a gathering place for the words, images and momentos of the world of adventures i've adventured, the stories i've wandered through. curriculum bella vita...a resume, of sorts, of the good life.

Monday, October 31, 2011

How to Teahouse Trek in Langtang, Nepal

Imagine backpacking without having to carry the weight of a tent or food, along with the simple pleasures of a mattress every night and the possibility of a hot shower every day. Add in a heaping dose of the greatest mountains on this planet and now you see why teahouse trekking in Nepal is such a hit.

“Teahouse trekking” could be called guesthouse trekking, you hike your way through an established network of cheap and easy hiker-friendly accommodations. You can count on ample teahouse facilities (guest houses, homestays and food options) in three distinct areas of Nepal: Annapurna, Everest Base Camp, Langtang. Some other areas, like Mustang, are close to having the complete package, but the risk of bad timing or a full-house means that almost all groups pack back-up tents/food just in case.

We picked Langtang for a few reasons. It’s the closest to Kathmandu, and we didn’t want to waste too much of our ten days on transportation. It’s also relatively untrampled. While the other areas see 50,000-60,000 hikers per year, Langtang sees only a tenth that many. Plus, Ann had just finished the full Annapurna circuit, she wanted to see a new part of the Himalayan range. The end of October was the perfect time of year to go. Excellent weather, afternoon clouds but no real rain. My yearly dose of fall wrapped into one week, pretty nice respite from Hyderabad. Many hikers, but not too many, most nights we were the only people in our guest house.

From Kathmandu, it’s an 8-hour bone-jarring bus ride to Syabrubesi. You catch the relatively unorganized bus at Machha Pokhari, just off the “ring road,” and within four minutes you’re climbing up the forested mountainside. The trip is uncomfortable, but dirt-cheap, less than $5 for a ticket. After lunch, and a few harrowing mountain passes, get out at Dunche to buy your $20 hiking permit if you haven’t done that in Kathmandu. (Lesson Learning: Failure to do so, will result in a lost day of disheartening backtracking.) Some trails depart from Dunche, or stay on the extra hour until Syabrubesi, a peaceful little one-road town. Soon, the new Chinese-funded road will make the voyage quite a bit less adventurous. Settled into any one of the many guest houses before beginning the hiking push in the morning. We liked the friendly Potala Guest House.

Before we hit the trail, a word on guides. I’d recommend hiring a guide and porter, either in Kathmandu or in Syabrubesi. We didn’t, as Ann felt like a pro after finishing a three-week trek and I figured a guidebook and a bit of Hindi were good enough to get the job done. A guide would have saved us a few hassles along the way and a porter would have made the hike a little more fun on the body. Plus, it’s a great way to better see and support the human side of these amazing mountains. As for a book, we hiked with Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. Great maps and insight. I bought a 1:120,000 Langtang National Park hiking map published by NepaMaps in Syabrubesi for under $10.

Day One: Syabrubesi (1500m) to Lama Hotel (2480m)

Due to a permit snafu, we had to take a triangular two-day detour through Thulo Barkhu, Dhunce, Brabel and Thulo Syaphru, but there’s no reason not to take the straightest route from Syabrubesi to Lama Hotel. The trail follows the main river up the valley, and you’ll start getting great alpine views in no-time-flat. Hot Springs and Bamboo are both great lunch spots. Lama Hotel itself isn’t anything to write home about, but you’ll be tired after a long day of fantastic hiking, especially the final push, the long climb up to the highest point of the day, Upper Rimche.

Day Two: Lama Hotel (2480m) to Langtang (3430m)

Half-way through the second full day of hiking, the valley opens up from the forested V-shape of a river valley to the awesome alpine tundra of a class U-shaped glacial valley. By the time you reach the small village of Langtang, it’s the Nepal you were expecting: yaks nibbling grasses and grains under the shadows of the world’s greatest peaks. Their milk makes for the world’s cutest little cheese factory just a short walk from any of the dozen or so guesthouses. The Pilgrime Guesthouse was the newest, nicest facility we stayed in all week.

Day Three: Langtang (3430m) to Kyanjin Gompa (3860m)

Altitude starts to play a factor at and above Langtang. Even with a reasonable acclimation schedule, it seemed that 10-20% of trekkers struggled above Langtang, even if the porters were still cruising past in jeans and flip-flops. We met quite a few parties of 4-5 people where one of the hikers decided to stay back at Langtang while everyone else pushed on to Kyanjiin Gompa. The third day’s hike itself isn’t as tough as the previous two days, and the glaciers and boulderfields make for great distraction. The cheese factory in Kyanhin Gompa isn’t quite as flavorful, but the cluster of guesthouses has a chipper feel of international celebration to it. The Mountain View guesthouse was more than adequate.

