmaputra) river.

After typical Asian bureaucracy (1 cranky lady did what appeared to be nothing very slowly), I was on to Chengdu.  Because China is a place of wisdom, even though I was headed for Tibet it was illegal for me to enter China there.  So, I had to book a much more expensive flight onwards to Chengdu, "enter China," and then pay for another flight or train all the way back to Lhasa.  Even though I had already landed there and could have easily walked out of the terminal and found a taxi.

As we flew east into proper China, I couldn't believe the view.  Huge unknown peaks abounded everywhere.  I stared at strange fields of ice, glaciers pouring down valleys and disappearing into the clouds, avalanche scars in the mountainsides.  Had anyone ever climbed these remote foreboding peaks?  Did anyone even live out here at all?  We were flying directly over these wonders, and as stared down upon them I realized that this must be the view enjoyed by gods.

Chinese Deathcab

Suddenly my taxi swerved 4 lanes, I heard squealing tires behind me and braced for impact.  Somehow we escaped to the sound of 4 car horns saluting our bravado.  A bus, either oblivious to our presence or asserting its superior mass, swerved into our lane to avoid 3 mopeds that had decided to stop and have a conversation in the middle of an intersection.  Our cab driver deftly swerved into oncoming traffic, and I saw a large cement truck headed right at us.  It seemed to speed up, apparently a tiny Chinese hatchback would be a nice badge on its grill.  At the instant I assumed we were about to meet the Great Chairman in the Party Above, the cab driver swerved back into our lane, dodged two pedestrians and a dog, all while chatting on his cell phone.

Just another day in China.

It didn't make any sense though.  We weren't on some bombed-out strip of asphalt in Nepal or the Philippines.  This was a modern Chinese city, the boulevards were wide and lined with trees, the lanes were clean and refreshingly straight.  Modern traffic lights above gave off an image of calm and order.  It could be anywhere USA.  But our taxi driver didn't seem to realize any of this, he and every other person on the road were driving like there was a competition to see who could kill themselves fastest.

You can take a person to water but you can't make them drink.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Looking forward to Chinese Food

Now I have friends who live and work in China, so obviously its not as bad as this article sounds.  But, I do think I will go for the apple with the bug bites over the shiny one ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fake Wrestling

"It's pretty strange that there are only 4 channels in English, and one of them is 24-hours of fake wrestling," I noted to my waiter as he served up some chicken masala.

"I love wrestling!  John Cena is man!  Mysteeeeee-rio!!  I am Kane!  Bam!  Pap!"  as he mimicked some elbows and slams.  He was naming off wrestlers that I didn't know existed, although to be fair the last time I watched fake wrestling Hulk Hogan had his own Saturday morning cartoon show.  My waiter was a super-fan.  After lunch I asked a few more random people, and they all agreed it was pretty good.  Fake wrestling was alive and well in India.

I was dumbfounded.  But after watching the other Indian channels, it dawned on me.  Fake wrestling is tough to swallow in the US because its so bad compared to all the other choices.  But in India, where almost every channel is spouting extreme close-ups, comical sword fighting, bare-chested gurus filmed on someone's iphone, and extra-slow mo' all the time, fake wrestling actually was pretty cool.  It was filmed in high-def and had great production.  And probably most important of all, it featured lots of posing, staring at the camera, and extreme close-ups.  It was the exact same thing as Indian TV but better quality.

I am starting to become a fan of Mysterio.  His moves are pretty sweet actually.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Wisdom of Indian Television

I have learned much wisdom from watching Indian television.

1) When someone speaks, first they must have an extreme close-up.  For several seconds.  Until it becomes uncomfortable to watch.  Only then can a person speak.

2) If someone wants to respond to said speaker, they must also have an extreme close-up for at least 5 seconds.  Sometimes, its good to follow the extreme close-up with an even more exreme zoom until you can see nothing but the person's eyes.  Its best to stay at this zoom for another 5 seconds.

3) When someone gets killed by sword, they must do a back-flip and then land on their hands.  Blood must cover their entire face even if they got stabbed in the foot.  Its best to repeat the footage after 5 or so sword deaths in order to make it look like you filmed many people dying.  Each time another person dies the same intense violin music must be played very loudly.

4) In order to make bad footage more dramatic, one should add random slow-motion.  The slow-motion is best when it comes at unexpected moments, such as when one is reading a book or sleeping.

5) Anytime someone runs it must be preceded by an extreme close-up, and the running must be done in extra-slow motion.  If someone can run more than 10 feet per minute, that is too fast.

6) Dancing on Indian TV is special.  The lead dancer must wear an outfit approved by Michael Jackson or Flock of Seagulls.

7) When dancing, you must have at least 80 back-up dancers to distract from the fact you can't really dance.

8) To prove your skill, its best to run around a lot and wave your arms.  Waggle your head, and then jump up and down.  Repeat.

9) After performing the above routine a few times, thrust your crotch to be funny and look surprised during the extreme close-up.

10) And finally, most importantly of all, over-act.  If this is difficult, try opening your eyes wide and looking very very intense at all times.

Nepalese Torture Chamber

My mustache had grown to the point where it was starting to interfere with eating.  I didn't have an electric trimmer and was getting annoyed, especially with soup.  On my way back from lunch I passed a little room that might possibly be a barber shop.  I said Namaste to the man inside, and pointed to my beard.

"Yes! Yes!  No problem, come sit!"

I carefully explained that I only wanted to trim my moustache.  That was it.  Just please clip the hair so it wasn't over the lip.

"No problem sir!!"  He was a little too enthusiastic, I suppose that was the first warning sign.

I sat down, he went through an elaborate preparation ritual for just trimming a few hairs off my lip.  First he smacked my face around a bit, pinched my cheeks, and then took a bottle of Windex and started spraying my face.  I cringed but it turned out to just be water.  Whew.  Then, he rubbed some oil on my face, and finally got some shaving cream and a whisk and began applying it everywhere.  I pointed again to the hairs over my lip.  "Just here please!"  This was not looking good.  For some reason it was 100 degrees in the shop, and I was starting to sweat profusely.

