Journey to Annapurna

(Continued Co-blog of Journey to Kathmandu, by Richard Arnold in which our band of Oregonian travelers explore the Himalayan country of Nepal.)

Off to Pokhara in the foothills of the Himalayas.We take the “tourist” bus. It is clean, air conditioned and very nice. We head up a moderate slope for about an hour and arrive at a high pass. There is a big army check point and then we head down over a precipitous cliff. The road twists into a series a zigzags as scary as any I’ve ever seen. We come to a river valley and head upstream. I suppose the river is a famous one since it drains the Himalayas, but I forgot to ask. There is river rafting. We see some tourists rafting. We stop for lunch at a very nice resort bordering the river and are feeling very pleased with ourselves.

There are signs advertising the Chitwan National Park. They have rhinos and elephants and tigers there. Some friends went there and recommended it highly. Not on our agenda however. Several groups of tourists are on the bus and ask what the series of 5 tattered colored flags are for. We tell them they are prayer flags. (They sell them at Boudhnath where we got the story) As the prayers get read, the printing fades away. The tourists really like this story. One lady gets teary eyed as we tell her about the flags fading in the sun and wind. We pass a sign from the Maoist Party welcoming us into their area of control.

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Everybody seems pleased to see us. Pokhara is a largish town with wide clean bright blue skies. The bus stops at the airport to let us out. We negotiate a cab. $60US down to 300rupees… about $4US.

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We go to the “Freedom Hotel” in the tourist part of town along side a big lake. The owner recognizes Christopher and is overjoyed to see us. No tourists in town, the hotel is empty. Christopher asks for 2 economy rooms, the owner gives us 4 1st class rooms for the same price. He really is happy to see us. My room is in the corner of the 2nd floor. The room has jalousie wood-slotted windows on the two sides. The windows are in the canopy of the nearby trees and birds are bouncing about the limbs singing. The room is modest but totally clean. I have a queen bed and I have a TV to watch my 1st episode of Hindu MTV. Amazing. The bathroom is separate and is about 18 inches higher than the bedroom. It is an awkward step up and back down… I’ll have to be careful. The bathroom is huge. Concrete walls, high ceiling. The floor slopes down to a drain in the middle and there is a sink in the center of the back wall, a toilet on the right, and a hand held shower spigot on the left. No soap or toilet paper. We find a big bag of 10 TP rolls costs 100 rupees at he store just outside the hotel It should last us all for a long time.

My Canon digital camera is drained. Time to see if the power converted can really handle 220 volts. The power converter sparked noticeably when I plugged it into the strangely shaped plug. No smoke. I plugged it into my camera for a recharge and the light flashed much faster than normal. 220 Nepalese volts re-charges a lot faster than with the 110 USA volts at home. Everything worked after the green light came on so rejoice… no problem with batteries!

We are off to see the tourist town. It is built along a lakefront and extends about 3/4 mile. An army encampment is on the south end guarding an earth dam. The lake is natural, but enhanced a bit by the dam. Called “Fewa” lake. We rush off to a lakeside bar to watch the evening develop. It is lovely.

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A big hill to the north of town obscures a mountain called “Fishtail”. Everybody talks about it, but we can’t see it. The air is cool and for the first time on the trip, I don’t sweat. It is February after all and all us Portlanders are attuned for cold weather. We down a few 1 liter beers and get a few munchies. A national favorite is the Loma. A filled flour pastry that is steamed or steamed/fried to crispiness. Spicy dipping sauces are usual. I like the spinach and cheese. We cruise the town/strip a bit and settle down for dinner.

Christopher and I choose a bar that is showing a new movie “The Lord of the Rings”. It is a hand held movie of an actual theater where the film is being shown. Subtitles are in Chinese… every now and then, someone in the theater (the one being filmed) stands up in front of the guy making the recording to get more popcorn. This obscures the VCR recording and is a bit annoying… periodically, the screen pixelates. But, hey! The beer is cheap and the movie is free. Why complain? We’ll get to see the film when we return home without the interruptions.

