Chronicling each step on our journey through South America, Asia and beyond…

Rajasthan Rebirth

Posted on August 8, 2012

Heather here. Rajasthan, the land of Rajputs and royalty, here we come. This large, north Indian state is fabled for its forts, palaces, culture, food, and more. It is “classic India.” And we allotted about two weeks to see it. Ambitious? Yes. We’d be on the move quite a bit, which, for better or worse, would get us through a majority of the most popular spots.

We were happy to leave Agra behind. It was just too chaotic and “touristy” in the sense of the mobbing touts and hawkers constantly at our heels, as we wrote in our last post. Glad to have seen the Taj Mahal, but as they say, see it and get the hell out.

Next stop was Jaipur, “the pink city,” and the capital of Rajasthan. Rolling into town, we could tell this would be no sleepy village. Traffic was congested, drivers seemed angry, pedestrians seemed at peril for their lives. We weren’t going to be able to shake that overwhelmed feeling yet, not here. We started to become acutely aware at this point how much we love sidewalks back home.

We had two nights scheduled in order to have a full day exploring the Amber Fort, the City Palace, and other sights. So we settled in our room at a pretty haveli hotel and decided to take it easy for the night, have dinner in the hotel rooftop restaurant, and enjoy the comfortable evening air. There was even a funny (yes, funny) puppet show during dinner that humored us for a bit. Ah, this is nice!

Next morning, that feeling hit me, that feeling every traveler to India dreads. Delhi belly, as some would call it, or more to the point, food poisoning. I was hit, I was going down fast, and I was going to have to ride it out in the hotel room. But I didn’t want Fred to miss out on Jaipur, and I didn’t mind some alone time to work through the symptoms, so off he went with our trusty driver to see town, the Amber Fort, and the palace.

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But the day sick indoors and feeling sorry for myself was one of those last straws that hits when you’re already feeling overwhelmed. I hit a low, I felt homesick, I couldn’t embrace India the way I wanted to. I wanted to throw in the towel and go home for the first time on this 6-month jaunt. My feelings were contagious – Fred was getting to that point too. And this kind of sick meant 2 extra days of recovery, so our next two stops in Mandawa and Bikaner really just felt like going through the motions, following the itinerary because that’s what you do.

Heading into Bikaner, our driver suggested we visit a famous temple on the outskirts called Karni Mata Temple. We saw it in the Lonely Planet too, basically described as a temple dedicated to the worship of holy rats and one of the highlights of town. Intrigued, we decided to go. Like any other sacred temple in these parts, one must remove their shoes before entry. Naturally, we obeyed. It took no time after walking in to see the literal thousands of rats inhabiting the temple. And these weren’t cute, clean rats in cages. These were rough, street rats running free all over the place. Great, rat squalor and bare feet. Fred was blessed by one running over his bare foot. Oh well, people have been coming here for centuries right? Just a few minutes was enough time to get the gist of it. I was becoming more squeamish by the minute. The pigeons (i.e. flying rats) didn’t add to the ambiance. Sometimes you just don’t get it. This was one of those times.

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Though I will say that we visited a really nice, quiet (quiet! Literally zero touts) fort in Bikaner called Junagarh Fort. There was even a film crew there shooting a scene for a new Bollywood hit. We took our time winding through the passageways and courtyards. Being the gateway to the Thar Desert, it also got drier, and thus more comfortable in climate. My spirits and stomach were starting to come back to life, albeit slowly and cautiously. Maybe there was hope for us yet.

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One last stop before heading out was an artists studio, where they specialize in miniature paintings using a brush with the tip consisting of one fine hair from a squirrel tail. The family of artists had been doing this through the generations for centuries, contributing to the fort and havelis (beautiful old mansions) in the area. As a demonstration, the artist painted a tiny elephant on my finger nail.

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The drive out of Bikaner turned to desert scrubland. Camels instead of cows were becoming the majority. We were heading toward a remote place in India, if there really is such a thing, getting ever-closer to the Pakistan border. We were on our way to Jaisalmer, a desert outpost, a destination, as there was no where to connect to from there. Our good friends had been in Jaisalmer just a few months prior and had some killer recommendations for us, especially for a hotel. So instead of the “tour package” hotel, we arranged our own lodging here at Garh Jaisal Hotel, following our friends’ recommendation to the letter, since these ladies were so adamant about it. We also insisted on a tad longer stay of 3 nights here, which we were very pleased about in the end (if not sad to leave so soon).

First of all, I must explain that approaching Jaisalmer is like happening upon an oasis in the middle of nowhere. And, being Rajasthan, there is of course a fort, but this is no ordinary fort. This fort literally looks like a sandcastle, and since it is made of sandstone in the middle of the desert, the sandcastle appearance is only amplified. That said, Garh Jaisal is inside the fort, as this is a living fort, still inhabited in by locals. It is extremely unique in that aspect.

Imagine our delight to be staying inside a sandcastle! When we arrived and settled in to our beautiful room, we were grinning ear-to-ear. And then, the icing on the cake, we discovered the rooftop terrace overlooking the rest of the fort and the town below. The air was fresh and welcomingly dry, perfect temperature to just hang out outdoors, something we hadn’t don’t much of since arriving in India because of the stifling heat and humidity. It felt like seeing color again after living in black and white for a while. We felt anew, reborn.

