From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mountains and Mayhem

We got in to India okay- 3 days ago now. It's best to step back a month or so when we first departed...

From Darjeeling in India's northeast, we crossed into eastern Nepal. What awaited us there was a tortuous 18-hour ride through a night and half a day on bone-rattling roads to Kathmandu. We spent about five days there, procuring cheap imitation North Face gear that we'd need for our hike (our small backpacks are equipped for heat, not for mountains). When not doing that, we were wandering the city's winding, small lanes, chock full of little shrines and temples and surprises.

Then: Pokhara, the starting point (roughly) for what turned into an eighteen-day hike around famous Annapurna in the Himalayas. This was fantastic. For nearly three weeks, just mountains and fresh air. We went from 800m (2600') to 5400+m (17,800') and back again, with countless ups and downs in between.

The first third of the trip was mostly ascent, going from heat and green and rice paddies up to cold and brown and sparse vegetation. We hit Tibetan lands then, and ultimately snow. We crossed the high Thorung La mountain pass (after a 4am departure and headlamp-lit trudge up the mountain); bitterly cold and at times knee-deep in snow. Over the pass: more Tibet, then a long, long descent down the incredibly windy Kali Gandaki Valley, surrounded on all sides by towering, white-capped mountains. It was great fun.

Just shy of where we could have ended our trek (and once we'd lost all the elevation we gained), we ascended once more into the high hills. When we reached the 2000m village of Chhomrong, Rebecca paused to rest (umm, from a food-related illness), while I climbed briskly up to Annapurna Base Camp one day and came back down the next. After, we finally descended for good - one long day of walking followed by a two-hour bus ride back to Pokhara (sitting on top of the bus because the inside was full).

All in all, a fantastic hike. We generally walked long days, in part because we tended to only sleep in villages/teahouses that had friendly, smiling owners (which at times were few and far between). Most nights there were no mice in our room. Almost all nights we were asleep at 7pm or shortly after because it was f-ing cold and dark and there was nothing else to do but sleep. Rebecca's birthday was celebrated in the village of Tukuche, where we splurged and had pasta, rosti, cake, and purchased a bottle of cherry brandy made by a 70-year old woman at her rustic home/distillery.

We were ready to be done at the end, however. We'd based our budget on my previous hike in Nepal - 7 years ago. This stretched us the time we got back to Pokhara and paid for our sleeping bag rental and had a post-trek meal, we had just over 200 rupees left (under $3). My shoes mostly fell apart about ten days into the trek; I kept them together with shoelaces and bits of twine that we found along the trails.

So that's the hike. Something like 200 miles, with a couple miles each of ascending and descending. I lost 5 lbs, Rebecca 10. We're fit, though!

We spent just a day in Pokhara after that, both itching a bit to return to India. A new rule (dating to December) meant that we could not officially enter India within 60 days of our previous departure - try working that out when you have a 30-day Nepali visa. In lieu of visiting the Indian embassy in Kathmandu to sort this out and get special permission, we figured we'd just roll up at the border, deny all knowledge of the new rule, and see what happened. What happened was nearly two hours of baksheesh (bribe) demands, threats of sending us back to the capital (8 long hours - each way), and a lot of talking (mostly by Rebecca) - and we got in (without paying any "extra" fee).

Our hellacious journey continued. Three hours to Gorakhpur, then an overnight ride on fixed-blue-holey-vinyl-covered seats, five across, in a bus with neither shocks nor a speed limiter. We pulled into our destination - Varanasi - at 2.45am. Convenient. Averting roughly two thousand offers/demands for rickshaw rides, hotels ("my friend's/brother's"), and other imaginative and profusive hassling, we just drank chais, played cribbage, and sat on the bus station floor until just prior to dawn, then walked to the Ganges riverside and found a place to stay.

Since then: mayhem. Tiny alleys and big cows and running errands and getting happily lost and a bit of tummy upset. But it is good to be back in India again. Today's our third day here, and we haven't yet figured out when we'll leave.