Saturday, December 24, 2011

More tidbits and the FUTURE!

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.

Personal Records
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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tidbits and Tragedy

A whole lot has happened since my last post, most notably the month-long trek to Everest Base Camp, but writing down the specific events that transpired upon this trek would take far too many hours and pages for me to bother writing or for anyone else to bother reading.  So instead, here are some tidbits and observations from the damn near 3 months I've spent in Nepal, a few random stories that are hopefully worth reading, and a shocking and tragic conclusion that no one could have seen coming.  Without further adieu...

My beard:
Before I even left Korea, I decided that I wouldn't shave while I was in Nepal.  Why?  I've never had a big beard before, and it seemed that one appropriate time to grow one would be when I'm high in the mountains, trekking from village to village, in all probability wearing my red, white, and black checked lumberjack flannel.  Of course, my original plan was to be in Nepal for maybe 2 months, not the 4 or so months that it is starting to look like it will ultimately be before I finally am able to pry myself free of this enchanting land.

I guess the whole giant beard thing is working out alright, but I will be getting a hot shave before I leave Nepal, since it will only cost a buck or two, and it's one more thing to check off my bucket list.  Plus, I'll probably look 5 years younger.  Bonus.  The downside will be that I'll no longer look like Chewbacca, but you know the thing about beards?  They'll grow on ya!

My pack on the Everest Trek:
My backpack is absurd.  It's an 80 liter bag, and for the duration of the Everest trek (I'm presently on day 25 of said trek), it's been either close-to-full, so full that I have to attach things to the outside of it, or somewhere in between.  What in God's name could I possibly have with me that would occupy so much room, especially given that I have no tent or sleeping mat, and meals are available (and cheap, at least compared to US prices) at teahouses located every few hours along the whole route I've been following?

Let me start by saying that if I weren't such a photography dork, my bag, and life for the last few weeks, would be vastly different.  As for photography and photography-related gear, I'm carrying 3 different camera bodies (my old Canon 30D is just a backup in case one of my other cameras breaks) and two lenses, a 24-105mm f/4 and a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6.  That's enough techno-babble for now, but what this means is that I have some serious weight in cameras.  The 100-400mm lens looks like a bazooka, and sometimes seems to weighs as much as one.  I brought it to take pictures of wildlife, which unfortunately is almost non-existent.

I've also got a big external flash which has yet to be used in Nepal, a tripod that is probably about 2 feet tall when compacted and about 6 feet tall extended (doesn't fit inside my bag – it has to be strapped to the outside), 2 spare batteries, extra lens filters, a remote timer, cleaning supplies, and … oh yeah!  A freakin' computer.  And an external hard drive and mouse.  All of these things require care to transport, whether it be on my body or in my bag as I trek, or in my bag on top of a hellish Nepali bus that makes a Six Flags roller coaster look and feel like a limo ride.

AND a 20 degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag, a couple changes of clothes, outerwear like a raincoat, gloves, hats, etc, a Kindle, a Steripen (If you don't know what this is, good.  If you are thinking of buying one, don't.), running shoes, sandals, hiking boots that cause me to be in crippling pain every time I put them on, a backpack cover for rain, a first-aid kit, bungee cords, a headlamp and flashlight with extra batteries, a 'sleep sack,' which is basically a thin fleece liner for a sleeping bag that doubles as an extra padded case for my laptop as I trek, maps, a journal, a quick-dry towel, a generic Leatherman, 2 1-liter Nalgenes, a bag of random electronics (cords and mounts for charging, adapters, etc.), all the toiletries you'd need, including pills for the unforeseen, and a couple rolls of toilet paper – you have to provide your own here, although I've learned to go without, in the typical Indian / Nepali style, when the appropriate tools are available.  I'll leave that one for you to figure out on your own, if you are so inclined.  And then there are the things that have come and gone from my bag, like snacks and a rented down jacket, without which my time above 4000 meters in the Everest region would have been unbearably cold.

I never weighed all my stuff together, but it's gotta be above 50 pounds.  Hopefully I'll get a chance to weigh it back in Kathmandu.  I've seen porters carry bigger bags than me, but after close to 2 months of trekking in various regions in Nepal, I haven't yet seen a tourist with more stuff than me.  I guess in the end I'll be glad I carried all this, since I'll theoretically have some kick-ass pictures, but there have been times when I've wanted to say “NO MORE!” and throw all this crap into a glacier, off a cliff, or into a yak-shit fueled furnace.  But I only have one more week of dealing with this, as I make my way back from Namche Bazaar to Jiri on foot, and then to Kathmandu via bus.

