Dolpo Trek

 

Roads- 5 years ago I had a remarkable experience in Mustang, Nepal. Nick and I knew that we wanted to travel in a remote area (specifically in Western Nepal), however heard that Mustang changed due to a newly built road. We wanted to experience a culture not yet impacted by connectivity and decided to trek in Dolpo, Nepal. We were thrilled that Nick’s childhood best friend Larry and his partner Kaitlin would be joining us from Hawaii.

During our 20+ days on trek, we noticed that there seemed to be no thought that went into the development of roads, specifically around how it would impact the local culture. People seem to come into remote areas and build roads before there is even access to vehicles (we saw this in the canyon to Nawwapani). Our guide told us that locals expect there to be a road connecting Dolpo in 3-4 years. People want development and access, however it doesn’t seem like there is enough thought in the planning, only considering immediate economic impacts. On our travels, we found that roads in Darjeeling were well planned. Locals had access to the road, however it was about a half-hour walk and it not only preserved the environment, but also the culture.

Money- When trekking, most tourists give all of their money to a large company in Kathmandu to plan and arrange their entire trip. We found that although this approach is more encompassing, it is more expensive and only supports some local staff. We found that it was hard to arrange a trek in remote areas without strong contacts. In Mongolia, Nick and I got lucky with a local recommendation from Lonely Planet, however in Nepal, we compromised with using a company to find our guide and help with permits and flights. We decided to pay for food and shelter as we went. We were surprised to learn that during our guide’s 16 years of guiding, this was the first time he had lead a trip like this in Dolpo.

We were happy with our decision as we felt we were paying more to the local community in comparison to a big trekking group. In many small villages, we were able to stay with a family in a teahouse, while another group (the only trekking group we saw in 21 days) camped outside and ate food brought from Kathmandu. We feel our approach allowed for a more authentic experience, however was more difficult as we carried our own gear, ate 28 dhal bhat meals (lentils and rice), and got cold and wet. Later, we did discover that our guide and 2 porters were not getting paid what we were told, however tried to compensate this by providing them with a nice tip at the end.

Yartsa Gunbu- This fungus grows on insects found above 13,000 ft. in mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet, it is literally translated to “winter worm, summer grass.” It is valued in China as an herbal remedy and 1 kg is valued at $20,000. Yartsa Gunbu is predominately found in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The Chinese created this economy and most families in Dolpo earn their yearly income in 3-4 weeks of collecting, then focus on sustenance farming the rest of the year. Every year, less and less Yartsa Gunbu is found. It’s a double edge sword because it provides an economic opportunity, however there is no regulation on how collectors treat the environment. Trash, feces and make shift tents litter mountain passes. Camps run on a Yartsa Gunbu economy and locals trade one piece ($5) for a beer. Police are sent to the mountains and monitor remote areas for security. Collectors seem to treat each other well, they look together and families send their children up to collect in order to make money.

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$2,000 worth of Yartsa Gunbu

Day 1- We flew from Nepalgunj to Juphal and the highlight of the mountainous flight was the scary landing. We hiked 3 hours through green barley fields and a deep dry valley to Dunai. The view was remarkable and the snow capped mountains were a constant reminder we were trekking in the Himalayas. In Dunai, curious kids greeted us and directed us to a teahouse. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flew from the top of each home and elders walked around the town spinning prayer wheels and counting mala beads.

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Day 2- We hiked 5 hours to Chhepka. We began in the desert, followed a raging blue/ green river, and then hiked in woods. Mossy trees, birds, suspension bridges, and rain. We passed abandoned villages as all of the locals moved to higher elevation to search for Yartsa Gunbu. The woman at the local teahouse made the best Tibetan butter tea. We noticed one of our porters being treated poorly as he was Buddhist and the other porter and guide were Hindu. He carried a heavier load and was responsible for far more tasks in comparison. We read about this phenomenon in The Snow Leopard, which was written in he 70’s and were surprised to see it continuing to happen today.

Day 3- We hiked for 5 hours up and down to Chunnuwaur. We continued to follow the river and eventually exited tree line. We passed many lines of horses and mules, the head animal wore a beautiful bell and headdress made of yak hair.

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Day 4- 3 ½ hour hike to Phoksundo Lake. We hiked up to a viewpoint and saw a spectacular waterfall. We were greeted by smiling snot-covered kids in Ringmo, holding their hands together screaming “Namaste.” We played Frisbee near the glistening lake and visited an 800-year-old Bon monastery. Bon is religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism, however buddhist doctrines and rituals have been incorporated making it the sixth branch of Tibetan Buddhism. We walked past stupas, and noticed the auspicious swastika symbol is reversed in Bon (yungdrung).

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Phoksundo Lake

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Day 5- Phoksundo Lake is 3 miles long, ½ mile wide and ½ mile deep. There is no life in or on the fresh water lake; there are no algae, fish, or boats. Today, we took a “rest day” and hiked 4 ½ hours along a ridge above the lake. We had a great view of Upper Dolpo. We listened to wild jackals in the evening and watched mules eat salt. When the man of the teahouse returned from visiting his second wife, he made us a delicious roasted marijuana seed (non psychotropic), tomato and chili paste to eat with our dhal bhat. We learned that the communist party may have won the election and wondered how this would affect Nepal’s political future.

