Laos and Cambodia – just the surface

Both very pleasant countries to visit. Laos with its history of French colonialism still quite evident, and its friendly locals barbecuing and singing karaoke on the sidewalk every evening. Ha!

And Cambodia, that appears to have bounced back quickly from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, with unnecessarily friendly locals, and many reasons to visit besides the marvel of Angkor Wat.

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On the slow boat floating down the murky Mekong River. For two days, 90% of the time there was no sign of habitation, just lush bamboo, palm, and dipterocarp forest uninterrupted to the tops of the surrounding hills. Curiously, though, there was very few signs of wildlife. We only got an explanation for the lack of life later when we were discussing with a naturalist in Cambodia. His explanation: “because they eat it all.” We had heard Laotians bragging, “I’m Laotian; I eat everything.” Including rats, eels, birds, crabs, crickets, well…everything. And apparently that diet and attitude has had an effect on the ecosystem…

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Laos style tuk-tuk, and a glimpse at the French influenced architecture in Luang Prabang.

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Intricate mosaic work on one of the wats (temple) in Luang Prabang.

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Ringing in the new year with a bar full of backpackers and one burning man in Luang Prabang. Note: the favorite beer in Laos, the creatively named, Beer Lao, is a tasty lagar, better than any of the Thai beers.

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Crossing the river for a jungle hike to several hill-tribe villages. Note, this is one of 37 boat trips we’ve taken so far since the start of pretirement back in June. Ha!

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Kids playing a kind of jump rope game in one of the villages we hiked to.

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A collection of inert explosives at the UXO visitor center in Luang Prabang, Laos. The non-profit organazation works to locate and diffuse UneXploded Ordinances in Laos. The US dropped millions of tons of bombs on Laos throughout the conflict in Vietnam that spilled over into Laos making it the most bombed country in the world.

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A map showing the bombings that took place in Laos. Even today, decades after the war, an average of one person per day is killed or injured by UXOs!! The visitor center was educational and sobering.

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Giant tree we came across while hiking to Kuang Xi falls near Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The aforementioned Kuang Si falls, a stunning travertine creation. I’m not big on waterfalls, but this one blew me away!

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The falls continued cascading down through the forest in many inviting terraces. Unfortunately it was too chilly to go for a dip. Maybe next time 🙂

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A common food in Laos – BBQ fish.

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After a few days in Luang Prabang, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The main draw, of course, is the ruined temples of Angkor Wat, made famous by the Tomb Raider movie and video game. However, we found out that Cambodia had more to offer than just the history and temples.

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A Cambodian gas station.

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We took a day trip out to Tonle Sap lake, the largest in Southeast Asia. We visited a couple floating villages along the way, but the main draw was the bird sanctuary that provides nesting habitat for 10 ‘globally threatened’ species, as well as many others.  We saw many. The sight of thousands of nesting birds was a unique and special nature moment I won’t soon forget (sorry, no good photos of the birds on the phone; they’re all stuck on the Nikon for now).

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Cambodian flag flying over Prek Toal floating village.

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Crocodile farming is a popular profession in the floating villages.

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Hard to tell, but this floating house is on the move being towed by two small boats. As the lake level changes seasonally the villagers move their village to follow the water. Incredible!

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Wagesons at Angkor Wat. I could go on and on about how fantastic Angkor Wat is, but so many better writers than I already have before. So all I’ll say is that it’s probably all true; it is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world! Believe the hype.

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Biking amongst thousand year old statues and buildings. Out of this world!

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Angkor Wat sunrise.

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The old market at Siem Reap – a surprisingly authentic market amongst the glitz and neon signs of the tourist area.

We found Cambodia to be a pleasant country with amiable people at ease with conversation with tourists and comfortable in putting a friendly arm around you. Never too pushy.

Learning of the unimaginable history of the Khmer Rouge and the decades of war its shocking to see how funtional the country is and how happy the people are. I only wish we could have stayed longer. I highly reccomend a visit here!

Thailand round one

It’s been way too long since our last post. We’ve covered lots of miles since we flew into Bangkok over a month ago.  Our route took us north through Thailand, across the border into Laos, then south via plane to Cambodia for a week. We are now back in Thailand and slowed the pace down to enjoy some beautiful beaches and the sleepy island vibe.