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Next day we met the gentlemen who run Garh Jaisal, and perhaps the town itself, Mukesh and Puri. These were the guys who our friends had come to know well, and they played an integral part in their good time, as well as our good time in Jaisalmer. They made us feel at home, and really just treated us as old friends. Puri gave us a tour of the fort, stopping to greet locals along the way. These guys clearly knew everyone. And let’s not forget the heart-racing, high-speed autorickshaw ride through the town’s narrow alleys, known as the “Octopussy” ride, taken from the James Bond movie partially filmed here.

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Puri decided to accompany us on our camel excursion, driving us out to a remote, ruined village along the way. Apparently the village was abruptly abandoned one day ages ago when the not-so-well-liked ruler intended to take one of the village girls as a wife. At the village, there was also an old man with two flutes who absolutely entranced us with his playing. Mind you, he played both flutes at the same time. We were experiencing India off the beaten track with a local friend, the best medicine.

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We hopped on, and hung on for dear life, as the camels stood up, and we were then off for a couple hours sunset camel safari. I had read that riding a camel isn’t so comfortable, and this was true. We were satisfied with a ride for just a couple hours, and we enjoyed getting out into the desert, but our legs and bums were glad to ditch the saddle.

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We had dinner with Mukesh, Puri, and another friend, Tanu that night, eating home-cooked food, made by Mukesh’s wife. I had a milder eggplant dish and a chickpea dish (light on the heat for me, with a newly-recovered stomach after all). Fred had the India-spicey mutton that the other guys ate – yes, Fred can hang with the best of ’em when it comes to spice. Both Fred and I can say with confidence that it was the best meal we had in India. Not only was the food top-notch, but the company was as well.

Happily we had one more day in Jaisalmer, so we took it easy, walked around town with Puri, listened to another moving street musician, visited a nice lake terrace, bought a few textile items to send home, saw some amazingly-carved havelis, and just enjoyed being where we were. We had one more delicious dinner with our new friends at their other hotel, Lal Garh. Gosh we could get used to life here.

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On a side note, India is famous for its many festivals, as most know. There are the massive national ones, and then there are the little local ones. Funny enough, 3 of the 4 days we were in Jaisalmer were festival days of some sort. First was the birthday of the fort, nothing major, just some small gathering in a plaza in the fort, which we could see from the hotel rooftop. Second was Mohammed Rafi’s day, commemorating India’s most beloved singer. Another gathering in the same plaza, this time much bigger in size, with local singers giving their best renditions of Rafi’s tunes.

The next day, the day we were leaving, was the third festival called Brother-Sister Day. This is a special day for brothers and sisters to appreciate and pray for each other. What a nice sentiment! We had the chance to have one last chai (legend has it the best chai in India – we would agree with that!) at the main plaza in the fort with Mukesh and Puri. I had two stitched bracelets I bought in Luang Prabang, Laos and decided that these two new friends treated us as family, and should have them for brother-sister day. Our two Indian brothers in Jaisalmer helped us get back on track in India and be happy travelers again. We felt lifted up.

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But, all good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, so we met up with our driver once more and said our final goodbye to our Indian brothers and Jaisalmer. Goodbye for now, at least, as we had more of Rajasthan to see yet.

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Enter the Magic and Madness of India

Posted on August 3, 2012

Heather here. Having wrapped up our two weeks in the Nepalese Himalayas, it was time to come down from the mountain villages and start our month of exploration in India. India is one of those countries with a reputation that precedes it, with guide books and fellow travelers alike giving reviews of the highs and the lows, accounts of polar extremes. But nothing we read or heard could have prepared us for the actual experience. This is full-throttle culture shock in the flesh.

We were speechless as we landed in New Delhi; simply the ride from the airport to our hotel gave us our first impression of the magic and madness this country would have in store for us. When a nation of 1.2 billion people, built on lands populated since the earliest of ancient times, of maharajas and warriors, opens its doors to visitors, it is bound to dazzle and confound (and occasionally frustrate) even the most seasoned of travelers.

The energy of the throngs of people hustling about their daily lives was palpable, despite the 115 degree heat. Pushcart drivers manually heaving hefty loads down busy roads, motorbikes cutting through the tiniest of openings, monkeys swiping the rice offerings at the temples, smiths welding metal on the pavement as families walk by only inches away, groups of men gathered for their chai ritual, half-naked street-kids desperately trying to sell whatever they have to the folks stopped in traffic, businessmen reading their morning paper from the comfort of their backseat as their chauffeur drives them to the office. Even a metropolis like Delhi still has a few holy cows rambling freely here and there. Everything was captivating. Nothing was familiar.

Our first order of business was to sort out a plan for the couple of weeks we had given ourselves between Delhi, Agra, and the state of Rajasthan. In the end we negotiated a deal for a car and driver, and skipped the classic train routes. Turns out trains book up well in advance, and being low season the car hire prices are quite good, so it was indeed our best option. We soon thanked ourselves for this as we easily made our way around Delhi and Agra with our driver, Jaisingh. More magic, less madness.

Having only two days in Delhi, we kept to a “classics” schedule: the Red Fort, Ghandi Smriti (Mahatma Ghandi’s ashram where he was shot, turned national museum), Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, National Museum, Raj Ghat, a modern Hindu temple, India Gate, and the wild walkways of Old Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighborhood. We sadly missed out on a few places like Jama Masjid mosque, the packed markets, and Jantar Mantar, but you can’t win ’em all.

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Delhi is enormous, it sprawls endlessly, but we were pleasantly surprised by how green much of it was with tree-lined boulevards and beautiful, clean Qutb Minar park dominating New Delhi. Truth be told, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Old Delhi, but the new city’s leafy ambiance left a nice impression on us. The Red Fort had some beautiful elements, but for us, it didn’t live up to the hype. And when we entered the Nizamuddin neighborhood, we felt like complete fish out of water; we never did find the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah (fabled for beautiful devotional Sufi singers) we were looking for since we left rather hastily. Let’s just say we were pushed beyond our comfort zone. Already we could feel the range of reactions growing.