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Day 6- 2 ½ hours to Yak Kharka then 3 hours to Bagala basecamp. We had beautiful views overlooking the gorge and looking back at lake. We dropped into a green meadow with glaciers surrounding us. We ate lunch in Yak Kharka, a village that consisted of 1 stone home, covered in drying dung. We ate with a group of 15-year-old girls going to the mountains to collect. They said they would spend 15 days collecting and expected to find 1 Yartsa Gunbu per day. Dark clouds chased us up the valley as we hiked to Bagala base camp. I noticed the running river, brown dirt surrounding the river and green lush grass. Tan desert rocks lined the canyon. Melting ice turned into waterfalls, horses grazed and yaks moved to lower elevation. We set up camp at 4,500m (14,763 ft.) just in time for snow. The pass and glaciers sat in the clouds; we were in a snow globe.

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Day 7- We were the first trekkers of the season to hike up and over Bagala Pass 5,169 m (16,958 ft). We crossed an icy river in the morning and saw blue sheep above. I heard rocks move above us as the ice began to melt. We saw big marmots, purple flowers and huge glaciers. We hiked for 6 ½ hours, and along the ridge of a valley at the end. We didn’t need any altitude medications, however felt slow. Our heart rate and breathing increased and we felt nauseous. We slept at the base of Numala Pass.

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Day 8- Again, we were the first trekkers of the season to cross over Numala Pass 5,300 m (17,600 ft). Although higher, this pass felt easier than Bagala. We came down into a high and dry environment that reminded me of Mustang, which made sense as I could see upper Mustang behind some mountains. We could see dark storm clouds but were so high we could also see clear baby blue skies above. We walked down mossy meadow humps, saw herds of big furry yaks and followed the river to Dho Tarap. We saw ancient homes, piles of drying dung, green houses and motorbikes (which are walked 2 days from Tibet during an open 1 month trade agreement). We saw tsampa (ground barley) being ground by the power of the river. We visited a school and hiked for a total of 7 hours.

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Numla Pass 17,600 ft.

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dung pile

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Day 9- Rest day. We visited a 700-year-old Bon Monastery, Ribo Bhompa Gonpa. We watched the locals plow fields with yaks. I spent time playing with a young girl who lived at the teahouse and was fascinated how she imitated her mother. Growing up, I remember pretending to talk on a cell phone or use a credit card but this young girl was pretending to herd goats, grind chilies and carried her doll on her back wrapped in a scarf. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and drank local barely wine.

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Day 10- It seems like the landscape changed every 2 days. Today was dry with waterfalls, it reminded me of the Southwest, USA. Nick, Larry and Kaitlin ate blue sheep at lunch, the first time eating meat since we left Kathmandu. Every tea house/ tea house tent seemed to carry Chinese products. Rice bags, soda cans, and ramen wrappers were written in Chinese. Goat and sheep covered the hiking trail and we trekked for 7 hours. I watched a goat/ sheepherder roll wool on a hand spindle while he walked.

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Day 11- Kaitlin was sick. We were back in the forest following the river and the grassy mountains resembled Switzerland. The hills were alive with the sound of music. Dhal bhat was getting more expensive at 500 R ($5) per plate while in Kathmandu it was 100 R ($1). We saw enormous 200 ft. trees, it reminded us of Colorado. We camped at a lower elevation and the climate was hot. We slept in a meadow with purple lavender like flowers and horse skeletons. Part of the trail shimmered in the sun and the silver rock looked like glitter. We hiked for 7 hours total.

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Day 12- Today, we hiked from 6:45 am to 4 pm and gained 1,500 m (4,921 ft.) in elevation. It was a hard day and my legs felt like Jell-O-O. Wild marijuana grew everywhere, Gompa Village sat in the mountains where walnut trees grew. We met a man traveling from Upper Dolpo who had lost his 11 yaks and was on a journey to find them. We stopped by some hot springs (tatopani) and had to bush wack for an hour back to the main trail. Nick had back pain. We walked with the Nepali military sent to monitor the Yartsa Gunbu collecting which began the following day. We were happy when we made it to the top, however the last hour walk in the pouring rain was cold and frustrating. We camped at Jangla Base Camp 4,300 m (14,100 ft).

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28 dhal bhat meals (lentils & rice)

Day 13- We were surprised with Nepali sweets from Bchandra’s family (one of our porters) who was camping close by to collect. We hiked over Jangla Pass in a cloudy meadow and dreamt of food, as we were getting sick of dhal bhat. Larry made a great discovery of covering your poo with dried yak poo when no rocks could be found. Genius. We had an easy day (4 hours) and napped in the afternoon although breathing was difficult due to the elevation. We played cards in the evening.

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Day 14- We woke up to rain, then snow, and waited for an hour in hopes of better weather. Eventually, our guide said, “We must go over the pass or we may have problems.” We trekked over the snowy pass not able to see far in front of us. We came down to a tent camp, where collectors were staying. We left the canyon and were back in a lush forested environment. The landscape reminded Nick and I of Northern Vietnam. Waterfalls, Rhododendron, moss, fallen leaves. Women wore clothing that looked similar to hill tribe clothing in Southeast Asia. It began to rain as we approached Dhule. We hiked for 6 1/2 hours. We spent the evening in Dhule, which was busy with collectors and helped locals clean Yartsa Gunbu with toothbrushes. We hung out with some local kids and ended the evening with dhal bhat, mutton and tongba (warm millet beer).

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Day 15- We spent the evening under a leaky roof during a thunderstorm. We had roti (similar naan) for breakfast and were not use to the aspect of chewing, as dhal bhat does not require such strong jaw muscles. We hiked along terraced fields (corn, potatoes, squash, green onion and millet) and honeybee logs. We learned that 1 family of bees live in a log per season and our guide gets 200 kg of honey per year from 20 logs. We hiked through forest. Birds chirped, water rushed and we spent a few hours at hot springs. We hiked for 4 hours through lush forest to Kayam, a village of 2 homes. When the clouds lifted we were surprised with a breathtaking view.

