Sunday, November 30, 2014

Day 8 - Kagbeni to Muktinath Temple to Kagbeni...

I woke up in Kagbeni to the sound of several drum beats followed a short while later by the faint chanting of monks in the monastery.  Surreal.  I’d had some heavy dreams and was feeling a bit out of sorts.

I shook it off and went out to the restaurant for breakfast.  The wi-fi was still kicking strong so I sat down and did some inventory work, caught up on work emails, and then put together another blog post.  

I was really enjoying Kagbeni, so I decided that I would stay here another night and just make a short day trip out of the remaining road to Muktinath.

I ordered some Tsampa porridge with fresh apple and a cup of coffee for breakfast, munching on it while I uploaded photos and posted to the blog.

I packed up my backpack with photography gear and a bottle of water.  I strapped it to the back of the bike with my bungee net.  I let the bike warm up and did a quick check for loose bolts, checked fuel and oil levels.  During my once over, I noticed that I’d lost a nut from the big bolt that runs through the frame and motor.  The bolt was long and wouldn’t likely come out but it was loose and had worked its way out a 1/2” or so.

I threaded it back in and put some first aid tape (somehow duct tape escaped getting put into the kit) around the threads to aid in keeping the bolt in place.

The weather was again beautiful; crisp and cool but bright and sunny.

I headed down the flagstone path, that was the main strip in Kagbeni, past the big gompa and around the corner heading up and out of town.  I was in a bit of a funky haze still and wasn’t really present in the moment.  I was there.  I was riding over these rough roads, body aching a bit as I bounced along, but mentally I was dwelling on other things in my life.

I tried to push them from my mind and get clear on the beautiful surroundings.  The road was climbing higher and higher towards Muktinath and the base of the famous Thorung La pass of the Annapurna Trekking Circuit.  The mountain peaks were huge and blasted with snow in between the hanging glaciers all around.

I came around a bend and was moved by a beautiful sunlit view of Jarkhot village.  I pulled over onto a nice wide flat area and decided I’d stop and make some images of the village and monastery on the ridge.

I reached for the zipper of my backpack, where I’d stowed my nicest camera, my Canon G15, for easy access.  My heart sunk as I saw that it was already open, the inner pocket with my passport and various other small items was swinging freely, dangling from the open bag.

I made a quick check to make sure the camera had actually fallen out: it had!  I quickly zipped the bag shut and started back to Kagbeni, scanning the road as I went.  I stopped every truck and bike that was making its way up the road and asked if they’d found my camera on the road.  Of course the answer every time was no.  I was so bummed.

I’d backed up my images the night before so all I lost was the camera and the case, but I was still super bummed out.  I retraced my steps all the way to Paradise Trekkers Home, the last place I used it.  I was begging the deities to return the camera, but it was nowhere to be found.

The young boy, Krishna, who was the cook at the guesthouse, eternally smiling a giant smile of bright white teeth, helped me look around the area and even walked through town and asked everyone in Nepali if they’d seen my camera.  Still no.

I decided that I would still head up to Muktinath.  I scanned the road the whole way up to where I’d discovered I’d lost it.  When I reached that spot, I stopped and used my little Canon camera to snap a couple shots of the view that I’d originally stopped for hours earlier.  The light was different but it was more of a documentary piece for me at this point.

I motored on taking in the incredible high alpine scenery.  I was above 12,000’ above sea level now and the bike was started to struggle a bit, even with the EFI.  But it tractored right along as long as I stayed in the throttle.

Soon I was riding a small path to the Muktinath Temple, a place of pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists alike.  I stopped and chatted with a holy man seated outside the temple, he was smoking a chillum and offered it to me.  I took a couple puffs from the chillum, reminding me of college days.  At 13,000’ asl now, the smoke hit me quickly.  I asked his name… he recited a name about thirty seconds long that ended in Baba… smiled and said I could call him the Ice Baba, pointing up to the glaciers.  I smiled, reached out my hand and said, “Justin, nice to meet you.”  My name seemed so inadequate compared to his distinctive and extensive holy name.  He smiled a smile from his beady glowing eyes and handed me the chillum once again.  After my third puff, he said, “easy friend, we are way up high already.”  We both laughed.

I walked through the temple checking out the various gompas.  It was really serene and evoked a presence in me that wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.  I allowed the emotions to surface and tried to stay present in the moment as I walked through the grounds.  I touched the prayer wheels and lit incense, and paid my donations, closely watched over by a local member of the Nepali Police, who for some reason felt it his duty to make sure that I paid sufficient money into the various donation boxes.  I tried not to let his presence and pressure remove me from connection to the place.