He pulled out a pair of 8 inch medieval scissors and started trimming my mustache.  They smelled like rust, old spice, and curry, I could barely breathe.  But I had to admit, he did a quality job, and I realized that when it came to facial hair trimming an Indian barber was not a bad choice.

Then, he pulled out a straight razor.  Now, I am not a big fan of these.  Maybe it has something to do with a long sharp blade being applied to your jugular.  But before I could sit up he already had it on my neck.  I had no choice but to sit back and pray.  At this point, my shirt was soaked with sweat and it was starting to bead on my forehead.  It was Nepalese beard torture.

He scraped all the extra hair off my face, leaving the beard pretty much intact.  Once you get over the fear, the straight blade is actually pretty amazing.  My fancy Mach Turbo razors in my backpack would have had a tough time hacking through that 2-week old growth, but the straight blade was a tank.  It ploughed through everything the first time, leaving my skin clean as a baby's butt.  After he finished, he proudly smiled.


It actually was a little uneven.  "Well... um... "

"Ah!  Not same!  No problem, just wait..."  I immediately regretted that I had spoken.  He scraped away a bit more, and it was clear that it was just getting worse.  If I complained anymore, my glorious beard would soon look like that thin chinstrap preferred by 1990 boy bands.

"Yes, looks great!  Good job."  I tried to sit up, but he shoved me back down.  Uh oh.

"Please, one moment."  He got out some oil and smacked it all over my face and rubbed it in my eyes and ears.  What???!!  Then, he got the Windex and sprayed me again.  He dug out a plug of waxy stuff from a tub and rubbed it into my beard.  "Make shiny!  Good for ladies!"  His smiled knowingly, his breath smelling of onions and curry and the wax like turpentine.  My stomach starting making a knot.

"Ok thanks, I have to be go-"

"No no!  You need trim on backside!"  I gathered he was talking about my neck and not something else.  He took the straight edge back out and scraped away the hair under my ponytail, applied a few layers of oil and wax and god knows what else.

Finally, just when I thought I was free, he began to rub my forehead.  Hard.  Then my cheeks, moving down to my neck and chest.  It was starting to get weird.  I honestly think it feels a little unusual to get my chest massaged by a woman, let alone a curried 60-year old Indian.  After lingering a little too long just above the nipples, he moved onto my neck.  Honestly it felt OK, but I had a sneaking suspicion he was getting turned on.

"Thank you so much!!  But I really have to be going, I have an appointment, I mean, flight to catch.  Have to pack!  Thank you!"

I stood up abruptly.  He looked a little concerned and upset, but I was done.  I had just come in to get a few hairs trimmed off above my lip, and now I had a crooked beard, was drenched in sweat, couldn't breathe, felt sick, and was getting some weird signals.  I paid him and gulped the fresh air outside.

But I have to say, my mustache does look pretty good.

Don't Break the Banda

The angry drunk crowd slammed their hands on the hood and pushed.  My taxi driver shook his fist and yelled some things that probably weren't evening greetings.  He laid on his horn which of course just made them angrier.  He tried to gun it, but his 1970 Toyota hatchback and its gerbil-powered engine was no match.  We were stuck.  They began to rock the car back and forth.  I rolled up my window and locked the door as the mob came to my side and started pointing and slapping the window.

"Big trouble," said Dipu.  I'd never heard him say this before, normally he was a cool as a cucumber.  It was all my fault.  How had things gotten this bad?

Just an hour before, we had ended our trek and were waiting at the side of the road.  It wasn't clear if our taxi could pick us up as it was a national strike and it was dangerous for people to break the lines.  My taxi driver could be pulled from his car and beaten if he wasn't careful.  But then he called back and said it was probably OK to drive after 6pm when it got dark.  We waited until then and he pulled up.

A large wedding party was assembled, they had piled into a special bus.  In Indian weddings, the groom is picked up a large crowd of a hundred or so people and then brought to the party.  Everyone gets drunk as they assemble on the bus, filling every space inside and stacking like sardines on the roof in their suits and ties.  The bus was decked out in streamers and good luck signs.  During a banda (strike), the only people allowed on the road were emergency vehicles and wedding parties.

After they took off, it got dark and the taxi driver signaled OK.  We clambered into the car and hit the road.  We drove along the winding hills, and finally we passed one of the wedding buses.  When they noticed me in the passenger seat, that this was a taxi car, they got angry and started yelling and throwing things.  We sped up and passed them.  I realized that perhaps I should keep a lower profile.

We kept going, swerving at the last possible moment to avoid cars, buses, and people on the bombed out strip of pavement.  I couldn't believe there weren't more accidents.  Then, on a long straight bit of road, we had to stop.  The other wedding bus was blocking the road, and a large mob of people were milling around.

The taxi driver slowed, but I was thinking he really ought to speed up.  I was going to get him in trouble.  The crowd looked at me and started asking him questions.  Apparently they didn't like his responses, because they got in front of the car and signaled for him to stop.  He yelled and started getting angry, pointing at me.  My guide Dipu also pointed at me and started explaining something.  The crowd got angrier.  An old woman came up and spat at the taxi driver and started yelling hysterically.  That got the crowd fired up, and they surrounded the car on all sides.

The driver started yelling, honking, and tried to speed up but the crowd just pushed his car back.  It was getting ugly.  A group of them reached down to the front tire and appeared to start to deflate it.  After they started slapping on my window I just looked down and stared at my knees.  The car was the safest place, there was no way I was getting out of the car into a drunk angry mob that didn't speak English.  The taxi driver got out, and one of the younger guys started spitting in his face.  They started throwing punches, my guide was in the middle of it.  I couldn't believe it.  One of the older guys stepped between them and stopped the fight.

We waited.  Noone spoke.  Finally my guide started talking.  We waited some more.  Then, the old lady who had spat at the driver re-appeared with a piece of paper.  They walked to the front of the car.  Then, everyone seemed to calm down.  The older people in the crowd shook the driver's hand and appeared to apologize, and we finally drove off.

After a minute, I said, "Hey guys, I'm really really sorry.  I know this is all my fault.  We should have waited until the banda was over tomorrow."