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Day 16- Our guide and porters collected wild bamboo shoots for dinner and stole lettuce from gardens. We observed bridges, rain and moss. We stopped in Thakur, where the clay home with a thatched roof provided us with fresh buffalo milk. The home was dark and smoky and we ate dhal bhat for lunch. Goat and buffalo meat hung above the wood stove to dry. We hiked for 3 hours today and camped on an unprotected saddle.

Day 17- We got little sleep due to high winds and rain, and our tent repeatedly collapsed. The next morning we trekked over a small pass. There was a lot of rain and we continued to drink copious amounts of buffalo milk. At lunch I was embarrassed after my new dog friend came running up to me in the woods and ate my waste before I had time to even think.

After 5 hours of trekking, we entered the hunting reserve and the national park pass was 3x what we expected. We spent the afternoon in Dhorpotan where Larry and Kaitlin played Frisbee with kids and Nick washed laundry in the river. I pumped water and had a lovely conversation in attempted Nepali with a local about her kids, siblings and age. The town consisted of scattered huts in a valley and there was no town center. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and ate an abundant amount of Indian snacks we bought from a nearby store. That evening Nick and I began to feel ill.

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Day 18- Thankfully today was a rest day in Dhorpotan. Due to overconsumption, food poisoning or a change and diet, Nick and I spent the previous night and early morning projectile vomiting into our camping pot, bags and in the backyard. Hundreds of dogs barked the entire night. The next morning the dog and chickens made sure to clean up our mess. It took 4 days for our (which now included Larry’s) system to get rid of the Indian snacks.

Day 19- Today, the weather was warm and sunny. We crossed suspension bridges, water buffalo roamed the woods and Larry found a leech on him. We were trekking at a lower elevation and walked through a dead forest that was killed by a fire 20 years earlier. The clouds looked so close, I watched them expand and they moved quickly. For the first time on our trip Nick and I mentioned missing home. Maybe because it had been so long since we had talked with our families; we were worried that everything was okay.

We passed snarling Tibetan Mastiffs showing their teeth. By day these dogs were chained but at night they roamed guarding homes. We sat on animal skins and ate dhal bhat for lunch. Nick, Larry and I were still sick from the Indian snacks and beginning to have sharp pain under our rib cage. Good thing we only had a few more days of trek! We camped and the clouds looked bright in the dark sky. We listened to cow bells and jackals in the evening. 4 ½ hours of hiking.

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Day 20- We woke up to a clear view of Dhaulagiri. This mountain consists of 5 peaks and is 5 miles tall or 7,900 m (26,810 ft). The clouds moved quickly over Jaljala Pass and our view of Dhaulagiri was quickly obstructed. We trekked 4 hours downhill to a teahouse where we ate candy and explored the town.

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Dhaulagiri, 26,810 ft.

Day 21- We took an adventurous 7 hour bus to Beni where we drove past snow covered peaks on a “road” that was carved into the mountain side. We ate some local plums, which were the first fruit we’d had in almost a month. At a bus stop we ate samosas and jalebis then boarded another bus headed for Pokhara. We reflected on our remarkable trek and looked forward to bathing.

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Dhal Bhat- 28 meals

Days camping- 11

Days in tea houses- 10

Other foreigners’ spotted- 6 (an anthropologist, linguist, trekkers and a runner)

 

 

 

Mysuru (Mysore) & Coorg

Nick and I went to the Bengaluru Train Station and stood in line to buy tickets. Of course, the line was chaotic with cutting locals and unnecessary merging. In addition, needless to say, our tickets were never checked on the train. However, as we stood on the platform we watched the sweeper women who were sweeping all of the human fecal matter off of the tracks. Life in a India is hard and there were constant reminders, like cows with split hoofs searching the streets for garbage, differently abled folks crawling on the floor of the trains begging for money or hungry street kids with eyes full of tears.

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The master wood carver

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As the train approached there was a fight to get on. Nick was able to push himself on about 10 people before myself. As he sat, a 65-year-old man from outside poked him and began yelling, “I put my handkerchief on that seat so you better move!” Obviously Nick was on the train first so the seat should belong to him. I sat down next to him and he warned me we might have an interesting encounter. The man got on and was screaming! “Move now! Get up! This is my seat!” We looked around at all of the staring locals to see whether or not this was the practice and if we should give up our seat. Of course, no one helped, as in most scenes. We have been told that many Indians fear of getting involved and raising a voice as it could turn on them. Nick told him we’d wait for the conductor but we all knew the conductor would never come. Nonetheless, he started grabbing my bag and I asked him to stop touching my things. He bounced into a boxing stance with his fists in the air saying, “Touch me see what happens! Touch me!” Nick and I looked at each other; touching him was the opposite of what we had asked. I had had it. I yelled, “Maybe if you were more kind, people would do what you asked!” Zing. I told him haha. I exasperatedly rearranged some bags on the bunk above and squished myself above, while Nick awkwardly sat next to him for the next 3 hours. This is just one of the many interesting and unpredictable encounters we’ve had in India.

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What time is it? Kannada time.

We arrived to Mysuru, home to Ashtanga Yoga, incense, essential oils, beedi (Indian cigarettes), and woodcarving. The tourist town was empty of foreigners but full of local tourists as it was a holiday weekend. We explored the Mysore Palace, grandest of India’s royal buildings. It was originally built in 1897 then rebuilt in 1912 after being destroyed by a fire. It reminded me of a palace from Beauty and the Beast or Anastasia. It was full of mirrors, stained glass, chandeliers, and gold and blue archways. At night it was decorated with 100,000 glowing lights.