(Now our first lesson in the Nepalese concept of copyright. The movie “Lord of the Rings” certainly belongs to Peter Jackson. No question. But the movie was viewed by someone in China. That person paid Peter Jackson for the privilege and used his very own movie camera to film the screen of the movie theater. So, that copy belongs to “him”. Not Peter Jackson)

Pokhara has a perpetual scent of Patchouli incense. The local merchants have “OM MANI PADMA HUM” playing softly in the background from one end of the tourist strip to the other. Surprisingly, this background hum never becomes irritating. There are lots of t-shirt shops where you can get lovely embroidery for about $3US. Dragons, buddha eyes, and the french comic book characters Asterix/Oblisk are favorites. We find the Nutmeg café has a branch here in Pokhara so we stop in for an espresso. It is foul! The pastries are greasy and leaden. We ask how come you don’t make coffee like your place in Kathmandu and they say… OH, we only took their name cause they are famous. This coffee is Nescafe! The disappointed customers never come back, but so what? They get enough one time business to prosper. (Our second introduction to nepalese copyright.) Walking down the street, we come to a store that not only has everything in stock (at about $3US per CD) but will copy out a greatest hits CD of any combination you would like. The original CD’s they use as masters are to them like the thread used by the T-shirt embroidery shops. Raw material. They only ask you to pay for their raw materials and their effort. (Our third introduction to Nepalese copyright.)

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While Jim changes some money, I talk to a native about the “OM MANI PADMA HUM” chants in the background. He does not like it. Don’t like the Tibetans? No, the Tibetans are OK. Besides, they are good for the economy. He doesn’t like the “Padma” part. Why? Padmasambhava, who brought buddha worship to Tibet, was a Pakistani, and he put his own name into the mantra.
OM – Hindu holy word
MANI – The jewel of creation
PADMA- (is in) the lotus
HUM – yeah!
Padma is still a common name in Pakistan and our native does not like the “Pak’s”. OK, glad I asked.

Pokhara is a lovely spot, but on the horizon we can see the mountains and we are anxious to continue. The hotel manager asks if he might arrange for our tickets to Jomsom… we say sure! Give it a try, see what you can do. He gets us the tickets at one half the going rate. The hotel manager says that his hotel is so cheap we shouldn’t bother to check out. He will give us a discount to stay. We leave our clothes to be washed, pack our bags and bogie off to the Himalayas!

Part 7 – Jomsom

We get up before dawn and sit about in the fog till the guards open the gate to the airport. Cinder blocks painted sea foam green ugly. The guards won’t let us out the passenger lounge to see the glorious dawn. Oh well, the plane comes in to pick us up and it is High-Wing… so we will be able to see the mountain passes, Good.

I am last into the plane and get a window seat in the rear of the plane. The window is below my shoulder, so I can’t see a thing. Bummer. The stewardess is a lovely Tibetan. She asks me if I have heard of Las Vegas. I say it is a beautiful place, why? Well, her boy friend lives there. Someday he will come back and take her away to Las Vegas. (Madam Butterfly and Pinkerton are alive and well in Nepal) I assure her that she will like Las Vegas.

We fly up and up. We go through passes and clear the ground by about 200-300 feet. Herds of yak scatter as we zoom by overhead. We can see some guys on little horses. Their feet almost touch the ground as they race along. Gee, we sure are close to the ground!

 

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We arrive in Jomsom and it is clear and quite cold. Ice is on the ground is hard black patches. The airport is cinder block painted a tasteful beige to blend in with the hills. We pass a gauntlet of guards with machine guns and they are not smiling. At the end of the line are some happy looking guards with strange looking guns. I stop to stare… Brno CZ 527 in 22 hornet! Yes says one of the guards. Damn, I bet you can actually hit something with that I enthuse. He grins and says no tin can is safe at 200 yards! We begin to discuss reloading… he likes 9 grains of Hercules 2400 gun powder with a 45 grain lead bullet. The man is a traditionalist! We are grinning away and he hands me his gun… take a closer look! A Sargent with a machine gun comes over to frown at us as I demure. No thanks, I say. You have done a good job cleaning and caring for it… you are to be congratulated. The sergeant smiles. He says that the machine guns are just for show. If anyone needs to be shot, they use the 22 Hornet. I hope these guys don’t meet any bad people.

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I decide to head north of town in the storm toward the trail head. It is freezing cold and the wind is blowing. I meet a French guy staggering into town from the north. His eyebrows and mustache are covered with ice. His face is blue with cold. I try out my french on him and he stops like I’d hit him. He replies in English that my french accent stinks and how come I thought he was French. I say he looks like a character from “Tin Tin on Everest” (a french comic) and it’s been too long since I was in France so my accent must really stink. He smiles and says my accent is getting better.