My guide spoke up, "What?  No no not about you, don't worry.  Just little bit before, car hit one of the guests, then drive away.  They think we are same car."  It seemed people in Nepal loved to pound some liquor and then drive on these already insanely dangerous roads, whizzing within inches of each other as they passed.  Apparently the game of Asian car chicken was more fun at night when you were drunk.

We were driving a white beat-up Toyota hatchback, which pretty much matched every other car on the road in Nepal.  I told Dipu that it was pretty ridiculous of them to think that this guy would return to the scene of the crime.  They were going to sit here all night, stopping every other car and find noone.  Or even worse, beat up someone innocent.  "Yes, they are country people.  Not smart.  They very drunk for wedding.  They want maybe hurt some people and make big problems."

They weren't trying to deflate the tire, they were looking for blood on the fender.

My taxi driver had a split lip and a torn shirt, but incredibly started laughing.  He popped Justin Bieber back into the cassette deck and starting singing along.  Just another night in Nepal.

Day 6: Jhinu Danda (1780m) to Pokhara (830m)

WARNING: This blog is chronologically backwards.  click here for Day 1.

Cruising Home
For the first time of the trip, I walked almost the whole way without the horse.  It was almost all downhill, and soon we had a wide gravel road.  My foot was stronger than ever, I was actually strolling for the first time in the last two months.  The realization I probably could have made it to ABC kept pushing into my brain, and I kept pushing it back out.  There was no point in even thinking about it.  As the Dalai Lama said, when you dwell on a negative thought, it only makes it grow and grow until it consumes you.  You must let it go and move on.

Last night at dinner, we ran into a fun group of Argentinians.  I had met them earlier on the way to Chhongrom, and they were happy to tell me how beautiful it was in Cordoba and Mendoza, two places I know I will one day visit.  But tonight they were in an intense argument, and it looked like it would turn into a full-on brawl.  Only the intervention of one of the girls prevented the guys from throwing punches.  Between all the "putas" and other few words my brain registered, I gathered that one of them had hurt his foot.  He was heavy and looked out of shape.  As a result, they all had to abandon their ABC attempt and head back down.  One of the guys was devastated and extremely angry.  He made it clear that he was not at fault and the trip was ruined if they didn't go.  They had spent a lot of time, money, and effort to be here, they were only 2 days away (as I was), and now he had to give it all up because of someone else.  I definitely sympathized with the guy.  This was exactly one of the biggest reasons that I prefer traveling alone on big trips.

For me, I had already gone through the stages of denial, anger, etc. and was starting to accept the fact my trek was over.  To be honest, it gave me great reason to return to Nepal soon.  But more importantly, these are precisely the kind of situations that make someone grow, if they adopt the right outlook about it.  I hoped the other guy would make peace with his fate, but I could tell he probably wouldn't.

There was something else this trek had taught me.  On my Everest trip 5 years ago, it was during the monsoon and the king had just been assassinated.  Maoists were running rampant in the countryside, the guidebook said that I should expect to pay bribes or get a bullet when I ran into them.  There was a travel advisory but I went anyway, which turned out to be a great decision.  I had the whole path almost entirely to myself all the way to Everest and back.  Hours, days, and weeks went by with just the spectacular scenery and my thoughts.

But on this trek, I had Team Hyper Power Nemo Go!  A porter, a guide, the horse, and his handler.  Nepal was now "safe", it was trekking season, and at Poon Hill I counted 120 people watching the sunrise with me.  I was never alone with my thoughts.  So today, walking on my own steam, I finally was able to get away from everyone for the first time and just let my brain go quiet.  I suddenly started to feel much better.  And it hit me: the reason I hadn't enjoyed this trip nearly as much as the one 5 years ago was that this precise feeling I was experiencing right now had eluded me the entire week.  I resolved right there that when I returned I would not have a guide, and maybe not even a porter.

You didn't need one anyway, really, Nepal was getting civilized.  Perhaps too civilized.  When I went to Everest BC last time, there was no electricity above 3500m, no drinking water (you had to use tablets), and getting a hot shower from water warmed by the sun was a luxury that only a few places had.  On this trip there wasn't a single village that didn't have 24-hour electricity and hot (electrically heated) showers.  My last trip, the food options were Dal Bhat or Dal Bhat.  This time around, you could get a burger, lasagna, or a pizza just about anywhere (though I don't recommend you order them, they are generally pretty horrible).

I spoke with an older ex-hippy couple from Bishop, California my last night at the hot springs.  It was cool to meet someone from a town that I had stopped in at least 100 times on my way to Mammoth.  They had been in Nepal for 2 months, and last month did the Everest BC (EBC) trek.  They said it was so packed that at times the line of people went on to the horizon in both directions.  I couldn't believe it!!  I had only met a handful of other trekkers during my EBC trip, and the picture they were describing made it sound like LA's 405 freeway during rush hour.  Earlier I noted one of the things that made Nepal = Never Ending Peace and Love was that it was forever safe from large Asian tour groups.  My reasoning was that in the mountains there were no roads to take their air-conditioned buses.  But after meeting the Korean herd in Chhongrom with their 25 porters, chef, and 450 Korean beers and then hearing the Bishop couple's story, my theory was shattered.  Here, even in the remote former kingdom of Nepal, the world's ocean of humanity was pouring in to ruin it.

My guide pointed out that there was now a road all the way to Muktinath, which is the halfway point of the Annapurna Circuit.  Today you can literally fly into Jomson and take a bus to this sacred place, high on the dry mustang plateau shared with Tibet.  And they were building a road to Manang on the other side!  Only the narrow, steep, and very high region around the Thorong La pass would be safe from vehicles in a few years.  It was very depressing.  But part of me wasn't that surprised, really.  This was happening all over the world to every great secret place once known only to few intrepid explorers.  This was the age of Lonely Planet, which should be renamed Crowded Planet.  Why would Nepal be magically protected?  I had just been naive.

So, I will return.  And it looks like I had better return very very soon, before it becomes yet another lost paradise.

The Tale of Dipendra

On the last day of my trek, strolling down the wide gravel road, I casually asked my guide Dipendra about the well-known ill-fated trips that had occurred on the path to ABC.  In the early 2000's two group of tourists had died in two different years by avalanche.  His reply was shocking.