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The next day, Nick and I took a series of buses to Coorg, stopping in Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe was the first ever Tibetan refugee camp established after the 1959 Chinese invasion. Within the 6km tuktuk drive we notice a difference in physical attributes, attitude, architecture and dress. We visited the Namdroling Monastery, ate some momos and thenthuk before continuing to Coorg.

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Namdroling Monastery

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After passing through Coorg, we took a bus (the cheapest and most dangerous rollercoaster ride we’ve ever been on) to Mukkodlu. where we expected to meet our trekking guide. Due to some miscommunication, there was no guide and we wandered until we found an inviting homestay. We hiked 8 miles to the highest peak and got some great views. The landscape was lush and green with rolling mountains. It was nice to escape the hectic cities and spend some time in nature.

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Mountain top Hindu Temple

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Sweaty Betty

Mysuru Eats:

Hotel RRR – queue for tables like at ski resorts and wait to be served veg thalis served on banana leaves (always eat with your right hand and your left is reserved for the toilet)

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Vinayaka Mylari – queue and eat masala dosas with coconut coriander chutney (no utensils will be found here)

McDonalds – We may or may not have tried McDonalds McVeg and Aloo (potato) Tikka meals.

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McVeg

Camel Trek

From Pushkar, Nick and I took a bus to Ajmer, a train to Phulera, and another train to Jaisalmer. Although 18 hours of transit and feeling ill we made the best of our situation and made a friend at 2 am in the station. As we approached our destination, we peered from the window of the train and watched as a massive fort emerge from the sand. It resembled a life-sized sand castle sitting in the middle of the desert, overlooking a gold city below. The inside of the fort was extravagant, however different from the many other forts we’ve visited in Rajasthan. Built in 1156, it holds 3,000 residents and resembled more of an ancient city with crumbling infrastructure than a well preserved historic site.

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Jaisalmer Fort
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The Gold City
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Homes inside of the fort

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Outside of the fort, Nick and I enjoyed good views and, of course, impeccable food. The streets were more quant in Jaisalmer, however as always, honking motorbikes and cows eating trash roamed the lanes. The desert heat was extreme as temperatures reached 110 F and observing nomadic life in the desert was unfathomable.

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Haveli

The next morning, Nick and I began our camel trek. You may be thinking, a little hypocritical, I often write in my posts to do research before riding elephants. Nick and I have looked into riding camels and with Sahara Travels in Jaisalmer the camels are very well cared for.

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Goat escape in a desert village
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mud home

Our guide, Napu, Nick, and I rode our camels in a line for a few hours and visited a desert village. The camels had 1 hump and were taller and more slender than the camels we rode in Mongolia. However, this made sense due to their environment. When the sun became too strong, we relaxed under a tree, what seemed like the only shade for miles. A nearby goat herder joined us, and he and our guide must have had a deal as he gave us fresh milk for chai and in exchange we all drank tea and ate lunch together. Providing fresh milk for our tea entailed taking my empty water bottle, squirting milk into it from 3 goats utters and pouring it into our chai.

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Goat herder, providing us fresh milk for chai

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Over lunch, Nick and I had some touching conversations with our guide. As I was reading, Untouchable, I had many questions about India’s caste system, Hinduism, and woman’s role in society. Napu told us that in the villages, the caste system is still very much alive. It determines your job, friends and who you’ll be arranged to marry. Speaking in perfect English, we were shocked to learn that he never attended school. He could not read or write and this seemed to trouble him. Some of the other boys in his village were able to get an education (none of the females) but he began guiding camel trips at the early age of 14 (he is now 20). He had never left Jaisalmer and said that sometimes when he sleeps, he prays that he wasn’t born in India. We asked him why and he said, “Because Indians follow and change isn’t happening quick enough.” He heard that in China, years ago, they had a similar caste system and arranged marriages and that gave him hope because if a China had changed, India too could change. Nick and I often find individuals that work in tourism have it tough as they idealize Western culture, however are stuck in the confinements of their own.

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After lunch and some deep discussions, Napu let us “drive” our own camels, although they knew exactly where they were going. We spent the next few hours riding along and enjoying the sandy landscape. A dog that had been following us the entire trek was running ahead of us, laying in shade, then catching back up to us. We were told he was a “wild” dog but had recently began following treks. As we passed through a village, 3 dogs attacked the dog following us and had him pinned to the ground. They were going to kill him. When he finally got away there was blood all over his neck and head. Again, they tried to attack but Napu chased them away on his camel (this was a sight!) The dog was persistent and followed us in the heat and hot sand to the dunes where we camped for the evening. When I tried to give the dog water he was extremely uncomfortable, as he had probably zero positive human interaction. However, he soon let me poor water into his mouth.

That evening, we enjoyed sleeping under the full moon on the sand dunes among the dung beetles and mosquitos. We were only 55 miles from Pakistan but all we could see was desert. I woke up several times just to take in the view, and unconsciously check on the dog. The dog got attached again as he obviously was in another dog’s territory. After that, he slept next to Nick and I. I was so concerned for this dog that it seemed silly. Sure, have compassion for all sentient beings and if you can prevent a death, obviously do so. However, I don’t think I was as fixated on this particular dog, rather what the dog represented.

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Sleeping beauty

I felt as if this dog represented all of the street kids in India. I have the ability to give some food and water, enough to survive for x amount of time, however by doing so I habituating a behavior. I am ultimately making the matter worse only to feel like I’ve helped. There are so many people that need help, support and compassion and I don’t have enough for everyone. I felt conflicted. The next morning, I gave the dog a little more water and he patiently waited our group to pack up before eating the scraps we left behind. He had enough energy to hunt a small desert antelope, however was unsuccessful. We rode the camels for a few hours back to Napu’s village where we said goodbye to our guide and the dog.

