Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Three weeks, 2800 km, 3 counties and a 20 hour ferry ride later Corrie and I are back in Paris to celebrate Christmas with Jean-Marc's family. I guess it's no real surprise I'm way behind on posting, I'll try to catch up soon. Right now it's time for Christmas dinner. Merry Christmas everyone. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Late for dinner...

"Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" - Bilbo Baggins on "adventures", The Hobbit

I usually like adventures, going new places and seeing new things. There have been good adventures the last couple of weeks and I'll post the more interesting belated photos soon... But honest advertising requires that I report that travel isn't all fun. I have had rather more nasty and uncomfortable adventures than I would like to the last couple of weeks. I'll report on those first and hope I've seen the last of them.

Things started off on the wrong foot minutes after arriving by train in Paris. My credit card didn't work in the ticket machine. A guy walked up, stuck his card in, and hit the button.  The machine clanked a bit and he reached down and pulled out tickets.  Maybe I should have been suspicious but in 8 months of travel on 4 continents I've had random help from dozens of total strangers and never once been scammed. Even in Nepal (one of the poorest countries in the world) people were fairly honest about wanting money when they helped with anything. So I gave him cash for the tickets and we headed to the train. The tickets were expired and we had to buy new ones at the window. None of the officials seemed very concerned about a couple of tourists being scammed. It wasn't really a big deal in the grand sceme of the trip, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The lost time and hassle with the tickets meant we made it to the rental car agency later than planned. There I discovered for the first time (despite actually reading the fine print online before booking it) that Hertz cars rented in France don't come with the equipment required to drive in Germany. Thankfully we didn't have places to stay booked in advance so we were able to change our plans on the fly. We decided to stick to southern Europe and headed for Italy. 

On the way to Italy I came down with a cold, which was annoying, but a lot better with a friend along than being alone and sick in Australia. By the time I was over the cold I had my first gout attack in months. That was really disappointing because I thought I had figured that out and gotten past it. The swollen toe also took a bit of the joy out of walking around in Italy.

On the first day in Rome I had someone try to slip his hand into my pocket on the subway. I caught him and he quickly jammed his hand into his own pocket like it had been a mistake and refused to look at me. Then he made a bee line for door as soon as they opened. The second day in Rome my feet shot out from under me on the wet marble stairs going down to the subway platform. It probably looked very comedic, but there's a 2x1 inch piece of skin missing and my knee still hurts whenever I move it. Between the knee and the toe, my right leg just hurt whenever I moved it.

We decided to take a ferry from Rome to Barcelona because it was cheaper than driving and paying all the tolls through Italy and France. We were less than three miles from the terminal in Barcelona when a couple on a scooter drove by motioning that we had a flat tire. We pulled over to a side road in a well-lit area and I discovered that French rental cars don't have spare tires either. About then a guy pulled up on a scooter and attempted to tell us that there was a garage around the corner. When it was clear we weren't really understanding and weren't leaving the car he seemed a little agitated left. I tried to use the fix a flat system to inflate the tire, but the sidewall was punctured in two places and it didn't work. We called the Hertz roadside assistance number and on the 4th attempt we got through to someone who could help us. Rather than replace the tire on the side of the road like they did in England, Hertz said they would have the car towed and send us a taxi to take us to our hotel with a replacement car promised the next day. As we unloaded the car we realized Corrie's duffel bag of clothes was missing. That's when I remembered the scooter in our blind spot (right next to the tire) a minute before our flat... From what I can figure the guy in our blind spot punctured the tire and was probably also the guy who stopped to "help". I think the couple who pointed out the flat must have grabbed Corrie's bag out of the front seat while we were talking to him (we were literally never more than a couple feet from the car). I'm thankful they only got clothes but it did pretty much ruin the visit to Barcelona. It also freaked me out a bit to realize the whole flat was a set up just as the tow truck was loading up the car. I was worried the rest of the night that things were way too organized to just steal a bag and they had stolen the car too, but the tow truck was legit. We got a new car the next day and checked the alleys and dumpsters in the area to see if they tossed the bag when they realized there was nothing of value in it. By the time we finished that searching, I wasn't really interested in spending any more time in town. We've learned since than this is so common in Barcelona that both the police and the embassy just have check boxes for this exact crime on their websites. I can't really recommend anyone visit Barcelona at this point. 

