Friday, May 30, 2014

Mustang Trek, Day 9...Reflections and Bargaining With A Master

Mustang Trek, Day 9...Kagbeni to Jomson, 8 miles, 300 feet elevation gain. 

For entire trek, 54 hours, 110 miles, 18,000 feet climbing.  

"We stopped inside this magic circle, like guests in a holy place…There with my inscrutable companions I came to understand then, in some only vaguely defined way, that communication existed between people who did not know one another, that there was solicitude, pleasant answers to those pleas, even in the most far-flung and out-of-the-way places in the world."…Pablo Naruda

Thursday morning I woke up to a beautiful view outside my window at the Nilgiri Hotel in Kagbeni. Green fields of barley were directly beneath me and high above towered the grand peaks of Nilgiri, Tilicho and Daulagiri. Straight ahead was the wide Kali Gandaki and just around the far bend lay our final destination of the trek, Jomson. It would only be a three hour hike today. Not a hike, really, just a stroll down the river valley. After what we had been through I think all of us would just be on autopilot, maybe even have time to search for an ammonite or two; those black, round stones that keep hidden inside them the fossilized remains of sea creatures dead 100 million years. 

Having my coffee, Tibetan bread and eggs (sunny side up, thank you very much), I heard the unmistakeable sound of a goat herd. Stepping outside the inn, which is right on Kagbeni's main street, there were perhaps 100 goats strolling by, their goat herder whistling and making his little goat calls. Better appreciate this, I thought, you won't see it in Lucas Valley. 

View from my hotel room window...

Kagbeni goat herd...


Our hike this morning was great. Too early for wind, the morning light glowing on the high peaks, I was able to really soak it in, knowing that I may never see it again.   The Kali Gandaki valley is an incredible site and you cannot be in a deeper valley anywhere in the world. Geologists say that the river valley is older than the Himalayas themselves, the great mountains having grown around it. 

Trina broke open a black, round stone and inside was revealed something, but it was hard to say whether it was a fossil or just some unusual mineral. Nirajan later gave me a rock in the shape of a heart. "Give this to Amy", he said, "a heart from the Kali Gandaki". 

Although we were mostly on a footpath, occasionally we had to walk on the road. Many trucks and buses passed us, some on the road, some just driving up the dry river bed. Most of these were carrying pilgrims to Muktinah.  Wherever they were going, we were back in civilization, or at least what passed for civilization here. To us, after 9 days in Upper Mustang, it was the sign that we were back in the real world...or at least close to it. 

Trina, the rock carver...

This bridge is actually a lot more stable then it looks...

This looks s painful...

We soon rounded a bend and there was Jomson. We walked all the way through town, what seemed like miles and miles, passed the airport and were back at the Hotel Tilicho, where we had started our journey 9 days before. We all sat down in the "lobby" and collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief.

So now we were back in civilization. Or were we?  We all went out for a little shopping expedition. Ron needed some cash, so across the street was an ATM.  He walked up to the booth and was stopped by the security guard. One minute, said the man, we have no electricity so we have to start the generator. This generator was wired right to the ATM. The guard pulled the rope to start it. A little sputter. He pulled it again. Another sputter. He looked at it with quizzical eyes, called a friend over to help. Then another friend. And another. Soon, six men were pulling the rope and trying to get the generator started. After 30 minutes everyone gave up. Ron never got his money. 

For dinner we sat down in the hotel's dining room, The great peak of Nilgiri looming above us. Spaghetti, French fries, popcorn...a major carb rest. Beer flowed like water and we raised our glasses in self congratulations. We had made it. All of us had accomplished something amazing. We were all there for different reasons; some for the adventure of being in a new culture, some to do another one of the world's great treks, some because...well, just because. We had all made it out alive, some more war-torn than others. I'm sure all of us will be reflecting on this journey for many years to come.

"In a land with no central heating and few comforts, and after many exhausting weeks of few pleasures, I discovered that alcohol was truly made to 'warm' the hearts of me, that is, if used in moderation"...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

"In the Land of Lo, distances are increased by the difficulties of climbing at such high altitude and by the ruggedness of the terrain.  Although I never once got tired of investigating new villages, new buildings and monasteries, it was not without considerable effort that each day I set out again in the cold wind, or the scorching sun, to walk in my worn out boots, in my tired feet, along the stony tracks that, like little pale threads, linked together the small universe of the Lobas."…Michel Peissel, 'Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom', 1967


The next morning broke clear and without wind...we would be able to fly. At dawn, the sun broke high above on Tilicho and Nilgiri, a beautiful site if I've ever seen one. By 7am, we were on the Twin Otter, engines reving at maximum power. The runway is quite short and drops precipitously, making me think what it must be like to fly off of an aircraft carrier. But we climbed quickly and were flying down the Kali Gandaki. Soon we went from the dry, barren landscape of the Himalayan rain shadow to the forested expanse of the south side of the mountain range. Over terraced fields we flew, seemingly only a few hundred feet up. Within 20 minutes we were flying over Lake Fewa and were soon down on the tarmac of Pokhara. 