Gary slips on his butt in the ice and we snag a hotel. We are tired. Must be the altitude.

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Jomsom in in a narrow valley that runs north/south. About 2 miles across the valley, a stream wanders about into a gorge at the side of the town. The airport and tourist area is on the west side, the town what we can see is very small on the east side. A huge mountain towers over us. Nilgiri. Not really a contender among the Annapurna range, only 25,000 feet or so high. But it is so close. A cornice of wind driven ice extends over the peak and is lit by the rosy alpine glow of evening.

We have lomas (That’s what they call them in Peru.) and burritos for dinner. The windows of the restaurant are filled with Nilgiri and the evening light never seems to end. I step outside before going to bed and there are no street lights in the town. The stars are so bright you can read by their light. Starlight so bright you can read by it.

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The beds are clean. The frames are hand carved wood. A thick mattress serves as a blanket. No heat. The bath is the standard cinder block, with a cement floor tilting toward the drain. The toilet flushes. The water in the sink is frigid. The water in the shower is reasonably warm!

Part 7 – Marpha

Next morning, we are up early to explore Jomsom. Gary is disappointed he didn’t get a hot morning shower. (Gary, the water heater is SOLAR. Of course the water is cold in the morning.) A quick breakfast of waffles and coffee. The morning light shines through the ice cornice on Nilgiri and gives the whole top of the mountain a rim of glowing aquamarine. Bundle up and off we go.

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Breakfast was good. It is still early morning, too early for beer. What to do? Christopher says the trail south of town is sheltered from the wind (relatively at least) and we might as well try it. So we head off to Marpha… some 3-5 miles away. As soon as we leave Jomsom, the wind stops and the sun comes out. It is just beautiful. The trail is actually a dirt road. But no cars or trucks have been here in a long time.

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Small herds of cattle and “mule trains” of small horses. The horses have bells and make a nice cheerful sound as they scamper along. The lead and sweeper horses have head gear with tassels that look like tall skinny stupas. The middle horses keep in line and seem to know their place.

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We get to Marpha around noon and stop at the 1st place for lunch. Burritos and beer. We eat on a glass enclosed roof top patio and it is actually warm. Small children come to look at us. Gary says he is so sick he will try the no doubt “neo-lithic” toilet and disappears for a while. He comes back looking ashen so we eat his burritos and drink his beer. We tell Gary to rack out on the floor under a nice sun beam, and he does. Altitude is only 9,000 feet or so, Gary’s illness couldn’t be anoxia? We are really feeling jolly after lunch and explore the town. Cute place. We buy some of the local Scotch whiskey. Not bad. Not much like Scotch either. They make it from apples grown locally. They also make apple and pear brandy… tastes just like the “Scotch”. (A personal note: Never Never Never brush your teeth or rinse using the local water. Just brush, spit and spit. Brushing with local whisky is an OK substitute for rinsing.) No use telling you about Marpha. The web sites I posted have some nice pictures and maybe you’ll visit some time.

On the way back we are in remarkably good spirits! Gary is feeling better and we all take pictures of each other. The road splits into the main road and a higher trail. I take the higher trail alone and soon see a very strange site up on a cliff. The cliff is about 100 yards high. Vertical on upper half with a 45 degree slope talus on the lower half. The cliff seems made of a brown sand. The upper half, the vertical part, looks like the folds of cloth in drapery. They remind me of vertical drizzles of drippy wax from a big candle stuck in a Chianti wine bottle.

I want to climb up for a closer look but can’t risk a broken leg from a fall so I sit and stare at it for a while. Christopher comes by, so we figure if one of us breaks a leg, the other one can get help. Up the talus we go. The angle of repose is very steep and we are careful not to step on those rocks that jut out and offer a stepping stone path up the cliff. (I’ve seen something similar to these jutting rocks on a Mount Hood glacier in Oregon. Rocks within the ice are exposed by the sun and wind. The rocks surface and seem to grow out of the ice on columns of ice as the wind cuts them loose. The smaller rocks can look like little mushrooms. But there is no ice here, in the cold and wind, the ice goes immediately into a gas phase… Sublimation, I think it is called.) At least we avoid the rocks and don’t fall. The rocks here are more exposed than they are secured within the talus. We thought the folds in the vertical surface were perhaps bird nests, but they are a hard crusty mixture of rock-grains and hardened mud, no bird made them, must be the wind. Someone has been here before and written something in a Sanskrit script. We refrain. I’ll post a picture with this addition. You can stick your head into the larger holes.