Nick and I would have loved to do a longer trek, however since we had to buy our train tickets in advance (as they fill up quickly) we were on a constant schedule. India is a large diverse country and 2 months is not nearly enough time to explore it.

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Local Recommendations:

Chandan Shree Restaurant – serves spicy Rajasthani, Punjabi, South Indian, Gujarati and Bengali dishes.

Hotel Fort View – cheap and clean rooms (250 R) with friendly staff and zero pressure to book a camel trek.

Sahara Tours – great camel treks, cheaper than other companies in town, ask for Napu.

Try breakfast from a street cart across from Sahara Tours. It’s similar to a large papadam covered in curry with fresh red onion.

Bhang Shop – This government authorized shop sells a variety of bhang lassis, juices, cookies and candies. It also appeared on Anthony Boudain’s tv show and there are photos plastered on the walls to prove it.

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Ladakh

Within a half an hour of departing Delhi we were flying above the Himalayas to Ladakh (land of passes). The snow-covered glaciers were astonishing and soon we were descending through the clouds. All we could see was white until we were eye level with jagged mountains. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the number of flights that had crashed in Jomsom. I remembered flying next to the remnants of a plane that had crashed a week prior and knew how often accidents happened. However, luckily this flight was in a larger aircraft and anytime that I’m nervous, I put my faith in the universe.

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Landing in Leh, Ladakh
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Leh, Ladakh

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The plane landed at 11,500 feet and we took in our surroundings of white peaks and sandy desert hills. We spent the next day acclimatizing and exploring the town of Leh. There were virtually no other tourists and the combination of Tibetan culture and Mongolian dress made me reminisce. We visited the local monastery where locals practicing Tibetan Buddhism were spinning prayer wheels and reciting “om mani padme hum” (a compassion mantra to relieve all sentient beings from suffering) on their mala beads. We noticed the many closed shops and guesthouses and were thankful we came during the off-season. We were told that in the summer, it’s so busy that it’s hard to even spot locals at the market. As long as we could put up with the cold (high of 40s and low of 10s) then we would be rewarded with authentic interactions and pristine views. As we walked through town we were greeted with smiles and “tashidelay” (hello in Tibetan) or “julay” (hello in Ladhky).

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Tibetan Buddhism
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Mountain Monastery

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Leh is an interesting city. Hunting and fishing is illegal in Ladakh and the town is powered by hydropower. Due to the heavy snowfall in the winter, the town lacks Internet access. The affects of tourism and global warming are very real. It is positioned in between the border of China and Pakistan, which results in a high military presence. There are many Tibetan refugees living in Ladakh who seek independence from China and nearby Muslims in Kashmir who have the support of Pakistan are fighting for independence. This area is rich in diversity and is politically complex.

We passed the Dalai Lama’s vacation residence and explored Thicksey and Hemmis Monastery. We felt lucky to be the only tourists as it made our experience more meaningful. We listened to the monk’s morning prayer and were perplexed when we saw monks with dreadlocks. We were told that these monks recently spent 3, 6 or 12 years meditating in solitude in caves in the mountains. They had no human contact and would only leave the cave at night to relieve themselves. A younger monk would deliver food, and the other monks idolized their sacrifice. I learned about this idea when I visited Nepal, however had never seen any monks who recently achieved this hardship.

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Hemmis Monastery

Later, we visited the nine-story Leh Palace built in the 17th century and Tsemo Fort.

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View of Leh from palace

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We spent the next 6 days trekking, 4 of which were in the Sham Valley. We had some breathtaking views of the Himalayas and starry night sky. The 2 feet of snow and freezing temperatures made for an adventure. We were the first tourists of the season and enjoyed empty campsites and welcoming locals.

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14,500 ft.
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Indus River
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Prayer wheel in Yangthang Village
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“Most villagers are vegetarian, but in the winter it’s hard. We prefer to eat larger animals so we only have to kill once and can feed many.” – Pasang

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We drank butter tea (butter, salt, Darjeeling black tea and water), ate tsampa (ground barley) and enjoyed chang (local barley beer). The royal castles dated back to the 1550’s and a Buddhist monastery to the 11th century, and all had been kept in impeccable condition. On trek, we came across a deceased golden eagle that must have weighed 25 pds. Our guide carried it all the way to the next village where he gave it to locals to use the feathers on their bow and arrows.

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Trekking into Hemis Shukpachen
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Visiting a government school

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On our last day of trekking we were extremely lucky as we saw over 20 ibex. Our guide said that it was rare to see ibex in groups of more than 3 and it must have been mating season. We felt lucky to see them so close and watched the enormous elk sized animals traverse the rock face.

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Ibex

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Trekking to Skindeyang Village
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Hemis Shukpachen
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Tsermangchen Pass

A quote from, The Paradox of Our Age, written on the city walls of Leh:

“We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time; we have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less healthiness. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor. We built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but less communication. We have become long on quantity, but short on quality. These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; tall man but short character; steep profit but shallow relationship. It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room. – The Dalai Lama

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Indus River

Darjeeling

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Mt. Kanchenjunga

Nick and I took a 10 hour train overnight from Kolkata to New Jailpuri. This was the most comfortable overnight transit we’ve taken in Asia. The beds were full length and they rented bedding. Our bunkmates offered us to eat with them and we had some great discussions about politics over egg curry.

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Sleeper train

Our train only arrived 15 minutes late, which gave us just enough time to catch the toy train. The toy train built in 1808 is one of two mountain trains built under the British. While not the fastest form of transport (88km in 8+ hours) it truly felt out of a children’s bedroom as it looped its way up the steep terrain. There were screeching breaks and constant honking as it crisscrossed the mountain road that was built to follow the tracks. The train stopped numerous times to back up steep sections only to stop again and go forward up another steep section, a maneuver called a “z turn.” There were also three full loops, straight out of a “Christmas Story,” in order for the train to make it up or down large hills. The train stopped many times in mountain towns, all with there own historic station. It is an UNESCO World Heritage sight and was a memorable experience.

