Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ending my Time on the Subcontinent with Rhinos and Colonialism

Time has gotten away from me a bit, and though I actually returned from Asia last Thursday, I haven't had a chance to recap the end of my trip. Actually there's not all that much to tell, because we were so exhausted from the trek that we decided to take it easy and not try to pack too much in. We headed to the south of Nepal to Royal Chitwan National Park, where we spent a day on a jeep safari, during which we saw rhinos and I learned that they look an awful lot like hippos - most of them were almost fully immersed in water and just sitting there to avoid the heat! We also saw monkeys and various birds, wild boars, and even a bison! I didn't think those existed in Asia... The next day we did another safari, this time on the back of an elephant. We had mixed feelings about this, but the elephants seemed to be well cared for and happy, and we figured that having four people sitting on top of them is roughly the equivalent of my carrying a small backpack, so it's probably not too terrible. Well, our elephant driver did a good job and got us in front of the pack, so we got to see rhinos from a few meters away (they aren't scared away if you are on an elephant, as opposed to a jeep, which makes them run away), but the elephant was not well trained to carry people, so we spent most of the time being hit in the face with branches, which were all covered in some kind of white fungus, such that by the end, we were also covered head to toe in junk. And since it was first thing in the morning, we also got the privilege of knocking down all the spider webs that had been formed overnight... with our faces. At some point, as I was trying to remove a big spider from D.'s back and realized that we were stuck together by the spider's web, there was just nothing to do but laugh, which D. didn't appreciate much, since it delayed my removal of the spider. Nonetheless, it's the closest I've ever been to a wild rhino (or to an elephant, for that matter), so it was still kind of a good experience.

We also visited the elephant breeding center, where we saw adorable twin baby elephants and one very sociable young elephant who was coming up to all the visitors and asking for food. And of course you can't miss the elephant baths: every day they bring the elephants down to the river to wash them, and people can pay to sit on their backs and get sprayed with water, while the elephants' owners give them instructions essentially to dive into the water until the people get knocked off into the river screaming. We didn't participate, but it was definitely funny to watch!

Anyway, this was followed by some well-deserved R&R in Kathmandu for a few days, and then I headed off to Calcutta, where I was connecting to go home. Calcutta was having a heatwave unprecedented since the 1950s, and so it was almost impossible to do anything except stand under a cold shower. Nonetheless, I managed to wander around and was struck by how visible the British presence was compared to everywhere else I'd visited in India. Calcutta was the capital of the British territory in India for most of the time the British were there, so they built huge monuments and British-looking buildings all over the place. This also led to some of the most visible, abject poverty in India, as people left their farms to move to the city and work for the British and then were left jobless and eventually homeless when the British reign came to an end. I don't think I was expecting Calcutta to be so different from all the other places I had visited in India, but it was. It was at once more western, with American fast food chains and fancy restaurants, and more poor, with people living on the streets (and worse, burrowing homes into garbage heaps) everywhere you look. There is a huge volunteer presence there, but the work to be done seems almost never-ending. It was definitely food for thought.

And then next thing I knew, my two months were up and I was back in Belgium, happy for a little cool weather and a washing machine and a clean "sitting" toilet. It's the little things, sometimes. And then that was gone in a flash, too, when I boarded a plane for eastern Europe this morning to begin the next leg of my trip, which promises to be VERY different from my time on the subcontinent. Till next time...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit

Ever since my friend Ellen put the idea in my head back in 2001, it's been a dream of mine to trek the Annapurna Circuit, which is a 16-18 day-long hike in the mountains surrounding the Annapurna section of the Himalayas in Nepal. It was one of the first things D. and I ever talked about together, and we were really happy to finally see it come true. So two weeks ago we set off on a crazy jeep ride from Pokhara, during which two seemingly pre-adolescent boys took turns climbing on the outside of the jeep and then hopping into the driver's seat to continue driving without stopping the car, and very happily were dropped off in Bhule Bhule to start our trek. The walk started fairly low and apart from the first day we were blessed with gorgeous weather, blue skies, and amazing mountain views of some of the tallest mountains in the world.