After I’d said my prayers and asked forgiveness for my fickleness, I rang the bell on my way out.  I’d like to say I felt lighter.  In some ways I guess I did.  I felt lighter for having come clear on what was bothering me deep down.  Yet my work on these matters still lies before me.  And my blissful nirvana awaits.

For now the sun was dipping down behind the ridge and it was getting icy cold quick.  I started the my two-wheeled tractor, “the mighty goat”, and started my way back down the mountain for Kagbeni.  I coasted with the motor off most of the way and once I reached Jarkhot, I resumed my search for my camera.

Tashi Gurung, 22 year-old proprietor of the family owned Paradise Trekkers Home, met me in the street outside the front door when I pulled up.  He told me he’d heard about my camera and had called the police in Jomsom and had called friends in Jarkhot.  He told me the police in Jomsom said I could come fill out a report in case it was turned in.  He said that was up to me, but the Police may want money.  We talked about it for a while and both knew that the reality of my camera being turned in, whether found by Nepalis or foreign trekkers, was nearly impossible.  Tashi took my number and my email and said that if it turned up he would get in touch with me.

I settled into the restaurant and listened to a noisy group of college kids from Kathmandu drinking and partying in the corner.  They asked politely if they were disturbing me.  And one boy, who’d heard my camera was lost, definitely under the influence, assured me that he would find it.

I ate some vegetable chowmein and went to bed early.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Day 7 - Tatopani to Kagbeni... Into Mustang Territory.

Googlemaps travel times crack me up.  This was a solid 4-5 hour day on a motorccyle.

Tatopani to Kagbeni, Mustang, Nepal

I got up at 6:30am and made my way down to the hot springs.  There were about a half dozen Nepalis there enjoying the freshly cleaned and filled pool.  The environs were basic and under improvement.  They were doing a nice job and seemed to be keeping it simple, which is nice.  It was a 100 rupees, or $1US, entry.  The changing room was a simple concrete surrounding and was definitely built for Nepali sized people.  The wall came up to my nipples at best.  

The pool was flagstone and only about 2 feet deep which was perfect.  You could get in and sit down leaning up against the wall and it came up just to the armpits.  The water was crystal clear and lacked any sort of sulphur smell.  And it was perfectly hot.  Not too hot to get in but hot enough that 15 minutes of soaking required a 5 minute cool down, repeat.

The glacial green river rushed through its rapids a hundred feet away and cicadas sang an interesting morning melody.

When I was thoroughly cooked, I returned to the guesthouse and packed my belongings up, which is getting to be a more orchestrated routine.  I wolfed down some fried eggs and potatoes, loaded the bike and headed into the unknown.  

The views were incredible.  The mountains huge and snowcapped and catching the sunlight that had yet to make it into the valley.  The road was instantly as rough as it had been yesterday.  I climbed further up from the river.  The single lane road was more of a jeep trail than a road.  I had to pick my line very carefully and keep momentum.  The jagged rocks threatened and with such low clearance the chance of smashing a hole in the crankcase was real.  The first half of the day was all slower than first gear riding.  Lots of clutch feathering constantly.  Later in the day, once I’d passed the police checkpoint at Ghasa, I’d left the jungle behind and had reached the high pine forests.  The road flattened out some and got just a little smoother.  It was good enough to allow for some second gear riding but just when I could get up to 30 kph, some hidden road surprise would force me back down into first gear again.  

There were several water crossings but one in particular was deep.  I’m sure the exhaust pipe was getting close, if not submerged so I needed to stay heavy on the gas.  There was an audience standing around as a bus had just come through and trekkers and mountain bikers were making the water crossing as well.  My boots took on loads of water but the rest of me stayed relatively dry.

The smells of the forest were incredible and brought back nostalgic memories of riding in Colorado.  But the views were nothing of Colorado… these mountains are so big they are hard to comprehend and the valleys are vast.  I passed through small villages with gompas on the hillsides and prayer wheels along the roads.  I stopped in Tukuche at a little guesthouse that was advertising Himalayan Organic french press coffee.  I figured that since it was only 1pm and I was making good time, I’d have a cup and enjoy the sunshine and let the Royal Enfield take a break.

The Nepali lady running the guesthouse asked if I’d like some homemade apple crumble with my coffee.  “Is it good?” I asked.  “It’s the best,” she responded with a smile, “that’s why I recommended it.”  I laughed.  “Ok then, let’s have some apple crumble too.”

I sat in the sun and took in the scenery.  I was aware that the wind was picking up and this area of Lower Mustang is know for its blasting afternoon winds.  My coffee was excellent and the apple crumble put a giant smile on my face.  And I’m not even a dessert guy.

