Monday, October 31, 2011

Nepal 30

Last picture from Nepal. Waiting out a downpour under the eaves.

Can't recommend Nepal enough. Great scenery, great history, great mountains, great people. We could probably do another month of pictures from Kathmandu and have probably already forgotten a few anecdotes that would have been fit for inclusion here. Perhaps if we remember, one day we'll add them here.

But in the meantime, starting tomorrow: India!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nepal 29

Our last day in Nepal, we made a morning visit to Swayambhunath, better known as the "Monkey Temple." It is perched high on a hill relatively near the center of Kathmandu. The Monkey Temple name derives from the hordes of rather bold monkeys that live there and harass visitors. Sadly, we survived our trip with no monkey-related incidents to relate.

The crowd at the temple seemed to be majority local, despite the World Heritage Site status and ease of visiting the site from the backpacker ghetto in Kathmandu. There were lines of people having various offerings blessed or burned or just left in strategic offering locations. And for those who found the view from the hilltop insufficiently impressive, you could pay a few Rupees to climb this platform for an additional meter of altitude. (Being honest, I think payment for platform entry also entitled one to use of one of several pairs of binoculars to try to spot your house in the hazy distance.)

Also: retail opportunities!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nepal 28

The second stop on our bike tour was the Hindu holy site of Pashupatinath. There is a complex of temples there, but non-Hindus aren't allowed into the primary site. We were allowed to go see the cremation ghats where they burn the remains of Hindus on the banks of the holiest river in Nepal. Apparently, this is a big tourist attraction, or at least all the touts wanted to take us there. We saw the ghats, smelled the smell, and did not actually see a cremation happen, which I'm sure was a great loss for us but one we were willing to accept and move along.

Pictured above, an associated retirement home, which sadly did not place its second-floor windows in spots that line up symmetrically with the retirees and monkeys below.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Nepal 27

One of our stops on our bicycle tour was Bodhnath, site of the World's Largest Buddhist Stupa or some such. Which I guess is sort of like having the World's Largest Fourth-of-July Rodeo. There can't be that much competition, but nonetheless, the stupa at Bodhnath is huge. Maybe 75 yards across? Pilgrims come from distant lands to walk around it, and I suppose they had to make it big enough to make it worth the trip.

But we didn't like any of our pictures of the pilgrims or of the stupa as much as the picture above, of a vacant lot nearby. (One monk at one of the attached monasteries chatted with the staff photographer for a while, and then asked to have his picture taken, inspected the results, and suggested, "Don't you think it would be better if you used the flash?" He was right, but even the second attempt, with fill flash, wasn't so great, so the picture of a brick wall wins.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nepal 26

So with our full day back in Kathmandu, we decided it would be a great idea to rent some bicycles to get around to all the sites. Stay on street level, get some exercise, &c. &c. So after some touristing, we rent some bikes just before the shops closed (in order to use them the next day) and ride them back to our hotel before dark - through city traffic. It was one of the more difficult/harrowing bike-riding experiences I can recall, up there with biking "the World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia. There were some creeping doubts that this may have been one of the stupidest decisions we had made in some time. Way worse than the decision a couple days previous.

And then, the next day, as if by magic, there was a one-day automobile strike. In some constitutional standoff, some opposition group had declared the general strike demanding that, as a demonstration of solidarity, nobody drive. This was occasionally enforced by citizen roadblocks, but they seemed only barely necessary because it was very widely observed. I don't know if we would have been able to catch taxis even if we had wanted to. So we cruised around the streets of one of the more chaotic and traffic-choked cities of the world, traffic free. It was fantastic.

We took advantage of the empty streets to make our way to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu region, about which, more tomorrow. Pictured above, someone else on a bicycle, for those not familiar with this foreign technology.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nepal 25

Meanwhile, back in Kathmandu...

We returned and had a couple previously scheduled days for exploring Nepal's capital, which is certainly one of the world's best for wandering around aimlessly and finding interesting things by chance. Temples and shrines abound, as do colorful characters, old guys in charming hats, occasional sadhus (which the Holla Style Guide could have sworn was "saddo", until attempting to check the spelling on a moment ago and finding the wikipedia definition: "Saddo: A pathetic or socially inept person." Anyway...), &c. &c. &c.