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Selection of Thai street food. All so varied and delicious! The combinations of flavors are amazing: lemongrass, coconut, ginger, sticky rice, fish sauce, basil. Mmmm. Heath, Dan, Matt, do you guys remember when Scott went on his Thai cooking binge? None of the dishes are particularly familiar, but the unique smell of lemongrass definitely brings back those memories. 🙂

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Kim shopping at the amulet market in Bangkok.  Many Thais can be seen wearing these figures and images around their necks for good luck. This market sold millions of them in all shapes and sizes.

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Voila! Pad Thai a la Wageson. At a Thai cooking class in Bangkok.

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Reclining with Buddha in Bangkok. Thais seem to love their Buddha images on a LARGE scale, including one made out of 5 TONS of solid gold (not pictured), what?!?

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Made it to Khao Yao National Park, raring and ready to do some serious wildlife watching. But…something I ate had other ideas and I was down with food poisoning for a day (coulda been that Pad Thai a la Wageson. Ha!). We did manage to see quite a few birds, including a handful of hornbills, and a selection of deer and a few million small mammals.

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The few million wrinkle-lipped bats exiting their mountain-top cave at dusk (sorry, better pics are still on the Nikon). The flow of bats was thick and continuous for at least a half hour, reminiscent of the Chapman School swifts. Incredible!

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Kim on the train in Thailand with a few dozen rowdy boy scouts.

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Temple ruins at Ayuthaya, Thailand, the historical capital of the Siamese empire.

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In Thialand all men are expected to practice as a Buddhist monk at least temporarily. Monks walk the streets every morning between 6 and 7am requesting the giving of alms, or donations in the form of food or money. The culture revolves around this practice with markets opening early in the morning so that people can shop and get back home in time to prepare food for the monks.

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Dumb and dumber safely scooting around Thailand. We did some bird watching at a lake and visited a mountain-top temple, Wat Doi Suthep:

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Many Thais were here visiting for ceremonies, making donations, and other activities that are thought to ‘make merit’ ( not sure what that means exactly, but its the only explanation we got as to why they do certain religious activities).

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Roast duck stand on the street in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One of the more expensive street food options at $1.25, but so very tasty!

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After the duck, we attended a Muay Thai fight. There were certainly more tourists than Thais in attendance at the small open-air stadium, but the fights were definitely real, including the one where the Thai woman broke the British girl’s nose, and the one where the Swedish teen got knocked out in 18 seconds. Quite entertaining, for sure.

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This ones for you, Mom: a dog in a sweater. Sorry, not the best photo, but it does show a typical Thai street scene as well. Ha.

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From Northern Thailand we crossed the border and traveled by ‘slow boat’ for two days down the Mekong River into Laos and to the town of Luang Prabang. More from Laos in the next post!

Last days in Nepal

We spent our last days in Nepal in and around Kathmandu viewing the local historic sites, including the town square of the Patan neighborhood that has been virtually unchanged in the last 500 years, and has functioned as a place of worship, commerce, and socialization for atleast 1000yrs. The first photos from the 1850s by westerners show almost exactly what you can see today. Pretty incredible.

An attempt at a 3 day tour around the valley on mountain bikes was cut short when we both got knocked down by food poisoning. Luckily we were at our high point when the symptoms started. We laid low in a hotel room for 36 hours taking turns in the bathroom, and then coasted back to Kathmandu on the 3rd day. Our consolation prize was some great views of the Himalaya.

Now we are in Thailand, and have been too busy eating amazing, cheap, street food to post pictures! New post with Thailand photos coming soon…

For now, the last of the photos from Nepal:

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Photo of a photo of a photo being taken at Poon Hill.

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My lovely bride.

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Heading out from our guest house on bikes.

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Breakfast stop on the outskirts of Kathmandu. This is a common sight in the city – folks making fried treats and sweets along the roadside.

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After 3000′ of climbing we reached the vally rim and were treated to this panoramic view of the Himalaya.

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Just a couple hours after this smiling photo, Kim was bed-bound and suffering from food poisoning. I joined her a few hours later.

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Mostly recovered, and back into the city. Traffic was heavy at times, but usually moving slowly. On mountain bikes, we were given equal status to motor bikes by the other motorists and never felt bullied or run off the road. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating experience navigating the hectic and unfamiliar city streets.

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A sampling of Kathmandu street art. From the ancient, to the erotic, to the absurd.

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Historic Patan.

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Colorful street in Patan.

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Patan’s Durbar Square.

