I encourage others to share their travels in hopes it inspires others. Whenever a close friend of mine goes on a trip, I ask if they are willing to share on AngelaTravels. To my delight, my friend, Tobias, went on an epic trip to Nepal and Thailand and was willing to share his story.
Our first task in Besi Sahar was to find a jeep to take us to Dharapani. Most folks start their trek at Besi Sahar, but in order to stay on schedule we needed to eliminate a day on the trail, so we rode to Dharapani because MJ had told us that the stretch between Besi Sahar and Dharapani is not that interesting. Our ride to Dharapani, scheduled for the following day, cost significantly more than I expected, leaving me in a pissy mood.
We rented a room at the first teahouse we saw and then ventured into town for dinner. We settled at a place with Wi-Fi and enjoyed our first meal on the trail together just before our first night of all sleeping in the same room. The next morning the proprietor attempted to charge us a bit more than had been stated at check-in. He explained that this was a consequence of us not eating dinner at his restaurant. This rule, though common on the trail and something we read about earlier, was not stated up-front or posted. Thus, I staunchly resisted. Mike intervened and smoothed things over by remaining firm in our position while, almost paradoxically, also apologizing profusely, and then promising that we would tell all of our friends to get a room at this establishment. The proprietor was soothed and accepted our payment.
We went outside and waited about seventy-minutes for our ride to arrive. I felt humbled that Mike’s soft approach was wildly more successful than my grit-my-teeth and stand-your-ground approach. So I thanked him for the help and told him that I don’t think I could have done what he did. The lesson was not lost. The drive to Dharapani was frightening and spectacular. Our rickety Safari jeep made certain that we experienced every feature of the narrow, rocky road as we slowly climbed toward our destination. For much of the drive, the auto was within inches of cliffs and canyons high enough to make death a near certainty (survival would be grounds for immediate canonization) should a mistake occur. The driver complied anytime we asked to stop in order to take pictures of waterfalls, canyons, peaks, bees nests, and natural marijuana plants. As we ascended we were treated with progressively more mountain peak views.
By afternoon of the next day, snowy mountain peaks, dramatic craggy rock features, bright bursts of sun and blue skies scattered amidst a river of fast-moving, big, chunky clouds, dominated the landscape. It would be like this for the remainder of our trip except for a couple of days in the middle when storm clouds wafted in and dumped a couple of inches of fresh snow on the trail. The scenery recalled Bob Costas (stick with me for a moment): After Michael Jordan’s Bulls won their sixth NBA championship, Costas was tasked with putting a neat tie on Jordan’s accomplishments. After the courtside reporters had wrapped up the locker room interviews and coming out of a commercial break, Costas’ opening words were, “All. superlatives. apply.” Those same words appropriately describe the Himalayas. “All. superlatives. apply.”
Since returning, I’ve told fellow Washingtonians that the Himalayas are more than twice the height of Washington’s Cascade range, and essentially, twice as spectacular, though I still undoubtedly love Washington.
Anyway, highlights from the Annapurna Circuit included:
- Buying fresh picked apples from a roadside stand.
- Lunchtime with clear, majestic views of Annapurna II.
- Elementary-aged children playing some sort of board game with real money.
- A well-attended, well-played town volleyball match.
- Drinking ginger honey tea (it tasted suspiciously like warm crystal light), while admiring the views from a temple which was at just about the highest point of a village on the high road.
- Cowboy-hero quality horses.
- Eagles swooping overhead while hiking towards high camp, the last “village” before crossing the pass.
- Being miserably cold every night at dinner, getting toasty warm in my sleeping bag and absolutely dreading having to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and getting dressed in the morning, only to be absolutely comfortable once the sun came up and we were hiking.
- The views of the quaint villages from a distance with great snowy peaks rising above them.
Early in the trek, we ate dinner with two young Swiss gents and their equally young, world savvy Nepalese guide. I remarked that it must’ve been awesome to grow up among these mountains to which the native replied, “When you get up there are mountains. All day long there are mountains. When you go to bed there are mountains. It’s always mountains, mountains, mountains.” I sort of pitied the man because, having grown up amongst the Himalayan giants, it seemed he had become desensitized to the grandeur of one of Earth’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. Thus, in order to have his mind blown, he’ll basically have to visit another planet. While I, on the other hand, having grown up on flat ground in America’s breadbasket and fruit belt, can still regularly have my breath taken away by scenes half as majestic as the world’s highest peaks.
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this but after entering one of the villages, Mike, Erin and I got separated as we searched for the night’s lodging, so I plopped down in an open, grassy area amongst the various village buildings to wait for Mike and Erin to find me. As I basked in the sun, a small dog watched as two animals locked horns and pushed against each other, which caused both animals to stumble violently sideways in my direction. I enjoyed the show, and the imminent danger was lost on me until both animals hit a pole fortuitously located between me and the scuffle. At that moment, I realized that not only was I not prepared to move out of the way, but I was also weighed down by my heavy pack which I hadn’t bothered to fully release, and thus would have certainly been trampled had it not been for that random pole. I’m embarrassed because I’m not exactly sure what those animals were. They were certainly farm animals, and I thought that they were bovine. I imagine that bulls would have been much bigger and scarier, but my understanding is that most cows don’t have horns, so I’m not certain that they were cattle.
