April 2008


Hi everybody!

Well as you may (or may not) have heard in the news, the Maoists came out ahead in Nepal’s recent national election — good news for us on the verge of our entry into Nepal. Why? Because in recent years, Maoist unrest has occasionally made things less than safe in this wonderful country. But having just won a plurality in the election to establish a new constitution, the Maoists — now in a position to lead the country toward abolishing the monarchy and establishing a democratic republic — were full of good cheer as we crossed the eastern border and hopped a long-haul bus to Pokhara. We (and the people of Nepal) are keeping our fingers crossed that the political situation continues to stabilize and move in a good direction.

Hour zero of the 19-hour bus ride across the country…

… and sixteen hours later. Hang in there Derry, only three more hours to go!

We were headed to Pokhara to trek in the Annapurna region. In our guidebook, Derry spotted a listing for a trekking agency run by women, Three Sisters Adventure Trekking. Since 1994, the Chhetri sisters have been helping women become trekking guides (a role traditionally held by men), and providing women trekkers (and their enlightened husbands) with female guides and porters.

This seemed like a great enterprise that we wanted to support. We hired a guide and porter, and we all flew via Gorkha Airlines to a town called Jomsom, up on the Tibetan plateau (though still in Nepal) — very clever of us, because then we got to walk mostly downhill (or at least level) for the rest of our trek!

Sita (L), our guide, has been guiding with Three Sisters for six years. Hira (R), our porter and apprentice to Sita, joined Three Sisters in January 2008 and is training to become a guide.

Our trail followed the old Salt Road between India and Tibet. Although salt is no longer traded along this route, many other goods — carried by a continual procession of pony caravans — still are.

The people here are culturally Tibetan, and Buddhist imagery is everywhere. The eyes of the Buddha watch over our entry into each town…

…as we pass walls of Mani stones, each carved with the inscription “Om mani padme hum.”

Red doors welcome monks and visitors to this gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery), built in 1380, in the town of Kagbeni.

Out of time… medieval Kagbeni was our farthest point north on the plateau toward Tibet, in Nepal’s Mustang region. Is that yeti fur adorning the roof of the gompa?

Inside the gompa are many ritual masks used in ceremonial dances. Scary!

Traditional technologies are in active use in this region…

(weaving…)

(ploughing…)

… along with 21st-century solar cookers.

The apex of our trek was a day hike up to the holy temples of Muktinath, where Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims converge to receive blessings — especially on full moon days like the day we visited.

Sadhus (holy men) walk here from Southern India to, um, smoke weed with their buddies.

Rich Indians, on the other hand, take the express route…

As you can see, we were among mountains, although we did not freeze as in Sikkim (thank goodness!). Below you can see Dhauligiri, one of the world’s few 8000m+ peaks, in the distance.

And while the mountains were spectacular, the real treat of this trek was walking wide-eyed through timeless villages and cultures which seemed to take little notice of our presence.

(Sita and Hira in the winding lanes of Kagbeni)

Now we’re in Kathmandu, about to enter Kopan Monastery for 10 days of meditation and instruction in Tibetan Buddhism. As soon as we’re enlightened we’ll do another blog post! (Or maybe before, so as not to keep you waiting multiple lifetimes….)

With love, us

Hi again everybody,

We have good internet access here in Darjeeling, so we’re posting again just a few days after our last post. If you missed the last post, take a look… India: Views From a Bus Window.

Our epic overland journey brought us (eventually) to the tiny northern Indian state of Sikkim, an ancient Himalayan kingdom tucked between Nepal and Bhutan. Upon arrival we immediately felt like we were in a different country, probably because Sikkim was a separate country until just over thirty years ago. Mountains, cedars, rhododendrons — we had left the plains of Hinduism and entered the land of Tibetan Buddhism.

The wind sends prayers from the prayer flags.

A freshly-painted windowframe at a monastery we visited.

We spun the prayer wheels to bring good luck and good weather as we prepared to trek in the Himalayas.

The trek begins. We started out at an altitude of 5800 feet, surrounded by spring vegetation.

Hello Daphne! But where are your leaves?

Breakfast in the sunshine — short-lived, as springtime brings afternoon clouds to the Himalayas each day. We trekked with two other couples, two guides, various cooks and porters, and a whole lot of…

Yaks! Dzhos, actually — half-yak, half-cow. Trekking in Sikkim is not like trekking in Nepal; there are no teahouses or other accommodation along the trail. Trekkers stay in tents, or bed down on the floor in shacks that house yaks during the winter. The dzhos carry everything necessary to keep us alive for nine days.

Day 3. We still had morning sunshine, but no table or chairs (and it was getting noticeably colder…)

Possibly a relative of one of our trusty dzhos. Our guide told us that real yaks like this one cannot go below 2000 meters (6600 feet), or they will die!

After some days of climbing, we emerged from the forest to rewarding vistas of the third highest peak in the world — Kanchenjunga!! (Also spelled Kanchendzonga.) About 100 km west of Everest (and directly above Kate’s head in this picture), it stands at 28,373 feet.

Our farthest camp, at about 13,000 feet. This hut did not provide a whole lot of protection from the cold, but we did feel luckier than the people in the ice-encrusted TENTS!! (Not visible in this photo, unfortunately… use your imagination if you dare!)

Don’t let these smiles fool you. It’s freezing.

This is what we came to see — Kanchenjunga up close.

Our trek mates.

Celebrating with some locally-brewed Chang. To make at home, pack fermented millet seeds into a section of bamboo. Add boiling water. Let steep for a few minutes, then sip the liquid through a bamboo straw. Mmmm!

Making our way back down to warmth and civilization (i.e., hot showers!)

The road back to India.

Gluttons for punishment, we’re now heading to Nepal to trek (partway) around the Annapurna Himal. We would have left yesterday, but we were stranded in our Darjeeling hotel room by political demonstrations and a general strike, which **gasp** closed all the restaurants! And the internet cafe! Things seem to be getting back to normal, though — restaurants are open and jeep drivers are back on the job — so we’re off tomorrow. Wish us luck!!!

Hi Everybody, sorry it’s been sooooo loooong since our last post — we’ve been far from internet access for some time.

We’ve been busy since our last post. To start with, we completed an epic overland journey from Pondicherry to Gangtok, Sikkim (1500 miles!! seven days!!), via bus, train, taxi, jeep, autorickshaw, and yak. What follows are photos Derry captured from the windows of these various conveyances.

Walking to school. Nice uniforms – marigolds mandatory, shoes optional.

Waiting for the bus. Looks like this school’s dress code calls for hibiscus blossoms, instead.

School’s out!

Sitting

Talking

Waiting (with a tasty corn-cob snack).

At the train station… hoping for a seat in (non-reservable) third class.

We’re coming! Don’t leave without us!

Even mundane tasks can be done with grace and beauty.

Don’t worry, this train’s never on time anyway.

Suburbia

Partway through our epic journey, we found ourselves in the middle of a holiday called “Holi.” On Holi, people celebrate the coming of spring by throwing colors – in the form of tempera-type powder and colored water – all over each other.

Note the little girl armed with a super squirter.

If it’s your mother, apply colors gently.

The day after Holi — colors persist. (Note the moustache.)

After our epic overland journey, we did something even more epic — a nine-day trek in the Himalayas of Sikkim. Read all about it in our next post, which we are working on this week!!! We’re now in Darjeeling, relaxing and sipping tea. Hope this finds you all well and happy. With love, Us