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Toy Train, built by the British in 1808

When we arrived in Darjeeling we spent an hour going hotel to hotel until we found an open room within our price range. We then had some delicious west Bengali food and went to bed early to prepare for our trek. The following day we took two shared jeeps (busses in the mountains) to Manybhanjang where we hired our guide, Uttam. From Manybhanjang we hiked up through the fog and cold to Tumling. This trek follows the Singalila Ridge on the Nepali border. We had to show our passports numerous times and didn’t really know what country we were in at any given time. In late spring and early Fall the skies are clear, but in late February there is often dense fog and chilly weather. We hoped that one day on the trek we would have good luck, in order to see the two ranges, containing 4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world.

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In Tumling, the fog was only thicker, but the lodge we stayed in had a pristine dorm, great food and some other engaging travelers. Nick tried chhaang, fermented barley mixed with water several times as a mountain alcoholic beverage. We played cards with a large group from Belgium and discussed politics (as always) with the Nepali guides. Unfortunately, there was no view in the morning, but we had a delicious breakfast of porridge and pancake and set off along the ridge. Throughout the next 21 km, we passed many small villages in dense fog and freezing wind. The cows changed to yaks and the languages alternated between Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi. After climbing the final 800 meters we arrived in Sandakphu at 3600 meters (12,000 feet), the highest point in West Bengal.

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That night we stayed at the Sunrise Hotel. We spent the majority of the evening with our Belgium, French and Australian friends and per usual, talked politics. We all toughed the freezing temperatures and could see our breath from 3pm until the next morning. The power was promptly turned off at 8pm and we went to bed in hopes off seeing the mountains the next morning. At 5:15am we heard rustling and jumped out of bed. We put on all of our layers and headed outside. To our surprise we could see Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, 3 Sisters Peaks, Kargchendzonga and other large peaks. The clouds moved swiftly but we managed to snap a few photos although it felt like our hands were going to fall off. The enormous peaks were breathtaking and incomparable to anything in Colorado. Nick was thrilled as this was his first time seeing the massive Himalayas.

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Mt. Everest, Lhotse & Makalu

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Sandakphu

As usual, clouds quickly moved in and we began our decent. We hiked 15km downhill past prayer flags, terraced fields, greenhouses and through quant mountain villages. Although we didn’t spot any red pandas, black panthers or snow leopards on our trek, we saw some beautiful rhododendron and magnolia trees. We appreciated the pristine forest and waterfalls, as this seems to be rare in Asia. That evening, we stayed with a Nepali family just past Timburay and had an authentic homestay experience. We helped the family cook, got laughed at when trying to speak Nepali, drank a lot of tea and tried homemade fruit wine.

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Within a few hours 7 Indian tourists from Kolkata and their Nepali guide arrived. The dynamic quickly changed as the family and guides quickly knew they were in for an evening. The tourists asked for chicken, which the Buddhist family reluctantly cooked, and the killing process definitely created some tension. The men began to drink and the mood changed. As I helped the mother of the house and her 10 year old Indian helper cook, I was told by 2 guides and the mother not to enter the other room where the men (including Nick and the guides were drinking). Nick had a unique experience, dancing, singing and interacting with these young guys. I too had an interesting experience, as it was the first time I was asked not to enter an area as my gender made it inappropriate. Unsure whether or not their was validity to this racial profiling, I felt a little uncomfortable. The family set up a small table for Nick and I to eat in the kitchen, as they wanted us separated from the other tourists. A unique dynamic that ended up more exaggerated than necessary, our privacy felt valued by our host and guides.

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The next morning we drank more tea and trekked to Rimbick where we caught a jeep back to Darjeeling. The 4-hour journey down single lane switchback roads was chaotic considering the fact that there were 17 people squeezed inside and on top of the jeep.

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Momo House

On our last day in Darjeeling, we hiked to a tea plantation. Although the factory was closed, we walked through tea bushes and observed the farmland being used by the community. Next, we walked to the zoo, as this was mandatory in order for us to visit the Himalayan Mountain Institute. Although not supporters of zoos, this was our favorite we’ve seen on our trip. We saw a massive Bengal tiger, snow leopards (that are part of a breeding program), red pandas, black leopards and Himalayan wolves. After, we walked around the HMI and visited the museum. Looking at the primitive gear used by Tenzing Norgay to submit Mt. Everest in 1953, it became obvious that extreme mountaineering takes tremendous mental determination, rather than access to high tech gear. Later that day we visited the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. Tibetans living in exile make up this community and where the 14th Dahlia Lama resided before moving to Dharmsala. We watched them dry wool, use vegetable dyes and weave carpets, which the profits benefitted the community.

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Bengali Breakfast
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Happy Valley Tea Plantation
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Red Panda

As always, we maximized our 5 days in Darjeeling and Nick did a fantastic job planning! I am thankful to have a travel partner that not only makes sure we see every site (economically) but also buys me ice cream at 7am when we get off of overnight transit=)

Local Recommendations:

-Check out the Oxford bookshop, silver jewelry shop and Golden Tip tea store all in the town square

 

 

Kuching, Borneo

“Prepare for landing,” the Captain said as we hovered over Kuching. As we began our decent, we started to see fireworks. We continued to look and saw at least a dozen firework shows in the city. Our Malay seatmate told us that Chinese New Year celebrations would continue until midnight. Colors lit up the night sky and it felt a little magical.

