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Kim in the Himalaya 2003

Bhutan and Nepal - by Kim Bannister

Also see Kim in the Indian Himalaya 2003.

Tashi Delek!

Bhutan

After a few wonderful but far-too-short months back in the States, where I visited friends and family on both ends of the country, did a bit of skiing in Steamboat, and tried my hand at selling Kamzang World Design silver jewelry, I returned to Kathmandu, where I embarked on an impromptu trip to Bhutan with my friend Pablo from CO.

I almost didn't make it to Bhutan, as the Bhutanese government was examining foreigners with a fine-toothed comb for signs of SARS and turning back foreigners from the airport in Para from cities like London and Hong Kong. I had to be a bit creative about my route out to Paro, as I had stopped in Vancouver, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Kathmandu en route.

Bhutan is a country that had assumed mythical proportions for me because of the incredible photos appearing in coffee-table books on the Kingdoms of the Himalaya and in National Geographic magazine, and because of its $200 per day standard traveling fee! Our first stop in Paro only accentuated the surreal feeling of landing in a 'restricted' Kingdom. Never have I been to a 'city' so serene, so picturesque, so bucolic, it almost had the affect of a stage-set with a perfectly painted backdrop. The Bhutanese government controls the building and architecture in Bhutan, so all the houses and gompas are built in typical Bhutanese style (and the hotels are unbelievably beautiful in a traditionally-Bhutanese fashion), and all the Bhutanese wear their national dress, the 'kira' for women and 'gho' for men, when out during working hours. The whole country is impeccably clean, either blanketed in forests or covered with patchworks of green fields, billowing prayer flags, white-washed traditional Bhutanese houses and gilded gompas.

We hiked up to the Tiger's Nest gompa, perched high up in the mountains near Paro. This is the amazingly romantic gompa that you will see in National Geographic magazines about Bhutan, and I was so excited to get close to it, although as foreigners we weren't allowed inside the gompa. En route we noticed for the first, but not the last time, the 'cult of the phallic symbol' murals painted on four or five feet of many of the Bhutanese houses. We learned that this phallus is a very important symbol to Bhutanese Tibetan Buddhists, as is represents the feats of one of their most endeared 'saints'. The Bhutanese, unlike other Tibetan Buddhists in neighboring countries, revere the Shabdrung Rimpoche over Guru Rimpoche or even HH the Dalai Lama.

After a crash course in the intricate customs of the country – which color scarf means which social standing, how to wear the scarf for different occasions, how to bow when pass an official or lama, how to greet Bhutanese, what shoes to wear in a gompa (Pablo could wear his boots but I couldn't wear my flip-flops), we feasted on our first of many delicious Bhutanese meals of 'ema datsi' or cheese and chili 'curry', the national dish, and eaten with either large, smoky red (my favorite) or green chili's, added to the dish as a vegetable, delicately fried asparagus, fried fiddle-head fern and rice. (I think we had something else once, but can't remember … Ah, yes, there was the fresh yak meat while trekking. The yak fell off a cliff just before we arrived at camp after a long day of pass-climbing and jungle-thrashing, and a few hours later we had a large shank of yak air-drying outside the cook tent. Our guides apparently traded for four bottles of whiskey for the leg of yak, which didn't seem like such a good trade to me. We should have known there was to be meat for dinner when we noticed the ten or so Lammergeyers circling the plateau overhead).

Actually the Bhutanese are big meat-eaters, and although Pablo & I pleaded vegetarianism, we often had two or three separate meat dishes with dinner. Texas BBQ watch out!

To back-up a bit, we had embarked on an eight-day trek to Chomolari base camp on the border of Bhutan and Tibet, heading first through beautiful open forests (in the rain), then reaching more open, alpine areas and finally arriving at high pastures surrounded by snow-capped peaks. The trekking was colder, rainier and windier that Nepal or India, but there was virtually no one around except scattered villagers living in their Bhutanese alpine homes, decorated yak skulls adorning the doorways, their yaks roaming the pastures nearby and their Tibetan mastiff dog's tied to a stake in front of the house. Our staff built us roaring fires in the evening, never soon enough, but much appreciated when the smoke began to snake up out of the government-built tourist 'shelter'. The woods a bit lower down were filled with colorful, blooming rhododendron and the hillsides peppered with clusters of either all-white or multi-colored vertical prayer flags on poles, incredibly beautiful, and marking either a relative's death (white) or sending out Buddhist prayers into the world.