Soon enough we were packed up in the car and headed to Agra to see the jewel of India, the Taj Mahal, and a couple of other important sights in the Mughal empire’s former capital city. Agra was no tiny village either with more than one million inhabitants. The action from the streets literally spills into the “highway” as we rolled into town, more so than what we saw in Delhi.

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No matter where we stopped, we were instantly mobbed by touts trying to sell everything from rickshaw rides to Bollywood music cd’s. The touts in Agra were one of the most maddening aspects we had encountered. Period. No matter what we said or did, they were unrelenting, even if we said nothing at all. We kept our cool as much as we could, trying to stay polite, but chuckled to ourselves the many ways we would have liked to decline once we got past the invisible line in which a tout will follow you.

But in stark contrast to the madness of Agra’s hawkers, touts, and conmen is the magical splendor of the Taj Mahal itself. Entering through the large gate facing the Taj, we stopped in our tracks and awed at this gorgeous tribute to Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, a world-renowned symbol of love and adoration. The most breathtaking building we have ever seen. The grounds frame the Taj perfectly, with the reflecting pools adding dramatic elements. We spent a couple hours dedicated to admiring this wondrous heritage sight, trying to eternalize it forever in our eyes and hearts, and adequately through the camera lens. We loved seeing the colorful Indian families paying tribute to the Taj Mahal as well, a place for foreigners and nationals alike.

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Given we had the time, we also visited a few of Agra’s other attractions, Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri, which we stopped at on the way out of town after the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. Our experience at Fatehpur Sikri made the day a mixed bag of emotions, from elation to near depression. For one, the most voracious touts were here which frustrated us to no end, and for two, we witnessed a senseless, heartbreaking, and frankly infuriating act of heinous animal cruelty on the grounds that we couldn’t quite recover from for the rest of the day. We probably would have enjoyed seeing the pretty grounds a lot more had external factors been less of a dark cloud.

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As we headed out of Agra toward Jaipur, crossing into Rajasthan, the monsoon rain started – thick, heavy droplets of grey rain swelling the earth on impact. We passed by a group of young boys playing in a big puddle that had formed on one lane of the highway. They were rejoicing and jumping every time a car passed and sprayed them with the puddle. They danced and laughed, some of them stark naked. We laughed and smiled at the sight. Oh India. You break us down, and lift us up, all in a matter of hours. I have a feeling it will be a roller-coaster month in this country. Everyone said it would be.

The Annapurna Circuit, Part III – The Final Push

Posted on July 26, 2012

Fred here. Leaving Manang, Heather and I were actually feeling pretty rejuvenated. Good thing, considering we had more than 6,000 feet to ascend over the next 3 days.

Day 8 actually wasn’t a terribly strenuous day. We gained about 2,000 feet of elevation trekking through a beautiful high alpine valley. The vegetation was pretty scrubby, almost tundra-like. We caught our first glance of yaks up on the steep mountain sides.

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Heather made a friend with an adorable little sheep dog along the way.

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And after 4 hours of trekking we were at 13,500 feet in Yak Kharka, the almost-ghost-town we would stay in for the night. No running water up here which equals pit toilets (which was pretty standard at this point) and no showers. The highlight of Yak Kharka you ask? The 2-hour nap we took that afternoon, wearing pretty much every layer we had, and being wrapped in our sleeping bags? That was actually number 2. The real highlight was eating something other than dal baht or pasta. They were able to make us a pizza with…you guessed it, yak cheese. And it was awesome! Bravo to the young chef, who was also the hotel owner / maid / town donkey wrangler. Oh yeah, and no rain again.

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Day 9 was a butt-kicker. Higher and higher up the sides of this steep valley.

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We arrived in Thorung Pedi at 14,570 feet around lunch time feeling pretty out of it. Feeling really lethargic. But Shree wanted us to press on to High Camp so that the next morning we had less to go to reach the pass. We relaxed at Thorung Pedi for a couple hours, took some Tylenol to clear the cobwebs, and then pressed on. About an hour later and 1,500 feet more we were at High Camp, a moonscape-like environment in the clouds at 16,000 feet. We were officially at the highest elevation either of us had ever been in our lives. There were no other trekkers here. Just the couple guys that worked at the lodge. After forcing down a couple bites of food for dinner, it was off to try to sleep. At this altitude, not even Shree or Sushil had any luck sleeping, and they guide these treks all the time. But we were able to get a welcomed 4 hours in, even in the near-freezing temperatures. Down jackets, fleeces, long johns, beanies, and more were worn to bed.

Day 10 was upon us. The day we had been anticipating since we signed up for this trek months back. Pass day! We woke up at 4am and were on the trail by 4:45am. Still dark out but faint light starting to come up. All the clothes we wore to bed (which again was pretty much every article of clothing we brought on the trek) was worn to start the day. Only 1,800 of elevation left to go. Leaving the lodge, we quickly started up a sharp incline. Dense fog and clouds engulfed us. A light mist was falling. The landscape really felt like being on the moon. Because of the weather we were not able to see too much, and that added to the drama. After 2.5 hours of uphill, what seemed like hundreds of prayer flags became visible in the distance. We had made it! 17,769 feet! Thorung La Pass! All feelings of exhaustion were instantly replaced with exuberance and high-fives. Sure we couldn’t see much around us because of the cloud cover, but we had made it. And just for about 5 minutes while we were at the top, the clouds parted just enough to reveal some of the monster peaks that surrounded us. Truly a magical moment.