Nick and I enjoyed some live local music at the Culture Club, the bar located next to our hostel before bed. We discussed how quickly our trip was happening and promised this trip would not be our last. This day was a great day, I felt so happy. The kind people I met that day, the unexpected views and excitement of new places remind me why I love to travel.

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Village kids outside of Bako
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Village outside of Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Nick and I took an hour long bus ride and choppy ocean boat ride to Bako National Park. Bako was established in 1957, and has 11 sq. miles of protected rainforest. Although arriving in the late afternoon,Nick and I wasted no time and hiked to 3 lookout points. We enjoyed coastal views and spotted a sleeping flying lemur, bearded pig and Proboscis Monkeys.

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Proboscis Money

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Bearded wild pig

Bako felt a little like summer camp. We had a cabin with other camp mates, we ate overpriced mediocre cafeteria food and signed up for the guided night hike. It felt like the rainforest came alive a night. We saw so many unique animals, including: luminescent fungus, luminescent worms, fresh water cat fish, tarantulas, stick bugs, giant ants, green poison frogs, birds, green vipor snakes and an owl. We learned that giant ants can be used as stitches, when they bite a wound you can pinch off its body. We also learned that female stick bugs will eat the male after having sex.

Green Pit Vipor, 50 feet up

The next morning we got an early start and hiked up to a secluded jungle waterfall/ natural pool. The water was dark red in color and the floor of the pool consisted of smooth rock. We were thankful we found this oasis as swimming on the beaches was prohibited due to crocodiles. We learned that a handful of people are killed every year by crocodiles in Sarawak. We hiked to a view point where we met some monkeys and watched the tide come in. The waves crashed against the rocks, the wind blew and the coconut trees swayed.

We returned to Kuching and spent the next day at Semenggoh Nature Reserve. We hiked on a trail to a feeding platform and watched semi-wild orangutans swing from tree to tree over our heads. We watched Edwin, the oldest male who had already begun to develop check pads, another male, mother, and her child enjoy bananas and coconuts. I could have spent hours watching them. Humans closest relative, these endangered orangutans had so much character and personality. In addition to the apes, we had the opportunity to check out 2 crockadiles. One female burried her eggs and an employee told us they would release the babies into the river. We couldn’t imagine stumbling upon one of these 10 foot monsters (can grow up to 25 ft. long). After, Nick and I hiked to a beautiful waterfall in Kubah National Park and enjoyed the old growth rainforest and water all to ourselves.


On our second day in Kuching, we discovered why rainforests are called RAINforests. Kuching gets on average 170 in. of rain a year and after today this didn’t surprise us. We woke up to pouring rain and thunder but decided to rent a motorbike as we were sure it would pass. We checked out Medan Niaga Satok market, where jungle produce was sold. Although the rain was on and off, by noon it was very much on. We jumped back on the motorbike, were frantically searching for gas and were drenched through our rain gear. However, so many locals were more than willing to point us in the right direction (Malaysia has entered the competition for friendliest locals with Myanmar.) Finally, we showed up to the Matang Wildlife Center. Here we walked a loop where we saw endangered animals. The center helps rehabilitate animals and puts hem back into the rainforest. We saw sambar deer, crockadiles, and bear cats (Nick’s favorite). A gibbon throw a handful of poop thrown at us so we continued on to the birds.

Jungle produce



Then we saw him. A male Orangutan close to 300 pounds. The king. He was in a two story cage and his orange curly dreaded hair hung off his body. He was captivating. We moved up high to a location where we were able to watch 3 female apes and another massive orangutan in separate quarters. As it continued to pour one orangutan held a large leaf over it’s head while another held up part of a berlap sack. I was eye level with this female with nothing between us but open space. We stared at each other. She looked unhappy. They all did. She bit her lip then stuck her tounge out at me. So I did it back. Then she did it again and so did I. Then she turned her back to me and sat in the pouring rain.

My attention moved towards the male. His checkpads were massive. He was massive. He played with the water coming out of the drainage. He watched us. Then he made his way to the door and began to pound on it. He wanted attention, he wanted out. He wanted something. He hung his body from the door frame and swung back and forth. He returned to the water then returned to the door, this time with a rock. He smashed the rock against the door, pounding. There was no response. He wore his emotion on his face. I could sympaize. He looked like he was giving up, like he was depressed and helpless. I cried. Not because I am PETA person, this park is doing the best they can to rehabilitate these animals. Sure, it’s a shame that they don’t have more money to give these animals more space, but they have been able to send tons of animals back into the rainforest. However, I felt sad. That we’ve gotten to a place where there is an imbalance in nature. How are these animals endangered? Who could anyone ever kill one of these things? There habitat is changing, trees are being turned into tables. Rainforests are rapidly being removed from this world and there is nothing I can do.

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The next day, Nick and I learned from our mistake and paid for a cab to take us to Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse. Nick and I were envisioning a Native longhouse, however this was more of a raised community on bamboo stilts. 1,000 – 2,000 individuals live her, however only about 150 full time. The children lived at a nearby bordering school and some adults were in the city working or in the oil and gas industry. We visited a home that had been preserved and saw a cage of human skulls. 500 years ago, headhunting was an important part of Borneo’s indigenous culture. The majority of the skulls on display are said to be Japanese soldiers as the British used the head hunters aid during WWII.