We spent two lovely days in this resort town. The lake is nice to walk by, there are good restaurants, great shopping and there are South Indian barbers!  When I was in Penang last year, I had my first experience with a South Indian barber. Having a haircut with fast fingered scissors and a shave with a straight razor is one of the great lost arts in the western world. But here in Asia, it's taken for granted. So I found a little barber shop and sat down in an old wooden chair so the man could work his magic. After 10 days without shaving, I looked rather scruffy and a bit like an old bum. But after an hour here, I was a new man. 

First came the haircut, the barber using his long metal scissors for everything; head, eyebrows and nose. You just can't think about the details here. Then he dabbed a little cream, combined it with water and a shaving brush, and soon my face was white with lather. The straight razor came out and was soon gliding over my face, the barber being ever so careful. Within a few minutes, the beard was gone. Next he asked me if I would like a facial scrub and I said sure, why not. He applied a white, smelly cream all over my face, stinging my eyes a bit. Then, he massaged the cream into my face, a facial massage of sorts. After this, he unrolled some thread and held it about 13 inches between his hands, he glided the string over my face, taking off the cream. He finished in spots with the razor and showed me the cream he had taken off my with the dirt my pores had gathered all over Mustang!! 

Feeling like a new man, I headed down to the lake to a restaurant named Jiva, which Trina had found on Trip Advisor. Fantastic food, very California cuisine. Trina and Nance had paninis, I had a cheeseburger which was really, really good. 

After a quick nap, we all met in the garden of the hotel. It was about 5pm and Nirajan and KB wanted us to taste some homemade apple brandy they got in Jomson. It was quite tasty, but we each just had a small amount. Then Nirajan ordered some Tuborg beer and some peanut mix concoction that is very good. Then more beer arrived and then some fried chicken and popcorn. By the 8th beer, we were having conversations about Mormon underwear and how green potatoes can make you sick (no one believed us about Mormon underwear until we pulled it up on Wikipedia and it turns out that green potatoes are okay if you cook them). Soon it was raining and we went inside to the dining room. 

In a few minutes, more Tuborgs were coming (these aren't your run of the mill American sizes, but the bottles are twice as big) and more tasty food. I lost the bottle count at around 12. We had cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, dahl bat, more peanut salsa and God knows what else. I finally headed to bed at 8, leaving the younger ones behind. When I got up the next morning I asked Trina, just exactly how many beers were consumed, maybe 15?  24, was her response. Oh my. 

Ron, Nance and Trina...

My pal, KB, and me...

Ron and Sheila...

The Dynamic Duo, Nirajan and KB...

The next day we were up at 4:30am to see the sunrise over the Annapurnas. Unfortunately, our driver didn't get the memo and he didn't show up until 5am. But no matter, we made it to the viewpoint right when the sun came up. You are supposed to have an amazing view of the Annapurnas, but it was really hazy and was difficult to see anything. But it was fun watching the Indian families snap picture after picture of the sun coming up over the hidden Himalayas. 

The rest of the morning was spent seeing the 'sights' of Pokhara; a waterfall, a cave and a Peace Pagoda.  At one point, driving through the more gritty area of Pokhara, we came upon a camel...yes, a  one humped camel, just standing in the middle of the road. No camel driver, he was just wandering around like he owned the place. Camels are not native to Nepal, so this one had come up from India somehow. 


KB and his new hat.  Look out, ladies!

A traveling knife sharpener...

Lake Fewa...

Launch at Jiva...


The day in Kathmandu was spent shopping with Nance and Trina. Let me just say here that if you are coming to this part of the world and plan to do some major shopping, bring Nance Rosencranz with you. She is a ruthless bargainer. Having lived for three years in Iran in her 20s, she learned not only some great Parsi phrases (when someone sneezes in the marketplace you say, "The donkey has farted, the bazaar is closed!"), but she also learned how to bargain without any emotion or caring for the merchant whatsoever. That's the secret, she told me, you cannot have emotion for the merchant or you will not be a good bargainer. 