Above from a candelabra thing in one of the countless courtyard temples we visited. Wish we could recall exactly which.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nepal 24

We present now, in two photos, the sum total of the dining options at the Lukla International Airport. The airport is surprisingly crowded, in large part because there is a brief window each morning when flights in and out are possible, and they squeeze as many landings as they can in that time. Despite the crowd, I never saw any customers at the "Fast Food" bar or the "Tea Stall."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nepal 23

On our way back down the trail, we (being way more bad-ass than most hikers on the trail) asked if we could do a side-trip up and over one of the high passes. Our guide, exhausted by all his work not explaining things along the trail, was not thrilled, but eventually agreed to show us the way over the Kongma La pass.

The day started inauspiciously. We were not 100% certain our guide actually knew where he was going, and the first step of the day was walking across the Khumbu glacier. As you may or may not be able to tell from the picture above, the glacier here is mostly covered with rocks and scree. But the ice below is always shifting so the terrain is uneven and things that looked stable can slide into sinkholes at a moment's notice. The guide sort of seemed to know a path across, but he didn't seem to have any sense at all that there was any danger at all. Above, The Lovely Katherine and said guide cross a narrow path between a very deep sinkhole to the left, too steep for rocks to collect on the ice, with a pond of certainly extremely cold water at the bottom. To the right, less steep but certainly no fun to fall down. And as we were walking we could often hear and sometimes see small ice- and rockslides crashing into just such holes. So in this case, your correspondent stopped to watch the other two cross so that if it did fall at least one of us might not go with it and be able to mount a rescue. Impossible to detect from a picture is The Lovely Katherine telling the guide to hurry because it didn't seem very stable and the guide literally stopping, turning around, and asking her "What's that, do you want to go faster?" Anyway, we made it across unscathed, although we did witness a huge (perhaps fifty feet across?) slab of ice collapse on the opposite side of this sinkhole once we were safely resting on solid ground on the other side of the glacier. People do this walk all the time without (as far as we know) incident, so maybe we were just paranoid, but it did seem like we were rolling the dice a bit more than we bargained for on this one.

Once across, we climbed the Kongma La. This was a fair bit more strenuous than any of the standard days on the Everest Base Camp trail. Not surprisingly, it was also a lot more peaceful. We saw one other group of two coming over the pass the opposite direction, and other than that, saw nobody, which is a pretty good day in such a heavily touristed region. The pass at Kongma La is supposedly 10 meters lower than Kala Patthar (or exactly the same, depending on who you listen to). Your correspondent decided it couldn't be that hard to just scramble up the saddle another 10 meters. It was harder than he thought, but reliable estimates indicate he bested the more commonly climbed Kala Patthar summit by at least two to four inches.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nepal 22


It's actually the one in the center. Nuptse, on the right, is much shorter but may look taller because it's closer. The sunrise climb of Kala Patthar was great, but you do wind up with the sun coming up directly behind Everest, which makes the photography a little tough unless you want to haul a bunch of crazy filters up the mountain for that one picture. We opted to use this conveniently placed prayer-flagpole thingy instead.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Nepal 21

Two views from the top of Kala Patthar, the highest point most trekkers reach, at more or less 18,500 feet. It's about the same elevation as Everest Base Camp. The base camp is the furthest one can proceed without ropes and crampons, and has great views of the Khumbu Icefall, the most treacherous part of the ascent of Everest. But the views are better from Kala Patthar, as photos above and below attest.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nepal 20

Monks at Tengboche.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nepal 19

Continuing up the trail after Tengboche, we made our way to Pangboche, site of another monastery. The view from within the monastery courtyard was incredible. And unphotographable with the equipment the staff photographer was carrying.

The courtyard was being re-built, and was unpainted wood. A balcony wrapped all the way around. On one side, a door passed into the temple (as seen a couple days ago). In the center of the courtyard, an older guy burned some sort of censer, filling the courtyard with smoke. On one side, lined up along the balcony, six or so monks chanted the same sort of variable-speed Muppet songs mentioned yesterday. The head monk, pictured above, did various bell-ringing and feather-waving rituals. Towering above them was Ama Dablam, a huge, knife-like peak. It was gorgeous, in full, beaming sunlight.

Sadly, the monks were in full, gloomy shade, with incense smoke adding to the haze. We made some attempts to capture the scene, but they're just not worth showing here. So, instead, we offer the above detail. Sorry.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nepal 18

One of the legendary spots on the way up to Everest is the Tengboche Monastery. Positioned on a fantastic little saddle ridge featuring distant views of Everest (Tengboche being the only time in 10 nights in plywood hotel rooms on the trail that we had a view of Everest from our window), the monastery could be a notable tourist attraction even in a less distinctive location. Instead, it's here, only accessible by foot, a short day's walk from the nearest place you could conceivably land a plane and several days' walk from the nearest actual airstrip.