After the trek, we visited the capital of Bhutan, Thimpu, where our guide Gelay helps to teach art to Bhutanese children in a funky artists' center. Thimpu is not quite as idyllically beautiful as Paro, but has more spunk and youth culture, better education and more coffee shops and social life. And an amazing Saturday/Sunday market packed with old and new textiles, baskets, Buddhist objects, silver and turquoise, antiquities, fruit, vegetables, chili's (imagine …) and a hundred other interesting things, I, of course, resisted it all.

We then drove along the national highway, a narrow, snaking road barely big enough for two cars to pass each other, to the old capital of Punaka, a small town where one of the most famous gompas in Bhutan was preparing for the visit of a high Rimpoche (or was it the King?) with banners, flags, flowers and all sorts of wonderful decorations, all of the resident monks and lamas and craftspeople involved in the preparations. The school kids were all taking a day off school to sweep the street with willow branches. This is the kind of Kingdom that Bhutan is.

Langtang

After returning to Nepal, Pablo and I spend the next two weeks trekking in the Langtang National Park, a trekking area closer to Kathmandu than the Everest or the Annapurna region but less trekked and stunningly beautiful with our friend/guide, Gyalgen Sherpa. In upper Langtang, the people are Tamangs and Lamas, and as they all produce delicious varieties of corn and wheat chang and raksi, our trek was soon dubbed the 'chang trek', and we felt obligated to sample all available varieties of this local brew. (I arrived in Kathmandu with a serious case of giardia, which I unknowingly overdosed on antibiotics to cure.) We trekked out via the sacred Gosainkund lake and the 'Sherpa' populated Helambu region (a slightly different type of Sherpa than in the Solu Khumbu), and emerged a few hour's drive from Kathmandu, where Pablo charted our own private bus of the local sort to take us back to the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel.

After a quick few days back in Kathmandu, quite a 'mountaineering scene' at the end of May with the post-Everest teams roaming the streets, and during which I took Pablo on 'the non-eco challenge run' through the backstreets of Kathmandu, I flew to Delhi to meet Joel and the rest of our Zanksar Spring trekkers for the early morning jeep trip to Manali.

Kailash Pilgrimage

I flew back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu for my September Kailash trek. Sunish arrived in Kathmandu early, and I got to do some sightseeing and wandering the streets of Kathmandu with him. We spent hours doing koras (shopping koras, granted) of the stupa at Boddhanath, and in the evenings hung out in New Orleans 'talking story' with other travelers or expats. The group, Sunish, Male, Donna and Roger, Michelle and Peter, stayed at the Yak & Yeti for a bit of five-star treatment before our flight to Lhasa. This was Michelle's third attempt at getting to Kailash, and she brought her husband, Peter (the avid photographer) along to document what she decided was the lucky trip. I had also been talking with Donna for over a year, arranging her husband's 50th birthday trip. What a gift! And Sunish and Male joined later in the game, but were perhaps the most excited by Tibet throughout the journey. All were a pleasure to have along, and all brought as much with them as they took away from Tibet.

Lhasa, as always, was amazing, and a city perhaps the closest to my heart and soul as any in Asia. I could walk the kora of the Jokhang palace and the Barkor square forever with the hundreds of other Tibetans along side, counting their prayer beads and spinning their prayer wheels - Om Mani Padme Hum. This year there weren't as many Tibetan pilgrims as last year at Kailash, but there were many still in Lhasa, dressed in their best 'chubas' and decked out in all variety of turquoise, silver, gold and colorful beads. I went on my usual hunt for old prayer beads, old silver and turquoise jewelry or designs, old textiles and interesting 'curios' and, as usual, discovered whole new genres of crafts and 'old things' to buy. And to their credit, everyone on the trek scoured the bazaars right along with me, and just as enthusiastically. I may have even been surpasses in this endeavor by Male, who certainly took the lead out west near Kailash. She was named “100 Quai” girl by the local Tibetan women selling Tibetan jewelry in Darchen! We stayed at the Tibetan-style Dhood Gu, my favorite hotel in Lhasa, and ate and drank almost every night at the Dutch run Dunya, which began to feel like the neighborhood haunt. Peter and Michelle were constantly on the search for the best Chinese food in town, and found some delicious local restaurants, bargains at that, during the trip, as well as helping out cooking great Chinese dishes in the kitchen tent during the trek. (I was, of course, also in the kitchen tent in search of the perfect tomato salsa and stir-fried spinach and garlic).