Our first stop of the day would be at Boudanath temple, the giant white stupa that we visited a couple of weeks before. I wanted to get something very special for Amy; a Medicine Buddha thanka. Thankas are the paintings, usually on a scroll, of a different form of Buddha or some other Buddhist deity. The medicine Buddha is the Buddha of healing. He is blue and is always holding healing herbs. I thought from the beginning of the trip that this would be the perfect gift for Amy, as she has always liked Medicine Buddhas anyway, being a doctor. 

A thanka artist at work...

Nirajan had promised to take me to the best thanka shop in Kathmandu. And boy, was he correct. Right on the circle that surrounds Boudanath, are many old shops. Nirajan took us to an old Thangka school, where artists learn the craft. There are 500 artists that are connected with this school. I told Nirajan that I wanted one done by a master, not a student. So we met the head guy, Mr. Anul Lama, and headed up to the third floor, passing hundreds of thangkas and a few artists painting mandalas. We sat down on comfy chairs and out came a huge roll of about 20 paintings, all Medicine Buddhas. We went through them one by one, liking some, rejecting most. We finally got down to the one I wanted, a master work in beautiful colors with two boudisatfas surrounding him. 

Then the negotiation started. I just let Nance go at it, as she really knows what she's doing. I think she surprised Mr. Lama, maybe he hadn't seen an American with such a ruthless negotiating tactic. Nirajan was looking on, open mouthed in amazement, and I just sat back and enjoyed the show. Trina was totally ignoring everything, looking at small mandalas for herself.   Mr Lama would state a price, showing it on his calculator. Nance would say something like, "No, not even close", and pound another price on the calculator. Back and forth it went, Mr Lama starting to look a little exasperated  But after 20 minutes or so, a price was agreed upon and everyone was happy. Mr Lama smiled...laughed, really, and we all shook hands. We then had to choose the brocade, the silk backing that the painting goes on. More negotiation, although the price started at only $35. No matter, said Nance, you always negotiate. 

We decide on a thanka...

The master bargainer in her element...

Nance, Trina and I were then on our own and went to Thamel, the tourist area of town. We had an Indian lunch and the just walked around, eventually ending up in a Kashmiri rug shop so Trina could buy some pillow cases. 

But soon I noticed the Kashmiri rug merchant throwing rugs on the floor and Nance actually looking interested, in the rather uninterested way that Nance has when she wants to buy something. Before I knew it, there were 30 or more rugs on the floor; wool rugs, silk rugs, rugs with incredibly tight weaves, all handmade by little old ladies in Kashmir. When Mr Rug Merchant mentioned the price of a beautiful silk rug, I was also interested. Then Nance was off and running. Of course Mr. Rug Merchant starts off by telling us that he is offering us a special low price, the lowest he can possibly give us; special, just for us, his good friends.  Well, anyone who has watched Casablanca, when Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart are ambling through the bazaar, knows that's a lot of bull ("Oh, special friend of Rick's, only 700 francs!"). By this time, tea had been ordered for us, a special tea guy goes around the different stores giving tea to the customers. Then, Nance mentioned a price for three rugs and two pillow cases and Mr Rug Merchant said, "oh that's way to low, I would lose money". Then Nance had the best line I have ever heard her say. In a straight face, she actually said, "My heart bleeds for you, but you are too high...not even close". At this point, I almost laughed so hard the tea would have come out my nose. I didn't dare look at Trina, as I knew we would just start cracking up. But soon, a price was agreed upon and all parties were happy.  By this time, Mr Rug Merchant was bringing out the $200 cashmere sweaters and $500 handmade scarves, thinking he had a live one. We left with only the rugs and pillow cases. 

The last evening the five us had dinner with Nirajan as he took us to his favorite restaurant, the New Orleans Cafe. I had a tasty chicken dish with peanuts and we shared a pitcher of margaritas. We all agreed that this was a most amazing experience and that we would promote Nirajan's company, Nepal Social Treks, in any way we could. 

Our trek was arranged by our dear friend, Nirajan Chaulagain.  Originally with Nepal Social Treks, he has moved on to form a new company, Rugged Trails Nepal.  His website for the Mustang trek is

They are a great organization that does all sorts of treks all over Nepal. Over the last 9 months I must have sent him more than 30 emails with all sorts of questions. He answered all of them, always in a timely and polite manner. As you can tell by reading this blog, the trek was handled very well.  We always got a room and every tea house was really nice. KB was a great guide who knew exactly what trails to go on and how long it would take to get to our destination. From the airport pickup to the airport drop off, 2 1/2 weeks later, they took care of all of us very, very well and I will use them again when I come back to this part of the world. I now consider Nirajan and KB true friends and, thanks to Facebook, we can keep in contact with each other. 