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After the celebration of reaching the top, it was time to descend, and descend fast. We still had about 4 hours of walking left and it was all straight down hill. By the end of the 4 hours we dropped 6,000 feet.

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Honestly, we’d rather be going uphill. Our knees were crushed by time we arrived in Muktinath, our home for the night. The final stretch in to this town was amazing. The landscape was completely different on this side of the mountains. The region we were now in was called Mustang. It was a total desert mountain landscape. Reminiscent of the desert southwest back in the US. Amazing.

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Before arriving in Muktinath, Shree had teased us with foods that didn’t seem at all possible. “Burgers and apple pie await in Muktinath” he’d say. C’mon, do I look like a fool to you? Well, as it turned out they had some great food at our lodge. Homemade apple pie was served and it was pure magic. After our post-trek nap, we awoke to what was probably the prettiest evening we’d seen during the trek. Parting clouds, setting sun, and tremendous peaks. It was the perfect way to end such a special day.

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Day 11 was to be the last day of trekking. Another 6 hours of downhill led us through remarkable barren landscape. We figured that since we had done all that intense downhill at high elevations, this day would be easy. Honestly, it felt eternal, as I think both of us were now officially ready to complete the trek. We had mustered up all our energy to get to the top. We had no adrenaline left.

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We also found out that there was a chance that this day wouldn’t be our final day of trekking. Allow me to explain… Day 12 we were meant to catch a short flight from the mountain town of Jomsom, the “final” stop on the trek. But the wind had been so intense and the clouds had filled the valley for the last 2 weeks, that flights had only run 1 day over that period of time. What that meant was if we couldn’t fly, we would have to take a jeep ride through the craziest mountain roads to a point on the road where a landslide had cut the road off, get out of the jeep, trek a few hours to where the road becomes passable again, get in another jeep, and hopefully make it the rest of the way down without encountering anymore landslides. All in all it could take anywhere from 1-2 days we were told. That said, we would just have to wait and see if we’d be able to fly that morning of Day 12.

We sat around from 6-9am awaiting word whether flights would run that day or not. It wasn’t looking good. But then shortly after 9am we heard a flight coming in. YES! We walked across the street from our hotel to the tiny airport. Flights flew in from Pokhara, a city just on the other side of the mountains. When they arrived in Jomsom, they took 2 minutes to disembark the arriving passengers, took another 2 minutes to board the departing passengers, turn around, and get the hell out of there before the weather changed. The airport was basically opened for one hour that day, and we were on the last flight out. As it happened, no flights ran for the next few days.

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I should add that there was a fair bit of anxiety for this flight. Jomsom Airport is known for being one of the most dangerous airfields in the world. It is surrounded by steep peaks on all sides. Heather was a nervous wreck the entire 23 minutes that we were in the air; every time Shree or I pointed out a peak poking out of the clouds at eye-level, she just buried her face in her hands and muttered “oh no.” It was a tiny plane, the unpressurized kind where you can see right through the cockpit and out the windshield. But honestly it was a very smooth flight with incredible scenery. We were thrilled as we touched down in Pokhara. We finally felt like we could celebrate. It was over! The next few days were spent doing close to nothing in this beautiful lake town before heading back to Kathmandu. It helped that it was rather rainy, encouraging us even more to cozy up indoors.

What an amazing couple of weeks. Without a doubt the toughest physical challenge either of us had ever faced, not to mention one of the more trying mental ones as well. Eleven days of walking, 150 kilometers walked, 15,000 feet of elevation gain, crossing the highest trekking pass in the world. Mission accomplished!

The Annapurna Circuit, Part II – Peaks and Valleys

Posted on July 22, 2012

Fred here. Day 3 and we awoke to rainless skies. Nice! It poured all night but it was looking like a good morning. Our clothes from day 1 dried a bit more but our original pair of socks and shoes were still wet.

On the trail, the conditions were a bit different from the first couple of days. At this stage we were on more of a rough dirt road most of the time. I had heard this area was starting to get a bit more developed since they began building a road a few years back connecting some of these rural mountain villages.

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Our guide Shree called it their mountain highway. A little different from what we think of as a highway back home, but it is inevitably going to make it easier for people to do business in the area, while at the same time making it more accessible and a bit less wild. For now it’s donkeys on parade all day long, though, taking goods from village to village. Soon it will be more jeeps/trucks coming through. At times we actually walked through some precarious cliffside construction. This day we came across a crew jackhammering into the side of the mountains. No other way to go but to walk right between them. You guys wanna stop while we’re walking through so we don’t get impaled by flying rock particles or slide off the mountain into the ranging river below? No? Great, don’t mind us. We encountered similar construction a couple more times over the next few days but this was definitely the worst of it.

From time to time, we faced some fun river/waterfall crossings. One in particular had us hopping across some slippery boulders as a rushing waterfall pounded down from above. We saw some people looking for alternative ways around it but our fearless leader, Shree, powered through showing us the way. Also to add to the fun, we came across a couple landslides covering the trail, one in particular being quite fresh. No worries, just walk across the loose earth and hope no more boulders and dirt fall while you’re there. Again, always an adventure in Nepal.

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We were amusingly introduced to another popular means of transporting a particular good from village to village – namely poultry. People would actually carry giant cages filled with live chickens. These cages had styrofoam padding affixed to the back of them, a couple shoulder straps and one more strap worn across the top of the head, bearing most of the weight. We were amazed by this contraption which we aptly dubbed the “chicken backpack”. We encountered chicken backpacks on a few separate occasions and marveled at them every time.