I noticed that they had chemical free safe drinking water from the village spring, so I paid 30 rupees to fill up my bottle as well.  I paid and saddled up the bike, pushing off into the wind for Marpha.  Marpha was a little village with whitewashed walls and a huge row of prayer wheels.  Doug, the guy in Tatopani, had told me that some years back a Japanese apple farmer had come to the area and introduced apple farming in Marpha because of the perfect conditions for growing apples.

I climbed on and was soon out of the trees and vegetation and into the high desert.  The wind was kicking up massive clouds of dust, but it was blowing from behind me making it much more tolerable than if I was riding into it.  The road turned back to really rough and rocky.  Like total rock now, back to slower than first gear again pumping the clutch and picking my way through the rocks.  It was then that I decided I needed to find someone who could translate “mighty goat” into Nepalese for me, because that is what I wanted to name the Enfield.

I finally made it to Kagbeni.  It was a charming little village on the very edge of the Upper Mustang Conservation Area.  I looked up the valley with heavy desire.  It was inviting and alluring, especially because it was opened to the public not that long ago and few people have visited compared to the Annapurna Area which receives thousands of tourists each year.   I rode the Enfield through the cobbled walkway of Kagbeni, which was once a part of the Kingdom of Mustang.  When I reached a steep rocky uphill section of the walkway, a young man was washing greens in the water flowing through a rock canal.  He told me that the way got more challenging ahead and I should consider stopping here and staying at his guesthouse.

He told me I could park my bike in the stable next to his and would show me a room.  The room was nice, he was nice and there was hot water to boot.  Warming up in the hot shower and getting my wet feet warmed up tipped the scales.

Some nice college girls from New Zealand were staying the night as well.  They’d crossed Thorung La the day before.  We chatted about trekking and skiing and all kinds of normal traveler chat.  It was nice to have some company after the hours of riding alone.

I had Dal Baht for dinner again but this time with local dried and rehydrated yak meat.

I talked with Tashi Gurung, the young guesthouse proprietor, about Upper Mustang.  He said it is possible to ride a motorcycle all the way to Lo Manthang and beyond to Tibet.  But other than the $500US/10day permit, it was prohibited to travel alone.  At a minimum two foreigners and a Nepali guide were required.  My mind was astir with future expeditions.  Hmmmmm.

I slept well even at this high elevation and cold.  My sleeping bag and liner were performing perfectly.  I added my lightweight long underwear and  kufeiya scarf and was perfectly toasty all night.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Day 6 - Pokhara to Tatopani - Into the Himalaya...

Incredible ride today. Got lost immediately leaving Pokhara. Actually was almost out of town rallying to get on the road by 9am. Decided at the last minute it would probably be smart to turn around and eat breakfast where there were hundreds of tourist restaurants rather than be hungry on the road heading into the bush. Good choice. Real coffee was the clincher.

When I did set out, my hopes were high of even making Jomsom today. Google maps said 5 hours 30 minutes.

I looked at the map and committed it to memory and blasted out of town. Of course I blew past the turnoff for Baglung because all the signs are written in Nepali which is equally as unintelligible to me as Arabic.

I ended up in a small suburb in the hills and needed to backtrack to find the "highway."

Once I got on track the road immediately started climbing a pass. The air was cool an crisp and though I was still dealing with trucks and busses, it was a fraction of those I'd been dealing with between Kathmandu and Pokhara.

By the time I made the pass I needed to add a layer.  I figured I'd be taking it off again soon but wasn't sure if I'd be holding near this new elevation, so I unpacked and donned my jacket liner.

Of course the road switch backed down as quick as it went up and soon I was sweating.  The pavement was an approximation at best. It was sometimes wide enough for one car but was broken on both side so it was effectively a one lane road. Oncoming vehicles, whether they be cars, trucks or busses refused to give up any pavement for a motorcycle, so I found myself on the gravel most of the time anyway.

The riding was slow going but I was managing a steady pace.  I found a nice shady place to remove my jacket and repack it in my makeshift saddlebags.

I made it to the turnoff for Baglung eventually and quickly realized that getting past Tatopani today was not going to happen.

I was glad it was apparent early on so I could just kick back and take my time. The roads wouldn't allow for more than that anyway.

The scenery was incredible. I'd made it back down to the valley floor and everything was green and overgrown. Terraces skirted the bottoms of immensely steep verdant green walls.

The road was getting worse with every kilometer. Outside Beni by about 5 kms they turned to dirt and rock. These were not gravel roads as we know them... they were literally dirt and rocks. There was not a flat section anywhere. And barely one lane wide.

I fueled up in Beni. I'd burned 5 liters since Pokhara which included 25kms out and back to Begnas Lake.   I tipped the gas pump girl twenty rupees or 20cents US. She looked at me quizzically when I handed her the 20 rupee note.  I said, "for you."  She didn't know if she should take it. And then smiled as if I'd given her a winning lottery ticket. Well that answers that. I guess they don't tip gas attendants in Nepal.  5 liters of fuel cost 650 rupees. Fairly expensive... around $4.75 per gallon.