Late in the trek, we saw helicopters pick up hikers suffering from altitude sickness at about 12,000 feet. We met people from the Ukraine, Italy, Germany, France (loads of French. French friends that live in Seattle say that this is normal as French people are quite fond of hiking in the mountains, which was proven by a graph we saw in Jomsom showing that most Annapurna Circuit trekkers are French).
We also met two gentlemen from Portland, Oregon. I debated with one of the Portlanders about the accuracy of calling people from the United States “American.” The viewpoint argues that since people living in North America and South America can accurately be called “Americans,” “American” is confusing and, at the very least, inaccurate because others may righteously claim the demonym. However, many Americans use this term because we are arrogant, ignorant, self-centered Amer…er…United Statesers? Statesians? I argued that America is a geographical, not geological, entity, and that the people living in North America or South America have only the right to refer to themselves as denizens of their continent.
Thus, a Mexican may accurately refer to himself as a “North American” but not “American” because the full name of the land feature which allows him to use the label “American” in any context is “North America,” not “America.” Further, if we are not to use the term “American” when answering the question “What nationality are you?” What then? “From the United States” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and lacks inspiration and fun. If you must worship details and semantics, “the United States” could be confusing because, while we are the only country that has “America” in its name, we aren’t the only country organized as a United States (though we appear to be the only country that uses “The United States of…”). [Source]
The gent from Portland responded that “America” is also a landmass. I stated that I’m not exactly sure what a landmass is in terms of geology or geography with respect to the other labels in each category. And that’s where the increasingly tense conversation ended and closed with smiles. Months later, I mentioned the story to a friend, who suggested that we reference Wikipedia. Wikipedia stated “The Americas, or America, also known as the New World, are the combined continental landmasses of North America and South America, in the Western Hemisphere.” [Source] Though I ate crow at that moment, I maintain that “American” is a perfectly accurate moniker for someone from the United States of America as no one in any other country would answer likewise. A woman from Brazil is not going to answer “American,” she is going to answer “Brazilian” with all the power and pride that each of us feels for our own country.
The Portland gentleman is not the first American I’ve encountered who harbored such prejudices against “American.” And he is not the first American I’ve met who seemed to indict his home country for its hypocrisies, exceptionalism, and arrogance in order to increase his chances of being viewed as particularly progressive, tolerant, and open-minded. I’ve never understood trust-funded urban hipsters wearing wool stocking caps in sunny, muggy, ninety degree heat and I’ve never understood castigating your own country as a self-aggrandizement ploy. However, I once told an Indian co-worker about a Freakonomics podcast episode which stated that Japan leads the world in adoptions because business owners will often legally adopt their chosen heirs, if that person is not already related, in order to keep the business within the family. [Source] I then mentioned that an Indian academic speaking in the podcast felt that this would never work in India because the adopted son would simply take the money and give it to his birth family. My co-worker responded with disgust as she lamented, “People are always hating their own country. Why do they do that?” I felt comforted that Americans apparently are not the only ones that engage in such behavior.
After crossing Thorong La Pass we continued towards Muktinath. We planned to catch a bus from Muktinath to Jomsom in order to board a flight the following day on our way back to Kathmandu via Pokhara. As we moseyed down main street Muktinath, we asked for directions to the bus terminal and were told that it was at the end of town but that the bus drivers were on strike due to the opposition movement’s displeasure with the in-progress elections. [Source]
We passed about a dozen little shops hawking various wool Nepalese hats, scarves, mittens and the ilk. I inspected a few and thought that the non-wool linings were suspiciously too modern for a village deep in the Annapurna Circuit, or as a friend remarked upon locating it on a map, “that’s like Bin Laden territory and shit.” I waxed further and decided that the global market machine had actually reached the point where it could supply a hyper-remote village with an advanced synthetic produced in an industrialized locale (China, most likely).
It then occurred to me that given the prices of the hats (a couple of bucks), that this may be, in fact, where REI and other Western outdoor shops acquire products sold in America for $15 – $20 as genuine Nepalese items. I then remembered that I thought the bowls, knives and other artifacts peddled along the Annapurna Circuit reminded me of similar items found in World Market or other shops hawking genuine goods from exotic places, probably because these also were, in fact, the sources for those businesses. Imagining that I stumbled into first-hand experience of a global supply chain tickled my cortex. But given that it seems so pleasantly tidy, I think the mundane truth is something quite different and more along the lines that Chinese factories supply Western retailers.