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The village of Bagarchhap served as our home that 3rd evening. Another full day of rainless trekking. Really a surprise. Within an hour of getting to our tea house it was pouring, though. But the next morning we were thrilled beyond words to look out our windows to see crystal-clear blue skies and our introductory view of the Himalayas we really came to see. Our first glimpse of a snowy peak. At over 26,000 feet there was Annapurna II, the 16th highest mountain in the world, so close it looked like we could just run right up to it.

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Those clear sun-filled skies also meant an opportunity to finally dry out our clothes and shoes that were still wet from day one. With about one hour of direct morning sun, everything was pretty much dry, most importantly our boots. Starting the day with dry feet added a level of excitement we were already feeling from seeing Annapurna II. It’s the little things. Actually, dry shoes are a big thing. A real big thing.

As we pressed on we started to climb a bit more. The tropical vegetation gave way to higher and drier flora at this point. By the end of day 4 we were in the village of Chame which looms around 8,000 feet. What awaited us here was the hottest shower we had since entering Nepal. Sweet goodness that was awesome! Also awesome was the Mars bars we got from the little market around the corner from our tea house. It was treats like this that really broke up the monotony of the food we had been eating to date. Dal Baht every day, although good, was getting a bit stale, as was the porridge we were having for breakfast every morning.

Waking up in Chame on day 5 we were again treated to bluebird skies and more great views of Annapurna II and a new peak, Manaslu, which at 26,759 feet is the 8th highest mountain in the world. Perhaps spinning all those prayer wheels on the trail was paying off. The landscape was pretty much alpine at this point.

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We finished the day in Pisang which was just over 10,000 feet. It was at this point that we both starting to feel a bit worn down after trekking for upwards of 6 hours per day for the last 5 days. Within hours I was feeling pretty sick with a fever, had no appetite and all I wanted to do was lay down. Heather and I both started taking Diamox that night, which is a prescription drug to help combat symptoms of altitude sickness. We still had a lot more altitude to go so it seemed like a good precautionary measure to start. However, neither of us were prepared to be up all night having to pee every 15 minutes, one of the darling side effects of the drug. Couple that with my fever, and I only got about 90 minutes of sleep.

The morning of day 6, although bleary-eyed with exhaustion, I could still see blue skies. Seriously? More blue skies? This is really strange. Shree was also shocked. He said if you come to Nepal in July you trek in the rain. Not anymore. We had nature on our side, so it seemed. I will say though the majority of the time the high peaks were shrouded in clouds. Sounds like that can be the case any time of year. Day 6 we trekked to Manang at about 11,500 feet.

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Altitude was starting to be felt a bit more. It was mainly just the exhaustion and lack of appetite. The lack of appetite may have had something (a lot) to do with the same food over and over again. Apparently in high season they have tons of food options. This being low season, there were pretty much 2-3 options.

Getting to Manang seemed like a big milestone for us. It meant we were halfway through the trek and that we’d made it to the place where we would have a rest day for acclimatization to the altitude. It was a very well-needed day of rest. Physical and mental exhaustion had set in at this point. But don’t think it was a totally relaxing day. Shree had planned for us to do a small hike above town. About 3 hours and 1500 feet of elevation gain kicked our asses, but it was a good way of getting our bodies acclimatized.

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Oh yeah, and we also found a place that had Internet. Perfect timing as it was my niece Ava’s 1st birthday. Being able to send a bday message home meant the world to me.

Having the day to rest also meant it was now time to really prepare for the challenging part of the trek. Three days to get to our main destination – the top of Thorung La Pass, at just under 18,000 feet, the highest trekking pass in the world and higher than Everest Base Camp. Now it was actually starting to set in what we came here to do.

The Annapurna Circuit, Part I – There Will Be Blood (Suckers)

Posted on July 21, 2012

Fred here. About 20 years ago, back in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, my obsession with hiking and the mountains really began. I became fascinated with all of the major mountain ranges in the world – most notably the Himalayas. Of all the things on my bucket list, trekking in the Himalayas has been on the top for as long as I can remember.

As Heather and I planned this trip, the Himalayas and what type of trek we wanted to sign up for was a hot topic of debate. Neither of us had ever done a trek of more than 5 days. But this is the Himalayas. In order to get up close and personal with the region we were going to have to commit to some more time. So it was decided. We would trek the Annapurna Circuit over a 12 day period. This is one of the most popular treks in all of Nepal – only beaten by the trek to Everest Base Camp. But this time of year, hardly any one treks in the Himalayas as we quickly found out. This is monsoon season here and there is a very good chance it might rain the entire time. But we rolled the dice.

The Annapurna Circuit is what they call a tea house trek. That means no camping. Every 1 to 1.5 hours you’re walking through small mountain villages with small guesthouses, aka tea houses. When you’re done trekking for the day you just pop into one of these very rustic places for food, shower and a bed. This was quite appealing to us as it coupled trekking and getting in touch with local ways of life.

We decided to hire a guide and porter through a reputable company called Earthbound Expeditions which Heather mentioned in the last post. We met up with Shree, our guide, and his assistant/porter, Sushil early the morning of the first day. Three buses and ten hours of driving along the insane mountain roads of the Nepalese countryside finally led us to our starting point, the village of Bhulbhule.

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The final stretch to Bhulbhule took about 90 minutes to go roughly 8km. It was a chance for a very local experience, with about 40-45 (at least 10 of which were sitting on the roof) people crammed into a microbus made to hold 1/3 of that amount, traveling over what could best be described as a single track mountain bike trail overhanging some very precarious cliff sides. We were told to expect an adventure in Nepal. I’d say we were off to a quick start.