The Annapurna Circuit is a "teahouse trek," meaning that you walk between small villages where you stay in little guest houses rather than camping. This made it much less rugged, but also more culturally interesting, and it was much appreciated as it started to get higher and colder. It also meant that we often shared the trail with goats and donkeys, the latter carrying loads of supplies to the villages higher up on the trek. As we got farther up, the villages thinned out along with the air, and it started to get more and more basic.

The focal point, in a way, of the trek is the day you go over Thorung La pass, at 5400 meters, so you have to take a good amount of time to acclimatize before arriving there. This was not a problem for us, but I was anticipating the continuation of my lifelong curse: every time I go up a mountain or over a mountain pass, I get caught in a tremendous blizzard, which makes the hiking significantly more difficult. Of course this time we had sunny, warm weather every day so everyone assured me that the pattern would be broken.

On day 9 we arrived at High Camp in the afternoon, and soon after we arrived the snow started to fall. Looking out the window of our room and shaking from head to toe from the cold, I knew my curse had followed me to the Annapurnas. I got two bottles of boiled water to heat up my sleeping bag and waited. Sure enough, it continued to snow all night, and by the time we left early the next morning, we were walking up the mountain in two feet of snow. The way up was tough but it cleared up by the time we reached the top of the pass, so we got some nice views and feeling back in our fingers for a little while. Then we headed down the other side.

As we started to descend, the snow storm started again, this time reducing visibility at times to very low and almost erasing the marks that showed us where the path was. The way down was quite steep and became very icy and slippery, so most people spent part of the way down in a sitting position, sometimes even voluntarily. The often graceful slips and slides of the hikers going down the mountain would have been hilarious if they weren't so dangerous. The crowning point of the semi-hilarity, however, was when a pack of donkeys came down the pass. I will never understand why they didn't just give the donkeys the day off, but down they came, sliding wildly down the snowy hillside with their two front legs extended in front of them, directly at us. We scattered urgently off the side of the hill and they narrowly missed us. We realized later that if we hadn't been too terrified to take a video of the whole affair, we could probably have made quite a sensation.

Anyway, we eventually made it down to a village, and from there the sun came back and the going got easier. One guide told us he'd gone over the pass 43 times and never had a snowstorm like ours. I take full credit for the change in his luck. Our snowy adventure also gave me the opportunity to visit a local government hospital, which was an adventure in itself (I'm up to four continents now, for those keeping tabs). The latter side of the pass was more like a desert and not nearly as nice (in my opinion) as the first half. On the Jomsom side they have built a road almost all the way to the last village, and as you get closer to civilization, the road gets busier and more unpleasant. So we ended up skipping the last couple of days of the full hike (after Tatopani) and heading back to Pokhara. Actually, they appear to be working on a road that will extend almost the entire length of the circuit (minus the pass), so while it's still totally worthwhile to do this hike, if you want to do it, I recommend you go very soon, as I think in a few more years it's probably going to be ruined. We thoroughly enjoyed the amazing mountain scenery, though, and even with the road construction we still found it rewarding to walk almost the entire way.

A couple things I wish I had known beforehand - we did not go with a guide or a porter, and we felt it was fine to do it this way. The path was easy to find, and though our shoulders were tired from carrying our bags, it was totally doable. Also, asthmatics often have trouble (usually at altitude asthma gets better, not worse) because (I think) of the wood fires heating everything and because of burning trash along the way. A mask helps with this, so it's worth bringing along. And there are "safe drinking water" stations regularly along the way, so it's good to bring a reusable water bottle so that you reduce your plastic waste, as plastic bottles from trekkers are one of the biggest sources of pollution in Nepal.

So now we are at Chitwan looking for rhinos and tigers. I'll check in when I get back to Europe next week and let you know how the end of the Asian adventure goes.

Adventure map for 2009...