Merry Christmas everyone! Close enough, anyways.
I'm writing this email from my luxurious (at 500 Rupees, which is about $6 a night, better be) hotel room in Kathmandu. In fact, tonight, and for the last week or so, I will have been literally sleeping in the same bed as I slept in on the night I got into Nepal, September 11, 2011 – 103 days ago. And in that 103 days, I haven't shaved or trimmed my beard. That's just for those of you who couldn't be bothered to read my last post.
In the preceding 103 days, my understanding of the country has improved considerably, so I'm now drinking “Officer's Choice” Whiskey, which features a picture of what seems to be an airline pilot on the label, instead of overpriced hotel-sold beer, as I did 102 nights ago. If there's someone whose taste in alcohol you can trust, it's got to be an airline pilot. This trust may, of course, result in a fiery death, but I guess we're all going to die eventually. Now there's an optimistic start to a holiday-themed message!
About a week ago, I finished my 34-day Everest-region trek, and to be perfectly honest, I don't have a clever one-liner about my happiness or sadness that has come about due to my completion of the Everest Base Camp / Gokyo trek. I'm happy to be through trekking, since on my last day on the trail, my knees finally started to really bother me, and now, a week into my relaxation / recovery period, they haven't quite stopped yet. Same for my feet. I suppose the fact that it took 5 weeks for my feet and knees to get unapologetically painful is actually something to be thankful for, rather than angry about, so … thanks? And now, some general trekking thoughts, my impressions of the Everest vs. Annapurna treks, personal records broken, a few things I forgot to mention in my last post, and the FUTURE!
“Backpacking” is called “trekking” in every country I've been to, aside from America. So if there was any confusion about what the hell I've been talking about every time I've mentioned any variation of the word 'trek' in any past emails or blog posts, hopefully it's now cleared up.
I never really got the idea of trekking until a few years ago, and it took my interest in photography for me to really get it. Back in the day, I didn't understand why anyone would willfully walk into the wilderness with a million pounds of supplies on their back, when seemingly the same goal – isolation and a feeling of oneness with nature – could be accomplished by taking a day pack and going for a day hike, instead of a trek. I guess there are degrees of truth to this statement, and a person's location in the world is more responsible than any other factor for how true it happens to be. In North America, there are ridiculously beautiful day hikes that will get you away from any semblance of human interaction and into beautifully untouched natural environments. Us Americans are lucky in this way, because in many places I've been, it simply isn't this simple. But I'm glad I've ultimately come to the conclusions I have, because I really do believe it will make any future treks I take in my life considerably more enjoyable.
So in Nepal, I've learned a few valuable trekking lessons:
- Trek at a comfortable pace. Don't follow a guide book that tells you that you have to trek from A to B before you can call it a day. If you get halfway from A to B, but don't feel like continuing onwards, stop. Similarly, if you make it to B, feel good, and want to keep trekking, do so. I think this is the most important single piece of advice I can provide anyone thinking of doing any trekking. God, this is about to sound like motivational-speaker cliche-speak, so here's me asking for forgiveness in advance, but if you are out trekking, and your eyes are on your feet and the trail the whole time so that you don't trip, rather than enjoying the scenery and atmosphere, what the hell are you doing? There were times that I found my eyes glued to my feet and the trail, and I'd have to make a conscious effort to stop walking, move my eyes upwards, and enjoy the trek. This should not require a conscious effort. It took over 3 weeks on the Everest trek before I was able to actually relax, and enjoy trekking as it is supposed to be enjoyed. If I was thirsty, I finally learned to stop, sit down, drink some water, and relax. If you are going to do some trekking, be it in Nepal or somewhere closer to home, just remember why you are actually there. Hopefully, it isn't to get from A to B, but rather to enjoy the journey from A to B.
- Eat enough food. Something else that took me way too long to figure out. Early in the Everest trek, I found myself constantly lethargic and often unable to enjoy the journey. I was trekking with a 110-pound girl at the time, and for whatever reason, I figured I'd be able to survive on the same amount of food as her. This was obviously, in hindsight, a foolish assumption. Don't be dumb. If you're hungry, eat. If you aren't hungry, it probably still won't hurt you to eat … you ain't gonna to gain any weight trekking 6 hours a day.
- This goes along with some things I said earlier in this section, but I think it's important to reiterate. And maybe, without getting to philosophical, this can be viewed as a prescription for life. Ultimately, it's the journey that matters. Goddamn it, that sounds like such a douchey thing to say, but it's true. I made it to Everest Base Camp (and have not even an inkling desire to go a single meter higher), but the destination wasn't ultimately important. What really mattered was the things I saw and the experiences I had en route. Of course, there's also the chance I'm a retard, and it is the destination that matters, and everything I've been doing for the last 3.5 years has been for naught. But I really don't think so...