"Yes, was February 17, 2002.  Was horrible.  3 Germans dead, 1 Nepalese, my friend.  I almost die too."

What???!!!  My guide had been on that trek?  With a little prodding he slowly told the story in bits and pieces.  He worked for a German mountain-climber turned entrepreneur, who at the time was bringing in German tourists for trekking.  He had gotten together a group that had some time off in February even though the season wasn't ideal.  There was still heavy snow on the high-trails, and this particular year there was a great deal of snowfall, the high mountains were overflowing.  They had made it up to Deurali, which is the last stop before ABC.  The trail winds along the Modi Khola river, through the narrow ravine directly between the peaks of Hiun Chuli and Machhapuchhre that marked the gate to the Sanctuary.

Back at this time the trail past Deurali went under the Hiun Chuli side, its peak straight overhead 3200m (almost 2 miles) above.  That night the German group celebrated their progress, they drank and partied late.  The next morning, several members of the group confided to Dipu that they'd had bad dreams.  Altitude can give people funny dreams, I remember my first night at Gorak Shep I had a terrible nightmare that I was being suffocated.  So Dipu wasn't too surprised at first.  But what was strange was that 3 people in the group all came up to him with different dreams where they had died.  One said he had drowned in a river, the other had been climbing when his roped snapped, and the third had fallen off a cliff to his death.  It was almost as if Death had visited the 3 condemned men overnight and warned them to turn back.

Dipu said it was a very weird morning, he was a little disturbed by the men's dreams.  He told the German guide that it wasn't safe, there was too much fresh snow and it was snowing again that morning.  The German guide, who had climbed a few Nepalese peaks already, replied that he was very strong and he was not afraid of anything.  He would take full responsibility for anything that happened.  In fact, it was implied that Dipu better not hold them back.  So off they went.  The group of Germans, hungover, were unusually quiet.  No one spoke as they set off.  Dipu said it was very gloomy with the storm and the trail was covered in knee-deep snow, making it difficult going.

Dipu said that suddenly he heard a tremendous roar overhead, getting so loud he couldn't hear anything.  He knew instinctively what it was, and tried to run but the snow was too deep.  Suddenly he felt an overwhelming force lift him in the air.  It was the wind pushed by the mountain of snow and rock above.  He was thrown 100 yards into a nearby tree, out of harm's way as the enormous avalanche poured down next to him.

Imagine how strong wind would have to be to toss a man the length of a football field!  And then, I considered the incredible luck that the wind tossed him completely out of harm's way and into a relatively soft tree!  He shouldn't be alive.

He woke up in a cave.  Apparently, some local men had found him in the tree and had pulled him out of the snow.  He was given some medicine.  A helicopter arrived to ferry the survivors to safety, but Dipu could not afford the trip.  His cheap German guide had not purchased insurance for the staff.  So, he found a stick of bamboo and began to walk the 3 day trek back down to the road.  After the first couple hours, the medicine wore off and Dipu, who grew up in a gang and was tough as nails, said the pain was so bad he began to cry.  Something was wrong with his knee.  But there was noone left to help him.  So, he walked, alone, for 3 days back to Nayapul.  He cried every day and night from the pain.

In the hospital stories came in.  His Nepalese friend for 5 years, a fellow guide, had died.  Three Germans had died.  His German guide had half his face smashed in but survived.  He would need plastic surgery to put his nose back together.  In the hospital, the German guide visited him and cried and told him he was sorry for everything.  But Dipu replied, "You will never be a good guide.  You have no respect for nature.  You are strong, but nature is always stronger." Dipu left the company and never spoke to him again.

Six months later, his knee healed and he promised his parents he would never trek again.  He worked in a restaurant as a waiter for awhile, but he said it didn't feel right.  Eventually he agreed to start guiding camping trips in the local mountains around Kathmandu.  Finally, after a few years, he returned to trekking, and even started mountain climbing.  He was back.

And in karmic payback, the disaster actually turned out to be a good thing for him.  The news coverage made him a minor celebrity for a little while and when the BBC covered the story Dipu made contacts.  When the BBC returned a few years later to shoot a documentary on the snow leopard and red panda, Dipu was hired as a guide.  He started his own trekking company and is now rich by Nepalese standards.

I stood there in silent fascination at my guide.  I had now spent 4.5 weeks with him over the last two trips, and on the last hour of the last day I finally heard this amazing story.

Just the year before, 2001, again in the late winter, another avalanche claimed the lives of a few Australians and an Israel at the exact same spot under Hiun Chuli.  It was a little unbelievable that the German guide had decided to risk their lives on the anniversary of the Australian disaster.  I thought about the bout of summit fever I'd had myself a couple days ago, and how the mountains make people throw logic, caution, and their very lives into the wind.  Today the path crosses a bridge after Deurali and continues up the other side of the river, and when the snow piles up guides stay put in Deurali and wait.

No one else has died since.


Dipu explaining the situation
I am staring at what counts for a sunset in the Himalayan foothills.  The only indication is a cloud taking on a golden hue, and the green hillsides turning a darker shade.  I am depressed.  My decision was made for me.  An avalanche on the ABC trail ahead has caused the path to be covered with large boulders, impassable by a horse.  And so, my trip is nearly over.  Tomorrow I will descend back to the road, and the next morning I will be in Pokhara.

But at the moment, I am still up here, in the hills.  Its very quiet, just a few birds chirping.  Off in the distance, far away, Annapurna III is barely visible.  Its top is glowing from the sunset, taunting me.  "I am putting on a show right now, too bad you won't see the real thing."  I will be back for sure, but now I feel ... strangely alone.

Its weird, deep down I knew all along I wouldn't make it.  But for some reason its different when you finally face up to it, only then does it become real.  Only then do you have to deal with the emotions.

Of course, it wasn't really a defeat.  It was a fantastic trek, I am at this moment staring at Annapurna South overhead.  I spent a week in nature, away from the city, reading, roaming the forest, watching brilliant sunrises over white peaks.  For me, being in a place like this is the greatest feeling in the world.  Its a chance to get reconnected with your soul.