The only photos I took in Barcelona were of the tow truck driver when I got worried that he might from the "garage" the guy on the scooter mentioned. This was just as it was leaving. The others were pretty much all ID purpose photos.
None of these things ruin the trip as a whole and I still think travel is a great idea. It has lost a bit of shine over the last couple of weeks though. It's hard to enjoy wandering in new cities when you are always looking over your shoulder. Maybe I'm just having a little bit of a Hobbit streak, but it would be rather nice to be home for Christmas dinner. Maybe I'll take a break from travel and go see the movie. Then back to the regularly scheduled photo updates and hopefully more enjoyable adventures... 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

England 2

When driving around a country on the wrong side of the road it's nice to bring a good navigator. I picked my friend Corrie up in London and we rented a car for my second week in England. Our timing was pretty good on that as rain was causing flooding all over England and shutting down some of the trains. 
Hadrian's wall with Isaac. 
Corrie and I on the way back from the wall museum. The wind almost put my hood on for me. 
We took a day trip up to Hadrian's wall with Isaac.  It was a nice drive, but didn't really go the way we planned. Our guide book was a little out of date and didn't mention that museums were only open on weekends in the winter months. So we really just saw the grass covered remains of the wall running through the country side. We also "discover" a hidden pothole under a puddle can put a hole in the sidewall of a tire. Thankfully we discovered that right in front of and Inn and were able to mostly stay warm while we got it fixed. I was a little appalled to discover rental cars in the UK don't include a spare tire. To be fair, I've never checked a rental can at home to see if they have one. 

Another day trip was to Stonehenge.
The drive to Stonehenge was much smoother that the trip to Hadrian's wall. Just as we started wondering if we were in the right place, we went around a bend and there it was right next to the road.

The audio guide said they still don't know the original purpose of Stonehenge. Charging 10 dollars to see 4000 year old ruins, I'm pretty sure it's actually a monument to capitalism... 

Thursday, November 22, 2012


I've been in England for a week and it's gone by pretty quickly. I met Isaac (a friend form NM who lives in England now) in London and we went to the British Library and the British Museum on Thursday and Friday. Then Isaac's wife Faith joined us for the Science Museum on saturday and St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday. I didn't take many pictures, but there are a couple from London.

A neat piece of art in the the British library.
I'm just walking past the painting, it's not actually moving.
Millennium Bridge and St. Pauls.
Not surprisingly I took the most pictures in the Science Museum. This is a very early steam turbine. 
The Apollo 10 capsule. 
The Tower Bridge. 
An awesome seesaw in Sheffield. 
I've spent the last few days in Sheffield visiting Isaac and Faith. Tonight we're making a small Thanksgiving dinner including turkey drumsticks and homemade pumpkin pie. It should be good and I feel pretty thankful to be here. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Leaving Nepal

I have about 5 hours left here in Kathmandu before I board the plane for London. It's mostly been a good visit here, but I feel ready to move on now. I figured I would post a few pictures of the last few days before I leave.

After days of watching them fly over the lake I decided to try paragliding in Pokhara. Somehow our departure snuck up on me, so I booked a 30 minute tandem flight for the last morning there. 
Yeah, tiny ropes, synthetic cloth, and Bernoulli are the only thing keeping me in the air. I'm way more comfortable with this than I should be... 
The down side of waiting until the last minute was I ended up flying on a hazy day. The haze ruined the view of Pokhara and the Himalayas' but more importantly it reduces the thermals and shortens the flight... 
We arrived back in Kathmandu to a rock concert... 
...in the middle of these temples. 
It seemed a bit odd but, but also fitting for Kathmandu.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ordering food in Nepal

