Monday, December 1, 2008

Trekking in the Himalayas

In the month since I last wrote in my blog and now, I’ve:
-- Trekked in the Himalayas for 10 days,
-- Visited the Taj Mahal,
-- Picked the first orphans who’ll be supported by my families’ foundation, and
-- Watched a surgery for injuries sustained from a water buffalo attack

Here’s the story, in five scenes.

Scene 1: The Taj Mahal

In early November (on the 5th, to be exact), we catch a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We arrive the evening before Laurel’s birthday and visit an upscale Indian restaurant for dinner, where the waitstaff bring out blankets to shield our legs from mosquitoes.

We visit the Taj Mahal at dawn, as the sunrise casts light and shadows on its marble walls. The 17th century monument is symmetrical on every side, and its splendor exceeds it hype. It was built, humorously, by a Moghul king who died during an opium-induced sex fest at age 74.

From Agra, we ride a bumpy bus to the India-Nepal border, where we discover that the border-crossing station doesn’t have electricity. The guards stamp our passports by the dim glow of a single flickering candlelight.

Little did we know it would mark the start of an electricity-free month.

Scene 2: The Journey

Our first Indian scam took place at the border, where we paid for “tourist bus” tickets but were herded like cattle onto the public bus, which traveled at an average speed of – no joke – 7 miles per hour. For 11 hours.

The bus stopped constantly. Is someone selling corn on the side of the road? Let’s stop the bus. Have we reached a town with a tea stand? We’ll stop. Waiting for a prospective passenger who said he’d be standing by the side of a highway? Halt the bus for 20 minutes!

People filtered on and off, riding on the rooftop if there wasn’t space in the aisles.

After 11 hours of squirming on rickety bus seats, we finally reached Pokhara, Nepal, only 75 miles from where we started.

Mt. Macchapucchre, towering at 23,000 feet, stretches across the sky to greet us.

I point out to my friend that the mountain’s topmost 3,000-ish feet are bare; its slope is too steep to hold snow. No climber has ever summitted Macchapuchree.

“I’ve never seen a mountain that couldn’t be summitted,” my friend said. She would later laugh at herself for saying those words – less than two weeks later, while standing at Macchapuchre’s Base Camp, an icy river bed at the lowest point of a valley, a measly 12,137 feet in altitude.

She’d stare at the sky and study the rocky summits towering yet another 11,000 feet higher than where we stood.

“That one can’t be summitted, either,” she’d observe. “There’s no route. It’s too cold for trad climbing, and there’s no continuous ice face. And that one --,” she’d point, “can’t be summitted either. Nor that one. Nor that one. Impossible.”

Scene 3: Trekking

Our first two days of trekking are all uphill, up, up, up, up, 10 hours a day, up slopes so steep we get vertigo when we move too quickly. On the morning of Day 3 we awake while the moon is full and robust; its glow illuminates the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Annapurna and Mt. Dhaulagiri.

We hike with headlamps and mittens for an hour, until we reach the top of a hill, named for the indigenous Poon tribe that lives on that hill, altitude 10,474 feet.

The sky’s colors – as many Coloradoans know – become more intense as you rise in altitude. We watch the first glimpse of dawn burst into a symphony of vivid reds.

We endure an 11-hour day of traversing the mountains. We ascend 1,092 feet to Poon Hill to watch the sunrise, then descend that same distance to our starting point. We then descend another 1,049 feet before ascending 1,804 feet until we can rest for the night.

Our hike raises us above cloud line, then down into the mist, then above cloud line again.

The landscape changes with the altitude. At its low points, the trees are covered with moss and tiny purple flowers spring from rocks and fallen logs. The air is so thick with water that life can’t help but thrive from every crevasse. Waterfalls of all sizes spring from every direction, countless waterfalls. The sound of the nearby river indicates how much further we’ll have to descend before we cross the bridge and can start ascending again.

Once we do cross that bridge we walk higher, higher, for hours, until we’re above cloud line. The landscape turns into dry, bushy yellow grasses on clay soil. It’s brought to life by the hisses and whirrs of insects and birds, or on occasion, by the jingle of cowbells worn around the neck of every horse, donkey and dog that cross our path.

We check into a teahouse for the evening and warm ourselves by the fire in the kitchen, in the clay pot they call a “stove.” The next morning we descend a little lower in altitude, to a lush area covered with bamboo, oak trees, aloe vera and rhodedendrons. Even at 10,000 feet, the landscape is dotted with rice paddies, poinsettas, marigolds – and marijuana, enormous trees of marijuana, taller than the ears of corn they’re planted next to.