We arrived there and had much of the afternoon to kill. We figured at some point we'd need to check out the monastery, and wandered in to find the monks in the middle of prayer, which it turns out happens often but not constantly. Maybe all you students of eastern transcendentalism already know this, but it turns out that the monks at a monastery get together and chant. The head monk, I gather, is leading the chants, and the words change from time to time. The chanting sounds like if you took a 45 RPM record of Muppets songs and then and played it at 33, and then used a finger to randomly speed it up every now and again. And then, all of a sudden, all the monks pick up random musical instruments and make AS MUCH NOISE AS THEY POSSIBLY CAN for a half a minute or so. Then they go back to chanting. It's way more awesome than any singing I have seen at any other religious gathering.

In any case, here's a picture of one of the back-bench monks who was just in front of us, with his crib sheet for words to the latest chants.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nepal 17

Continuing our kick of various Buddhist stuff along the trail to Everest, this is the interior of the temple at the Panboche Monastery. We will make no attempt to explain any of the stuff inside the temple, in part because our trusted guide and cultural interpreter who we hired at some expense revealed once we were on the trail that he was in a one-year period of mourning and could not enter any of the temples. Not that his presence would have made too much difference, but there is a lot going on in these places.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nepal 16

Another view of a prayer wheel. If you turn it the wrong way, you may never get the knife.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Nepal 15

Those Buddhists, what with their centuries of history and what not, seem to have come up with a pretty elaborate collection of symbols and rituals. Which is, apparently, just something religions have to do. To the previously noted prayer flags, stupas, and carvings of mantras on any rock people might walk by, add the prayer wheel. Historians agree that the prayer wheel was almost certainly invented by Eddie Murphy in 1980's almost-classic The Golden Child. Your correspondent resisted the urge to repeat this scene with any of the hundreds of prayer wheels he saw.

N.B., photo inspiration credit due to fellow (and current) Embassy Kabul bureaucrat Brian Neely.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Nepal 14

There are many spots along the trail up to Everest where one passes rocks carved with the Buddhist mantra "Om mani padme hum" repeatedly on a rock, or each of a bunch of rocks. There are a few particularly striking places where a massive rock outcropping has been completely covered with the mantra, as seen above.

It seems like it might take a lot of work.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Nepal 13

An action-packed picture of wind-blown flags for the thrilling conclusion of Flag Week! There are only so many pictures of prayer flags we can handle, so a work week of flag photos is going to have to suffice. But don't despair, we're not even halfway through the Holla October of Nepal Pictures!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nepal 12

Penultimate flag week post! Flags piled up and dusted with snow on the top of Kala Patthar, 18,500 ft.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Nepal 11

Flag week marches on... Some of the flags have been out and exposed to the elements for a long time - a little thin and pale.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Nepal 10

Prayer flag week continues!

As promised yesterday: Lots of prayer flags, in a landscape much more attractive than some places you might have seen prayer flags before.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Nepal 9

Welcome to flag week!

If you've ever been somewhere that hippies live, "work," or frequent, you have probably seen Tibetan prayer flags. On the plus side, they're a cheap way to add some color to an otherwise drab office space. Sadly, science has proven that displaying Tibetan prayer flags in your office does not have a statistically significant chance of resulting in a free Tibet. Apologies if you, dear reader, happen to live in a dorm room adorned with prayer flags. We kid because we care.

In any case, these flags are all over the place in Nepal and especially along the trail up to Everest, often in landscapes and quantities more striking than your typical prayer-flag scene in the U.S. Above, flags attached to a footbridge along the trail.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Nepal 8

Namche Bazaar is the primary settlement of the Khumbu region of Nepal. From old photos, one can tell it was pretty modest until fairly recently. The tourist trade has caused some pretty explosive growth, sprouting hotels (with showers!) and restaurants and shops selling all variety of items tourists might want. The photo above is from one of those shops. I guess you might just decide, "those big pink pills look good. Let's go for a packet of those, please!" Or perhaps to people with more pharmacological experience than your correspondents, those white tablets are instantly recognizable as some particular item or brand.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Nepal 7

One of countless stupas along the trail, each painted with these wavy Buddhist eyes staring out on all four sides.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Nepal 6

This one is probably the best portrait we got on the trail. He was intently watching other guys about his age who had stopped at one of the inns along the way and were playing some game that looked like a cross between shuffleboard and snooker.