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500-1500 year old castings, carvings and drawings from the Patan museum. Top left is instructions on how to make a Buddha statue. Bottom middle is a bizarre image from tantric Buddhism/Hinduism that shows a female figure holding her own severed head and fountains of blood being drunk by various figures, including herself. What?! Too bizarre.

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Saturday market in one of Kathmandu’s many neighborhood chowks (intersections).

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On the street in Kathmandu counterfeit apparel makers can buy any tag or label imaginable. North Face, no problem. Arcteryx, why not? Gore-tex, but of course!

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This little girl requested I take her photo in front of this beautifully carved windows and doors flanked by carved lions (stuff like this is scattered in nooks and crannies all over Kathmandu and must be hundreds of years old – truly amazing). The boy came out of nowhere to hijack the photo-op; he met firm resistance in the form of a straightlegged kick. I never did get the portrait of the girl, only this action photo. Haha.

All-in-all, Nepal was an amazing travel experience. The mountains, of course, are mind-blowingly stunning. I was most surprised by how well preserved the culture, architecture, and religion are. The fact that Nepal was closed to all but a few westerners for so long (really only opened to a few visitors, mountaineers and geologists, starting in the 1950s) has surely played a role in the preservation. And the influence of the culture of Tibetan refugees bringing their style of Buddhism, cuisine (mo:mo’s, mmm), and warmth are all apparent and a part of today’s Nepal. 

Along the way, we met a few travelers who were on their 5th, or 8th, or 12th visit to  Nepal. I think that really speaks volumes about the country, how much there is to see and do, and how tourist-friendly it is. I highly recommend it.

Nepal – post trekking

Our flight from Nepal is booked. December 13th we fly from Kathmandu to Bangkok Thailand. We are both looking forward to a change in climate (down to 35 degrees at night in Kathmandu – I know, I know, that’s nothing compared to the bone chilling cold in most parts of the U.S. over the last couple weeks, but we have grown tired of being chilled after nearly a month in the mountains. We are pretired, after all, time to enjoy ourselves on some Thai beaches. :-))

In Pokhara we participated in a 2.5 day intro to Buddhism course which was both eye-opening and, at times, frustrating (remember, it was just an intro, we are still reactive, perfection-seeking Americans, after all :-)).

And one highlight for me in Pokhara was a 3 hour falconry leasson where I got to handle and fly Egyptian vultures and black kites. It was so incredible to whistle and watch this bird of prey coming swooping at me with talons raised and gingerly land on my hand. Too cool! Sorry, all the pics are on the Nikon (no phone photos to share). But as you can imagine, ‘Pappy’ was in hog heaven.

From Pokhara we traveled south to Chitwan National Park, a lowland landscape (elev. approx. 200 ft. above sea level) of Sal forest, and vast grasslands dotted with thousands of lakes and ponds and criss-crossed by 3 rivers. Home to Indian one-horned rhinos, Indian elephants, sloth bears, 2 types of crocodiles, Bengal tigers, and 500+ recorded bird species, most visitors, including ourselves spend most of their time in the area hunting wildlife with cameras in hand. We did a one-day jungle walk with guides (2 required by park law for safety/employment-opportunities). The following day we explored the nearby, and equally-amazing, Community Forest by bicycle. We watched birds until we were dizzy identifying about 40 species and viewing just as many that we couldn’t identify. We spotted both types of crocs, several rhinos, dozens of monkeys, two types of dear, and a wild boar.

Lumbini was our next destination, where in 563 BC Siddhartha Guatama, better known as the Buddha, was born. Theres a small temple surrounding the rock that marks the supposed exact spot where he was born and in the surrounding area a sort of amusement park of Buddhist temples from around the world have been built by various Buddhist organizations. The history is wildly fascinating, but the relatively newly constructed temples, while impressively ornate, left us wondering what the real purpose of building these lavish structures really is?

Enough words already, Nick! On with the photos…

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Paddling on Phewa Tal (lake) on Turkey Day. No traditional Thanksgiving spread for us, but don’t worry, we’ve been eating fine as the next few photos show:

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Quick lunch of street food – samosa, pakoda, and returnable glass bottled coke!

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Happy hour special – Everest beer.

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This is what you get for $2.50 US in Nepal – real coffee, corn flakes with milk, banana lassi (a sweet yogurt shake), 2 eggs, toast, and fried potatoes with veg with a lake view. Beats ‘Moons over Mihammy’ any day. Ha!

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Thungba – Tibetan hot millet beer. Weird, but intoxicating.