Weight loss
When I left Korea, I weighed about 185 pounds, which at 6'-4” was probably a pretty healthy weight.  I inherited a belt from another teacher at Beyond Advanced, where I used to teach English to elementary-school students, and I fastened it on the third notch at this time.  When I use it now, which isn't too often, as it increases the chaffing and bruising that occur on my waist and hips because of my ridiculously heavy backpack, I have to use the sixth or seventh notches.  And my ribs are fairly visible all the time.  Picture Christian Bale in “The Machinist.”  Or make your own inappropriate joke about death camp prisoners.  It isn't that bad, really, but I am going to need to start doing some serious eating and upper-body exercises as soon as I'm back down in civilization, where food is cheap and there's enough oxygen to exercise.  I don't know what I weigh now, and hope to find this out, too, as soon as I'm back in Kathmandu, but I'm willing to guess it is less than at any time since when I was in junior high or high school, when I was a rail.  But my legs are rock hard, and I am hoping to try kicking down a door or two at my earliest possible convenience.

I used to be an anti-globalization nut, for purely romantic reasons.  My thoughts on the matter have changed since, but I'll leave the debate and politics out of this paragraph and just mention a few related things I've seen here.  Back in September, I saw a newspaper article in Kathmandu's English-language newspaper that shocked me with the following fact: Ten years ago, only 0.5% of Nepali people had access to a telephone.  Now, 50% of Nepalis have access to a phone.  Awesome, right?  And there's nowhere that it is more apparent than on the trail.  Not a day goes by, and on more crowded portions of the trail, not an hour goes by that I don't encounter an overladen porter (they're almost all overladen) trekking along happily, listening to Indian or Nepali music on the speaker that's built into his cellphone. 

We live in a weird time.  I haven't seen a car, truck, or bus for almost a month, and all the heating in this area is done with wood or yak-shit burning stoves, but there is cell phone service all the way from Jiri (in the middle of nowhere) to Everest Base Camp (even more in the middle of nowhere).

I once came around a corner and saw a Nepali woman with her back to me, dressed in traditional clothing sitting meditatively, looking out on a beautiful green valley with the imposing Himalayas completing the tranquil scene.  Judging by the atmosphere and her meditative pose, I assumed that she was … yes!  Meditating.  I walked by as quietly as I could, hoping not to bother her attempts to reach Nirvana, and when I looked back a minute later, I discovered she wasn't meditating at all.  She was texting.

The Annapurna Circuit versus my Everest Base Camp / Gokyo Trek
Maybe later...

Gadgets and nicknacks
In America, if you pick up some kind of small nicknack or tool, like salt, soap, or a bag of rice, it's likely to say “Made in China,” “Made in Taiwan,” or “Made in Mexico.”  Here, everything is “Made in India.”  Perhaps there's some kind of link to my globalization paragraph above, but I'll leave this alone too.  It's just kind of weird.  I wonder if the world is at all shifting towards a “Made in India” market.

The Tragic Conclusion
I'm sitting in Namche Bazaar, where I hope to leave tomorrow, on foot, en route to Jiri and then Kathmandu via bus.  But unexpectedly, I'm sitting here alone.  Katie is back in America due to circumstances I'm not going to discuss here, but that neither she nor I had any control over.  I only found out that I would be on my own into the foreseeable future yesterday.  Needless to say, this came as a shock.

Katie and I had planned on finishing this trek, checking out a couple National Parks / wildlife preserves here in Nepal, and then going overland into India, and touring across at least part of this huge nation via train, stopping at landmarks as necessary to fulfill the tourist checklist.  But now I'm on my own, and I'm just not sure what is going to happen.  Everything just got extraordinarily complicated.  Now, if I need to use the bathroom, I can't say, “Katie, can you watch my stuff for a second while I use the bathroom?”  I can't take care of the laundry while Katie figures out where we are going to sleep that night.  I can't even drink hot tea anymore, as Katie took off with the camp stove! (No fault of her own, and I wouldn't have room for it in my overflowing backpack anyways.)  And finally, who the hell is going to get me out of bed before 10AM?

I'm going to finish off my Nepal checklist, which includes getting back to Kathmandu in one piece, eating a ton of chocolate cake at the Snowman Cafe, and then visiting Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, where wild tiger sightings are common, and when this is all done …

… I really don't know.

I'm hoping the next week, which I'll spend on a relatively empty trail (peak season has come and gone) with no company but my annoyingly large backpack, will provide some sort of clarity / answer / revelation, but in my experience this ever hoped-for moment of lucidity will remain as elusive as it is today.