According to one guide I talked with, 95% of Nepal's population eats Dal Baht for two meals a day. It's the only meal I ever saw a guide or porter eating while trekking. It was good everywhere I tried it and usually not too spicy for me.  Since it's mostly rice you would think it would be dirt cheap; and it is if you are Nepali. However, the lodges must have realized at some point that trekkers would pay more for the authentic local food experience. Now Dal Baht is usually one of the more expensive things on the menu. 
Dal Baht - All the rice you can eat. 
If you don't want to pay 2 or 3 times the local price for Dal Baht or if you're just looking for a change of pace the lodges all serve exactly the same western options. At least that's what the menus offer... Almost every place had reasonably good food and I really appreciate that the menus were in English. However, the wide variety of definitions for the same menu items really amused me.
"Apple Pie" - "You keep using that wordI do not think it means what you think it means."
A few of the more random definitions:

A "Large" pot of tea - Any where form a pot containing 4-5 small cups to a half gallon thermos. 
A "Small" pot of tea - Any where from 2 small cups to a quart of tea. 
*Note: Price is not a good indicator of size. Elevation seemed to be, but ironically the pots got larger rather than smaller with higher elevation. 
"Apple Pie" - Anything from excellent deep dish apple pie to something that resembled a hotpocket apple pastry. Even the one pictured above tasted good, but i was really hungry and that's been known to skew my taste buds. 
"Hash Browns" - Anything involving potatoes served at breakfast. Once there were bell peppers and curry in my hash browns... It was surprisingly good, but not at all what I was picturing when I ordered them. 
"Lasagna" - Usually involves noodles of some kind and usually baking it is involved, may include tomato sause. The best one came served in a sizzling cast iron pan like you might expect a steak in. The most surprising one did not include noodles, but was really good anyway.
"Macaroni" - See lasagna but without the baking. 
"Spagetti" - See macaroni, but it's safe to assume spagetti noodles will be used. 
*Note sometimes a menu will include all three pastas with exactly the same options. 
"Cheese Burger" - Okay, this one actually makes sense. A cheese burger is based on patty of random mixed stuff and cheese and does not involve a hamburger patty at all.
"Fried Rice" - This is a safe bet, it will include rice, whatever vegetables are available, and which ever protein option you ask for. 
"Tuna" - I'm 17000 feet high in the Himalaya... Why is the one source of protein guaranteed to be available an ocean dwelling fish? Every lodge offered tuna.
"Mo:mos" - Another local dish, these are a kind of dumpling filled with whatever is offered. They might be either steamed or fried and usually you can request one or the other. But in either case you might get between 8 and 12 depending on the lodge. Eight is really disappointing when you are really hungry... 
"Porridge" - The higher you climb the more water and less oatmeal there is in a bowl. Yesterday I tried some that had lots of salt and black pepper in it. That was really strange. 
"Garlic Pepper Yak Steak" - Cook/server, "no yak now, so I make you chicken... this okay for you?" Me, "um, sure that looks good." To be fair, it did look excellent and it tasted great... But I never would have guessed you could just substitute chicken for yak on a whim...

I can't really complain about the food; on the whole it's pretty good and reasonably cheap. Most of the time I found the random surprises more amusing than anything else. Also, there is a place here Kathmandu called K-too that serves awesome steaks for 5 dollars. I think I'll go have one tonight. Probably it won't be chicken...

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Annapurna Circuit, Down

I found going down Thorung Pass a little more difficult than going up. It's more than a mile of vertical drop to get the town of Muktinath. It was all down hill for the next three days after that. I soon decided that I liked uphill a lot better. 

Almost  down to Muktinath.
Hotel room view in Muktinath. 
Looking back up at Muktinath
A little oasis of green in the high dessert rocks
The braided glacier river felt out of place to me in the desert. It looked like an Alaskan river was dropped suddenly in a New Mexico valley. 
The view in Jomson. A lot of people fly out or take the bus from here now so the trail is much less crowed below Jomson.
Looking up at Nilgi leaving Jomson.
At the time his was the sketchiest bridge I had crossed in Nepal. I guess that's what happens when you follow the local trail.
Much longer but less sketchy bridge. 