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Spanish ‘tortilla’. We had no idea what to expect, but suffice to say it’s nothing like our tortilla chips or the wrap used for a burrito. Some Spanish folks we met confirmed that this was good tortilla. Caitlin, Matt, did you have this in Spain?

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Traditional food for Thanksgiving day dinner – Dal Bhat : rice, lentil soup, vegetable curry, cabbage salad, yogurt, and a bowl of beans (the bowl of beans was weird. Of the dozens of times we’ve eaten dal bhat on this trip that’s the only time we got the beans). Apple turnover with vanilla ice cream for an indulgent dessert.

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Collage from the International Mountain museum.

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Boats on the lake in Pokhara.

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Transparent moth.

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Motivated Tibetan refugee salesman. He had a book titled “You Can Sell” and a plastic wallet designed to look like a US 1 million dollar bill.

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Himalayan view from the Pokhara bus park.

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Safari in Chitwan.

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Crappy camera phone photo of a rhino having dinner at the waters edge. A magnificent wildlife encounter!

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Kim on bike safari.

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Our first bike rickshaw ride. En route to Lumbini.

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Monks praying at the holy site of Lumbini.

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World peace pagoda in Lumbini. Just behind the pagoda we spotted a rare, ‘globally threatened’ sarus crane. What are the chances!!

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My traveling/birding buddy.

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Alter inside the Myanmar temple at Lumbini complete with a “magic eye” image of the Buddha. How bizarre.

Last days of trekking

“Really?! They are letting more people on this bus?!” Now the young girl who was standing in the aisle next to me is sitting on the arm-rest of my seat, but really, more on my lap than not – she had nowhere to go. The bus is packed to the gills and we can smell the burning brakes as we descend from the foothills of the Himalaya towards Pokhara.  Our trek is over.

Pokhara is a peaceful small city situated along a beautiful lake surrounded by high hills and catering to the tourist starting or finishing a trek in the mountains. We will spend about a week here checking out the local sights as well as taking a 3-day introduction course to Buddhism.

The last week of our trek was some of the best days of trekking we had.  Most trekkers stop earlier on to take a flight or bus out of the mountains. We were able to keep hiking, avoiding the road for the most part, and had the trail mostly to ourselves.

We did one side trip to the top of Khopra Danda (hill) a 7000 foot climb over two days from the valley below. The lodges along this route are all community owned with the profits split between a few villages and used for schools and other municipal projects. The view from the top of Khopra Danda was sublime! 180 degrees of 8000 meter peaks in your face.  It was well worth the grueling climb from the valley below.

Photos to tell the rest of the story below.

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The Wanderers.

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Kim gazing out from the hillside village of Pauwder.

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Evening schoolyard activities – cricket, basketball, volleyball, etc. And then at one point the election officials came with porters carrying the ballot boxes on their backs with head straps, and armed guards. They settled into the school for the constitutional assembly elections to happen 3 days from when this photo was taken. The impending election certainly made us a bit nervous, but we stayed far in the mountain villages where business as usual carried on.

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We thought we made a fair trade when we exchanged a “Glacier Bay Lodge” ballpoint pen to these kids in exchange for a drawing they had made. Our good intention backfired when they went running thru the village waving their new ‘toy’ overhead yelling “SCHOOLPEN SCHOOLPEN SCHOOLPEN” which brought all the kids running with open hands. Even one grown man took a break from his work on his roof to turn to us and ask for another – “schoolpen??”

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Typical mountain village home below Nilgiri South.

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The Abominable Birding Bandit.

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A few trekking photos.

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Sunset at Poon Hill – one of the most sublime mountain views I’ve seen.  We waited until everyone had left and endured the nighttime temperature drop to watch the full moon rise behind Mt. Machapucherre. It was incredible! Sorry, no photos here.

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The hilltop tourist village of Ghorepani with Dhulagiri in the background.

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Quaint Nepali house with terraced fields.

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Nepali fuel truck with dolphin, Michael Jackson, among others.

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Sundown on our last day of trekking. 25 days on foot.  The following day we took a bus to Pokhara. It’s bittersweet to leave behind the simplicity of trekking and head back into bustling Nepali city life.

Around Annapurna

All down hill from here. We made it up and over Thorung La (pass) at 17,700 feet two days ago. The snow came in as we neared the high point and kept coming down for many hours. Thankfully, Kim, Ivan (our new trekking friend from Milan), and I made it down to Muktinath, 5000 ft below the pass, before the snow really piled up. We were glad not to be stuck in the cold, rustic accomodations with slushy toilets and water that tasted like kerosene that were the only options preceding the pass. The couple days at high altitude before the pass were the worst, but it hasn’t been all that bad.  The 10 days of trekking leading up to the pass were filled with jaw-dropping mountain vistas, piles of delicious local fare (and some not-so-local fare like pizza and veggie burgers), and numerous encounters and insights into the local culture and religions.

I’ll let the pictures and captions do most of the talking…

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Tea boy at the Kathmandu bus station. 15 Rupees per cup (15 cents US)!

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First day on the trek. School lets out. And a massive hydroelectric project in the works on the Marsyangdi River.

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This was typical scenery for the first three days. Moist forest interspersed with small villages and hillsides terraced for growing buckwheat, beans, and potatoes.

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A quick lunch of Tibetan bread and a  boiled egg along the trail.

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A row of prayer wheels in Upper Pisang with Annapurna II in the distance.

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My two trekking buddies: Ivan and Karim (from Geneva Switzerland), and my beautiful trekking wife (the best travel companion I could ask for) heading down the trail.

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Kim at one of the many stunning overlooks.

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One of the tight mountain stone villages with Buddhist flags flying over each home.

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A Buddhist monestary across from the Annapurna group.

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One of the many photogenic village children.

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Kim in our cell-like room – very appropriate for Halloween night. Ooo..scary!

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View towards Annapurna from the gompa (Buddhist place of worship) above Braga.

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A common site on the trail – pack animals carrying supplies to the various villages that are inaccessible by car. We yield.

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Inside one of the many gompas we’ve visited – all ornately decorated.

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We did one side trip to Tilicho Lake (claimed by some to be the highest lake in the world at just under 5000 meters (16,300 ft)). You can see the trail to the lake angling up the brown slope just right of center.

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Me, Kim, and Ivan triumphant at Tolicho lake.

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Tilicho Lake.

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Descending from Tilicho Lake in a sublime mountain wildscape.

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Thinking BIG at 17,700 feet at the top of Thorung Pass – a new high point for both Kim and myself, and no signs of altitude sickness. Woohoo!

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Ivan and Kim descending from the pass in a snow storm.

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The village of Muktinath and the surrounding mountains the next morning blanketed in snow.

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2 photos of Ivan at lower elevations packing the calories on after the pass – momos, apple crumble, and Mustang coffee. (Kim is always sitting next to me, so poor Ivan was on the receiving end of my food photos.)

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And one last photo from Marpha (this morning) the “apple capital of Nepal”.

Kim and I took a rest day today for laundry, internet, and eating apple crumble. We will hit the trail again tomorrow and continue trekking for another 10 days or so.

Namaste!

Wandering in Kathmandu

Ms. Wageson and I spent the past two days exploring some of the major, as well as the not so major sightseeing stops in Kathmandu while at the same time making final preparations for the trekking we have planned.

Yesterday we spent a a couple hours arranging our trekking permits and then did some walking around the city.

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Kim in the old part of Kathmandu.

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Rickshaws in Durbar Square.

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And today we toured the area around the very photogenic Bodhanath stupa.

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A door to one of the many Buddhist monasteries that surround Bodhanath stupa.  Unfortunately we got there just in time for the monks’ lunch break, which meant all the monasteries were closed to visitors – whoops!

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But watching hundreds of hungry monks hustle to the restaurants around the stupa for lunch was a good consolation prize 🙂

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We were able to get into the Kopan monestary grounds, however, and tour around the gardens and watch the monks do their post-lunch routine, including laundry (be a monk and everything you do becomes a spectator event apparently – making beer, training dogs, or, even just doing laundry :-)).

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The grounds at Kopan were absolutely gorgeous and meticulously maintained, including these two stupas.

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And back in the ‘Thamel’ tourist area of Kathmandu a utility worker tries to maintain a rats-nest of wires. Yikes!

Tomorrow we set out from Kathmandu and start the Annapurna circuit trek. A 145 mile walk over a 3-4 week period around Annapurna – the 10th highest peak in the world at 26,545 feet high.  The route stays mostly in the valleys, roadless for the most part, and crosses from one valley to the next at Thorung pass (17k feet).  We will be staying in trekkers teahouses (rustic hotels/restaurants) as we walk through the mountains from village to village.

We start tomorrow with an all-day series of buses to our starting point in Bulbule.  Internet access will be sparse in the villages, so this will probably be the last post for some time. Namaste!