At an elevation of only 3000 feet, Bhulbhule is in a rather warm tropical climate. Since we were on buses all day, we really only had about an hour of daylight left and wanted to try to get up the trail a bit as we were originally meant to trek 3 hours that day. Well that wasn’t going to happen, but we thought we’d see how far we could get in an hour. About ten minutes in and here it came. Monsoon rains. Relentless downpours. This is what we had heard so much about. We threw on our rain gear and pressed on to get to the first real village on the trail, Nadi Bazar. One hour later and we were there, dripping wet and miserable.

Arriving at our tea house we were quick to get our wet clothes up on the clothes lines, hoping that they would somehow dry by morning in these conditions. Worst part was our boots were soaked through – ever seen Forrest Gump? Lieutenant Dan says to take care of your feet, and we knew that we had failed rule number one. Heather also delightfully pulled a leech off the heel of her sock that night (that miraculously hadn’t made it to the skin) and dodged a few other leeches in the bathroom. Hello Nepal in July.

That evening was also our introduction to the traditional Nepalese meal, Dal Baht. Dal Baht is basically mashed up lentils mixed with white rice plus a side of curried vegetables. Really really good. Portions were more than abundant but would help give us the energy for the next day. As they say on the trail – Dal Baht power, 24 hour, no toilet, no shower. I’m good on the 24 hour power bit, and I can go a day or two without a shower if necessary, but the whole no toilet thing when lentils are in play is a no go.

The next morning we awoke to some more rain and our clothes still pretty wet, most notably our socks and shoes. Walking for hours with wet feet didn’t really psyche us up for day 2. If anything it made us question why the hell we decided to come here and do this during monsoon. But alas we bucked up and pressed on. By the time we hit the trail on day 2, the rain had let up. But the trail was as wet and swampy as could be, some of which winds through flooded rice paddies. Gradually we started walking up hill through small farming villages where the whole family is out working in the field. The landscape was actually very much like Sapa early on with kilometers and kilometers of rice paddies. Not really what you expect when you think of the Himalayas. But as I mentioned, we were in the lower-lying areas early on and had a long way to go to get up into the more recognizable Himalayan terrain.

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Day 2 is also the day we got much more up-close-and-personal with the little critters we had been introduced to on Day 1, blood-sucking leeches. Those long, slimy creatures that latch on to pretty much anything that crosses their path. They’re more of a nuisance than anything else as they don’t transmit any sort of disease. But you can’t tell when they’re on you because when they bite they inject a little bit of a natural anasthetic. At the same time, however, they also naturally thin your blood in the area of the bite, so stopping the bleeding can be a real pain in the ass. Within a few hours, Heather had a minor freak out session when she noticed 3 of them crawling on her shoes and socks. It’s great because they don’t even need to be directly on your skin to bite you. They’ll actually wiggle right through your socks to reach your flesh. We were able to get those leeches off Heather pretty quickly. I then figured I’d do a quick look at my legs to see if any had found their way on to me. I lifted my pant legs to find most of my right shin covered in blood. One of those little bastards had sunk in pretty good. The remainder of that day we were on high alert for those fellas.

Late that afternoon we arrived in the village of Jabut and settled in for the evening. When we checked our legs in our hotel room we realized we had gotten bitten more than we thought. Heather had only one bite, but I had 6 – one of them taking well over an hour to finally stop bleeding. But other than the leeches it was a really good day. We started gaining a little more altitude, the landscape was slowly getting more dramatic and it didn’t rain! Small victories.

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A Tale of Two Cities: Singapore to Kathmandu

Posted on July 21, 2012

Heather here. Our trajectory from Vietnam to Nepal would be a 36-hour affair, with a so-called “necessary” stopover in Singapore. Originally, we thought we should keep the Singapore stopover to a minimum – you know that whole “let’s stick to the less expensive places” thing. Well, we arrived in Singapore and were kicking ourselves for not allotting more time here. We felt like we had been catapulted into the future, and we liked it.

I had actually spent a few days in Singapore before, but it had been about 8 years and a lot continues to develop. And with Fred’s friends from Singapore (living in San Francisco) telling us mouth-watering stories of all the amazing food to eat there, it did feel like a new place to discover. But, we arrived around 8pm and had about 12 hours to live it up in this modern metropolis.

Since we were hardly spending any time here, we kept it cheap at a hostel. We knew the 2-bed room would be small, but what we got was actually a closet with bunk-beds. But it was a very clean closet at least! Still, we paid the equivalent of $65 USD for roughly 24 square feet of living space in one of the less-popular neighborhoods. Prices aren’t forgiving on the wallet in Singapore.

We immediately sought out one of the hawker stations that we had read about. Want cheap, good food in this city? A hawker station is your best bet. We found one around the corner and had some good ramen, gyoza, and Korean soup. Our only opportunity for a real meal in Singapore didn’t disappoint.

It was late, but we still wanted to at least experience the downtown area, and nighttime would be nice for the lights we figured. So we headed to the Marina Bay Sands center to try to get up to the Sky Park. Unfortunately it was closed, but we still were dazzled by the twinkling skyline across the marina, the looming Sky Park, the lotus-shaped museum structure, and the illuminated pedestrian bridge across the bay.

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Neither of us are fans of the luxury brand Louis Vuitton (nor could we afford it anyway), but the retail space they created over the water was awe-inspiring. If I had the bankroll, this piece of architecture could convince me to spend it there.