But sometimes it feels good to feel bad.  You have to let the emotions happen, roll over your mind.  So in a way I'm enjoying the depression.  I haven't felt it in awhile, this kind of loneliness.  I've been too busy.

A woman I think of as a soul-mate broke off contact with me right before I left.  The relationship was going nowhere, even though I really liked her I kept her at arm's length.  A couple days before I left, she said something that stung deep.  "You've been alone for too long.  You enjoy your loneliness."

I thought, "That's not true!  I want, no I need, someone to share my life with."  But she was right.  I suppose I do enjoy being alone.  Maybe I've gotten used to it, maybe its become a habit.  Its easy to be alone.  Noone to fight with, I go where I want when I want.  Dinner is a fun decision, not a compromise.  Flirting with a strange woman is guiltless.

But in my mid 30's, the fun is not what it used to be.  Going out to a club reminds me of a bunch of new music I bought when I first moved to LA.  At first it was fresh and shiny, just like my new life.  But now I'm bored with it, those songs don't fill me with anticipation of a night out.  They only make me feel out-of-date.

The last time I came to Nepal, I had come from Thailand and was still a little burned out.  I had done nothing but party just as if I had been back home.  Why I was traveling at all?  And then Nepal changed everything: I found something I didn't even know I was looking for.  During the morning hikes I marveled at the stupefying scenery, the Buddhist stupas, the fluttering colorful prayer flags, feeling small and yet interconnected with the universe.  In the evenings I read the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, and even though I didn't quite realize it at the time it changed my perspective on life.

So its quite strange to find myself back in Nepal and instead of feeling cleansed and energized, I feel like an old empty sack.  Life is strange, but one thing I am learning about travel is that you can never go back again.  You can never recapture the magic of that first time in a new place.

Day 5: Chhomrong (2170m / 7200') to Jhinu Danda (1780m / 5900')

Sound of music
Today was a rest day.  Which in Nepal meant walking down steep stone steps for an hour to a town lower in the valley, changing into swim trunks, and then walking another 30 minutes down more steep steps to the river.  Kalu was left behind as this was a "downhill" day.  If I decided to try my luck at ABC I had to return to Chhomrong anyway.  My foot felt strangely improved.  It still hurt, my tendon still felt like a refried sausage, but somehow, inexplicably, all those hours of walking downhill seemed to be helping it.

One of the achilles rehab exercises is performed by standing on a step, raising your heels, and then very slowly lowering them.  Somehow it strengthens without hurting the tendon.  I could only guess that I was avoiding stress by riding Kalu uphill, and then maybe I was doing something like the rehab exercise by walking down.  But the result was bizarre by any standards--the idiotic idea of tramping up and down the cliffs of the Nepal foothills might possibly be helping my recovery.

Eventually the trail slope lessened, and the roar of a large river increased.  Finally we rounded a bend and there it was.  Below me was the Modi Khola, a torrent of grey glacial melt, thrashing and tumbling down the valley's knife-edged bottom.  The Modi Khola was the reason that you could penetrate the core of the Annapurna massif.  The mountain glaciers birthed rivers on all sides, but in the Annapurna sanctuary this runoff combined into a steep bowl, which poured out of a fissure on the south side.  The ABC trail followed the Modi Khola back up to its source.

Annapurna I from base camp
The Annapurana Sanctuary is a remarkable place.  At ABC itself, you are literally surrounded by 7000 and 8000m peaks on all sides.  Sunlight takes a long time to enter, and in the winter it stays dark all day.  Massive landslides and avalanches tumble routinely down onto the path, destroying it and anyone unlucky enough to be caught in its path.  In 2001, 3 Australians and an Israeli were killed in an avalanche that tumbled off of Hiun Chuli into the Modi River.  And just a year later, 3 German tourists and a Nepalese guide were swept away and crushed in 2002, at the same spot!  On top of this, during big rains/snows (like the ones that are occuring now every afternoon), floods will wash away the feeble stone bridges over the Modi, which must be crossed several times.  Your reward for making it?  ABC is fairly high at 4130m (13,600').  But to the West, towering over you at almost twice the height, 2.5 miles above, is Annapurna I (8091m / 26,700') the king of the realm.  To the South is Annapurna South (7219m / 23,800') and Hiun Chuli, to the North Khangsar Kang (7485m / 24,700'), the Northeast Ganggapurna (7454m / 24,600') and Annapurna III (7555m / 24,700'), and to the Southeast Machhapuchhre (6997m / 23,100').  The darkess, danger, and reward make it irresistable for the trekker.

sight for sore legs
But I didn't have to make that decision until the evening.  Ahead of me, next to the raging river, were 3 steaming hot pools of lovely leg therapy.  For once it was sunny all morning, and it was a very pleasant change to spend the day lounging in the natural pools, reading Paulo C.'s Like the Flowing River, and occasionally taking a brain-freezing dip in the icy water a few rocks over.

Now, after a nice long nap, its decision time.  And I still have no idea which way I am headed tomorrow.  Back down to sanity and my safe hotel?  Or onward to destiny (and a possible helicopter evac)?

Day 4: Tadapani (2630m / 8700') to Chhomrong (2170m / 7200')

6am showtime
Another day of sweet and sour.  The morning was clear and full of amazing.  A breakfast table was laid at the edge of the cliff above a deep valley.  With hot tea in hand, a small group of us sat at the table and watched the sun awake.  The dawn came behind a silhouetted Fishtail which was now much closer than before.  The rays hit Annapuran South, now only a single hill separating us, and then Hiun Chuli (6434m / 21,200') to its right.  The view in some ways was better than Poon Hill since the mountains were much closer.  It felt like you could chuck a rock and hit Annapurna S, even though it was miles above.  I studied the glaciers and ice falls tumbling off the face, the east ridges lit with the suns rays.  Finally sunlight peeked above Fishtail's shoulder and we began to warm.  The valley's green appeared, a pair of hawks awoke and took flight, floating on the warming air.  We all sat in silence, enjoying the show.  But nature wasn't silent.  Birds chirped, a rooster crowed good morning somewhere near, and the noises of the morning jungle wafted up to our perch.