Everest vs. Annapurna
I'm going to have to put some serious effort into keeping this section of the post shorter than a million pages. I doubt this section will really impact anyone, since the intended audience is future visitors to Nepal who can't decide whether to do the Annapurna or Everest trek, but what the hell? It's what I want to talk about right now, so deal with it.
When I got back from Semester at Sea, I was often asked something to the effect of “What was your favorite country?” This turned out to be an impossible question to answer, as will be “Which was a better trek: Everest Base Camp or Annapurna?” The countries I visited during Semester at Sea were each a totally unique experience, and trying to rank them would be impossible. The same is true for trying to compare the Everest and Annapurna treks. But here are some considerations:
- The Annapurna Circuit is basically that – a circuit, with only a couple options to get off the trail and see anything not on the trek, while the Everest trek is a mountaineer's paradise, with side trails every which way from Sunday, that could keep a serious trekker / mountaineer busy for months at a time. Basically there is more to trek in the Everest region than on the Annapurna Circuit. But there's a TON of trekking to do around Annapurna too, enough to keep a serious trekker busy for a least a couple months. So this distinction, for most people, probably doesn't matter at all.
- The villages along the Annapurna circuit appear to be, for the most part, legitimate villages that were around before the Annapurna circuit existed for commercial and / or tourist reasons. The villages along the Everest trail, at least beyond Lukla, seem to have been purpose-built to accommodate trekkers en route to Everest. While most or all of the villages on both trails are enjoyable to stay in, there's a feeling of legitimacy in the Annapurna villages that doesn't exist, at least not as intensely, in the Everest-region villages. People live in the villages along the Annapurna circuit, businessmen live in the villages en route to Everest.
- The Everest trek costs probably twice as much per day (maybe $15-20, throwing money around like a baller) as Annapurna (maybe $8-12). But if you are coming from America, the cost of either is insubstantial compared to your flight cost, and if you'll only be in Nepal a few weeks, it frankly doesn't matter.
- Electricity is available almost everywhere on the Annapurna circuit, but almost non-existent on the Everest Trek. The same is true of hot showers. Where these luxuries are available on the Everest Trek, they cost some serious dough – up to maybe $5 for a hot shower or an hour or two of charging time for your laptop, camera batteries, etc.
- The Annapurna circuit is a loop, so you only see any given section of trail once, while the Everest trek, in most cases, involves returning on the same trail as that on which you walked up. This is another toss-up for which is actually better. It's nice to go through an area and know that everything you will see after this point will be new. But it's also nice to return down the same trail you already climbed, as this allows you to see everything from a different perspective. I consider myself pretty lucky that I was able to do both of these treks.
For better or worse, intentionally or unintentionally (in all cases unintentionally), and through sickness and health, I've broken some personal records that I was unaware even existed a couple months ago, these include:
- I didn't see a road vehicle for 31 days. There are no roads within one billion miles of Everest, but there is an airstrip at Lukla, roughly one week of relatively hard trekking below Base Camp. So I did see planes and helicopters in this 31-day car-free adventure. Without roads, everything, literally everything man-made in the area is carried up by porters, donkeys, or yaks. Buildings are constructed at 5000-plus meters, made entirely of materials carried up several vertical kilometers of muddy, rocky trail, over the course of a week or more per load.
- I didn't shower for 27 consecutive days. Seriously. I really hope this isn't a record that I break for the rest of my life. I was pretty surprised by the fact that I didn't smell like a Yeti's ass-pubes by the end of this unintentional abstinence, but I guess even though I was walking around with a fifty pound backpack (maybe?), it was cold enough that I didn't really sweat much, at least at higher elevations. I took wet-wipe showers occasionally, but it was honestly just too cold to deal with a real shower. But now that I'm back in the land of nearly-constantly-available electricity, I've been making up for this grossness by showering, at a minimum, twice a week. Yup, I'm nice and shiny-clean now.
- Drinking! I accidentally didn't drink for like 20+ days! Again, it was just too cold to deal with it, and as I mentioned earlier, everything man-made in the Everest region is brought up on the backs of intensely-tough porters, so the prices ain't cheap. At 500 Rupees (about $7) for a 650mL beer, it just wasn't ever worth it, especially since it would guarantee my being sick from dehydration / altitude sickness the next day, and it would probably make me too cold to get to sleep. But don't worry, now that I'm back in civilization, I'm back on the wagon. Or off it. How does the wagon work?
Things I Forgot to Mention in my Last Post
- Mt. Everest can't be seen from Everest Base Camp. Weird, right? So in order to get a good view of the tallest mountain on Earth, you have to hike up some random hills. Perhaps the best view of Everest is from Gokyo Ri, a 5360 meter-high (17,581 feet) hill / mountain roughly 30 kilometers West of the 8,848 meter (29,021 feet) summit of Everest. I went to Gokyo Ri for sunset on December 3rd, and was treated to one of the most memorable sunsets of my life. Honestly, I know I saw better sunsets a few times on the trail – occasionally, the setting sun would turn the peaks of the surrounding Himalayas an unnaturally orange or red color – but years from now, I know the sunset I saw from Gokyo Ri will be the one I remember. What I wanted to mention though, from this particular night, was the fact that at the summit of Gokyo Ri, I had a snack of crackers and canned tuna. There isn't really anything particularly weird about this, until you consider the fact that my snack could literally not be more out-of-place. Tuna … which when I last checked is a fish that lives in the ocean … at 5,360 meters above sea level, in the middle of Asia.
- More beard-related stuff:
- Comments I've gotten from passers-by: (1) “That beard looks warm!” (2) “Nice beard!”
- Once, when I was stopped on the trail, snacking and reading in the sun, a porter came up and began talking to me. Nepalis are incredibly friendly, and this is something that happens all the time. During our conversation, he asked me where I'm from, and I responded, “America.” He replied, “Which one?” I told him I'm from the USA, and he responded by telling me he thought I was from India because of my beard. Strange.
- At a lassi shop (lassi is an Indian / Nepali yogurt-like drink that might be the best beverage in the world) in Kathmandu, the proprietor, who spoke very little English, explained that he thought I was a 'baba' from India. I'm not sure what a 'baba' is, exactly, but I think it's one of those religious (Hindu, probably?) guys who have … guess? … big beards.
The future, an empty slate a mere week or two ago, is becoming a bit clearer. The immediate future, anyways. Today is December 23rd, and I now know where I'm going to spend my Christmas. As I feared, I will be spending a portion of the one day of the year I'd rather spend at home with friends and family than any other day of a given year, on a bus. A Nepali bus. This means it will not be a fun bus ride, and may result in my death. This untimely death could come from either from a heart-attack, as the bus careens dangerously along a single-lane dirt road without so much as a barrier between the road and the thousand-foot cliff that will, in all likelihood, fall dangerously from one side of the road or the other, or from a crushing, fiery death that will come about as the bus I ride topples over the thousand-foot cliff that will, in all likelihood, fall dangerously from one side of the road or the other.
If neither of these circumstances arises, I'll arrive in Chitwan National Park on the afternoon of December 25th, and spend the next three days in the park, riding around on elephants, trekking through the jungle in search of tigers, birds, and the other wildlife that supposedly is so abundant in Chitwan, canoeing down the Rapti River, seeing an uber-tourist cultural show, and in all likelihood, continuing to eat way too much food – a “problem” I've suffered from since completing the Everest Trek. I learned a couple days ago that from December 26th to the 28th, there will be an elephant race, an elephant soccer game (yeah, I'm serious), and other elephant “Olympic” events in the park. This happens once a year, and my dumb luck has arranged (barring the fiery death) for me to be present this year. Awesome.
On December 28th, I'll go on another horrible (about 14 hours this time, ugh) bus ride, this time from Chitwan to Bardia National Park, which is in the southwest part of Nepal, and because of it's remoteness, it is still supposed to have the atmosphere and charm of Chitwan 30 years ago. That's what I've read, anyways. If I don't see a tiger in the wild in Chitwan, Bardia will be my last chance to do so in Nepal. I'll spend another 3 or 4 days here, doing silly tourist activities, like more elephant and 4x4 rides, and then head back to Kathmandu via one last horrifying Nepali bus experience that should get me into Kathmandu on the night of January 2nd or 3rd.
And then, after a few days of getting my last-minute stuff figured out and organized, I'll board a plane to Bangkok on January 6th. From there, the future is again a blank slate. To anyone reading this that's spent some time in Thailand, any 'must-dos' you can share with me would be appreciated. I think I'll relax for a week or so on an island or a beach or something, then reassess my financial situation and figure out how much time I can spend tooling around Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and maybe some other neighboring countries before heading over to Vietnam to look for work. And that's that.