Trekking the same the world over: NYT article on climbing Kilimanjaro

Dhaulaghri: A pretty big 'ontological hole'

"As a certain kind of wealthy Westerner, we dealt mainly in abstraction, in the manipulation of numbers and words, and our daily existences were almost ridiculously comfortable. Here we were attempting to insert a 19,340-foot mountain into some perceived ontological hole in our lives. Helping us would be a small army of Tanzanians. For us, the mountain was a challenge. For them, the mountain was a daily, unmysterious fact of life, pictured on their beer bottles and laundry detergent boxes. It was, indeed, one of their largest employers. But the frustrations and ambiguities of employment were what we sought to abandon.”

The New York Times ran a lengthy article in their "Play" magazine which describes the author's (a novelist) trek up Kilimanjaro -- altitude is the big challenge, the climb itself requires no mountaineering experience. Some of the issues with trekking that I attempted to discuss in the previous post are developed in more detail.

I think that there is definitely a certain absurdity to wealthy Westerners wandering through these poor countries with such a high level of support. There were times I felt pretty silly watching Nepalese porters carry their burdens without complaint with their cast-off gear (our porters looked like they had been outfitted at a Salvation Army store in the US) and the almost universal footwear of choice in Nepal -- flip flops.

Lakpa, our guide in Nepal, had considerable trekking leadership experience and had recently returned from leading a high altitude camping trek (not a climb to the summit) around Dhaulagiri, 7th highest mountain in the world. A trekking party of nine 'clients' required a support staff of over 50 porters, sub-guides, cooks, etc. -- giving some idea of the level of support attached to such ventures.


Trekking: Con

Innocent abroad: A tourist with a funny hat and camera, at the start of the trek.

As I indicated in the previous post, I have mixed feelings about trekking, specifically trekking with guides and porters. I went to Nepal as part of a four person group (there was supposed to be a fifth person, but there was cancellation at the last minute for medical reasons). To support this group, we had two guides, three porters as well as Ongyel, the trek organizer: Quite the cavalcade to support four people.

The guides: Kumar (with two packs -- one person relied on him to carry her daypack for the whole trip) and and Lakpa. We were guided well, and very well fed along the way.

Our guides -- particularly Lakpa, who directed the operation -- were excellent and Nepal is a very poor country and while I pretty much felt safe there it is also politically unstable; in the past Maoist guerrillas have issued their own "trekking permits" and have extorted money from trekkers. Banditry is also not entirely unheard of, and as a tourist may be carrying the equivalent of a year's earnings in Nepal, some degree of caution is warranted. Lakpa's experience and knowledge of the route was extremely helpful in making for a safe and relatively hassle-free journey. The guides (both of whom had cooking experience) also made sure we were very well fed -- I expected to lose weight on the trip, and despite walking for twelve straight days, didn't lose a pound.

The group's porters with their loads. There is not much incentive to be pack efficiently when someone carries your gear for you.

Our gear was carried by three porters meaning all we had with us on a daily basis were the contents of our daypacks. Of course, having porters meant that there was no incentive to pack particularly efficiently, especially with three porters for a group of four people. Even though this picture makes it look like the porters struggled under a huge burden it was my understanding that they thought the trip was very easy, almost like a working vacation, and wished it had lasted longer, and they were a pretty happy crew.

The downside of all this support was that we kind of traveled in a cocoon and didn't have to think much for ourselves and also didn't have a lot of direct interaction with Nepalis. I have some backpacking experience and now that I have done something like this I think that I am very capable of planning what to take and carrying everything I need on my back. I met a young couple from the Czech Republic at one of our stops and they were doing about 20 days of trekking without guides or porters, only carrying what they needed.

The other downside to trekking was that the Annapurna circuit is definitely not a 'hidden gem': It's pretty crowded with Western (and increasingly, Chinese) tourists. The airports were jammed with easily identifiable tourists speaking a variety of languages (mostly English, German, or Hebrew). While trekking, English was pretty widely understood and the area relies on the tourist economy. There were lots of places to buy jewelry, singing bowls, textiles etc. "I give you good price" was the refrain from all the shopkeepers.

I particularly remember October 11th (my birthday); we were in a lodge in Jomsom preparing to fly to Pokara. There was a group of young Israelis ensconced in lobby, talking loudly amongst themselves and smoking. One of the group had a harmonica which he could not play but lack of skill did not keep him from trying... Wanting to get away from the bad harmonica playing (and my roommate was napping in our room) I retreated to the restaurant, where I encountered a group of Germans (more cigarettes, ugh) with a large Rottweiler (!) on a chain collar who wanted to sit at the table we had reserved for our group -- it was the last night of the trek, so we planned to have everyone (including the porters) all dine together. I was very surly to the Germans (who brings a large dog into a restaurant?) and they found a place to sit away from our table.

Given that it was my first time doing something like this I did appreciate the level of support (and let me be clear, Lakpa and Kumar were really excellent and had a very professional approach to 'guiding') but I know that if I was to do something like this again I would look to be more self-reliant and in less of a cocoon. It would have forced me to be more adaptable and to learn more about the local culture.


Trekking: Pro

My trekking permit for the Annapurna Conservation District.

So I recently returned from three weeks in Nepal, and our small group spent 12 days hiking through the countryside. I saw many things that I had never seen first hand before (water buffalo, rice paddies, religious pilgrimages, temples, etc. not too mention really spectacular mountains). When all was said and done, it was a good trip, and a positive experience, but I do have kind of mixed feelings about 'trekking'.