I had pow-wowed with Dipu, he had called me out on my idiocy.  "Nemo, I tell you as friend, not guide.  I see you walk.  ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) not good.  You go up, maybe you get there.  But, then you have go down.  Two days down, 6 hours both day, no horse.  Not good for you."  So I was bummed out.  ABC would be only 2 days away after our walk today!  It seemed so bizarre to turn away when I was so close.  But then, the light-bulb went on.  I had a classic case of "summit fever".  And as everyone mountain person knows, summit fever kills, and most deaths occur on the way back down.  Dipu was right.  The Annapurna high country would have to wait.  Feeling depressed, I silently vowed to return soon.

So with the rocks in my head adjusted, we finished breakfast and started the 2 hours down to the river valley below.  That of course meant no horse.  At first it was pretty crunchy but after a bit my leg warmed up, the Advil kicked in, and I started to make decent time.  In fact, I started feeling so good that the idea of ABC started to not seem like such a stupid idea.  After the river it was back on Kalu.  This time Deepak said he trusted me enough and so I rode alone up the steps.  It was a nice change being in charge of Super-Pony, I was a bit less of a passenger and was actually doing something.

Scars in the earth
The valley on the way to Chhomrong is ripped with huge fissures along either side.  These monster landslides were right next to rice terraces.  I asked Dipu about the one right across from us, it started as a small rip in the top, widened until it suddenly dropped a thousand feet as a sheer cliff, and ended as a huge pile of rocks on the valley floor.  A new waterfall sprinkled down one side of the brown scar.

"Yes, there was house there.  Now, noone can live."

 "Did anyone die during the slide?"

"Yes, few people died."

And that was that.  The villagers just kept farming right next to where their neighbors had plunged a mile to their death.  I looked again at the rice terraces, stretching up from the river valley almost to the top of the cliffs.  The amount of water needed to grow the corn, rice, and potatos must surely soften the soil.  Dipu agreed.  But how else could they live?  They had to eat.

The trail abruptly went upward, and I noticed that the trail also went straight but was blocked off.  Dipu noted that a landslide had recently occured and now we had to go up and over.  The path narrowed to a few feet in places, where atop Kalu I nervously watched the horse tiptoe on the edge of a blind precipice.  It had to be a thousand feet high.  On the way back down I saw it.  We had indeed been walking above an overhang, the side of the mountain had fallen away.  At the top, comically perched like a weight, stood a new guest house to service the updated route.  I saw certain doom waiting to happen, the Nepalese saw business opportunity.

The afternoon clouds and rain were starting to set in when we reached Chhongrom, just in time.  A large pack of Korean tourists were having a big boisterous lunch, drinking Korean whiskey and eating Korean food.  The 15 of them had brought along 25 porters, their own cook, their own food, and 450 bottles of Korean beer.  It was the Nepalese equivalent of the Japanese tour bus.  It was kind of fun seeing the crowd partying, but when they started to pack up I felt relief.  The whole point of trekking Nepal was to challenge yourself in the middle of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, and maybe find a little spirituality in the process.  So to see a herd of Koreans, long-lenses glued on to each and every one, romping through like they were on a beach holiday was not a pleasant sight.  As their leader herded them up and out, the rain turned into a downpour and hail started falling.  But the Koreans were not deterred, they had booked each stop on their route months in advance and had to keep their appointments at all costs, hail or no hail.  As they trooped off and started to get pelted, Dipu and I laughed and happily waved goodbye.

Evening Fishtail
That evening as the sun set we had a treat.  The clouds parted just for a few minutes, blue sky appeared, and Annapurna South, Hiun Chuli, Fishtail, and Annapurna III way off in the distance were capped with golden light.  A special moment.  But before I could walk outside and get a picture, the clouds came back and the sunset ended.  I remember one time in Thailand I was snapping a picture of one of the most amazing sunsets I had ever seen, the whole sky was a pink purple, the low-tide ocean was the same color, and limestone karsts were silhouetted on either side.  It was a painting by the Master.  A friend next to me had no camera.  He pointed to his head, "This is just for me.  I don't need all these pictures.  I only want to enjoy the moment."  At the time, I thought what a poetic thing that was.  But years later, I was very glad to have that picture.  When I look at it a flood of memories pour forth, and that particular sunset, with its crazy colors, is something that otherwise would have faded in my mind.  And so, I was a little disappointed I didn't get that once-in-a-trip photo.  But it was OK, maybe it was just for me after all.

Day 3: Ghorepani (2860m / 9400') to Poon Hill (3193m / 10,500') to Tadapani (2630m / 8700')

Black lumps on the horizon
It wasn't quite War and Peace but today was the best day and the worst day.  Ghorepani is the trekking nexus of the Annapurnas.  There are people cruising down from Jomson who flew in, folks tramping up to Jomson and perhaps beyond for the full circuit, and a mass of shorter-term trekkers that will either head east for Annapurna Base Camp or turn around and head back after climbing adjacent Poon Hill.  From atop Poon Hill was supposedly one of the greatest views in the entire Annapurna trekking region, and I was determined to see it.  There was only one small problem: no horses were permitted, it was a "national park".  The path went straight up for an hour, and of course this implied an hour back down.  Doh!

But I had ridden Kalu for almost the entire day yesterday and after soaking my foot in the glacial melt for a bit I thought perhaps I had a chance.  As with any "summit" attempt, the idea is to head off in the dark and reach the peak at dawn.  Pre-dawn usually means calm weather for mountains around the world for some reason, and there was of course the bonus of watching sunrise over the roof of the world.  I woke at 4am, I wanted to beat the pack a bit and I knew I would take a long time if I made it at all.  We set off in the dark, my foot felt surprisingly good and we managed to cruise up at a decent pace.  By the time we neared the top I was in pain, but it didn't matter.  I was going to make it.  We were passed by two people hauling ass, but it turned out they were locals and had setup a tea shop by the time we arrived a few minutes later!  Ahh, nothing better than hot tea at 5am to warm up in the chilly twilight!