This setup -- the wicker basket backpack, with long wooden struts sticking up to steady a piled-high load -- is almost universal. Your correspondents took particular note whenever we saw some dude carrying a pack stacked high with cases of canned Everest beer up the mountain. We did indeed enjoy a couple of those high-altitude barley pops, so we owe those guys a debt of gratitude. I hesitate to guess what's in those big blue barrels that this young guy is carrying up the mountain, but I'm pretty sure it's not feathers or popcorn. Whatever it is, we probably used some of it while on the trail, so I guess we owe him, too.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Nepal 5

These two older ladies (the second is directly behind the first in this picture) were laboring up the hill with baskets full of firewood on their backs as we were descending. I am not sure what they stopped to discuss with The Lovely Katherine. I would guess that she was not sure at the time, either. The ladies looked like they might have been 75. I doubt they were, but a lifetime of carrying firewood up a mountain in the elements probably isn't great for the youthful good looks.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Nepal 4

All of the world-famous, life-list treks we've done in the developing world (e.g. Machu Picchu, Kilimanjaro) have featured amazing local porters who carry ridiculous loads, practically jogging up a hill, wearing beat-up sandals. In Nepal, there was a fair amount of that. There were also yaks carrying some heavy loads. But for the tourist crowd, there's no need to carry tents or stoves because the trekking is village-to-village and nights are spent at inns with restaurants.

The flip side of that is that there is no road bringing construction materials up to these villages to build shelter for the ever-increasing hordes of tourist trekkers. The obvious solution is to hire someone to carry all that construction stuff up the mountain for you. Pictured above is one of the many guys we saw with several full-size sheets of plywood on his back. The strap that is across his chest as he's resting goes on his forehead when he's lifting and carrying this stuff. And if that wasn't enough, the gap you can see between the first and second sheets of plywood? That's where there's a sheet of corrugated metal or two (I presume tin, but who knows) stuffed in between the plywood. It makes it a little harder to complain about the crummy plywood-box rooms when you realize what went into building them...

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Nepal 3

Nepal proved again that, as always, the best travel pictures are of people. (And the truly great Pictures that Got Away are from encounters with interesting people when we didn't have the camera handy or, more often, didn't feel the right vibe (i.e. were too chicken) to ask if we could take their picture.) Anyway, rather than getting into a discursive essay on the etiquette of photographing strangers who don't speak the same language as you, we present the following: a picture we took, without asking per se, but perhaps after holding up the camera and smiling and getting no reaction at all and self-interestedly declaring the lack of visible objection as permission. The guys carrying stuff up the mountains in Nepal are amazing.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Nepal 2

Trekking in Nepal! The mighty Himalayas raising around you! The pure air, the pastoral life, a glimpse of a simpler time!

Well, nowadays, a somewhat simpler version of industrial tourism is in evidence. Not that we didn't see some awesome views and breathe some fresh air. Part of the joy of trekking in Nepal is that rather than needing to carry one's own tent, food, stove, &c. &c. &c., the trail leads from one settlement to the next, where accommodations can be found in tea houses. This makes these locales sound quite quaint, but in fact, the best definition of "tea house" might be "ultra-cheap hotel." It's quite like a youth hostel, except instead of being found in the heart of some European capital it's in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of Nepal.

The rooms are basically plywood boxes; it's not all that terribly different from the accommodations on army bases in Afghanistan known as "B-huts." I know it struck some of our fellow American colleagues in Afghanistan as a bit odd that we willingly chose to sleep in such accommodations while on leave from Afghanistan. In any case, the tea houses did their job and kept us from freezing to death.

As a standard house rule, guests at tea houses are expected to take their dinner and breakfast (and depending on arrival time, lunch) in the hotel restaurant. The menus at each tea house are identical, but the preparations show great variation. These restaurants all offer a variation on the local curry-and-lentils staple, as well as unique and yet equally unrecognizable attempts on Western favorites like mac-and-cheese and pizza.

Of course the true value proposition of the tea house restaurants, is the service. As faithfully represented on the menu below, your correspondents were served every day a candle-light meal by a tuxedo'ed waiter eager to share every detail about the Biscuits price.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nepal 1

Ok, so we limited ourselves to 31 (more) pictures from Nepal, and we're starting a day behind. Whoops. Anyway, this one is just a nice picture from a monastery where they were using old cans from paint (or other products like whatever this deodorized oil product was) as flowerpots. Don't worry, some of the upcoming pictures have better stories that go with them.