On the plus side: These days, I'm too connected to things I don't really want to be connected to. I don't even have a cell phone or watch cable television, and yet sometimes it feels like I'm living in some kind of video game. "How many contacts do I have" or "has anyone read this blog?" (usually not). It's a 24 hour news cycle and it seems like the world is perched uneasily on the precipice and that some appalling catastrophe could happen any day now. It's very discouraging and also numbing.

Trekking in a remote region of the world kind did put things in perspective. Our group went for days without seeing a jeep, tractor or even a motor cycle. Phone service to North America was extremely sketchy and Internet access was not at all common (televisions, computers, hot water heaters, refrigerators: All rare items on the Annapurna trekking circuit). English language newspapers were also very rare; I remember joking that Dick Cheney could have been president for all we knew.

In this isolated environment, life had a very simple rhythm: Get up in the morning, have a hearty breakfast with tea, walk for a couple of hours, stop for tea. Walk for a couple hours, have lunch (and more tea). Walk for a few hours more, stop at a lodge for the night, get cleaned up using water that was usually tepid at best, more tea, then dinner, yet more tea.... then go to bed. Repeat. I found that I soon lost track of all sense of 'normal' time: I didn't know what day of the week it was, or the date, etc. We tracked our progress on a map and observed how the landscape changed as we walked northwards. The internal combustion engine-less landscape was quiet except for sounds of livestock and birds.

When we eventually returned to the urban maelstrom (a very loud, congested, dirty place) of Kathmandu, it seemed all the more jarring and overwhelming after the relative quiet of the countryside. And now I'm back in the US, there's plenty of hot water, coffee, broadband Internet access, etc: But what do these creature comforts get me? I'm back to my old connected life, but something has been lost: The close connection to the land, and the rhythm of daily walking through the landscape dwarfed by the high mountains. I'm finding that sitting at a desk all day trying to recruit SAP analysts isn't nearly the same.


Glad to be home: Colors of the Vermont hills

While in Nepal, our group spent about two thirds of our route hiking up the Kali Gandaki River gorge, the deepest river gorge in the world. As we progressed northwards, the landscape became progressively drier and more desert like, at the northern most point, the landscape consisted of brown hills. The wind would blow up the narrow valley in the afternoon and stir up clouds of dust, a harsh and unforgiving environment that reminded me of a setting of a John Ford western (John Wayne in the The Searchers would have been right at home, and the local architecture resembles the adobe construction of the Southwest).

Kagbeni: Green irrigated fields surrounded by brown hills, northward lies Tibet.

After so much hiking through the brown arid landscape (there was one long march, into the hot, dust-laden wind, that felt like something out of Lawrence of Arabia) it was good to spend a warm autumn Sunday enjoying the foliage at the (now closed for the season) state park near my home in Waterbury. Travel is nice and can give a new perspective but home has its comforts as well.


Bodnath (Boudhanath) Stupa scenes

I wound up visiting Bodnath Stupa three separate times while in Kathmandu. I don't know why I didn't just take video of the scene, but I did record a monk in his devotions at sunset. Worshipers would keep this up, if not for hours, for a period of time. Grooves worn into the wooden platforms from heavy use can be seen in the images.

The sound is chanting and music from a Buddhist monastery in Muktinath, the monastery was behind our guest house, I recorded it from an open courtyard.


Two sets of eyes: Nepal images

I should be busy writing about my trip but I'm tired (still -- the trip home was quite gruelling, I don't think my body quite knows what time zone I'm in yet) and also have been spending my time combing through the 4GB of media (photos, some video, and one sound clip) that I brought back with me. I have managed to put together a set of photos on Flickr that is nicely chronologically organized and I have also started posting images to my photoblog account that are more thematically organized... I will keep at this for a while, so check it out.

Going through my photos, I have to say that I am not entirely disappointed but I am not exactly enthralled either. I definitely went on this trip with some vague ideas about self-consciously trying to compose better images and sometimes I was successful and sometimes less so. I also tried techniques of 'street photography'; Kathmandu, which was crowded, noisy and very chaotic was an excellent environment for these experiments.


The pied piper of Larjung / Images of Nepalese children

These are not great photographs but are some of my favorite images from trekking in Nepal. After arriving at our destination fairly early in the afternoon I went for a walk around the next village with my camera and encountered some schoolchildren who were fascinated by my camera, I wonder if they had ever had someone take their picture and then shown them the results immediately.

After this image was taken, the children crowded around me very tightly, pressing up against me and touching the tiny screen on the back of the camera, chattering away in Nepali (this encounter was conducted in pantomime).

I brought crayons with me ($0.12 a box at Walmart) to hand out to children I encountered on the route, and this proved to be an excellent item to bring and some kids really responded very happily to this small gift. This brother and sister on the way to school stopped to divide the box between them.

This toddler was in a small and unspoiled village off of the main trekking route: He was curious about visitors from the outside world and their strange gear.


Returns: Trekking and travel travails

[Written from a lounge in Delhi airport] I am on my way back home to the US after a good three week trip to Nepal. I enjoyed hiking through the countryside and our group had great guides that held us together and showed us the way. I kind of have mixed feeling about trekking because it does involve wandering in a tourist corridor with other foreigners -- but there is no doubt that the Annapurna Himal is still a pretty remote part of the world, and I witnessed some truly spectacular scenery.

This is semi-public Internet access (one has to pay to get into the lounge) so I can't write too much now and also it has been a very long day (up at 4:30 am, then just your average 7 hour flight delay -- thankfully partly spent at a hotel). I will be posting more media from the trip over the weekend I'm sure but here are a couple of quick photos: