US$1= 66.71 Nepalese Rupees
November 30, 1998 Ka-Ka-Ka-Kathmandu....
When we left our hotel in Bangkok at 7:30 this morning, the hotel "taxi/limosine" service approached us. These are neither taxis nor limos, just a hotel car charging 500-600B to go to the airport. I said we wanted a metered taxi, and as soon as I did, he just ignored us. So we walked to the curb, hailed a metered taxi with a driver that spoke absolutely no English except for the word "airport". The trip cost us 260B, including two toll stops for which we paid, and a few minutes off our lives from the sheer terror of his driving.
When we got to the Royal Nepal Airways counter there were about 25 passengers standing around and no one taking any tickets. We stood around and waited for a while until we saw some movement. No announcements were made, but we soon discovered that the flight had been canceled and we were all being passed over to Thai airways. Thankfully it was all relatively painless, we got our seats, and flew a nice new Boeing 777 to Kathmandu only an hour behind schedule. On the way in, from the plane we saw Mt. Everest, complete with its usual cloud plume trailing off the top. Both of us were in awe of the sight of the tallest mountain on the planet which has long been a personal fascination of mine. As we got closer to Kathmandu small ancient villages began to appear on mountain tops along with terraced fields.
We decided to stay at the Kathmandu
Guesthouse, the oldest, and supposedly the "most popular budget hotel
outside Western Europe". I had long heard of this place, and it came recommended
other travelers and friends. So, from Bangkok, via the internet, we booked
a room. They have rates that run from $2-$60 a night depending on the room.
We opted for one in the new wing with a garden view and I must say, it's
quite nice. They even offer a substantial discount for a full week's stay.
The garden is lovely, with reading areas, and a tree filled with giant
pommellos. The structure was originally a Rana Palace and now contains
120 guest rooms and every service a budget traveler could want. I walked
around and checked out some of the other rooms and even the ones that use
the common baths were large and clean. Seems to be a good place even
for the most budget conscious. We even made our reservations online, at
their website, from Bangkok.
We figured since we were staying at a local institution, we might was well eat in one as well. We went for a walk and quickly came across KC's Restaurant where we had hot tomato soup and a pot of coffee. There is an overabundance of western food available, though luckily, no big name fast food.
December 1, 1998 ...I could die and rest easy....
Kristina often accuses me of having melodramatic
tendencies, and whether or not she is right, this time was no exception.
We were three quarters of the way to Kathmandu, when the pilot interrupted
the in-flight movie, Snake Eyes, with Nicholas Cage, to announce
an even greater blockbuster on the right side of the plane: Mt. Everest,
the tallest peak on the planet, the top of the world, the big one.
As we happened to be sitting on the right side of the plane, we had a clear
and unobstructed view of the entire Himalayan range.
The weather was impeccably clear, and the long distance visibility was crisp and sharp. There were so many towering peaks, all covered with snow, and all so indescribably huge. These mountains were visibly larger, even from a cruising altitude of 29,000 feet, than any mountain range that I have flown over, including the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, and the Swiss, French, Austrian, and Italian Alps. The major difference being that the peaks of these mountains were not a mile or two below us, but actually reaching up to our altitude. We were next to these peaks, not way above them. I double checked the statistics screen on the small video monitor which showed our distance from destination, altitude, airspeed, etc. just to be sure. The pilot spoke again, informing us that Everest was the second one from the right, but it was impossible to tell exactly what he meant by right.
Anxiously, and totally in awe, I asked Kristina which one it is, and not surprisingly, she knew. Mt. Everest has been something of an obsession with my wife for a few years now, ever since the tragic 1996 incidents that resulted in the book Into Thin Air. She pointed out the single peak on this crystal clear day that sported its own cloud. Like Ludwig Van Beethoven's woolly white mane blowing in the wind, Everest sports a windblown wispy cloud blowing east from the peak nearly every day of the year. Kristina explained to me that at 8848 meters, almost 29000 feet, Mt. Everest is so high up that its peak actually pokes into the bottom of the jet stream! The intense winds from the jet stream's perpetual global air current, on the icy glacial peak cause an easterly wisp of cloud from Everest even when no other clouds can be seen for hundreds of miles. The next tallest peak near Everest is about 1000 feet lower, and doesn't touch the jet stream. After absorbing the full weight of what I was staring at, I looked at Kristina, and said to her that I could die peacefully now, having seen the top of the world. And she was right, of course, I was being melodramatic...after all, I still haven't seen the pyramids!!