Day Four: Day Hike to Kyanjin Re (4600m)

Get an early start on the crawl up to one of the most spectacular places I’ve stood on this planet. We huffed and puffed up the “gully path to the right,” and returned via the more direct route. After a two hour climb, amazing 360 degree views, high above the little village far below. An epic capstone to an incredible hike into the heart of the Himalaya. Do consider spending a second or third night in Kyanjin Gompa and making an even braver day trip to the top of Tsergo Ri (4984m) or up the valley to Langshisha Kharka (4100m).

Days Five and Six: Descent to Syabrubesi

Two days is a reasonable time to schedule for your descent, although some folks tried to do it in one fell swoop. We were pretty beat on our longest downhill day, Langtang to Bamboo, or about two-thirds of the total descent. Whichever way you do it, the final beer in Syabrubesi tastes perfect! On your return, inquire about booking a ticket on one of the buses waiting on the main road for an early morning departure, although expect the locals to try and bamboozle you into paying more for a seat in a private jeep (about $60 for two people). After the hike, though, you’re likely to think the upgrade is worthwhile.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Nepali Case Study: The Differences Between India and China

China and India are big. That’s their similarity. The two hugest (by far) populations in the world, racing toward development at hyperspeed not seen anywhere else on the planet. (In large part, though, that’s just because they both have a lot of catching up to do.) And it just so happens that these two goliaths share a jagged, contested border.

But in so many ways – their priorities, how the organize their people, how they strategize for the future – they’re pretty darn distinctly different countries, cultures and societies.

Just one example: the differences in the way India and China are providing development aid to the little kingdom sandwiched between the two giants, Nepal.

After our eight-hour, 120-kilometer journey winding north from Kathmandu, we arrived at Syapru Besi, as far as the road reaches towards the Nepali-Chinese border. You can see the mountains of Tibet, though, not far in the distance, marking the start of China.

The last three hours of the drive had been excrutiatingly slow, as every year the monsoon rains wash out giant cuts in the road, forcing a slow rebuild from boulders down the gravel, a rather bone-rattling work-in-progress. But as we rounded the last corner, a high arching bridge, still under construction but already a work of art, spanned the glacial melt river before leading the road into Syapru Besi. Why make the investment of a fancy new bridge at the end of a road that gets washed out every year, I wondered.

It wasn’t until I saw the sign in front of one of the small storefronts in the village that I figured it out. And the language on the trucks hauling rock. And the work crew in the truck. China. China was paying for the bridge. And the goal was more than just development aid in a less-developed neighbor. China was working on extending the road all the way into Tibet, a new, expensive, sturdier, higher capacity road closer to the river in the very near future. The bridge is just the first step of the Chinese investment, a rather practical, strategic, tangible investment at that.

While in Syapru Besi, we saw evidence of India’s investments in its northern neighbor, too, but they looked much differently. We met two 30-something gentlemen in our guesthouse dining room one evening. Both had said they had studied in India. One was the lucky recipient of one of the many scholarships that the Indian embassy hands out to Nepali students every year. A commitment to the human contact and partnership between the two countries. (Even the new Nepali prime minister, a Maoist cum parliamentarian, earned his PhD in India. To much fanfare in the Nepali and Indian press, he made his inaugural trip to Delhi as prime minister during our time in the country.) And on the road, another sign of India’s development aid. An ambulance, hard to tell if it was a hand-me-down or not, emblazed with the label of Indo-Nepali friendship.

It will be interesting to see which wins hearts and minds better, infrastructure or people power. Nepal will be one of laboratories. The other will be the trajectories of the countries themselves.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Teaching Eighth Grade

So what is it that a bunch of 8th graders, sitting in Wisconsin, wonder about India when they read a chapter in their world geography textbook? Thanks to my friend and former roommate Jerome, now i know:

1) We read that animals like monkeys and cows are seen as holy in India and can pretty much roam the streets as they please; is this true and have you seen this happen? (Hannah, Sam)

2) How is it possible that India has a booming economy yet many many poor people? (Isaac, Preston)

3) Are arranged marriages still a big thing in India? Why does this happen?