We sleep in teahouses at night, little stone shacks perched on whatever ground could be terraced flat. Most rooms don’t have electricity; some say they’ve been without lights for weeks. Walls are paper-thin; some built from nothing but a single sheet of tin.

It’s too cold to sit outside our sleeping bags after sunset, so we eat a candlelit dinner of rice and lentils (dal baht) and crawl into our sleeping bags by 6 pm. Thick fog rolls in at night, obscuring the sight of everything except the water buffalo nearby. Morning skies are clear, and at our altitude, the colors of the sunrise are more majestic than ever. The sun paints vivid pinks and reds on the 24,000-ft peaks.

On Day 4 we continue with the ups and downs – descend 2,722 feet, then ascend 1,213 feet. This is tiresome.

By Day 5 we reach the tiny, remote high-altitude villages, just before Base Camp. Just to eat dinner, I pile on 3 long-sleeve shirts, a fleece, a down jacket, an outer shell, 2 pairs of pants, wool socks and mittens. Still my toes feel like a singular block of ice, and I curl and uncurl them while I eat to improve circulation.

Until today, the scenery has reminded me of other places I’ve hiked. The lush mossy forests, with life sprouting from every nook and corner of rock and tree, resembled hikes in Japan during the rainy season. The terraced rice fields reminded me of hilly northern Thailand. The dry landscape above cloud line was reminiscent of trails in Arizona.

But by the time we reach 12,137 feet, on Day 6, the scenery becomes downright fictional. It looks like Lord of the Rings meets Impressionist Art. Heck, it looks downright cartoonish. There’s no other way to describe it.

We reach the Base Camp of Macchapucchre on Day 6, and spend a night acclimating before our sunrise hike to Annapurna Base Camp, 13,548 feet. The mountains are unlike anything we’ve ever imagined. They tower over us like imposing gods. Some portions held snow and glaciers. Other shot into the sky as sheer, straight-angle rock face. Their vertical rise measured 10,000 feet above where we stood. We’ve seen these same mountains from a distance, but up close, these are Mountains.

It took us four days to walk back to town. We finished the trek on Day 10. We’ve all been changed from the vision of the Mountains.

Scene 4: The orphanage

My parents have launched a Foundation to sponsor orphans in Kathmandu, Nepal. The day after I arrive in Kathmandu, I go with them to Bal Mandir, one of the city’s largest and most reputable orphanages, to agree to an ongoing relationship between our Foundation and this particular orphanage.

In Nepal, its hard to decide whether or not your charitable contribution is going to “leak” into the pockets of the corrupt, but we’ve met with Bal Mandir officials several times, and we feel like at least the majority of our money will go towards the children.

Most of the infants at the orphanage get adopted by foreigners, so we decide to start sponsoring kindergarden-aged kids, who are unlikely to be adopted. We decide that the Foundation can afford to sponsor 8 kids per year, at $375 per child, which covers the entire cost of housing, meals, and private school.

I spend 4 days in Kathmandu and visit Bal Mandir twice, selecting the kids on my second visit. We read through their case files. We give priority to the kids who’ve lost both of their parents to either death or disappearance. We decline the kids who are registered as orphans because their mother got remarried – which, in Nepal, is included in the definition of “orphan.” (Stepfathers usually reject the child, because she is the spawn of a different man).

The kids – mostly boys – were adorable. Like most kindergardeners, they have virtually zero attention span. “Which of you is Suman Gurung?,” we ask when we walk into a playroom filled with children causing havoc. A little boy, wide-eyed, walks up to us. “And which one of you is --?” By the time we’ve called up the second boy, little Suman has wandered away, playing with blocks in the sparsely-furnished room.

Because we’re sponsoring specific kids, we have total decision-making authority over the kids’ lives. My parents and I decide to send these 8 kids to Kathmandu’s best private schools, even if it ends up costing more. I left Kathmandu, and headed back to India, while my parents remained in the city to negotiate tuition.

Scene 5: The hospital

I visit Kathmandu’s Helping Hands Community Hospital to write a story about it for a magazine in Colorado. While I’m there, I go into the surgical room and watch, up-close, as a woman has surgery for injuries she sustained from a water buffalo attack.

I’ll post the link to the story and video when it’s published.