In Lhasa we watched the debating sessions among the monks at Sera and Drepung, always fascinating and full of laughter and drama, and were horrified at the 'zoo' at Norbulinka, and then boarded the Landcruisers (I think we got away from the Dhood Gu this year without any of their flamingo pink towels in our packs) and headed south to Gyantse, with its impressive Kumbum gompa complex and ancient gompas. Then south again through wonderful, soft Tibetan landscapes, past villagers harvesting their golden barley, to Tashilumpo, the best preserved monastery in Tibet, at Shigatse before our trip out to the far west of Tibet. In search of Kang Rimpoche - Precious Snow-Peak - Mount Kailash - Mount Mera, the Center of the Universe. The most sacred pilgrimage spot for Buddhist, Hindus, Jains and Bon-pas in all of the Himalaya, perhaps all of the world.

With Phubu, our guide, and Dawa and Lam, our drivers, we headed across the vast Tibetan plateau, past all the great peaks in Nepal at the border of Nepal and Tibet, over countless passes marked with prayer flags and cairns, past nomad camps with their gurs (where we looked for fresh yogurt or local rugs), glaciers falling down to the road, kiangs and herds of Tibetan antelope, small Tibetan villages where we would stop for tea or shopping, high-altitude lakes which rose with white cranes as we approached, sand dunes, ruined fortresses and a wide expanse of grassy hillsides and pastures towered over by shining snow-peaks, we approached the sacred Lake Manasorovar.

The mornings and evenings were freezing as usual, and the dark mornings (because of the common time zone in China) getting out of frozen tents were difficult, but the rewards were immense. Sunish kept the Nepali crew entertained with his depictions of each of them as Hindi film stars and kept our sirdar, Ram Kaji, on his toes. “You know, it's difficult …” Male was the 'mother' to all of our crew, providing them with presents and smiles. The highlight, in my opinion, was the campsite at Parayang, where we camped next to a large, crescent shaped sand dune from which a massive range of pink, snow-capped peaks and small, reflective lakes were breath-taking at sunset and sunrise. From the dunes, all of Parayang was visible, Tibetans with their herds of sheep and yaks drift by, dogs roam the outskirts of town, the children are out playing games, and the storms roll in and out.

The Kailash kora was exciting this year, as a huge storm approached the day we started the kora, and completely covered Kailash, Darchen and probably the whole of western Tibet. We were snowed in on the second day, and decided to give the storm a day to pass, and try to continue the kora the next day. We ended up acting as the Kailash Tea House, serving tea, coffee, biscuits and dried fruit to frozen trekkers and Tibetans passing by. Other groups turned back in the face of the storm, but we ended up making the right decision as the next day was blue skies and perfect weather. We walked up the Lha Chu valley, past the 'West Gate' of Kailash and entered the northern valley, just under the spectacular North face of Kailash. I walked across the river to Dira Puk gompa for incredible views of the mountain, and then met the group at the lovely campsite below the pass.

The next morning Donna and Roger opted not to cross the pass because of Donna's badly 'locked shoulder/arm' which would have been treacherous after the snowfall that had accumulated on the Drolma La pass, at 5600m, now certainly covered with ice. The rest of us headed up, slowly, with the other Tibetan pilgrims, and after a long, cold, windy, slippery but incredibly beautiful day, rejoined at a small 'Tea Tent' below the tent. Atop the pass, I hung prayer flags and remembered the “Free Tibet” flags that Temba & Nyima Lhamo had given me last year. I was joined by a boisterous group of pilgrims from Chamdo, who feasted on dried meat and tsampa at the pass.

We did it, thus erasing the sins of a lifetime, well perhaps! And still a bit more to go. The next day, walking down the west valley, which was blanketed in wide, frozen and seemingly un-crossable rivers, Michelle, Peter and I pioneered a new route on the wrong side of the main river, and had to cross over a shallow but wide area downriver with the help of our irreplaceable cook, Pemba. Still, though, I have rarely seen a morning as wonderful as that one, the rocks in the river, still frozen, sparkled with the early morning sunrays, and the whole valley seemed to emit gentle, golden glow.