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This city is modern and future-forward beyond belief. It has one of the highest GDP’s in the world, never mind in Asia. We felt like kids in a candy store, but alas, we had a plane to catch early the next morning to Kathmandu. Singapore to Nepal, from wealthy to impoverished. Nepal is among some of the poorest countries in the world, and that couldn’t have been exaggerated more by arriving via Singapore. What a contrast.

And stepping out of the airport in Kathmandu felt like a big, polluted, chaotic slap in the face to be brutally honest. We watched as the driver weaved through the city, observing people (and animals) hustling about their day to survive. Infrastructure, or rather the lack thereof, seemed the most obvious factor putting this city in a world of its own compared to where we had been. As Dorothy put it, we were most certainly not in Kansas anymore.

Everything felt foreign to the Nth degree. The heavy hand of culture shock settled on us for the first time in such an intense way. Of all the places Fred or I had been in our lives, Nepal felt the most far away from familiar from the get-go. But this is also why we travel, to feel foreign, to attempt to understand the other side of the world. So we accepted the unfamiliar and tried to go with the flow.

What made our transition into Nepal infinitely easier was the fact that we arranged our entire stay here through an agency, Earthbound Expeditions, mainly because our primary purpose for coming here was to trek, and they are a leading agency in guided treks. So they met us at the airport, settled us into a hotel, and organized some day-trips and tours of Kathmandu for us without us having to really do much of anything. We are usually more independent travelers, but we were happy with our choice here.

So the next day, off we went to tour some of the major UNESCO World Heritage sights of Kathmandu valley: Patan and Durbar Square; Pashupatinath, one of the four most important Hindu temples on the subcontinent; the banks of the Bagmati River to observe the holy cremations at the ghats; the immense (and famous) stupa of Boudhanath.

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Viewing the cremation ghats for the first time left a major impression on us, we were mesmerized yet saddened seeing families publicly mourning. Though we had to step out of our own culture to understand that this is a normal and honorable thing for Hindus, since it is rather shocking for folks like us who come from a culture of closed and private handling of the departed. The body is blessed on the steps leading to the water, covered in white, anointed with vermillion powder and other ceremonial objects, and ultimately covered by branches and firewood to be burned on a platform on the edge of the water. The ashes are pushed into the holy river when it is over.

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Also at the ghats were a few Sadhus, or Hindu holy men who choose to live an ascetic, wandering life. They have a very distinct look with long locks, ash-covered bodies, and painted faces.

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For the next two weeks we would be on the road and trail through the Annapurnas, but when we got back to Kathmandu we were treated to a visit to Bhaktapur, another UNESCO area of the capital city with important temples, traditions, and culture, especially that of the Newari people with a rich artistic heritage, particularly in pottery. One of temples in pagoda style, the Siddhi Laxmi temple, is the tallest in Nepal with 5 stories of roofs.

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Since Bhaktapur is close to another of Kathmandu’s UNESCO sites, Changu Narayan, we made one last stop here. Changu Narayan is listed as the most ancient pilgrimage site in Kathmandu Valley, being the place where Lord Vishnu resides, and dates back to the 3rd century. We learned about the few important carved stone motifs located here representing scenes from pertinent Hindu stories of gods and their conquests. Vishworp, where Krishna shows his true form of the universe is probably the best example.

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But after all this we were spent, both physically and mentally. This city, and indeed this country took its toll on us and we rather enjoyed a final full day of relaxing to gear up for our next adventure: India. But first, we must fill in the 2-week blank of our Himalayan trekking experience, one we will remember forever. Stay tuned…

Around Northern Vietnam in 9 Days

Posted on July 19, 2012

Fred here. First off, we are very late in getting this post up. It’s been almost three weeks since we left Vietnam but those few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. But let’s focus on Northern Vietnam for the moment, which was unquestionably one of the highlights of our Asia experience. Unfortunately, however, it was also rushed. We basically had 8 nights / 9 days to see 3 places. Of those 8 nights, 3 were spent on a train, 2 on a boat and 3 on land. No rest for the weary they say.

We left Hue on a 15-hour night train to Hanoi. First sleeper train of the entire trip thus far. It wasn’t much to write home about. Four (not so) soft sleepers in a cabin. Seemed like we were the only two tourists on board. This was predominantly a locals train. As mid-morning rolled around, the frantic city pace seemed to pick up outside. As we disembarked from the train, taxi drivers were pretty much throwing themselves at us. We had arranged a pickup with our hotel, the aptly named Hanoi Charming Hotel. Indeed they were, and for only $20 a night! Bing bong! We had basically less than 24 hours to check out this bustling capital city. We had another day at the end of our time in the north, so with this afternoon, we just wanted to get a feel for the town by walking the streets. It didn’t take long to fall for the charms of this place. Lots of busy back alleys with locals socializing and conducting business, similar to what we saw in Ho Chi Minh City. But there were also beautifully quaint neighborhoods with a good deal of French Colonial architecture, and trees seemed to line all of the streets, at least in the Old Quarter, which is where we spent most of our time. They also had a good number of little clothing boutiques which Heather had a hard time staying away from. Anyways, the center of life in this part of town was Hoan Kiem Lake. The young and old hang out on the sidewalk benches taking it all in, getting some exercise, you name it. It’s really beautiful.

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The next day it was off to Halong Bay. This was one of those places we had looked forward to for a while. We had seen photos of the giant rock formations shooting out of the bay, but that did nothing in the way of preparing us for the sheer beauty this place possessed. The typical thing to do in Halong Bay is to experience it on an overnight boat and see some different parts of the bay. There are literally hundreds of traditional “junk” boats offering different (but usually similar) trips. We were lucky to find Eco-Friendly Tours through our good friends back in SF, the Nesses. They had done the tour earlier in the year and spoke highly of their experience. It was truly unique.