We arrived in Kathmandu, and I fell in love right
away. Unlike Bangkok, which took a few days to
grow on me, I knew instantly that Nepal was the place for me. How
many places have I said that about? A few. So add this one
to the list. Thamel, which is the part of Kathmandu that all the
foreigners stay and eat, is wonderful. There are bakeries on every
corner, and little restaurants everywhere. Every other shop is selling
cashmere sweaters, scarves, and shawls, and the ones in between are selling
Yak wool hats, gloves, and socks. Everything is cheap. The
buildings are all brick, and range in age from the very ancient, to last
year. The carved wood window covers are all ornate and extremely
beautiful. In the wall of one building we saw while walking,
were Buddha's eyes, carved right into the stone. A little further down
the street, we saw a butcher shop with some fresh meat on the table, and
I knew that I was truly a long long way from
home. It was a goat head. Not just some goat head meat, but
the whole darned thing looking up at us, eyes, horns, teeth, everything.
Whenever westerners approaches a site of historic or touristic significance, they are besieged by a gaggle of would-be guides. They begin by telling you how difficult it is to get around on your own, and how little your book knows. One guide even knew which number in the lonely planet referred to the temple we were standing in front of, while we were attempting to ignore him by looking intently at our guide book. These guys are good. Another guy was downright rude to us after we told him we didn't need his services. "You from America, I know by the sound the way you talk" , he said "I know all the English. The people from England, Australia, they speak really good English." he continued as he walked away, apparently insulting us. We really did want some help, but we were so put off by these guys and their attitudes.
Our salvation from the plague of wanna be guides came in the form of a ten year old boy by the name of Pushkar. He was a dirty little guy, but extremely well spoken in English. He started off by trying out a little scam on us that we had read about in the book. "I have a coin collection", he says, enthusiastically, "maybe you help me, give me a coin? a quarter? " Of course, we put him off, and then again, but he was persistent, and kept following us as we walked towards the old palace. We got to the gates of the old palace, only to discover that it was closed for the day already, but as usual we were immediately assaulted by the 'guides'. This time, however, I had the answer. "We already have a guide", I said, smugly. "Where", countered pushy guide number twelve, incredulously. "Right here," I replied, pointing to Pushkar, our ten year old tag along, beaming with pride at new employment, and playing the part without missing a beat. So the three of us walked away, and Pushkar did not let us down. He showed us the different temples, and was able to explain a fair amount about each of them. He showed us the giant bell, the giant drums, the giant mask, the holy goats, tied to one of the temples, and then took us to some things that were not in the lonely planet. He brought us to a little shrine in the bottom of a tree that housed the Buddha's feet! He was terrific.
After about an hour, our tour being over, I went to hand him a little wad of cash, but he refused. He said that if we gave him money in Durbar square, that the older guides would take it from him. Instead, he asked if we wouldn't buy him some milk formula for his sister. Who knows if this was a legitimate request or not, but the kid seemed quite genuine, so we bought him the milk, even though it cost ten times what we were going to offer him. We figured that because he had no way of knowing how much money we were planning on giving him anyway, there was little chance that he was trying to scam us. He went home along the same road we did for several blocks, then we took his picture when we reached his neighborhood, and some of his friends had appeared.
Tonight we're off to have dinner with some people that we met at American Express, struggling alongside us with the lack of real banking services in this beautiful, but far away place.