After Beni the roads really changed. There were a couple forks in the road, of course only marked with Nepali signs. Didn't seem to matter, I just summoned whoever was walking by with the polite palm down gesture if pulling fingers towards the palm of the hand, greeting Namaste and then repeating the name of Tatopani until someone pointed me the right direction.

At one fork, I was baffled, and no one was around. I just sat there dumbly, bike rumbling steadily. I heard a whistle and clapping. Looking up, I saw a lady on a rooftop pointing to the correct road. I waved and she gave me a big thumbs up.

The riding got tougher and more technical. There was everything from slick mud to water crossings to talcum powder sand hiding football sized rocks to bare bedrock and not a bit of smooth ground to be found. This was slower than first gear riding most of the time. Feathering the cable clutch constantly was fatiguing and standing up in the pegs was really awkward. Needless to say the Enfield wasn't really designed for technical GS riding.  20 kph was the max speed I hit after Beni all the way to Tatopani.

I was in a very tight steep canyon with a raging mint green river cascading below me a few hundred feet. Occasionally I got views of massive Himalayan peaks ahead.  It was a fine balance between taking in my surroundings and keeping the lumbering beast of a motorcycle on its wheels and more importantly, on its wheels.

Another hour of this slog and I made it to Tatopani, which means hot water, I think, and refers to the natural hot springs.

I was flagged down at a checkpoint an asked for my TIMS card and ACAP permit. I had no idea what the guy was talking about. After about five minutes of very basic English I became aware that I wasn't getting out of this. TIMS stands for Trekker Information Management System and is the trekking registry system for Nepal. Even though I wasn't trekking, I needed to have one. It cost me 1980nrs or $20USD.  This friendly Thakali gentleman also explained in 15 kms in Ghasa I was going to need my ACAP or Annapurna Conservation Area Permit. This I was supposed to buy in Kathmandu or Pokhara and also cost $20US. And since I didn't buy it in the city I would be fined an additional $20US. Bollucks.

I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn't packing sufficient rupees for this backcountry expedition. Nor was I sufficiently researched. Typical Kleiter move. Go first, piece it all together later. Classic.

I rode the stone path into Tatopani village and found a room at the Dhaulagiri Lodge. It had a nice garden and restaurant and my room had an epic peak view that was in the midst of evening alpenglow.

I pondered the whole permit thing and questioned whether this was a sign to turn around. I decided to wait on the hot springs until after dark and sat down to some vegetable and mushroom chow mein. I was pretty hungry and figured that with all the Trekkers pouring in that the restaurant would be packed later an the hot springs likely packed now.

I met an American guy named Doug, who came to this area some 30 years ago an has been coming back since, building a technical school with his own private funds.  I asked and he told me his life story in short. He'd been climbing alone in the Annapurna Sanctuary and was caught in a rock slide. His foot was wedged under a boulder. He wasn't hurt badly but he was stuck there. He was trapped and struggled through the night prying with his trekking stick to get free. He survived the cold of the night and began pleading with the gods that if they would free him from his trap he would go straight to the monastery in Kathmandu and become a monk.

So that is what happened. After some time studying under a very powerful lama, he witnessed some pretty wacky miracles, he told me. The lama told him he needed to go on. Doug pleaded to stay wanting to continue his study and to perhaps one day become a Tibetan doctor or healer. The lama denied this, telling him that he was a gifted engineer and he needed to pursue this vocation to bring incredible knowledge to humanity. Doug asked him where to go and the lama said I think you need to go to Japan. Doug said it was nothing short of amazing since Japan had always been on his list but had been putting it off for later in life when he had more money.

So penniless (nearly), he had $300, which wouldn't go far in Japan, even back then. In the first few days he meditated on a sign and when nothing came he started doubting things and tried to make a plan to get back to the states. He was invited to a cocktail party for a big steel firm that a friend was working for. Thinking nothing of it he went. Feeling out of place at this highbrow event in jeans and trekking boots he was introduced by his friend to the president of the company.

Things lead to things and next thing he knew he'd invented several solar devices for the firm and made a substantial amount if money, which over the years lead him back to where he'd been trapped in the rockslide, to build the school and teach the locals about sustainable building and alternative energy production.

Doug affirmed that I'd be foolish to turn around now. That the roads get a little better and the views into Mustang province would rearrange my concept of alpine beauty.  He also told me to wait until early in the morning for the hot springs as they dump them of all the trekker funk at night and clean them at 6 am, before refilling them with fresh mineral hot spring magic water.

I took his advice, ordered some daal baht and continued to glean as much information from him as I could about the road ahead.