Back on the road, finally reaching a high pass right over the Himalayas, and down a precipitous, lush gorge back to Nepal and the Last Resort for saunas, cold beers, bamboo huts and hikes through gentle, warm, green Nepali villages before returning to Kathmandu.

Nar-Phu explorations

In November I headed to the Annapurna region for some amazing 'exploratory' trekking in a newly opened 'Tibetan' region - actually in the Manangi region, but Tibetan in character and origin - called Nar Phu.

We (Raju from the Kailash trip, who turns out to be a great chapatti maker) and I had many adventures en route and many smoky evenings around our campfires (I now have new respect for the camp cooks who work over these incredibly smoky fires cooking our chapattis). The adventures started just after we left Kathmandu as we rode atop a Nepali bus towards Besi Sahar, and were rewarded with some of the most impressive mountain views of the whole trek. Lugging our packs through the hot and humid lower hills of the circuit, followed by the cloudy, cold approaches to the upper Annapurna circuit, we reached the gateway to Nar Phu, Koto. En route to Koto, all the young children of the various villages were out dancing and singing, afterwards being offered money for their endeavors by each household, for the Nepali festival of Devali or Tihar. A lively, colorful festival!

At Koto, after installing ourselves into a guest house with some weathered French climbers returning from Himjung peak near Phu, we plotted how to escape the notice of the check post guards in Koto the next morning (we didn't have a permit, as I wasn't able to procure one as a single trekker in Kathmandu). We suddenly realized that we were actually staying at the same lodge as the group's Nepali liaison officer, and to make matters worse, were later joined by the entire staff of the check post, or so it seems, for sukuti (fried meat) and large quantities of beer and raksi. The next morning, after a sleepless night, it was snowing at 5 am, so I postponed our 'mission' into Nar Phu. Raju enjoyed the free day, as it was Tika, the day that brothers are traditionally honored with tikas by their sisters. (And offered copious quantities of specially-prepared food and drink … you can imagine the affects of this early morning ritual on an entire village), so it seemed appropriate to sit tight for another day. Meanwhile, I walked to Chame for a visit, reacquainting myself with the check post officials and the Army officers along the way.

The next morning, after another session of beer and bullshitting with the check post guards at the guest house, we left early to cross the bridge into the Nar Phu valleys. Not early enough however, as one guard spotted us, and others were washing overlooking the bridge. Miraculously we managed to sneak over anyways – a mystery – and headed up towards the much anticipated Nar Phu valleys. The approach was beautiful – light, lovely woods opening up into Sierra-like landscapes with white rocks, low shrubs and stunted trees, colorful lichen and small, red flowers under white, snow-capped peaks. The camping was cold – the sun went down at 2:30 inside the canyons - but we warmed ourselves with hard-earned fires and I cooked some truly delicious pasta dishes with dried tomatoes all the way from the bazaars of Leh! Along the way to Phu, we encountered the Nar and Phu winter settlements, composed of stone houses, drying hay on the roofs, and the occasional yak, and one day an entire yak caravan of local Phu residents on their way to the markets at Manang.

Later, we entered an impressive valley of canyons and monoliths, rocky, ice-shrouded rivers (sometimes even with bridges), glaciers and contorted cliffs similar to the ones in Ladakh. The most exciting moment was reaching the red and white portal to Phu, high above the river, reached by a long, steep set of 'steps'. What a view! Massive glacial moraines, 7000 meter peaks, ruined forts, stunning red, white, gold and black chortens, very unique to Phu, gilded gompas, thousands of billowing prayer flags, spans of mani walls and the three adjoining sections of Phu, set high atop a hill.

In Phu, there was still only VERY basic accommodation with Karsang's family in their stone, wood and mud house. I opted to camp on the roof (which was a much better choice than the dark, smoky dining room, and had the bonus of spectacular views! I had to climb two wooden ladders with the steps hewn out of them to get up to my tent, a bit sketchy at night!) instead of the possibly flea-infested bed inside the one-room house. I spent one afternoon chatting with a renowned Lama and Rimpoche from Tibet, who came over in 1959 with the Dalai Lama, at the renowned Tashi Lhakhang gompa atop a steep hill, and with tremendous views. He is also an “amchi” or Tibetan doctor, and a great thanka painter, and two of his grandchildren, a young monk and an 'ani' or nun from Tibet, studied at the gompa with him.