I looked around at the stars in the sky, and on the horizon stood large black lumps that must be the Himalaya.  Just the day before apparently it had been socked in, lucky spirits were smiling for us this morning.  Slowly the sky brightened and a line of headlamps came up the hill to join us.  And in a few minutes the Lords of Nepal began to take shape.  It was impressive.  Massive Dhaulagiri (8172m / 27,000') and a few sister peaks stood directly before us above a vast valley.  Much closer to us on the right loomed Nilgiri and the huge Annapurna South (7219m / 23,800').  Annapurna South rises up directly from the deep valley a mile below us to an incredible height miles above, you can see nearly the entire rise.  And to its right, lower in the sky but sharp and ominous like a shark's tooth was Machhapuchhre, or Fishtail, its twin peaks only 4m different in height (6997 and 6993m / 23,100').  When you are in Pokhara, Fishtail is the biggest mountain in the sky because it is the most southern.  But from Poon Hill, you can better appreciate the fact that is the little sister when it comes to the giant Annapurnas.  Its unfortunate that you cannot see Annapurna I (8091m / 26,700'), the king of the the Annapurna massif.  Dhaualgiri is taller but it is separated from the Annapurnas by the deepest gorge in the world, the Kali Gandaki Nadi.  The Kali Gandaki river flows at around 2500m surrounded on both sides by 8000m peaks.  The difference of 5500m is equivalent to about 3.5 miles.  In other words, the gorge is deeper than 3 Grand Canyons stacked on top of one another.  It is something that a human brain has difficulty comprehending.

From atop Poon Hill, the only thing that comes to mind are silly words like 'awesome' and 'holy f-ing crap!'  Finally a ray of light appeared on Dhaulagiri's peak.  The show had begun.  It is strange watching our star's rays rise to touch the top of a huge mountain.  Much like the sun seems to drop like a rock once it touches the ocean, so too did the light spill down the face of Dhaulagiri, almost fast enough to see it move.  A few minutes later, the sun touched Annapurna South and then Nilgiri and finally Machhapuchhre.  It occurs to you that its easy to tell which mountains are the tallest: simply watch a sunrise.

The colors were not as pink as what I'd seen at Mt Fuji, this was more golden yellow.  But in terms of spectacle, it was one of the greatest I'd witnessed in a long long time.

Once the sun rose a bit more the show was over, the golds and yellows were gone.  Reluctantly the pack began to trudge back down to Ghorepani.  But it was just the start of the day, another 4-5 hour trek still stood ahead for most everyone including myself.  After limping down and a great breakfast of muesli in hot milk with eggs and instant coffee, we were off.

Kalu was able to take the first shift, we were headed up over the Deurali Pass (3090m).  The trail wandered through more mossy contorted trunks of tall rhododendrons, this time they were in bloom and the patchy light of the trail was carpeted with pretty pink flowers.  Finally we crested the pass, and I have to say that the view was in some ways even better than Poon Hill.  From here we could see straight down the valley and Dhauligiri rose directly behind.  We rounded the ridge into the next valley and I was not prepared for what I saw.  A large open space ahead was carved out of the rock by two rivers, and we stood on an impossibly high cliff somewhere above where the rivers met.  Steep forested cliffs plunged straight down and disappeared below on all sides, and in the distance the combined river carved out a deep canyon.  Dipu, my guide, pointed out a tiny village way off in the distance glued to the cliff.  "Ulleri."  Yes, it was indeed.  The village we'd humped to straight up a cliff a couple days ago was below and off in the distance, barely discernible through the haze.  Dipu joked we could bungee jump off our perch.  I replied we could base-jump.

But that's where the fun ended.  As my guide warned me, "horse go up, horse no go down."  Ahead of us was an hour and a half descent into the massive gorge we had just seen.  I had developed a sort of technique for down-climbing, where I leaned on my poles and kept my toes over the rock steps to prevent my heel from coming down.  In this way I didn't stretch my achilles too bad.  But after an hour, nothing could stop it from starting to make that crunch noise.  I had to stop.  Ahead of me the path plunged straight down a row of steep steps with no end in sight.  I suddenly felt very depressed.  What the hell was I doing here?  Why was I torturing myself? Nepal wasn't going anywhere, I could always come back next year when I was healthy and do this thing right.  But instead I was grinding salt into my injury with another 8 months of travel ahead of me!  I could have stayed on that beach in the Philiippines and healed up properly, swimming every day, watching sunsets on the floating bar every night.  Instead I was fanatically attempting to snap off one of the biggest tendons in the human body somewhere in the bowels of a Nepalese jungle.

Somehow I made it down, and Kalu faithfully carried me back up the other side to Tadapani.  I just finished soaking my foot in the glacier water and its starting to feel better.  And I have a big decision to make.  Do I push forward against all odds of success?  Or do I throw in the towel, retreat to Pokhara, and console myself with some future return trip?  At least that way I can try to heal up a bit before China.

All sanity and reason says the latter.  But some primitive cave-man inertia in my animal brain wants to keep moving forward.  I'm so close.  I'm not sure why I listen to that voice.  Tomorrow the answer will come, one way or the other.

Day 2: Ulleri (1960m / 6500') to Ghorepani (2860m / 9400')

Ghorepani village
Ahh!  I made it to Ghorepani.  Today was excellent, Kalu the Super-Pony carried me almost the whole way and gave my foot some much-needed rest.  The trail is mountain flat, which basically means that instead of near-vertical 2000-step staircases, there were only staircases of the 500-step variety.  Kalu had no problem with these things and powered up them like a steam locomotive.  I asked how much Kalu weighed.  The answer was ~200kg, or the weight of a very large sumo wrestler.  I tried to picture a sumo wrestler carrying me around this place and then pictured him collapsing from a heart attack after 100 yards.  I weigh 85kg so Kalu was taking on almost 50% of his body-weight up the Himalayans.  Tough little bugger indeed.

Nepalese Road-Block
Ghorepani is the goal of most of the short-term trekkers, Poon Hill is next door and from the top there is a tremendous view of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, and Fishtail.  The trekker masses spend one night in town and then ascend Poon HIll for sunrise the next morning before returning to Pokhara.