4) How is the food in India? What is your favorite food to eat? (Michaela, Brady, Justice, Madyson, Isaac, Jake, Connor, Ryan, Morgan, Brittney)

5) Is India really that different from the USA (MacKenzie)

6) What is the most beautiful landscape in India (Nicole)

7) What was the biggest thing you had to get used to in India? (Abby, Amber)

8) What is education like in India? Year round school? Do they take SAT/ACT tests like we do? How long is a school day for kids? (Alex, Harley, Sara)

9) What is your living space like? (Jordan)

10) Why are certain animals so important to Hinduism? (Aaron)

11) Would you rather stay living in India or move back to Wisconsin?

12) Are you able to watch Packer games in India? (Alex)

13) Do people hunt for animals in India (Austin)

14) What are the dots on people's heads all about?

15) Does India have any major traditional dances?

16) Why is the country called India?

17) Are you having a good time in India? (Jordan)

18) What is the traffic like in India? (Jordan, Natey)

19) Are people nice to you in India? (Valerie)

20) Do Indians have a weird accent? (Laura)

21) What is the weather like in India? (Tara, Robert, Hannah)

22) Can you watch American TV shows there?

23) Does India have American stores? ie McDonalds, etc (Zach, Drake)

24) Is there a Bollywood sign like the Hollywood sign in the USA? (Hannah)

25) What is the most popular TV show in India? (Taylor)

26) Are you treated differently because you are American?

27) If cows are holy in India, does that mean people don't eat burgers there? (Kirsten)

28) Tell us about your job in India (Skylar, Cameryn)

29) Will the shantytowns and slum areas in India get better? (Abby)

30) Have you been to the Taj Mahal? (Lily, Kristin, Taylor, Christian)

31) What can you do for fun in India? (Casie)

32) Can you tell us about some interesting Indian traditions? (Taylor)

33) Who are some current famous Indians? (Emily)

34) What are the clothing styles like in India? (Bella, Carson, Sam)

35) Have you seen a cricket game in person in India? Do a lot of people play cricket there?(Landon, Elizabeth)

36) How does a major city in the USA compare to a major city in India? (Derek)

37) What sports do people like in India? (Kaylee, Michael)

38) Do you follow Hindu traditions while you are staying there? (Justice)

39) Have you visited Bollywood? (Parker)

40) What have you learned about in India? (Andrew)

So some consulate friends and I took the time to offer our opinions in video form, brining the sights and sounds (if not smells) of modern india to a little classroom in Green Bay.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Pinged and Ponged

Who would have thought Indians take ping pong seriously? So seriously that they must stomp their foot when they serve. (And that's pretty serious.)

AmCham Sports Tournament 2011. All the big companies with offices in town: Microsoft, Deloitte, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Accenture, Qualcomm, Earnst and Young, shattabi shattabi shattabi. Unfortunately, the consulate entrants were 0h-fer-8 on the days and I was not able to replicate strong 8th grade Sabish J.H. ping pong championship. Lost in straight sets. Decisively. Whoops.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Coal and Cameras

As the strike hits the month-mark, the difficulties are trickling down. The coal miners and transporters aren't working, so the state doesn't have enough coal for energy generation. The 6-8 am blackout has been tripled. 9-11 am and 12-2 pm are out, too. The consulate has full generator back-up, of course, but my apartment doesn't. One lightbulb per room. The on/off process is the most shockingly punctual thing i've ever seen in India, you could set your watch by it. Alcohol excise taxmen are thinking of joining the strike, too, which would be doubly frustrating...

Thursday and Monday off, clearly should have left the half-alive city. But stuck around to get ready for Nepal trip in two weeks. Hurrah! Inspired by sister, bought a schnazzy camera. You should be well-equipped when you live in the most gosh darn photogenic country in the world, no? Leaning photography will be a work in progress, but should be fun.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wisconsin Abroad

I've got a little case of Wisconsin fever. Fairly enough, as this weekend might just count as the greatest sports weekend in the history of wisconsin sports.

What's it like to be a die-hard Wisconsin sports fan stranded 10.5 hours around the world? Woke up from a nap at 12:30 am to watch the Brewers stomp the Diamondbacks 4-1 in the first game of the Divisional Series. Started a second nap at 3:30 am so i could wake up at 5:30 for the start of Wisconsin's destruction of Nebraska, 48-17. Would have been so good to be in either Madison or Milwaukee...or both! Relied on ustvnow.com on both fronts, it streamed pretty darn well. Didn't get to watch the Packers game or the second brewers win, but it felt good to go 4-0!! It's hard to be humble when you're from wisconsin!