Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's Too Late to Stop Now

Our travels around Asia are now over--what a great trip! We highly recommend all the countries we visited to anyone looking for an adventure.  We hope you enjoy(ed) this blog and that it whets your appetite to explore these countries for yourself. Our favorite destination was Nepal because it combined AMAZING outdoor activities with laid-back, fun urban destinations. Just don't take the buses at night.

Well, we've decided to keep this international thing going...first the Peace Corps, then our Asia travels, and now positions as teachers at Al Batinah International School in Oman. We're really looking forward to living in and exploring the Middle East. Follow our adventures at our new blog:

Dan and Jillian's International Teaching Adventures


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Point of Exit

I almost forgot to take the picture and I'd be kicking myself now if I had. Crammed in among the throng of shops selling North Fake products, pashminas, maps, photocopies of Lonely Planet issues, and Buddha statues in Kathmandu was this restaurant:

Now this is just damn funny. See, there's a delicious little independent restaurant in Narragansett, Rhode Island, right around the corner from where Jillian and I lived for the year before joining Peace Corps. It serves amazing breakfasts and vegetarian food. It's called Crazy Burger and if you don't live in southern Rhode Island (talk about a qualifier--that's like describing a very small pygmy horse) you've probably never heard of it. But there, on the storefront in Kathmandu, is the logo I remember so well. Now there's some copy write theft I didn't see coming. North Face, sure, but Crazy Burger?

Our rafting trip from Kathmandu was cancelled and Jillian and I boarded a plane for Hong Kong. We had to pass through the city anyway on our return home, so we simply moved up the first leg of the trip to spend some time in this thoroughly Western locale. Jillian remarked that it felt like the perfect transition back to America--Hong Kong is orderly, clean, and expensive--after a few months of, well, the opposite of those things.

In no other area is the gap between Hong Kong and places like Vietnam and India more obvious than in transportation. Hong Kong's system of subways, light rail trains, and buses is immaculate and efficient and, servicing a population of over seven million, the best big-city public system I've ever seen. And at one dollar a ride, it's subway is less than half the cost of New York's.

The trains in India seemed a million miles away. And they can stay there.

We hopped around Hong Kong, taking in as much as possible so as to avoid staying as few nights as possible (a hostel there ran us $40, as compared to $10 in Nepal for a much nicer room). The "thing" to do in Hong Kong is a ride up the steeply tracked tram to Victoria Peak which overlooks the city. I was in Hong Kong nine years ago and the Peak was then topped with only a viewing platform; now there's a giant, exclusive mall up there. The weather wasn't too cooperative, but it was a pleasant afternoon anyway, and through the clouds we could still see across the water to Kowloon (northern Hong Kong) where we had spent a morning walking through the jade markets.

But more than anything, we spent our time in Hong Kong reflecting on a very tiring and very fun trip. Now after two years in Macedonia and three months traveling to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Nepal, we're finally ready to take a deep breath and settle down with regular jobs back home in America.

Then again...

Cloudy Hong Kong, from Victoria Peak

A view of the city from the ferry to Kowloon

Friday, March 19, 2010


It felt as if we were accidentally using the Jedi mind trick. Jillian was interested in a full day yoga and meditation retreat at one of the many Buddhist centers in Pokhara, Nepal, and we were speaking with the owner of a peaceful little spot called Om's Home. The price, he said, was three thousand rupees. Do you have a spot available tomorrow, we asked.

He paused. "Okay, twenty-five hundred rupees. I give you 500 discount."

We looked at each other. Ummm, great, a discount. And do you have a spot tomorrow?

Another pause and then, annoyed, "Okay, fine, two thousand! That's the lowest price."

I was tempted to ask how many people were on his staff, just to see what we could get out of him.

Pokhara, Nepal's second city, was where we found ourselves relaxing after finishing the trek around the Annapurna range. It's a really laid back, pretty town on the banks of a small lake:

What I've found surprising in Nepal, particularly in the low valley regions around Kathmandu and Pokhara, is the poor air quality. Nepal, I think, evokes imaginings of cool, fresh mountain air and escape from city congestion. Well, in the higher elevations this is certainly true, but down low the air can be downright awful. Nepal has electricity issues--during our time here Kathmandu has experienced 12 hours of darkness each day--so many businesses and private homes use gas generators to compensate. Combine this with the black smoke-spitting trucks that fill the city streets and you've got some serious smog.