It was weird though, making it to Ghorepani.  It didn't feel right.  I honestly didn't mind the people staring at me riding a pony, I would never see them again, and even if I did I could tell them about my foot.  No, what was bothering me was something else.  It was this: I hadn't earned it.  That wonderful feeling I'd had in Nepal 5 years ago, trekking to Everest, was not just the stunning scenery and the spiritual surroundings.  I realize now that it was also the endorphins from getting all that exercise, no booze or caffeine, eating fresh vegetarian food, and doing it every day for weeks.  The whole process cleanses you through and through.  On the way down, acclimatized, the energy soars in your body and you get the greatest feeling you've ever had.

But most of all, the trekking gives you a feeling of accomplishment.  Getting to Everest Base Camp was tough.  Yes, anyone who is reasonably fit can do it, but its very hard work.  Especially base camp day, humping up and down Khumbu Glacier for 9 hours straight at 18,000'.  When you get back to your Teahouse, you are a zombified corpse but there is a certain feeling of satisfaction.  You know you did something on your own steam, something difficult and worthwhile, that most of your friends will never do.  And riding Kalu, I was just a passenger.  I definitely didn't feel like I was earning it.  He was.

Should I....?
All that aside, today's ride was beautiful.  Ulleri is perched atop a steep valley, the sides are covered with endless rice terraces and from the top you are a little amazed at far up you've come.  The river is nearly a mile below.  The path onward winds through lush green forest, mossy covered rhododendron trees, over small stone bridges, up and down crumbling stone steps.  Pretty little waterfalls tumble into perfect pools that make you want to jump in.   I wished I was trekking by myself, alone in this pristine place and feeling a bit lost.  But I was with Mega-Power Super-Pony Squad Nemo, complete with guide, horse handler, porter, and Kalu.  With my army around me, my vision of Nemo the Elf King wandering around the place naked was hard to keep in place.  But perhaps it was for the best, maybe that vision was a little wrong anyway.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Day 1: Pokhara (830m / 2740') to Ulleri (1960m / 6450')

The taxi from Pokhara took us out of the city, and soon the decent road gave way to a single lane bombed-out strip of asphalt shared by diesel-spewing trucks, 5-pack families on motorbikes, and the usual assortment of traffic cows.  Nepal had a new nickname: Never-Ending Potholes And Lorries.  But it didn't matter, we were surrounded by the steep Himalayan foothills covered in green forest and pretty rice terraces.  And even though Pokhara is the prettiest city in the country, it was exhilirating to be finally headed out to the real Nepal: the biggest mountains in the world!

Obviously I was either completely insane or a colossal moron to be attempting this trek to Annapurna Base Camp.  The attachment of my achilles to my heel was dubious, I still had plantar fascitis in the same foot, and my left knee still hadn't recovered from my January surgery.  But I was here, in Nepal, wasn't I?  I couldn't just put my tail between my legs and retreat.  I had to try.  However stupid climbing 4000m in 6 days on bad wheels might be.  (Yeah, I know.  I have issues.)

Annapurna South luring me forward
The morning was gorgeous and blue for a change, the incredible Annapurnas were peaking over the foothills every now and then, luring me forward.  It was an auspicious beginning.  The taxi driver was my tour guide, pointing out which peaks were which and smiling in satisfaction when I made ooo-ing noises.  It is pretty amazing when you think about it: Pokhara is only 830m, and barely a few miles as the crow flies rises the stunning tooth of the Fishtail, Machhapuchhre, at 6997m (23,090').  The even taller Annapurnas are a bit further back and so appear smaller but it is an illusion.  Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world at 8091m (26,700'), and rubbing elbows just to the West is The White Mountain, Dhaulagiri, the 7th highest peak at 8171m (27,000').  There are many more peaks in the massif going up to Annapurna VII, and the range is considered the most beautiful in Nepal.

Which is why I had originally intended to do the Annapurna circuit, which takes you all the way around the entire massif, through the dry Mustang plateau, over the Thorung La pass at 5416m (17,800'), and back down the other side.  But with my bad wheels a 3-week trek going up and down mountains obviously was beyond stupidity, it bordered on delusion.  I settled for the much easier 2-week trek going to Annapurna Base Camp!!  And I had a secret weapon.

Meet Kalu.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking.  He looks like a little pony, you know the kind you find at kids birthday parties that look so sad and mistreated you wonder if they wished they were dead.  But trust me, Kalu is Super-Pony!!  I jumped on the "horse" as the Nepalese called it, and my legs almost touched the ground.  When I first saw him, I was depressed.  I knew how tough the terrain was, sometimes there were endless staircases that went up and down for miles.  How could this donkey get me anywhere?  When we approached our first set of steps, I offered to get off and let the horse walk.  The horse handler, Deepak, assured me it was fine.  Next thing I know, this little burro is hauling my 185 lb butt straight up the stairs!  I hung on in disbelief.  And it just kept trucking.  This was the little donkey that could.

When proper trekkers, loaded with packs tromped by, they smiled at me.  I knew it was a smirk, 'Look at this kook, he's in Nepal and instead of doing a real trek he's cheating on a donkey!'  I looked like a douche.  But it was OK, I usually look like a douche back home anyway.  After several more staircases, the pony was really breathing hard and I could feel its little heart thudding.  I read too many stories about horses going until their heart burst and dropping dead.  So I got off, and walked for a good part of the day.  But at the end, we were faced with a staircase of 2000 steps (according to our guide).  It took an hour to climb for regular folks.  I did my best, but about halfway up I felt a sharp stab in my ankle.  Visions of a ruptured achilles spun in my head, followed by the idea of being hauled by donkeys for hours all the way back to the road.  I got back on Kalu.

Little Engine that Could

And that's when he turned into Super-Pony.  That little guy trudged up and up and up, it was steep enough to give people pause, but somehow my mountain goat-horse kept at it.  It started to rain, the steep stone steps became slick.  He slipped a few times, which is freaky when you are looking at thousand foot drop-offs, but I knew the old boy had it in him.  Sweating, panting, heart thudding, on he climbed.  I was in disbelief.

Finally we reached Ulleri, a little village perched on the top of a mountain.  Super-pony had done it.  Even though my achilles was burning, maybe I had a chance after all.  And then it hit me.  Kalu can only take people up steps.  Not down.  Doh.