December 3, 1998
I feel obligated to mention that American Express
is not exactly living up to its promises. So far, outside of the more westernized
countries, they have been able to do little more than hold mail and sell
traveler's checks. They won't even cash their own traveler's checks in
Bangkok or Kathmandu. This is how we met Rochelle and Roger in the American
Express office. Rochelle was on the verge of becoming irate with the man
behind the counter because she could not access any of the cash she had
placed on her card. We had already been to the Nepal Bank, which wanted
the purchase receipt to cash a traveler's check, and all over Kathmandu
in search of an ATM (there are none), so we were also fairly irritated
by American Express' limitations. The only option was to write a personal
check and purchase more traveler's checks. Then walk to the Kathmandu Bank
which will cash them for no commission.
In the middle of all the hassle above, we struck up a conversation with Rochelle who is also our age and traveling around the world for over a year. The owner of several high-end eyeglasses stores in Miami, she sold them to a larger chain and struck off on her own. She had met Roger in South Africa and met up with him again here to do the Annapurna Circuit trek. They both highly recommended their guide and their porter to us. Later, after some investigation into trekking costs, we discovered that we could spend about half for the same experience, if we use this guide as opposed to going with a company. More information about the actual costs will be given later.
We've decided that we'd like to do what is known as the Jomsom Trek which is a section of the Annapurna Circuit lasting about 8-10 days. We will be staying in Tea Houses at night in small villages along the way. We will have to fly one way and trek the other. We will meet Hiran, our guide, tomorrow, and he will walk us through getting our trekking permits, plane tickets, and purchasing whatever we might need for the trek.
We've also managed to fit in more sightseeing in the last two days around Kathmandu. Yesterday we went to see Bhaktapur, a mediaeval town that was once the center of the valley life here. It too has a Durbar (meaning Palace) Square that is rather large and spacious given that some of it was destroyed in a 1934 earthquake. There are the inevitable Buddhist and Hindu Temples, most with amazing intricate stone and woodwork. We were approached by a student guide who led us through the square and described the details, to the Pottery square, and to the Taumadhi Tole Square. We visited Bhaktapur with Rochelle and took a taxi to get there. We had a problem with the taxi driver, changing the cost of the trip about half way there, but after much arguing by the tree of us, came to an agreement on the fare. Bhaktapur is a Unesco World Heritage Site and there is an entrance fee of 300 r per person, or US $5.
Today we went to the Buddhist Temple of Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, about a 2 km walk out of Kathmandu. The temple is reached by a long walk up a hill and an even longer walk up about 200 stairs leading to the base of the temple. At the base of the stairs are Buddha's footprints and flanking the stairs on the way up are pairs of statues- garudas, lions, elephants peacocks and horses- all the vehicles of the various Buddhas. The temple is topped with a large white stupa that has eyes painted on all four sides. Proper etiquette requires you to always walk clockwise around the stupa. The base is surrounded by large prayer wheels. There are buildings around the temple that house a small monastery, souvenir shops and a few families. The trees and bushes on the hillside are home to several families of monkeys who were quite oblivious to our presence. There is an entrance fee of 50 r. per person.
December 5, 1998
Our trek route is now set, and we have begun
preparations for what we hope will be the most spectacular part of our
journey through Nepal. Hiking in the Himalayas has long been a dream
of mine, although Kristina is slightly less enthusiastic. Then again,
the situation was identical on the great barrier reef, and while her protests
and complaints were many, her performance as a scuba diver was excellent.
I think she had a great time diving, too. So we shall see after the trek
is over whether or not we both have as good a time as I think we will.
For starters, we intend to be trekking a little longer than Kristina wanted
to be. Our guide, Hiran, estimates that it will take us around 9 days to
trek out of the Annapurna Himalaya and back to Pokhara. Our path is the
last third of the Annapurna circuit, and will take us through some of the
most impressive sections of the three week long circle. Among other
highlights, we will be hiking between the great Annapurna I (8090m - approx.
24,500 ft.) and Dhaulagiri (also just over 8000m), whose peaks are
only 38 k apart. The river below flows at 2200m, approx. 6700 ft.,
creating the largest gorge in the world. We will also see hot springs,
and villages of Tibetan settlers along the way. I am so excited,
I could just burst.