In Nar, a two day's walk away, we stayed in relative luxury with a local couple, who had just finished the first basic guest house, called appropriately, the Shanti Lodge, anticipating the flood of trekkers to come. En route, we camped at the Nar winter settlement with a group of people from Nar heading into the forests to lug back timbers, which they strapped to their backs. The usual haunting Tibetan songs floated out from the smoky hut where they stayed just next to our tents, turning a bit more raunchy as some Sherpas with a French group joined in.

Sometimes villages seem nearly deserted during the day, but these two, especially Nar, were chock-a-block with people doing all sorts of interesting things; pounding mustard seed for oil, weaving sheep or yak hair textiles on back looms, spinning sheep and yak wool on wooden spools, printing prayer flags, carrying large loads of wood from the forests or bales of hay from the fields to store on the roofs of their houses. The resonating sound of local lamas and monks chanting, ringing bells and sounding drums in almost every household was magical, and special pujas (one woman had a bad dream the second day I was in Nar) were common. And kids everywhere – school wasn't that popular, and I understand why after having spent a few nights in the guest house with the Nepali schoolteachers! It was amazing just wandering the timeless, winding, narrow alleyways of Nar, from the rooftops looking out toward the rest of the crescent-shaped village, a whole village scene unfolded itself.

On the ninth day in the region, I crossed the spectacular 5,300 meter Kang La pass (with the help of a local horse and horseman as I had sent Raju back) and descended steeply to Ngawal, on the upper route of the Annapurna circuit. This has to be one of the classic trekking days in all of the Himalayan ranges!

To sum up this new trekking region for anyone that wants to sell it to their friends and family, Nar Phu is a stunningly beautiful, high altitude valley system in upper Manang surrounded by snow-peaks & climbing peaks, high pastures, glaciers and yak karkas, and adorned with shimmering, brightly painted gompas, traditional Manangi villages, a patchwork of fields, fluttering strings of prayer flags and intricately designed ochre-colored chortens. I met so many wonderful, warm and interesting people during my ten days in the region there, and can't wait to return next year!

After Nar Phu, I returned to Kathmandu via the normal Annapurna circuit, meeting many trekkers, sitting in local kitchens in the lodges and crossing the Thorung La on a brilliant, clear day. In Tukuche, I happened upon a local 'Cham danse' at their oldest gompa, a colorful display of Tibetan Buddhist ritual which is rare to see, and in Tatopani, I spend three days soaking in the hot springs at the wonderful Dhaulagiri Lodge. Throughout, I managed to avoid the Maoists, and after a long, bumpy bus ride back from Beni, returned to Kathmandu, ready for a pizza!

Khumbu Christmas

December is the month of Project Himalaya's yearly Christmas trek in the Solu Khumbu (Everest) region of Nepal, and this year was Joel's 50th birthday and my 37th. We walked in from Jiri, a first for me, and a lovely walk except for those frequent cold days as dark clouds descended on us. Again, we encountered no Maoists, although Joel has some problems with them on the way back. It was so great to get back into 'upper' Khumbu, Monjo and Namche Bazaar, where I've had so many wonderful times over the past few years. The kids in Monjo were out in force, and I was so happy to see them – and how they'd grown. We now sponsor two of these girls from poorer families, both of whom are exceptional students but don't have much opportunity.

We spent my birthday at one of my favorite places on the planet, Gokyo, at our favorite small lodge run by a wonderful Sherpa family, and overlooking Gokyo lake from a warm sun-room. Canned spinach for birthday dinner, brought especially from India by Joel; you would think we had enough of it by now! Gokyo Ri for my birthday morning, and views of Everest and all the surrounding 8000 peaks is getting to be a ritual, and the perfect way to usher in a new year in life.

On the way down, we had another 'classic Himalayan' trekking day en route from Phortse to Pangboche, again a first for me, and I also found the most wonderful gompa, or retreat, tucked away high up in the hills above Namche, again one of the most stunning spots that I have ever seen. No more details given - you must come trekking with us to experience this 'secret spot'.

After a scary flight back to Kathmandu from Lukla, which was diverted to Pokhara because of an all-Nepal white out – snow, hail, rain, clouds, fog, mist depending on where one was – I landed safely in Kathmandu, in time for another New Year's Eve.

So I will end by sending a Happy New Year out to everyone from across the Himalayan ranges.

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