"The mule gun is on the yak."...the phrase that started it all for Michel Peissel, from 'Bell's Grammar of Colloquial Tibetan'

After a 3 hour wait in the rather dilapidated Kathmandu airport, I got on the airport shuttle to Air China #408, headed to Chengdu, China. I sat down in the bus and soon two beautiful Tibetan women came in, a young woman in her 30s and her mother, maybe in her 70s. They were all bedecked with lovely Tibetan clothes and jewelry. The old lady had two long braids with a long, thin red cloth interwoven in them, much like the Chiapas women of southern Mexico. I gave them my seat, which they were very thankful for. The shuttle bus headed off and literally went 100 feet to our plane. I got in my seat and soon here came the two Tibetan women and they sat down right next to me. 

The plane was taxiing down the runway and the old woman started chanting her Buddhist mantras. She was holding tight onto her prayer beads, eyes closed, deep in thought.  My mind immediately went back to windy, cold Lo Monthang, high on the Tibetan Plateau, where for centuries Buddhists have worshipped, chanted and held tight onto their prayer beads in some of the most beautiful temples in the world. 

As the plane started down the runway and the old woman quietly chanted, I knew I would be safe for the ride home.   

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mustang Trek, Day 8...Old Customs Die Hard

"I would never think of smoking in a house or in a monastery, which is 'very sinful'. As for whistling in a house, this is also very shocking - as ghosts will come"...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

Mustang trek, Day 8...Samar to Kagbeni. 6 1/2 hours, 14 miles, 1000 feet climbing. 11,800 feet to 9,500. 

Today ranks as one of the two windiest days I have ever experienced. The other was two days ago. But today didn't start out that way. 

The morning broke with not a cloud in the sky and perfectly calm. From my room, the mountain climbed thousands of feet straight up into a dark blue sky, a small herd of horses going by with their bells ringing. Breakfast was early, 6:15. I had two fried eggs and Tibetan bread with honey.  KB had carried two jars of honey all the way from Kathmandu and by the time the trek was over, the honey was gone.  It tasted delicious on the Tibetan bread. Tibetan bread is like Indian fry bread and is tasty and hearty for your morning meal. 

We were soon off from Samar. We have noticed that most animals; goats, horses, cows, have bells around their necks. But I have never seen a chicken with a bell until today in Samar. This was a big rooster and he had a bell bracelet around his leg and his little harem of hens was following him around. He seemed very proud of himself…until Nirajan chased him away.

This part of the trek has one of the most beautiful trails I have ever seen. We did it coming up, right out of the Kali Gandaki river valley.  Now, we went down the same way.  You really see how, at one point, you are high on the Tibetan Plateau, then you go right down the side of a deep gorge and the trail is cut right out of the side of the cliffside.  You have a beautiful view of the entire Annapurna mountain range.  You go down, down, down and in not too long you are at the bottom of the Kali Gandaki, in a totally different environment.  Remember, these trails are hundreds and hundreds of years old and the engineering is pretty remarkable. It's a tough trail for one who suffers from any fear of heights, as one bad trip and you would go down 1500 feet to the river below.   Small villages sparkle in the Himalayan sun below the giant peaks and there many hundreds of prayer flags wave in the morning breeze.  By the afternoon, those prayer flags would be barely hanging onto their strings! 

"It was like a vision of the Grand Canyon, without cactus or water, painted in vivid colors. For miles around, as far as I could see, there was not a single blade of grass, a tree, or a bush. All was one bullied expanse of desolation combining the horrors of desert and high, arid mountains, of barrenness and cold"...Michel Piessel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

Of course, there are many of these small towns along the way that never see a tourist, as like this one, they are on the other side of the gorge from the main trail.  So life goes on in these villages, far removed from the modern world.

"Polyandric marriages are always made with the consent of all involved.  When a man marries, his younger brothers are consulted.  If they like the same woman, and the girl agrees, they make a common marriage - all involved participating in the marriage ceremony.  The elder brother, nevertheless, retains the privileges due to his rank, while in other matters everything is shared.

"In Mustang, pygamas do not exist, and everyone goes to bed naked.  This is an ancient custom, perhaps originating with the Drokpas, nomads of Tibet, who as a rule always live naked in their tents because the heat of their bodies warms the tent.  When a woman has two or three husbands, I was surprised to learn that all three or four sleep together upon the same mattress which is set out before the fire at night.  After this, it is anybody's choice, with no rules.  A startling revelation!"…Michel Peissel, 'Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom', 1967

Soon we were nearing the bottom of the Kali Gandaki valley, through the little town of Chele, over a bridge and then we were walking along the river. Although we were just passing through, you could observe everyday life in the village…one man was hanging a prayer flag on his roof, another group was making arrows by the trail.  An old woman was walking down the prayer wheel wall, spinning them all.