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We get back to town and have dinner. Gary is feeling better but decides it is too cold and stormy for a hike and decides to head back to Pokhara. Jim will go with him. Christopher looks disappointed, so I borrow Gary’s sleeping bag, his ticket and agree to go on the hike with Christopher. I don’t have the layered mountaineering outfit, but my shoes are good. We bought hats and mittens in Pokhara so I am feeling lucky. So, we check in with the guard at the gate to the trail to Kagbeni. He looks at our passes. (You need a special tourist pass to visit the Annapurna region). The guard says that a surprise storm has frozen things up but it should clear up tomorrow. He predicts 2 to 3 days of fine weather, but the storm will return on 4th day. We will probably be able to hike to Muktinath if we want to then. The guard is one of those 100 year old gentlemen you sometimes see up here. He is surprised we ask his opinion on the weather. We hurry back to the hotel… that didn’t take long. Dinner, beer, shower is reasonably warm… to bed.

Here are some good URL’s with photo albums and maps –
http://www.dia-dia.de/int__England/EV_Annapurna/ev_annapurna.html.webloc
http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/whites/nepal/.webloc
http://www.nepal2000.fsnet.co.uk/anna/gallery/.webloc
http://www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Trails/6695/nep1.htm.webloc

Part 8 – Jarkot

We are off to Muktinath. It is supposed to be a very holy place, Something about High-Up (Air), a Mountain (Earth), Hot Springs (Fire), and A River (Water): the four earthly elements of the Greeks and the Hindus. As it turns out, we will not make it to Muktinath due to the weather, but that is our destination as we set out.

The guard recognizes us as we pass the town gate and salutes us standing at attention. We stop and return his salute. Everybody is happy that the storms have passed. We enter a big river basin between hills maybe 1,000 2,000 feet above the river basin. Today the river is a stream about 30 yards across and a bit too deep to wade across, we totter over rocks the size of tennis balls and they tweak out our ankles and get them feeling weak.

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So we head up to a trail cut into the side of the cliffs. A mistake, but we don’t give up. The trail gets filled with snow and the drop gets to be 500 feet or so, and the trail begins to slope off towards the edge. After facing danger for no apparent advantage, we find a path back down to the river basin and continue our tottering progress.

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We have no water or beer. Christopher says there are guesthouses every 5 miles or so and not to worry. The trail along the river bed (no water any more) gets better and around a bend we find a hiker, beak down on the trail. A friend is just standing there watching his motionless body. It takes us quite a while to reach them so we have lots of time for our imaginations to go wild. We get there and ask what’s the matter. His friend says: too much jalapeno on the enchilada last night, he’ll be all right. We can’t offer anything except to tell the next guest house to go back and get them. The friend says not to worry, just have them send back some beer. The body on the trail begins to laugh. I tell them I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV and advise them to get some shade, the sun is pretty fierce at altitude. The sick tourist begins laughing so hard, he has to sit up. He is laughing so hard that his tummy is hurting. It is the funniest joke he’s ever heard. Doctor on TV… what a great joke! I tell him laughter is the best medicine and ask him where he’s from that he’d never heard that little joke. Austria. As a non doctor, I tell him if he continues to lie down, to put his hat over he is face to avoid a high altitude scorching. We wish them well and head off.

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We eventually get to a one hotel, one house, and one barn town. About 7 tourists sit on the patio drinking beer. Some are heading back to Jomsom and offer to carry some medicinal beer to the Austrians. We take their table and ask for 2 pots of black tea and whatever the chef recommends in the way of lunch. The waiter suggests the enchilada with jalapenos. We say… do it! We are feeling reckless. They are excellent! This is the way to hike.