So our first few days in Pokhara didn't offer us much of a chance to get up in the hills to see anything, but then, thankfully, a night of rain came and the air was clear. We hiked up to the World Peace Stupa, an especially beautiful Buddhist pagoda built in 1996 by a Japanese organization. We also walked further up to take in panoramic views of the Himalayas and to watch paragliders launch into the skies high above the city. It looked massively fun, but somehow not worth $120 for thirty minutes of my time.

World Peace Stupa

Back in Kathmandu we were gearing up for our ten-day rafting trip down the Sun Koshi, apparently one of the most beautiful rafting rivers in the world, when we got some bad news. Due to a serious lack of tourists in Nepal this season, we were the only ones who signed up for the trip. So it was cancelled and nobody else is offering a multi-day trip for at least a couple of weeks. We briefly considered doing another trek (maybe Everest Base Camp!) but we don't have enough time...and besides, that gives us a reason to come back to Nepal.

So change of plans: we'll spend some time in Hong Kong and Macau on our way back to Los Angeles. Not exactly rafting class 5 rapids, but it'll do. Stay tuned for pictures from atop the famous Victoria Peak.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Open Circuit

Jillian and I just completed the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal and it was a blast. At two weeks, over 100 miles, and an incredible elevation gain topping out at the Thorung-La pass, it was one of the most challenging and rewarding things we've ever done. Below are the highlights of the expedition:

Up, Up, and Away (Day 1): We arrived at the trailhead courtesy of what Jillian's sister Alex calls a "chicken bus." By this I take her to mean any bus on which humans are sharing the seats with animals, but this particular bus was in fact carrying several crates of chickens. They clucked and squawked over the many bumps and then, finally, we were there, the beginning of the Annapurna Circuit. We showed our permits at the first of many check points and we noticed in the log that we were the third and fourth hikers to enter the trail that day. The man behind the desk informed us that during the high months (April and October) between 200 and 300 people enter the trail per day.

We felt like the third and fourth people left on Earth during our first night in the village of Ngadi. As I mentioned in the previous post, the Annapurna Circuit is what's called a "teahouse trek" and in Ngadi not only were we the sole guests at our teahouse, but we were the only guests in town. Several lodges sat empty. The night was dead quiet and pitch dark save for the candle we read and ate by. Our host prepared amazing food--the first of many great meals on the trail--as we looked over the map and the next day's mileage.

And then we were 30 (Day 2): Annapurna Circuit is the real deal. It took a couple of miles of steep climbing for this to really sink in. We had culled our load down to the bare necessities and each of us carried around 18 pounds (8 kgs) on our backs. The bulkiest and heaviest cargo were the rented down jackets buried at the bottom of our packs. It was hard to believe we'd be needing them--we spent the first three days of the trek sweating in shorts and t-shirts.

We hadn't exactly trained for this expedition, nor are we any longer 20-somethings with elastic muscles and tendons, so the first few days on the trail were incredibly tiring. We certainly didn't make things easier on ourselves this day when we inexplicably second-guessed our guidebook and crossed to the wrong side of the river and climbed a steep embankment, only to have to descend and climb back up the other side. That night we wolfed down our dinner at a cozy lodge in the village Jagat. Next door was the lodge The North Face, complete with the company's logo. Why is copy write infringement so funny?

A donkey goes for a drink in the valley

No Fly-Overs of Heaven (Day 5): By now Jillian and I were feeling much stronger and we blasted our way past 3,000 meters (9,600 feet) en route to the village Pisang. This proved to be the most scenic day of the trek, with long exposed trail providing us incredible, National Geographic-like shots of the Annapurna range (a section of the Himalayas). In our more immediate view were the first of many yaks we would see. Actually, in the lower elevations it's a yak-cow hybrid: body of a cow, horns and coat of a yak. Later we would see full-blooded yaks and really cool mountain goats.

In the early going of the day's hike we rounded a bend and caught our first sight of what locals call the Gate to Heaven, where all souls must pass on their way to the next life. This "gate" is a single rock rising one mile from the river bed. It's immense, and that's not all: we later learned that due to the rock's mineral composition, the Gate to Heaven has a magnetic field and aircraft are warned to steer clear for the sake of their instruments. From the top-floor dining hall of our lodge, where the host made surprisingly good pizza, we watched clouds cling to the giant rock in the distance, dumping snow on its broad face.

Getting up there now

Eat your heart out, John Denver (Days 6-7): To stave off Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), trekkers on the circuit are advised to stay well hydrated, avoid alcohol, and spend two nights in the village of Manang (11,600 feet) to acclimatize. Okay, twist my arm. Manang is simply gorgeous, situated in a wide river valley inhabited by wild horses and picture-perfect views of the Himalayan peaks. The town itself, like many of the other villages, is a series of lodges and trading post-like shops. Basically, they should rename the town Louis L'Amour.

