Friday, August 29, 2008

Ok How about a few pics here. Give a better idea of the place.

Day Two of my walk to Tibet


Morning found us alive and listening to a distant predawn chant of OM MANI PADME HUM (the Tibetan’s favorite mantra) coming from somewhere in the mountains around us. It was atmospheric and set the tone for the day. Soon we were out looking for our breakfast of chia and biscuits to get ready for the trail.

I loved that simple Dhunche Village for it’s colorful Sherpa people in their peaceful eyes. We shot some pictures of a local girl in purple and her small brother wearing a vest and lungi (wrap around cloth for pants).

Dhunche was a place that was removed from time. Rock houses with wood plank doors held and air of ancientness that my modern world could not ever offer. It felt calming to be there and elemental. Sun, wind, clouds were all immediate and right next to you. I was inspired. Despite the lack of sleep and thin air I felt euphoric.

The village was build on the side of a fairly steep hillside. At the edge of the village we found the source of the chanting. A simple Tibetan Temple was located on an outcrop of rock in a plain wood plank building. Not wanting to intrude, but deeply intrigued we sheepishly entered. Inside was a full compliment of 20 or so maroon robed, shaved head Tibetan Monks.

When we entered the Temple, the Monks were chanting a deep throaty base indiscernible mantra while clanging large symbols, banging drums, rattling Damarus (small meditation drums), and ringing bells. It was a cacophony of chaotic sound. It was also magnificent. Here I was, in a authentic shrine room witnessing a tradition that has evolved a thousand years before I was born in the bosom of Tibet. We watched silently and then gracefully retreated. What a good omen to begin the journey!

Now (grunt) we have to start climbing. It began easily enough. A nondescript grassy path at the back side of Dhunche wound it’s way upward past picturesque small stone farm houses and sculpted rice patties. A village woman stopped to admire Kirsten’s pink raw silk shawl saying: “Ramro” (beautiful). A couple of young boys were hanging out on path. One boy was a smiling maroon clad apprentice Monk and the other a frowning ragged village kid. That was enough to try Buddhism right there and then.

Before long we discovered a large disparity in the map. None of the local recognized the village names when we ask directions. It appeared that there were many different names for the villages ahead. Each tribe seemed to have a different name for each area and nobody had ever heard of the name on our map. Our first day and we were already at a loss as to which way to go. We proceed on with a feeling of confused amusement.

Next, our trail abruptly ended at a rock slide. With no trail at all we really had to take a pause for intuitive reflection. It’s funny, but at that moment I realized I wasn’t really going anywhere. I was just Being in the Himalayas. The trek was more or less to BE in the Himalayas, so no matter which way we went we would BE in the Himalayas and hopefully find food and shelter.

We headed down to the bottom of the rock slide and picked up a trail by a small stream. From the useless map we tried to figure our which way to head: right or left?

OK we choose to head left. The beautiful valley meandered along filled with Himalayan flowers and tall grasses. Occasionally, we would hear the bleat of a goat far off and some shouts of far away herdsmen. This high valley was so removed from the busy world below that it was easy to feel at peace and revel in the natural surroundings. There was only one problem. The direction we headed was sloping down and not up. We were after all supposed to be hiking up to Tibet.

We went the wrong way. Before long we realized we were lost,..... Sunset was drawing near. The cool evening winds had already begun and a thick fog was floating up the valley. What to do?

It’s a funny sensation in your brain as your reality shifts before your eyes. I’m a survivor, so I was quick to recognize that we might need to improvise a shelter.

Fortunately this region had been occupied for several millennium and had give shelter to many a traveler. I saw the remains of a fire pit under an outcropping of rocks. Hmmmm, I thought this would do nicely if we don’t find anything else.

We had enough light to continue on and after some distance we saw the smoke rising from a small picturesque rock village not too far away. As we entered the village we past a low Tibetan Temple with faded Buddhas and Deities adorning the wood facade. It had an air of ancient mystic as if it had been there for a thousand years.

As we came into the center of the village children came out to greet us. These smiling kids had such a ‘presence’ about them it was as if they were emanating an aura of well-being.

This village with no electricity or any modern trappings had evolved with relatively little change over the last 5000 years. It’s name was Shybubensi. It was actually the last village on the road. A road that had only been built 10 years before.

Shybubensi was also the next village after Dhunche where we got off the bus yesterday. We had essentially doubled back to the beginning of the Langtang trailhead that we were trying to access via the back way. Oh well, it’s all good.

Another surprise in Shybubensi were some new friends Rob & Julie who we had seen on the bus. They were a couple of newly weds from the UK. We had met them when we boarded our bus in Kathmandu and here they were hanging out in the village for a day to acclimatize to the altitude.

Rob was in the street playing ball with the kids. The kids in this village were ‘something else’. They had been raised in this small mountain village with no electricity or running water. I doubt if they had ever seen a television or heard a radio. When you looked into their calm clear eyes it was as if they had been meditating for a hundred years,.... what a difference environment can make.

Existence happens. We decided to join forces with our new friends. The more the merrier on this wandering Himalayan adventure. It seem only natural as we were the only trekkers in this entire village.

We all stayed in a rough wood guess house room with a lovely Sherpa family who charged us only 10 Rps (about 20 cents) for lodging. I couldn’t figure out why they had put old magazine pages on the wall and later realized this was a kinda decoration/wall paper. We were in a place where magazines were somewhat of a rarity.

A shy young girl about 10 years old with big brown eyes and dark hair came to ask us what time we wanted to shower in the morning. This was an important detail as it was her job to heat the water and pour it into the improvised bucket with holes that would drip it on us. Amazingly innovation for a village that did take showers. It was purely a tourist feature and the only time we saw a shower on this trek.