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An older lady with well worn hiking boots comes by. She looks like she could climb any mountain.. turns out she is Swiss. She sits with us and asks for hot water, no tea and makes a big deal of getting a total veggie snack. She is just back from an ashram in India and is feeling very pure. Her husband is back in Kathmandu, watching TV and smoking. (Why did she tell us this?) So I ask her why she is not there with her husband. She says that he does not enjoy the same things she does. I ask her if he went along to India. He did, watched TV and smoked there too! Well, he must care for you to follow you about the world? No reply… she says she is really French and has been teaching french to the German-Swiss all her adult life. Does she like the Swiss? Well, there are two kinds of Swiss she says: the French-Swiss, the German-Swiss, and the Others. Getting argumentative, I point out that makes three kinds of Swiss, not two kinds. She says the “others” are the Italian-speaking-Swiss and nobody likes them. I ask if they have a special set of names they call each other. Yes, the Germans are the “Rosti” and the french are the “Welch”. I ask what the Italians are called, she says the Swiss don’t call them anything. I ask what a Rosti is, she says that is a potato dish, par-boiled red potatoes, covered with sliced onion and cheese… then broiled very good. I ask what a Welch is, she says anybody not German is Welch… English are Welch, Americans are Welch, French are Welch. (Her “W” is pronounced as an American would pronounce a “V”.) I ask her if she has a mantra, she says that she does. I ask her what it is and she looks really troubled. I tell her that I have one and I’ll tell her mine if she tells me hers. She is really getting offended now. I tell her that I got my mantra from a radio guru in San Francisco… via the radio. She says that is not a REAL MANTRA! You must get your mantra from a guru! I reply that a real mantra helps you and a bad mantra does you no good at all. It doesn’t matter where you get good advice in life, just that you put it to good effect when you get the chance. “Gee I don’t know. what do you think?” What she asks? I tell her that that is my mantra, it wasn’t a question really. She says that a real mantra is in Sanskrit, like Om Mani Padma Hum! I point out that Americans don’t speak Sanskrit and we need all the help we can get, so our mantras are in English. Our Swiss friend heads off to the loo.

Christopher is astonished to see me picking fights with people. I tell him it must be the altitude. Meanwhile 3 tourists come striding by. They ask to share the table. We say sure… they must be Brits! How’d you guess they ask? Coffee house manners I reply, happy to see you, please sit down and tell us about yourselves. As they begin to tell us their adventures (similar to the Swiss lady as it turns out) they light up and begin to consume Marlboros like they are health food energy bars. Been too long at the ashram they explain. No problem, you Brits have cradle to grave health care and with the heavy taxes on cigarettes, it would be a shame not to use up all your benefits before you die. They laugh. Sam (tall hardy lady), Mary (tall ethereal blond), and James (skinny bookish guy). Jim has a book clutched in his hand. It is Lord of the Rings… small print 3-books-in-1 traveler edition and he reads it continually. The ladies have hiking ski poles. I point out to Sam that she does all the talking for her group. She laughs like I’ve caught on to her little secret. Her friends smile silently. We have to go Sam says. We are going to make Muktinath by night fall. The Swiss lady is still in the loo. I will never learn her mantra.

 

The trail splits at the restaurant. straight ahead to Kagbeni and up hill to the right for Jarkot/Muktinath. Sam/Mary/James come steaming past and they pull rapidly away. They are young, hardy and jived on nicotine. By the time we make the crest of the hill, they are far beyond on the next ridge. We are in the snow again, but on a broad upward sloping hill to the town of Jarkot. The sun is off to the right as we make our way foot prints in the snow on the trail. Off the trail… knee deep snow. On the trail, the right side of the trail is higher and the center/left sides are wet melting slush, an artifact of the sun slanting along the slope of the trail. So it is right step up, followed by left step down. My knees are getting quite a work out. At least the snow is clean and white. No thirst problems here.

Not much to say about the trail. It is one of those trails that never seems to end. Around every bend is another bend. Over every crest is another crest. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere, but we are getting higher. Once we gained the first big crest, we could see the town of Kagbeni below. It has a big red rectangular temple sticking straight up and a nice looking river on the southern side. Eventually, I look back and it is gone. We must be getting some where.

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Finally, over the crest… the slope heads slightly down and in the distance we can see the town of Jarkot spread along the top of a ridge. It looks close. Christopher points a bit up and to the left. I can’t see anything. Christopher says that it is Muktinath. I just see clouds. We hustle along to Jarkot and we are getting visibly closer now. We pass a few rest stops still in construction. The trail is now a steep V-shape 15 feet across with a trench about 5 feet below grade in the middle.. A lot of Yaks around here. On top sides of the trench, frozen yak poop. Along the edge of the trench, yak poop gratinée, in the bottom of the trench is fresh un-processed yak poop. The churning up of the poop in the bottom seems to be the mechanism for maintaining the V-shape. I think this is all very interesting till I lose my footing and begin to slide into the trench. 2 Tibetan ladies see me begin my descent and call out to a friend to see the tourist in the yak poop. I begin to run like a cartoon character up the slope of the trench… 10 steps forward and slide 9 down. I am very motivated to keep running. The ladies are clapping and no doubt offering me advice as I flail away. Surprise! I make it back to the top without falling. The ladies seem impressed and they wave and applaud. I am exhausted, but laugh along with them. I take a bow.