We were originally uncertain as to whether or not we would fly in and hike out, or hike in and fly out, but we have settled that now. We will fly to Jomsom from Pokhara on Tuesday, the 8th of Dec. on Cosmic Air! Needless to say, the name of the little airline is not very reassuring, but Hiran says that it is a new operation, with new equipment (i.e. airplane) and he has flown with them within the last two months.
Our one-way tickets cost us 55$ US apiece, but for Nepalis, the price is only 13$ US each! I am actually glad for the difference in price here, because we are paying for Hiran and Tikka, our porter and Hiran's cousin, to fly with us. Yes, I said 'our porter'. We figure, if we are going to hike for that long in the freezing cold Himalayas, we might as well pay somebody 6$ US a day to make it easy on us. We are paying Hiran 12$ a day as our guide. This is probably on the expensive side for both guides and porters, but is still cheaper than doing the trek through an organized group trekking agency, which runs about 30$ / day per person, for a guided trek with porters, etc. Of course, we could just do it ourselves, renting equipment and following a map, but Hiran comes highly recommended by Rochelle and Roger, who were turned on to Hiran by a friend of Roger's-satisfied customers, all. Unlike some guides, we were told, Hiran will go out of his way to take good care of his clients, make sure they are comfortable, not push them too hard, choose the most scenic routes- not necessarily the simplest paths, and has a wealth of knowledge about all the places we will visit, cultural and geologic.
Yesterday, we began preparing for our trek, and Hiran lived up to his billing of services above and beyond the trek itself. He met us at 8:00 in the morning at our guest house and had all the paperwork we would need to fill out with him. Over hot chocolate and porridge we filled our trekking permit applications out, and Hiran even brought a stapler for our pictures- a pillar of preparation. We set off for the immigration office in a Nepali Tuk Tuk, which is even scarier than a Thai Tuk Tuk.
The office for such permits is across town, but it used to be in Thamel proper. My guess is that the taxi drivers figured they were losing money on the prior arrangement, and lobbied to get the office moved further away. When we arrived, the office was still closed, and there was already one small group waiting outside. We joined the group, as we had about 45 min. to wait. When they finally opened the office, and everyone found their way inside, it was immediately clear that we would be waiting some time more.
The first official to arrive behind the window looked at the crowd, grunted, then sat down at a table where he proceeded to read the pile of several newspapers stacked there. When a few more officials finally arrived, they decided to change the window that that business would be conducted at, and made the whole long line move to the next window, although for no apparent reason. Our turn came fairly quickly, but when it was time to pay, we were told that today they would only be accepting Rupees, and not dollars. Even the Lonely Planet says that you must pay in dollars, and Hiran was shocked, because just three weeks before, they would not accept Rupees! Ah, the wonders of the Asian bureaucracy. Having just enough Rupees to pay for the permit, and a taxi back to Thamel, we still needed to return at 1:30 to pick up the permits and our passports. Fortunately, the second trip to immigration was painless. We took a taxi, not a tuk tuk, and everything was waiting for us, no lines to wait in, and we returned in the same taxi for mere pennies. Finally, a smooth experience in a foreign government office.
December 5, 1998
Nobody told me that preparing for this trip would
be so expensive. This morning Hiran met us at 10:00 AM to take us on a
shopping expedition. He said we'd find better deals if we left Thamel so
we walked out towards the Kathmandu "shopping center", a central market
Our first purchase was two cashmere scarves, cashmere being one of the best deals here in Nepal. The key is to find real cashmere, not cotton blend or angora. The most expensive is a silk/cashmere blend which is super soft, lightweight and strong. We could not afford this, but did find two scarves that were all cashmere, very soft, and did not shed (this is a very important thing to look for) for 750 r. total. A good deal by US standards ($11, probably five times that for each in the US), but Hiran said we should have bargained harder.