For dinner, the guess house family gave us Dhal Bhat (Rice & Mung Beans) with some white radish garnish. It was basic, but warm and yummy. This would be the staple for the rest of the journey. It’s the national dish of Nepal.

Sleep came easy after an exhausting day of hiking. It was much warmer in Shybubensi as the rooms did not have big holes in them for ventilation. They had alittle more sensitivity to a trekkers sense of comfort.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Walking between Kathmandu & Tibet

Kathmandu to Tibet I

Loosing your Destination to find your Path

My entire life could be summed up with this phrase: “Oh My God! I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into!” This is pretty much the definition of an adventure. An adventure requires going beyond your limits and your known experience.

I wanted to try something different when I was choosing a trek in Nepal. There are three major areas that the Kingdom of Nepal offers to wandering foreigners. The most popular is the “Annapurna Trek” in western central Nepal. It’s fantastic by all reports. The second most common is the “Everest Base Camp Trek”. Naturally hiking to Everest has a romantic appeal. The last is a little known and rarely traveled path to Tibet called “Langtang”.

Langtang, a valley winding through small Himalayan villages and leading to an ancient mysterious Monastery of Kudzon Gompa at 12000 feet on the border of Tibet. Hmmmm, sound appealing. I pride myself on ‘going native’ and try to rework the maps to end up in some mischief along the way. Sometimes I’m a little too successful at this.

My girlfriend Kirsten and I purchased a map at a long trekking store in Kathmandu and tried to come up with a plan. It turned out there were some very remote and untraveled paths even in Langtang (an approved trekking area). We would begin at a small village called Dhunche. It appeared that there were a few paths from this small Himalayan rock village that head the back way to the Langtang Khola (river) and follow it to the Tibetan border. Perfect!


We took a rickety local bus from the obscure Kathmandu station (no more then a little shack) at 6AM the next morning and began the slow winding accent toward the mountains. This part of the journey took 12 hours through numerous police check points (to look at our trekking permits) and continue through some dusty small villages.

The bus was a colorful mobile shrine. On the front was a painting the Eyes of Buddha, Mantras (sacred words), and the Hindu Elephant Deity Ganesh. He has many attributes, but protect of traveler and remover of obstacles is his primary power. What could be better for a bus? Inside the driver had photos of various Hindu saints Ramana Maharishi, Sai Baba, plus a few Deities for balance: Laxsmi & Krishna.

We were smashed in with a few too many people who also brought along their chickens, pigs, and many other items from a Kathmandu Valley shopping spree. It was one of the world’s scariest roads: one lane, dirt, with 1000 foot drops two feet from edge of the bus with no guard rail. If you could brave a peak it was enchanting with rice fields terracing every hill. Prayer flags were adorning small stupa temples places magically at the top of each small rounded peak. This was a great initiation into to trust your destiny when you have absolutely no control over it.

It was dusk when we arrived in the Himalayan Village of Dhunche. The bus driver was incredulous about our departure in this small remote stop and that made us a little nervous too. A cold shiver of anticipation rippled up my spine as I left the security of my hard bus seat and entered the rock village to find a guest house for the night.

We were the only travelers in town and the friendly locals directed us to what someday (when they finish building it) might be a guess house. Fortunately, the bare concrete block room in the construction site had a sort of hard futon bed with thin sheets and rock like pillows. We paid a dollar for it and then became painfully aware of the inadequacies of our gear.

You see, we were not planners. We’re spontaneous adventures. We had a couple of summer weight sleeping bags, sneakers and some thick Yak wool sweaters. My jacket was from an army surplus and my backpack from a thrift store. We were not the geared up olympic mountain team that we would see later on the same trail. We were just a couple of people realizing what kind of gear they would like to buy when they get back!

For some bizarre reason, the Himalayan houses do not have a chimney. Instead, to stay warm in the winter they fill the room with smoke and have strategically placed holes in the side wall for the smoke to blow out. Not terribly efficient or cozy. Honestly, I don’t get it. I daydreamed about bring the new technology of chimney here someday. What a revolutionary vision!

Our room didn’t have an hearth or fire smoke, but they had already created the holes in the walls so the frigid night breeze could refresh and invigorate us (practically to death). Needless to say, some vital innovation was needed. We put on all the clothes we had and laid both sleep bags on top of ourselves to try and stay warm. It was mid November and we were at an elevation of 6138 feet.

As night descended in earnest it got dark. This was no ordinary dark. It was darker then dark. It was a dark that needs new words to describe the absent of light. There was no one, no where, with even a candle burning. Mountain people go to bed early and by 8PM there was an omnipresent silence and darkness. That’s when we discovered our flashlight didn’t work.

It was a cheap small travel flashlight and somehow it got turned on in the backpack which drained the battery. I guess you could call this the flip side of spontaneity.

What to do? I thought we could get by without a flashlight, until an hour later when Kirsten announced she had to pee. This improvisational concrete room could not by any means offer a toilet near by. In fact, I don’t believe there was one within the building at all.

We never realize in our cozy daily life the amazing creativity of the mind and it’s mystical capabilities until times of crisis. Kirsten bravely got out of bed and somehow found what I can only guess must have been a paint mixing can and did the necessary. It truly was a small miracle.

Hence forth, we carried a new official trekking plastic water bottle known as the pee bottle. It was definite more essential then the flashlight or all manner of other useless accessory gear. Even today, I doubt if it is offered by REI camping stores, but I can assure you all experienced Himalayan women travelers have created a portable potty.