The trail flattens out as it zigzags up the ridge towards Jarkot. We are elated!. Into the city the last zig has a hotel with huge windows overlooking the trail from the west. Smiling faces in the window, The Brits with huge beers in hand. They find a railing and invite us up. The trail to Muktinath is covered in heavy snow. Give up on the hike, come and drink beer with us! Seems like a good idea. The sun is setting and it is getting very cold in a real hurry. We climb up and the host has our beers ready. We dump our packs in our room and hurry down for more beer. Life is good. We have a communal toilet that actually flushes! The room is totally bare except for 2 frames for our sleeping bags. Plastered over, under and on the sides like the inside of a rounded rectangular loaf of bread. Must be like how a bee hive cell must look to a bee. The heavy walls radiate heat. No locks on the doors and you can see through the cracks in the shutters that cover the windows. Beautiful view! Life is good.

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So what did we do in Jarkot… talk mostly. The inn looks much like the one in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the lost Ark” but a bit smaller. There were 2 long tables. a third was laid out along a wall of windows overlooking the trail back to Kagbeni. The other is up on a dais with the heavy quilt for a table cloth and the brazier underneath. The kitchen was off to the left and was quite large with small wood fires along the wall for cooking and a sloped ceiling to direct the smoke out to a small chimney.

We sat down by the Brits near the wall of windows and I asked… Now Sam, you are quite the extrovert. Tell me about it. How did you become such a dynamic person and how does it work for you. Sam grins a big smile, reared up to her full height and executed a perfect “hair flip” with her long black pony tail. (E.T. Hall says the “hair flip” is the courting gesture of a confident human female. I am honored.) Sam says, I like telling people what do do. I have more energy and good ideas than I can put into one life. I have to share!

Now Mary (the ethereal blond) , you are quite the introvert. Tell me about it. How did you become such a demure person and how does it work for you. Mary smiles slyly and said that she liked seeing other people try things out first, then she will do it too… if it works out for them. She especially liked Sam since she tried everything first and was very adventurous. Yet, here we both are, high in the Annapurnas and having a wonderful time.

James was off to the end of the table reading “The Lord of The Rings” compact/travelers edition, small type. He looked up angry and asks, why are you telling him all about your lives? Who is he? Ask him! Big silence, so I said… I am a truly interesting person and I’ve lived an extraordinary life… but enough about me, let’s go back to you guys! (This usually works.) James said, that’s no reason! So I told James… well, I asked first, so there. Big silence. The ladies look at each other, smile, and go back to recounting their adventures together in High School and at University. All very interesting and the stories do appeal to my prurient interest. James has moved to the farthest end of the table.

We have had much beer by this time and the sun has set. I wish I could tell you that the sunset was beautiful but it was very ordinary. Shadows from the hills to the left grayed out the trail through the valley and the cliffs to the right. It looked terribly cold. We hustled off to the upper table on the dais, the one with the brazier. It was closer to the ceiling by 4-5 feet and there was a small brazier of coals under the quilt. The floor was shallowed out below floor level and the smoldering fire kept us nice and warm. We ordered more beer. The cold came flowing through to windows glass like they was radiating waves of liquid cold. No drafts in the room though. We order dinner and it is excellent.

Another couple are there. We talk. The lady is a travel agent/guide from the Canary Islands. A sunny place off the west coast of Africa. She has shopped around and chosen this Dane (She points the man with her.) for her companion on this trip. Chosen? Yes, she says. She always shops for a companion each year and chooses the prettiest man of the year to invite on her yearly adventure. The Dane looks up from his book (also compact/travelers edition, small type). He grins.