When we got to the bottom of the Kali Gandaki valley, we crossed the modern, metal bridge (just behind a motorcycle, who had to be pushed up to the bridge) then along the new road.  We all looked for those black rocks, many of which have hidden inside them ammonites, the 150 million year old sea creature fossils that are also sacred to the Hindus.  Trina found one, but we really couldn't tell if the thing inside was a fossil or just a different kind of mineral.  Often, you see groups of people out on the riverbed, which is 90% dry, loaded with millions of rocks, searching for ammonites to sell in the tourist stores.  Back in Pokhara, you see them everywhere and in fact both Ron and I bought some beautiful ones.

An ammonite...

The modern bridge...

By 10:30 we were at our lunch destination of Chhuksang. We got a nice room with a view of the valley and waited for our lunch. By 11:30, no lunch, so KB and Nirajan went to the kitchen and made a great meal of spaghetti and french fries. Yes, spaghetti and french fries for lunch!  Hey, we have been using 4000 to 5000 calories every day, so I think it's okay.  This whole trek has been a carb fest and I'm sure I've eaten more carbs in the last 9 days then I have in the last 9 months!!  Spaghetti, noodle soup, popcorn, Tibetan bread, porridge…you name it.  And it's all sooooooooo good!

By now the wind was up big time, sweeping through the valley as it does every day. Just in case I have not mentioned it, the famous wind of Mustang is caused by an unusual geographic phenomenon.  On the south side of the deep Kali Gandaki valley, you have the low lands of the Himalayan foothills.  As the valley goes north, it suddenly goes up to the Tibetan plateau, many thousands of feet higher in elevation.  The air pressure is much lower on the Tibetan Plateau, so the air just moves up there, at amazing speeds.  It is like clockwork…at around 9:30 am, a slight, very nice breeze starts up and you would normally say, oh, what a nice breeze on a hot day.  But by 1pm, that breeze has turned into a gale of hurricane strength and can reach speeds of 80 mph or more.  That lasts until well after dark, when it settles down and by the time you wake up it's perfectly calm.

We still had over 3 hours walk, with one or two steep uphills. The wind was so strong at times that it almost blew off my hat and if it wasn't for my improvised cashmere scarf hat holder I would have lost my favorite hat long ago.   We all had our hats tied down and had some kind of scarf to cover our faces, because of so much dust.

We had to cross a small stream and then go up a very steep path, maybe 300 feet up. At the top of this was an abandoned tea house, where we were able to hide in its wind shadow and eat some chocolate (a treat I handed out to everyone, as I had brought 20 bars over from the US). Then it was back down to the road, winding up and down, in and out of the wind. I would have loved some kind of a wind speed measuring device, but there must have been gusts of 80 mph plus. All normal, said KB. Wow, how do people live in this?  It's a great place for Buddhist prayer flags, however, as every time they flutter in he wind, a prayer goes out in the universe, carried by the Wind Horse, or Lungta. The breeze makes the prayer flags flutter and there, on one of the many prayer flags, is always Lungta and he carries the prayer out in the universe.

Finally, around 3:30, we reached our destination of Kagbeni. We walked all the way through town and got to our hotel. I had a nice room overlooking the Kali Gandaki with...I couldn't believe it...a private bath with shower and sit down toilet!!  Well, the shower had no hot water, but by now I'm not picky.

The fort -like appearance of Kagbeni spoke of a warlike race, expressing in the majesty of geometrical sturdiness a taste more robust and one less over-richly refined"…Michel Peissel, 'Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom', 1967

A male "Kheni" greets you as you enter Kagbeni...

Do you want fries with your Big-Yac?

After a little rest, I headed up to the dining room. KB and Nirajan were there and soon Ron joined us. We were able to have some nice little "guy" talk with a few beers and popcorn and crispy Nepali cracker things. Before we knew it, it was dinner time. Sheila, who has been battling intestinal problems since Day 3, and who has somehow through her strength and with the help of KB and Nirajan made this trek with the rest of us, almost looked healed and ate pretty well. 

Tomorrow, our last of the trek, will only be 3 hours to Jomson.  I'm ready to get it all over with, as my toes have blisters, my eyes hurt from the dust and wind and every part of my body is ready for a rest. Plus, in Jomson, I may be able to contact Amy by email for the first time in 5 days and then a couple days after that I will be able to Skype her. I can't wait to hear her voice!