 

Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
Japanese Soldier Heads, hunted by the head hunters
Headhunter antiques

As we continued to wander the village, we met a man who had a small museum full of ancient relics that were passed down to him. Most impressive was a basket that the leader of the tribe used to carry his enemey’s heads in. Dried Tabasco leaves were placed at the bottom to prevent blood from dripping out and animal skin was used on the cover to prevent the smell of rotten flesh escaping. Tribes boiled a concoction of cobra, scorpion and frog poison then proceeded to soak their darts in the mixture for 2 weeks. The darts were made of palm needles so when the victim pulled out the dart it would break inside of them and within 2 hours they would die. Nick and I practiced our blow dart skills and were fascinated by the history in the village. Many of the traditions and rituals surrounding the practice of head hunting remain a mystery, however hunters of heads believed human skulls brought protection. They thought they could communicate with enemy spirits (after taking their head) asking them to stop attacking their tribe. The individual with the most number of heads outside of his home was often the leader of the tribe. Although rich in culture, I am glad that I live in a society where I don’t have to worry about being hunted for my head.

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Favorite Local Eats:

Top Spot – a Chinese seafood hawker court on the 6th floor, try a fish fillet (Nick wasn’t disappointed)

Zhun San Yen Vegetarian – tied for the best vegetarian restaurant on our trip. The owner obviously takes pride in her fresh buffet and delicious homemade soy milk.

Culture Club – fun bar with live local music, check out the band atu ada

Chong Choon Cafe – small breakfast hawker court, the laksa is remarkable!

My Village Barok Lodge/ Riverside Hawker Stalls – enjoy various noodle dishes, milk juice, fried taro, tofu and sweet potato (take a boat for 1 ringet across the river)

Breakfast Laksa – noodles, coconut milk, sour tamarind, lime, shrimp paste, shrimp, chicken and bean sprouts
poor guy!

Kyaukme (Shan State)

We arrived to Kyaukme by train and saw very few other foreigners. I took the opportunity to rest my ankle while nick continued on and trekked north, a trek highly recommended by a French couple we met in Laos. I spent the majority of my time going stir crazy in my guesthouse (good thing the metal bars kept me in). During my first night, while eating chapati and curry, a local girl abruptly said, “Come here, tomorrow at 5, we eat at market together.” And just like that it seemed as if I made a friend. The next night night we ate at the local market and finished the evening eating chapati at her tea house. On my last day, I ate with her father, sister, stepmother, and stepsister. The Burmese, Shan and Pakistani family made rice, cauliflower, cabbage soup, chicken curry and shrimp curry. They liked watching me eat with my hands as I was obviously less familiar. Overall, I was bummed to miss out on an amazing trek, but the rest was necessary.

“(Stacy) Are you mental?” -Wayne Cambell

Nick’s Trek North

While Stacia was resting in Kyaukme with her foot up and crutches ready, I went on a 3 day trek/motorcycle ride with a group from Germany, Singapore, Belgium and Holland led by our amazing guide, Thura. It was a very eclectic group with some having more experience and motivation for trekking than others. Overall, we had a good time making fun of American politics and admiring the untouched culture of the Shan State.

First, we motorbiked for 3 hours to a small village in mountains outside of Kyaukme. The surrounding countryside was primarily occupied by Pulong peoples 1 of the 150 ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Ever since Myanmar became independent from Britain these people have been fighting for autonomy from the government. In the first village, we had a lunch of traditional tea leaf salad and toured a couple local worker’s shops. The first shop was for rice whiskey (100 proof) which Thura bought for later that night. This shop also had pigs to eat the by-product of the whiskey. Next, we visited a bamboo paper mill where “gold paper” is made for new year. Before heading off Thura bought us all beetle nut, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Making Bamboo Paper
Pigs eating rice whiskey by-product

After another hour of driving, we stopped to hike to the highest point in the region which offered great views. On the way down, we stopped to meet some ethnic Nepali, whose grandparents were brought to Myanmar to fight the British. Next, we drove to the village where we would spend the night. On arrival, Thura pointed and said, “look insurgent army” and laughed very heartily. On the hill and the main road were men in camouflage, holding rifles. At first I thought he was joking, but he insisted, yes it was the Shan State Army. Although currently an insurgency, there is a year long ceasefire that has enabled access to the area. I think this detail was purposefully left out of the itinerary. We soon were shaking hands, meeting and laughing with the soldiers who were enthusiastic to meet us, but not to be photographed. That evening we wandered around the town as soldiers turned into fathers and sons going home for diner or catching horses from the field. Our homestay family were friends of Thura’s grandfather, a nice older couple with a beautiful wooden stilted home (as all are in the region).

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Shan State Soldier





Feed honey to a dog for sterilization, put it on a woman’s forehead for a quicker delivery, slap the stick on a penis for enlargement.

The next morning, we left the motorbikes and continued on foot into the tea fields lining the hills in every direction. We hiked for a few hours before stopping in a home for tea and a rest. There were only women home and they were happy to cook us some fried peanuts. After another few hours of hiking we arrived at another home in the tea fields with a man making a bamboo basket. At first we thought it was just another special shop tour but then the man retrieved an old musket from the home. As usual with Thura it was another surprise, target shooting!

Soon after, we walked into a small village (maybe 25 homes) where school was in secession. With angry teachers looking on, we took pictures with the kids and went through the English alphabet. Our homestay was in another beautiful wood stilted home with indoor (no chimney) open fire and a very welcoming family with two young boys. That night before dinner we swam in a small pool that doubled as a small hydroelectric facility for the village lights.



In the morning, we relaxed and watched the village wake up as kids went to school and fog lifted from the valley below. We then took the fast way back to our first village to retrieve our motorbikes. Thura then took us down some adventurous trails to a small village with a beautiful view next to the school. However, we were quickly off again to make it back in time for my 4pm bus. Just before Kyaukme we stoped for a traditional lunch of raw beef mixed with sticky rice (Stacia would have been thrilled) and then I wheeled in just in time to meet Stacia to head back to Mandalay.