Next we tried to find wool socks for David. Hand knit wool socks are everywhere here, for only 70-100 r. a pair, but not in David's "bigfoot" size. After trying on dozens of pairs, in several shops, we finally found a few that fit and they were too thick to wear inside his boots! At that point we gave up on the socks and went in search of wind proof pants for the cold weather up in the mountains. These are the same type of pants worn by snow boarders or skiers, they are made of heavy duty nylon and gore-tex and zip all the way up the leg to the waist. Again, same problem, Dave couldn't find a size big enough and it took about ten shops and twenty pairs of pants to find ones that fit. I found some too, branded "North Face" but obviously just a good copy at 800 r. a pair. At home, a pair of North Face pants would probably cost over $100. We hope we will be able to use these again while hiking in Switzerland.
Our luggage somehow increased exponentially today. As we've said before, we are traveling with only one large bag and one small bag each, packed full. We left one of the large bags in Bangkok. Hiran said that our big bag wouldn't really be right to bring on the trek, and that it would be better to rent a backpack in Pokhara. We decided to leave some other unnecessary things here in Kathmandu, so today we bought a big waterproof, cordura duffle bag ( cheap at 300 r.) to bring our things to Pokhara. Plus, we're going to need this bag to bring everything we've purchased back to Bangkok. Then, David decided he wanted a bigger day pack for the trek, and one that we can use in Switzerland, so we bought a nice, medium sized padded backpack for 1100 r.
Tomorrow we have to go pay our Himalayan Conservation fee of 1000 r. each, buy bus tickets to Pokhara for ourselves, Hiran, and Tikka, buy sweaters, and try to find thermal underwear (which is surprisingly absent here). All in all, it's not really that expensive, but more than we planned on. It's definitely much cheaper to outfit yourself here and the quality seems to be almost as good, if not equal to that at home. We've priced quite a few items and they seem to run about 50-80% cheaper here.
A note about the food here; it's actually pretty good. There's a huge selection of choice and Italian and Indian seem to be the most successful. We had a very good Indian meal tonight at The Third Eye for about 550 r. for two. The Pumpernickel Bakery is a great spot for breakfast with good omelet sandwiches, fresh baked bread, and fresh curd (yogurt). Everything we've had at KC's has been excellent and our dinner last night at The New Orleans Cafe (with a mostly vegetarian menu) was also very good.
December 6, 1998 Been out too long....
We have an expression
we've developed here which refers to some of the western travelers that
we've come across; one look at them and you can tell they've "been
out too long". Nowhere is this more evident then here in Nepal, the crossroads
between India and Asia for many travelers. However it's easy to come across
these people in Bangkok on Khao San Road, in Bali, in our old hometown
of Santa Cruz, CA, and probably in Africa as well.
These people are easy to recognize by their varying degrees of having "gone native". For those of the older generation, picture the hard core Hippies of the 1960's. Picture dreadlocks, baggy pants, women wearing too many layers of skirts, pierced noses, Indian tikka marks on the forehead, scarves and shawls, sandals, heads wrapped in a turbans and the general aura of the unwashed. Add to this a dose of the 1990's with expensive hiking boots, backpacks, and e mail accounts. Anyway, we say these people have "been out too long" and need to go cut their hair, shave, and go home to Mom for a hot meal. Ok, think I've let enough of my bourgeois prejudice out for the day. Just wanted to share.
Today we met up with Hiran again and finished up our business preparing for the trek. We paid our 1000 r. each conservation fee. We bought our bus tickets (800 r for the four of us) to Pokhara. There is by the way, a more expensive, but nicer bus for $10 US per person but since we were paying for four, we decided to skimp. We found beautiful, heavy, hand knit wool sweaters for 650 r. each and bought a mess of snacks to take with us, as well as some preventative medicine from the pharmacy. The pharmacies are great here, it is possible to buy just about anything over the counter without a prescription. Although, we are already a traveling pharmacy, we bought motion sickness pills for the bus ride, chewable vitamin C, Flagyl for Giardia just in case, and 10 Valium just because we could.
Tomorrow it's up early and out at 6:30 AM to catch the bus, arriving in Pokhara around 2:00 PM. Then we will have to rent sleeping bags and a backpack. The next morning an early morning flight on Cosmic Air (I hope they have good Karma) to Jomsom and the hike begins!