We are all getting very “beered up”. We are all laughing at the best stories and tales any of us have ever heard. I since have forgotten the rest of the evening but it I remember that it was wonderful for sure. Christopher and I stagger off to bed and the stars are so clear, close, and thick that I feel that I could reach around them and collect an armful. The air is fearsomely cold, but is silently still. Christopher and I pause for a bit. The room is remarkably cosy. If a bit cold, the walls do radiate some heat. The flat frame bed is welcome. Gary’s rented sleeping bag is nice and I forget to ponder where this loaner quilt has been before covering me on this glorious night.

We are up early. Coffee and bread. I ask to buy the beer opener we used last night as a souvenir. The waitress says no. It is from the beer merchant and he won’t be by again for a week. I suggest that with no beer, there is no need for a… beer opener. She consults with the manager and says that for 70 rupees, it is mine. She seems surprised when I agree. Christopher is a bit put off by all this and we will discuss it later. (I have it in my motorcycle jacket now for good luck and beer emergencies.) We ask about Muktinath. The word is that it is heavily snowed in. What would normally be a 1 hour vigorous uphill hike has turned into an all day labor. I let Christopher tell me about the wonders of Muktinath and we decide to head back head to Kagbeni. The brits have lots of Marlborough cigarettes left and say they can handle any trail. Off they race.

We walk about Jarkot a bit before heading back. There is a temple on a promontory. The temple has steep stairs leading up to a big Mahakala mandala on the wall between 2 doors. A guard tells us we can do anything we like, go in, look around, take pictures, anything. For some reason, we just walk around the temple to the edge of the promontory and look over the edge of the cliff. Steep! We can see the trail back rides the crest of a foot hill that drops off into a steep gorge to the right. It may be deep snow in Muktinath, but here there is a winter’s worth of yak poop is melting in the sun and we decide to head back.

Part 8 – Kagbeni

We have been thinking about the Dali Lama quite a bit on this hike. The folks in Kathmandu told us to get lots of pictures of the Dali to hand out as gifts. The folks along the mountain trail really like them. So we buy a pile of them. The kids in Marpha and Jomsom had been a bit too pushy about “Hey tourist, give us a Dali picture”, so I’d told them no. Here up in the high mountains, I decide that an old woman looks deserving. She is trudging up the path and I remember what it is like to go uphill. I stop her and offer her a Dali picture. She is stunned into silence, then begins to cry. Her hands begin to tremble and she touches the picture to her brow. I am astonished. She looks into my face with tears streaming down and nods her head up and down and mumbles unknown words. I have no doubt she is thanking me. I hold her hands and they are so cracked and chapped, it looks like she has been cut by knives. I go into my pack and get a tube of hand cream. ($2.95 plus tax from the Camas, Washington Fred Meyers) I put some on her hands for her and give her the rest of the tube. We hurry off. I certainly did not expect that. I expected natives jaded by hordes of tourists. I was wrong.

We took a short cut from the valley to Jarkot and now there is a direct path somewhere around here that goes down to Kagbeni. That trail veers off to the right is obvious, but where is the path? Christopher says it is across the snow field below us, so we head off in search of it. A vast field of unmarked snow. It gradually slopes further and further to the the right. The slope is getting steeper. I remind Christopher that this foothill ends in an abrupt cliff. We saw it from the temple in Jarkot. We stop. What to do. I suggest that the morning is still early. Tourists must be hiking up from Kagbeni trying for Muktinath and we should just wait for them to pop their heads over the snow field. We certainly have time for a father/son discussion while we wait. So we do that. We plop down in the snow and talk about life in Charleston, South Carolina, how much he likes his Mac WallStreet PowerBbook since we put a 30gig hard drive in it, whether he should go to OS X, favorite restaurants in San Francisco… We are having a fine time waiting. Suddenly we see little black specs crossing the horizon of the snow field. Tourists from Kagbeni. We turned off looking for the trail way, way way too early and were quite near the edge of the cliff when we stopped. Oops! Well, we hike away for the edge and greet the hikers from the valley.

Where are you from… Zurich. Where are you from… Seoul,Korea. Where are you from… Cape Town, South Africa. Where are you from… Portland, Oregon. Everybody is from everywhere! What an adventure.

We finally get down to the valley floor. The trickle of snow melt at Jarkot has now become a decent river that flows between rock walled banks. It looks like New England stone fences. Islands of dirt are surrounded by these rock fences and grow fruit trees like those in Marpha. Wonder if they have brandy?

Now for Kagbeni and the “Mud Fort”.