First off they only do private tours, so your only other shipmates are a guide, a captain, and a chef. Secondly they do not leave from Halong City which is where most of the boats take off from. They leave from Cat Ba island which requires a 90 minute high-speed ferry ride in some pretty rough seas this time of year. Sidebar on the ferry. We were the only non-Vietnamese on the boat. As I mentioned the seas were rough. I expected this when I saw someone handing out barf bags to everyone as we started the ride. By the 60 minute mark of the ride, about 30-40% of the passengers were throwing up. Heather and I were fine but we couldn’t help think of that scene in “Stand By Me”. You know, the pie eating contest. Anyways, the worst part about all of this was the way the ferry employees got rid of the used barf bags – throwing them into the ocean, plastic bag and all. Shocking! But I digress.

Once on the boat we were quickly introduced to the stunning scenery the bay had to offer. Huge vertical rock formations shooting out of the emerald green waters, almost similar to Ko Phi Phi in Thailand which we posted about earlier. The only difference here is that instead of just a few islands like in Phi Phi, there are 2000 in Halong Bay. Within the nooks and crannies of these islands, there are many people making a living for themselves on the water, in the form of fish farms. These farms are not on the islands, but on the water. Their homes, also on the water, sitting on wooden and bamboo planks supported by pontoons. It amazed us to see how they go about their daily lives out there. They still had their family, dogs, satellite TV, and the children went to and from school via school boat. All amongst the beauty of this bay. We actually got to spend a little time walking around one of the fish farms and getting up close and personal with the folks there.

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We passed the better part of three days exploring some more remote parts of the bay, stopping to swim, kayak, eat, and sleep. The kayaking was amazing. A number of these islands have caves you can go through which lead you to completely enclosed pristine lagoons. The nights were perfect. We would anchor in spots where there was no one else. Pretty much pure silence, aside from the the one small fishing boat coming by on the second night and the geckos in the hills calling for mates. Our meals were amazing. Within the 3 days on the boat we probably had 6 different types of seafood which the chef picked up from a fisherman. Some of the best food we had in all of Asia.

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Just as quickly as it began we were back in Cat Ba ready to head back to Hanoi, but only for a couple hours before catching the night train to Sapa.

Sapa was originally a small French hill station on the border with China. Now it’s a very popular tourist destination for the amazing hill tribe culture and trekking. We arrived first in Lao Cai, the town where the train drops off, at 5am. Very little sleep on this train. It was a steep, windy, bumpy ride. But no down time. After the one hour bus ride from Lao Cai to Sapa, we had breakfast, cleaned up, and began our 2-day trek through the mountains and the valley just outside of town.

Sapa is home to many different tribes that originated in China, including Hmong, Zai and Red Zao people. Our guide was in fact a Hmong woman named Chi, and Chi was fantastic. A wealth of knowledge and absolutely hysterical. Her command of the English language was incredible, especially considering she never even studied it in school. She learned everything from interacting with tourists since she was a young girl selling handicrafts in Sapa. Now she spends most of her time guiding treks in the surrounding area.

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The area is breathtaking. It’s most commonly known for its lush, green, vertical mountain sides containing perfectly contoured rice terraces. Just spectacular.

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After a day of skirting the hillside rice paddies and local villages, we arrived at a local Zai family’s home which is where we would settle in for the evening. The family of 5 was extremely welcoming. They had the cutest little girl named Tuy. She couldn’t have been more than 3 years old but she was pretty much the boss of the house. Their oldest daughter was about 16 years old and has Down Syndrome. She was absolutely the sweetest girl, warming up to us after a little bit, joining us to explore the river, and helping Heather braid her hair. The middle child, the son, was the typical boy out being independent all day.

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Dinner was an over-abundance of local fare that was really good. I felt like I was at the dinner table with my Italian grandparents, constantly forcing me to eat more. And on top of that they were pushing their rice whiskey / moonshine on us. After a couple of shots I tried to respectfully decline but that wasn’t acceptable. Six shots later we finally polished off the bottle. Yikes!

The next day was a wet one in the mountains but a good warm up for what awaited us in Nepal. After bidding goodbye to Chi, one of the best guides we’ve had all trip, it was time for yet another night train back to Hanoi.

Our final day in Hanoi was relatively mellow but we did work in a few more sites with a great group called Hanoi Kids. Hanoi Kids is a local group of university students that give local tours around town. That morning Gaby and Son met us at our hotel and took us to Hanoi’s first university-turned-temple – The Temple of Literature. We just happened to go on the busiest day of the year – the day before all high school students take their college entrance exams. It seemed like all the young people in Hanoi were there to pray for their grades, as tradition calls for. Quite a scene, and a beautiful place as well.

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We also checked out the “Hanoi Hilton”, a prison most famously known to Americans as a POW facility, one where John McCain was actually held. Interesting how the images on display showed the American prisoners having a jolly old time in captivity. Curious. However, most of the museum was dedicated to the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were held there during the fight for independence against the French, and the horrors that ensued at that time. Anyways, our last stop with the Hanoi Kids was of course a delicious Vietnamese restaurant called Quan An Ngon where we sampled a boat-load of local delights. I’ll spare you any more Vietnamese food details. We have overdone that already!

As we bid goodbye to our new friends, we started to change our mindset to what awaited us next – Nepal and the Himalayas.