The view in Tatopani. Also there are nice hot springs in town. 
New winner for sketchy bridge. This one scared me as every other step the boards would flex noticeably under my weight. 
Leaving Tatopani I was happy to be climbing again. It is a 6500 foot climb to the top of poon hill but the views were totally worth it.

The following photos were from the final climb to the to of Poon Hill for sunset. Once again I ignored the normal plan of going up for sunrise and won my gamble on the weather being good. The sunset was really amazing and there were very few people on the hill. 

Tony and David in Ghodedani. It was really nice to keep running into the same friends over the trek. That's probably the best reason for going at the standard pace. They climbed poon hill in the morning and said the view was nice but there was no color without any clouds.

The Annapurna took long enough and had such a variety that I was beginning to forget the start by the end. It really is amazing to walk through so many different kinds of terrain in only two weeks. I think I could come back and do the whole thing again some time. Well I might skip walking on the road between Jomson and Tatopani and use the time to explore more in the Manang area.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Annapurna Circuit, Up

After 13 days of trekking covering130 miles and a couple of rest days, I've finished the Annapurna circuit. It was a very different experience from the trek to Everest Base Camp and definitely worth it. One defining difference was my circuit trek started a full 2000 meters lower which completely altered the feel of the first few days. It was also nearly twice as long and I hiked it at a much faster pace.

The trip started with a taxi to the wrong bus station and a couple of rides on busses that seemed to be going the right direction. Eventually I made it to Besisahar where I checked in with the trekking permit office and was told to just follow the road out of town. 

This looks like a trail, I think I'll go this way... It was that kind of first day. 

I started the trek during the Dashain festival with apparently includes building giant bamboo swings. 

I spent the first couple of days hiking past terraced rice patties in a lush tropical valley. I had lunch on top that hill in the center of the valley on my first full day of hiking. 

Monkeys? For some reason I was not expecting to see monkeys in Nepal. 
A micro hydro station I asked to take a look at on the third morning. Problems with electrical shortages in Nepal baffle me a bit with as much hydro potential as there is. Most the locals I talked to blamed government bureaucracy or apathy. 

The line at the top of that cliff is where they cut the road in last year. You can now cut several days off the trek with a Jeep. I think it would take away from the trek as a whole to do so though. 
This isn't normally what is mean by "safety factor".  Obviously the bridge held fine... 

Yes, the road goes all but through that water fall. The foot crossing on the rocks was a bit intimidating since there is another shear drop on this side and they were all wet from the spray.

Yeah, this looks like a good place for a house...

Day 4: first actual view of one of the Annapurna mountains. 

The kitchen in Chame, smokey, but warm. It was cold in the dining hall, but Chame turned out to be a good place to meet people. I met Tony and David from England and their guide Dawa. We passed each other and shared lodges on and off for the rest of the trek. One of the nice things about the Annapurna circuit is that almost everyone goes the same direction and there is more time to make new friends. 

Big water falls became scarce as I climbed higher and the terrain became arid. 
This part of the road isn't quite finished yet, there was blasting equipment just around the corner. 

Annapurna II (i think) above Pisang.

Another shot of Annapurna II from higher up the valley. 

Some fall colors on the way to Manang.

No, I didn't fly back to NM to take this... One of the really neat things about the trek was mix of landscapes. I'd feel like i was hiking through the northern Rockies one morning and that afternoon I'd think I was in the dessert southwest.
Annapurna III and Gangapurna.
Annapurna III and Gangapurna on the way up Thorung Pass at dawn.
High on Thorung Pass is one of the most barren pieces of ground I've ever hiked across. Buzz Aldrin's lunar description of "magnificent desolation" came to mind several times. 
But, the top of the pass looks like a ski lodge without the skis... 

I found climbing the pass much easier than advertised. I had already acclimated on the everest trek and I passed a lot of people who were struggling in the thin air. 

I'll post pictures from the second half of the trek in a couple days. Pokhara is not as bad as Kathmandu, but it's still a bit of system shock to be back in the city. I've been asked repeatedly if I would like my shoes shined... I'm considering taking someone up on the offer just to see exactly what they would do to trail shoes with hundreds of miles worth of dust from three continents worked into them...