We could really feel the elevation now and, for me, sleeping was a bit difficult until I fully acclimatized. One night in Manang I awoke near midnight and, wide awake, stepped outside. There, due west, was the moon-drenched behemoth Annapurna IV. The valley was bright and clear under the full moon but the mountain was something else. It's snow-covered peak reflected the light in a hazy blue. It was surreal and terrifying. I watched it for several minutes, thinking Thank God we're only crossing Thorung La.

In Manang the views were amazing

God's Chosen, Frozen (Day 9): The day before the "big day" when we would cross Thorung La we spent the afternoon and evening at a desolate little spot called Thorung Phedi, or "base of Thorung." It's essentially two buildings and Lonely Planet cautions to beware of "poor" sanitation at the lodge. That night the thermometer on our travel alarm clock registered 26 degrees in our room at bedtime, so we slept in all our clothes and under three blankets.

We passed the early evening huddled with fellow travelers in the dining hall, everyone in down jackets reading or playing cards and drinking hot tea. We were sitting next to a group of Israelis, which afforded me the opportunity to ask something I've been wondering about. In many countries we've traveled to--India, Vietnam, Hungary, to name a few--I've been mistaken for an Israeli. I suppose this is due to the beard, light eyes, and, er, healthy nose. Now I had a panel of experts so I asked them, "Do I look Israeli?" Their unanimous answer was yes, with one woman adding, "I thought for sure you were until I heard you speak, and then I just assumed you were an American Jew." Well then, shalom and good luck to all of us crossing Thorung La.

Yet another picture-esque view

Excuse me while I kiss the sky (Day 10): I should start by saying that we crossed Thorung La under ideal conditions: clear and sunny skies, relatively little snow on the trail, and fairly low wind. That being said, this was the physically hardest thing either of us has ever done. This includes running marathons. Lonely Planet's warning about the hygiene at the lodge held up and 15 minutes into the day's climb Jillian was hit by food poisoning. So on top of the strain of climbing over 3,000 feet before noon you can add some occasional vomiting. But she's tough and nothing was going to stop her.

After we crossed the 5,000 meter mark (16,000 feet), the going became decidedly more difficult. Even on level terrain our breathing as labored and on the steep, snowy portions every step was an effort. There were a half dozen false summits, making the climb as mentally tough as it was physically. We dug our poles into the snow and kept plodding, eventually reaching Thorung La (17,721 feet) just over 5 hours after setting out. A wooden sign greeted us with congratulations. To quote John Krakauer's sentiment upon summiting Everest, we couldn't muster the energy to care. We were spent and still had 4 hours of descent ahead of us. But the build up and suspense was over; we had made it and that evening we sat back and toasted our success.

Top of the world!! Well, almost.

Yeti sightings (Days 11-14): A thin stream of sunlight passed through an opening in the curtains, so I knew it was morning. But I felt as if I had just closed my eyes. That night after Thorung La was probably the best night of sleep I have ever had. Jillian concurred and we spent the next several days lounging in the high elevation villages on the other side of the pass. One of them, Muktinath, is a holy Hindu and Buddhist site, visited frequently by Indians and Nepalese. The basis for the village's religious fame is nestled in a hillside. There's a rock which contains both a stream of water and a blue natural gas flame and this combination of earth, fire and water has been drawing pilgrims for over 1,000 years.

We were having a lovely dinner (Yak steaks!) in the town of Jomsom and talking to some fellow trekkers who recommended another, shorter trek out of the city of Pokhara. They added that it's much prettier and less developed than the back side of the Annapurna Circuit. Well, we don't have time for that...except Jomsom has a tiny airport...and there was a flight available the next 12 hours later we changed plans and hopped on a Yeti Airlines (seriously) prop plane on the runway behind our lodge. I nearly had to sedate Jillian, but she was glad I didn't since the views from the cramped "cabin" as the plane weaved between Himalayan peaks were fantastic.

Just for comparison:

Thorung La: 17,721 feet
Mt. Whitney (tallest peak in contiguous U.S.): 14,505 feet
Mt. McKinley (tallest in U.S.): 20,320
Annapurna I (tallest in the range): 26,545 feet

So here were are in Pokhara getting prepared for our next shorter, less harrowing trek. Check out all our pictures by clicking on "Our Photos" on the right side bar.