As we strolled, I also reflected on how the very existence of the Annapurna Circuit villages perplexed me as there seemed to be plenty of cultivable land at lower elevations. In a light bulb moment, it occurred to me that the mountain villages must have been settled from the top down by immigrants pushed out of China and forced to scale the Himalayan passes. These people took root in the first habitable valley, plateau or meadow and only moved on once the settlement had reached overpopulation and stretched resources. I had this thought early in the trek and mentioned it to my mom during a Wi-Fi phone call back to America (that’s right, some remote Nepalese mountain villages offer the Internet). I likened it to “living a National Geographic article.” Sure enough, according to Freddie Wilkinson’s book One Thousand Mountain Summits, the Sherpa clan immigrated to Nepal from Tibet over the Nangpa La Pass in the mid-sixteenth century. (In 2006, at the same pass, Chinese border guards targeted and killed a seventeen-year-old Tibetan nun, and injured and captured other refugees, fleeing to Nepal while climbers at the Cho Oyu base camp (sixth highest peak in the world) watched. [Source]) So, though Wilkinson’s excerpt does not necessarily prove my analysis, it does bolster its plausibility.
We reached the bus stop at the edge of Muktinath. As promised, all of the buses were stabled. My friends headed towards the office while I approached a bus emanating live music and boisterous voices. As I came closer, I could see through the windows that the party goers were all boys in their late teens/early twenties. Of course, these were the striking drivers. I knocked on the door and one of them answered. I asked if someone wanted to drive to Jomsom. I was told that no one was driving until after five p.m. when the strike would go on hiatus for the evening. The door shut. I knocked again… and again… and again.
A boy answered. I offered a premium for taking me and my friends right now. They flippantly declined, and I walked away. I left impressed with the sponsoring political organization’s ability to unify a group operating as far away as this outpost with bonds so strong that it resulted in young boys refusing cold hard cash. After a disagreement over cost and tip, my companions paid their porters. We then waited for the four motorbikes, which Mike and Erin had commissioned by negotiating with the women managing the bus station. After the drivers cleverly stacked our three packs onto one bike, we climbed aboard our steel steeds and departed.
We proceeded to learn that if you ever have to spend two hours dry humping a petite, twenty-something Nepalese boy, riding on the back of a motorcycle descending Himalayan valleys on a clear, sunny day is the ideal way to do it. The completely open air motorcycles (compared to the cramped conditions and just-below-eye-level windows of the jeep employed at the beginning of the trek) allowed for absorbing every single magnificent, brain-blowing view. We reached Jomsom and stopped within spitting distance of a tea house which once hosted Jimi Hendrix. Wow. Jimi Hendrix ended up all the way out here several decades ago when the isolation was more intense?
When I first began listening to rock music, I remember hearing, reading, watching stories about how some rock stars would travel to distant lands to find themselves and whatnot, the most notable being the Beatles to India, but I processed that information through a limited worldview which rendered such trips commonplace in the world of the famous, a world which, for me, was slightly less distanced than Uranus. So experiencing where Hendrix went and understanding that it wasn’t a playground for the rich, but instead was straight-up-keeping-it-real, was an epiphany, though “epiphany” feels melodramatic, but you get the idea.
After conferring with a guidebook and each other, we decided that there may be better options further along, so we walked down the road which became disturbingly less dotted with tea house and restaurant type places. This gave us pause and ultimately resulted in us doubling back. Mike and I lollygagged, but Erin expressed that she was facing an emergency bio break situation and ran ahead and ducked into a restaurant. Mike and I followed and wanted to make sure we didn’t break any social norm by using a bathroom as a non-customer, so we asked for the menu and looked for something small to eat while we waited for Erin.
I asked an employee about the deep fried clumps sitting in a large bowl on the counter. “Pakora” she said and then explained the ingredients well enough such that I was confident that I could eat the goodies despite my dietary limitations (I’m gluten free and dairy free). They were crisp, spicy, flavorful, and generally unbelievably delicious. We figured we had come across a regional specialty that would be amazing everywhere; we were mostly wrong. Though I’ve tried Pakora at almost every opportunity since then, I have yet to find the restaurant that offers a version as tasty as the little place in Jomsom, Nepal. This is kind of a difficult realization for me because now I have that pretentious asshole world traveler anecdote about how if you want experience the best X on the planet, you have to travel to remote location Y, which you’ll never be able to do, but of course I’VE been there. My story happens to be that if you want to taste the best Pakora on the planet, you have to take three jets and two prop planes to Jomsom, Nepal and find this quaint restaurant off the main drag but near the bridge. Good luck.
The rest of our stay was uneventful, which we preferred because almost all flights out of Jomsom are perennially completely booked and flight cancellations are common due to weather, but passengers rarely cancel reservations. So we felt lucky and relieved when our flight took off. The flight offered spectacular views and many opportunities for picture taking.
Written by Tobias Cortese.