I'm back to living day-to-day, and it's both exciting and terrifying.  But more terrifying, possibly because I haven't been in this situation in a while.  I'm considering finishing up in Nepal and heading straight to Vietnam to start looking for work.  The advantage of doing this would be that I'd start off with more money in my pocket than when I got to Korea.  And some form of stability.  The disadvantage would be that I'd have to start working again.  Not that teaching English is too stressful.  On the contrary, it is (or was, in Korea anyways), a wonderful experience that earned me a great number of friends and a feeling of accomplishment.

Of course, there's also the original “overland to and through India” option.

Of course, there's also the “hang out on the beach in Thailand” option.

Of course, there's also the “See and photograph the awesome wildlife in Borneo” option.

Of course, there's also the “hang out on the beach in Indonesia” option.

Of course, there's also the “go to Sri Lanka, which I know nothing about” option.

Of course, there's also the “go check out Cambodia and Laos” option.

And of course, there's the “finish writing this long-winded blog entry” option.

If anyone has any brilliant insights, I'd love to hear them.  Send me an email.

Oh, and one of these days I'm going to take a shower and wear a clean change of clothes.  But don't hold your breath.  Or do, if I'm in the room.

Going to Everest Base Camp TOMORROW!


I write this entry in the Snowman Cafe, a Kathmandu institution on the perpetually hippy-infested “Freak Street.”  The Snowman Cafe is famous for it's chocolate cake, so Katie and I have been spending a lot of time here in the last week or so.

Tomorrow morning, I leave the comforts of Kathmandu to begin the month-or-so long journey from Jiri, a town known for being a trail head, to Everest Base Camp, located at a lung-busting 5545 meters (18,187 feet) above sea level, and then on to Lukla, a town known for it's airport, the deadliest in the world.  There, I'll board a plane a fly back to Kathmandu.  I should once again be able to enjoy the luxuries of free electricity, warmth, internet availability, chocolate cake at the Snowman Cafe, and Tiger Balm salesmen sometime in early December.  So there won't be any more entries for a month or so.

I've been in Nepal for 2 months exactly, and it's been amazing.  I've had more adventures than I can count, but one of the biggest was Katie and my having “finished” the Annapurna circuit.  The reason for the quotes will be apparent by the end of the story.

On Thursday, October 13th, Katie and I boarded a bus to Besi Sahar, where the Annapurna Circuit, a 20 or so day, 300 kilometer trek, begins.  The bus ride was one of the most uncomfortable and terrifying experiences of my life.  Seriously.  Ugh.  But then, after a little bit of last-minute Nepali-government related paperwork, we were on the trail.

The first few days involved walking up an almost tropical canyon with 1000-foot cliffs rising sharply on both sides.  We must have walked past several hundred waterfalls cascading down the tropical cliff faces.  The lodging was impressive, with many teahouses at these lower elevations offering such luxuries as free in-room electricity and hot showers.  And the prices here were … well, less impressive than the 1000-foot cliffs, but pretty impressive.  A room would typically cost 100 Rupees (about $1.33), and dinner and breakfast cost something like $7-8 per person.  We would typically be in bed by 9pm, and up by 7, usually getting on the trail by 9.  The temperature during the day at these sub-2000 meter elevations was pleasant, and if anything, a bit warm for trekking with big, heavy backpacks, but we didn't see any rain, and it was generally sunny.  Katie and I would sometimes walk together, sometimes separately, and although we met a few other trekkers, we didn't really make any friends during the first few days on the trail.  By October 17th, our fourth day on the trail, we'd gone up in elevation from 830 to 2640 meters, and the thinner air was making itself apparent, especially during sustained uphill sections.

As the elevation increased, the temperatures dropped, and soon, Katie found herself wearing all the clothes she had brought with her on a nightly basis.  Almost as rapidly as the temperatures dropped, the prices rose.  A milk tea that cost 10 Rupees in Besi Sahar suddenly cost 70.  Room rates, fortunately, stayed near the 100 Rupee mark for the majority of the Annapurna Circuit.

On the 18th, Katie and I met some people that would end up becoming good friends.  It's amazing how a shared, challenging activity can bring people together.  29 year-old Emre, from Turkey, was in the middle of his first year abroad – he intends to travel for four years.  21 year-old Wendy, from Belgium, was on month two of a planned year-long round the world trip.  And 25 year-olds Christy and Natalie are from Alaska, so I'm jealous.  We walked together a few days, and shared an “acclimatization day” or two in Manang, at 3500 meters.

In Manang, population probably 200, Katie and I got silly-drunk on 25 Rupee rahksi (Nepali moonshine) and watched “City of God” in a tin-roofed “movie theater” adorned with yak-fur covered benches.  When we emerged from the movie theater, the first snow of the season was falling in heavy, wet flakes.  We did the 20-minute walk home in the dark, through fields filled with glowing-devil-eyes yaks, and discussed our chances of surviving the night when it had such a horror-movie feel.

The scenery at this elevation was varied, but vastly different from the almost-tropical atmosphere of the lower elevations.  A 30-minute stretch of walking could see you through a pine forest, across a 100 meter gorge on an Indiana Jones style rope bridge (but usually made of cables), and staring slack-jawed at any of the 8,000 meter peaks that dot the Annapurna range.  Or maybe you'd see an avalanche.  Katie and I saw 2.

The villages at these higher elevations were Tibetan in style, which basically means all of the buildings were constructed entirely of stone, and if they were heated, it was with wood- or yak shit-burning stoves.  They were absolutely beautiful.  Walking through some of these villages evoked a feeling of stepping a few hundred years back in time … at least until you spotted a NepalTV satellite dish.  But if you did see a NepalTV satellite dish, that implied that it was carried in on the back of a person or a donkey.  No roads reach these higher elevations, so literally everything in these towns is carried in by people and donkeys.  Katie and I caught a few sunrises and sunsets from scenic viewpoints along the trek, and some of them were simply stunning.  Pictures won't be up for a while, sorry.

On the night of October 24th, Katie and I slept at Thorong Pedi, a “town” that consists of a huge, 200+ bed teahouse and some donkeys that must hate their freezing-cold lives.  It's at 4540 meters above sea level (14,891 feet), which means it's cold AND hard to breathe!  Surprisingly, I slept well on this particular night.  The next day, almost everyone Katie and I talked to had not been able to sleep well because of the thin air.

On October 25th, Katie and I arose at the crack of 3:43 AM in order to make it to our 4 AM breakfast.  Why, oh why would we actually choose to get up at such an absurd hour?  Because on this day, we were to cross Thorong La (Thorong Pass), about a thousand meters above Thorong Pedi at 5416 meters (17,764 feet) above sea level.  It was hard, but nothing compared to what we had built it up to be in our minds.  Katie crested the pass at 9:30, and I did the same half an hour later.  We had some celebratory whiskey and took a buttload of pictures with Wendy, Christy, Natalie, Adam, Merida, Ido and Tal … we'd made some more friends by this point.

And then there was the descent.  It went on.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And then, at 3:15 pm, we found ourselves in the lobby of the Hotel Bob Marley, in Muktinath.  At 3800 meters, the air felt amazing in both its relative warmth and thickness.  After 4 days without a shower, the hot shower at Hotel Bob Marley was one of the best things to ever happen ever.  We celebrated with all our friends by throwing more money away on Everest Beer and Bagpiper Whiskey than we'd spent on alcohol for the preceding 2 weeks.  Katie and I spent another day in Muktinath, and then continued down.  From this point on, the circuit would gradually decrease in elevation, and go through a similar transition in scenery that had happened on the first half of the trek, but in reverse.  At the higher elevations on this side of Thorong La, though, the scenery was completely new.  I'd never seen anything like it before.  It was like a dry, dusty desert surrounded by the unimaginably tall and beautiful Himalayas.  I guess it wasn't like that, it was that.

A few days later, Katie and I found ourselves reunited with Adam and Merida, 2 new American friends (and our doppelgangers) who work 9 months of the year in Australia, and travel 3 months a year in Asia.  Together, we walked as far as Marpha, where I got sick.  Again.  Hooray.  On the 29th, we got on a bus (a road runs along the section of the circuit that lies West of Thorong La) and rode a few hours to Tatopani, where we hoped the hot springs and decreased elevation would help me recover quickly.  This was not to be the case.  I self-diagnosed myself with strep throat, and with help from antibiotics, cakes and candy bars aplenty, I recovered.  A little bit, anyways.  But not enough to have a happy Halloween.  In fact, years from now, I think I'll remember this as the lamest Halloween of my life.  I went to bed at 4 in the afternoon.

The next day was a memory that I wish I could forget.  Katie and I spent November 1st on a series of buses.  It sucked.  Katie sat next to a Nepali guy who prayed the whole ride.  I almost did too.  It was weird.  And then we were back in Pokhara.

I spent a week or so there, and a week or so in Kathmandu.  Almost every night since finishing the trek has been one of our new friends' last nights in town, so every night has been a going-away party.  And I'm all partied out.  Good timing, since there won't be any of that going on for a while.

Wish me luck!