Where Fire meets Water; Volcano National Park Ultra

‚ÄčAn ever changing landscape, Volcanoes National Park is one of the few parks that’s still being molded on a macro scale. Not one mm a year like the grand canyon or a few inches like the redwoods, but in some places dozens of feet of new land are added to this national park by the flowing bubbling lava. Ben and I spent a rainy night at camp along the Hilina Pali Rd at Kulanaokuaniki, but awoke at first light to clear skies. After a short drive we located the unmarked trailhead along Hilina Pali Rd  (sometimes called the Halape trail), parked in a small pullout and set off along the cairned, but barely visible route toward Halape.

Ben starting down the Halape ‘trail’ definitely unmaintained.

Following the ‘trail’ through the grass, really just a bunch of cairns.

The ‘trail’ started out as a faint path well marked by cairns, but we were soon dumped onto an old road that was horribly overgrown, but still quite visible. We thrashed through knee to waist deep grass for a few miles until the road disappeared into deep grass and we were left with nothing but a line if cairns to follow. The trail began to descend southward toward the ocean rather than traversing back toward the Chain of Craters road as we’d expected, but it was so well marked we continued forward. We descended steeply down some old switchback to the Halape junction (2:15), much further west along the trail than we were expecting because on the map the unmaintained trail was supposed to drop us onto the Keauhou trail closer to Chain of Craters road. Sadly we’d missed the trail down to Halape and decided that because of the slow conditions we’d alter the route and continue on the loop minus Halape.

Ben making his way across the Ka’aha trail, a major trail in the park.

Lava tube near Ka’aha, a little exploration.

As we started across the Hilina Pali trail toward Ka’aha it was very evident that the day was going to be a slow trudge. While this ‘main’ trail was very well marked we were wading through knee to waist deep grass the entire time and almost nothing was runnable. We passed through a lovely grove of trees (shade!) and then slowly descended toward the beach at Ka’aha (5:45).

At the ocean near Ka’aha, weeee.

The rolling lava fields between Ka’aha and Pepeiao

The Ka’aha shelter is a funny little shack with a rain water tank and a bathroom near a protected swimming bay. We dipped our hands into the ocean and continued onward along the coast. The character of the coast dramatically changed, and we soon found ourselves running across buttery smooth black lava dunes. It was by far the most runnable and most enjoyable section of the entire day. We spent several miles cruising through the barren lava field, the ocean on one side and the Hilina Pali cliffs on the other, finally arriving at the sandy promontory overlooking several sea arches and the crashes waves of the Pacific. This is what I pictured Volcanoes National Park to look like, barren lava beds, towering sea side cliffs, crashing waves and compete solitude, it had only taken us 6 hours to find it.

Seaside living, lava, arches, big waves.

Pepiao shelter high in the hill side.

We then left the ocean and started the long, slow, hot trudge up toward Pepeiao. As we ascended the rocky lava the wind died and we started to bake in the hot sun. I was definitely fatiguing so the pace died a bit. We finally reached the Pepeiao hut perched high on the Hilina Pali with expansive views I the lower park (6:45). We again refilled our water and proceeded to immediately lose the trail coming out of the cabin. After 10min of bishwacking through the grass we finally located the over grown trail headed uphill away from the cabin.

Ben leaving the Pepiao shelter into the deep grass.

Less than a mile out from the cabin Ben began to cough and some horrid smell was tickling my nose, it took us a few minutes but we finally realized it was SO2 fumes from Kileuea, which made both of us a little sick and uneasy. Over the next few miles we’d continually get inundated with toxic fumes, go through coughing fits, then push onward. Finally as we neared the Hilina Pali overlook we left the fumes behind and were free and clear, thank god nothing lasting. The Hilina Pali overlook is a quiet little cabin with good views of the coast and lava field below, but it’s hard to gain perspective I the area from so far away (8:30). All that was left was to jog the final 3.5 miles of road back to the car and closer the loop. We arrived back at the car at 4:10, 9 hours and 10 minutes after starting, having covered between 26-29 miles (unknown because of trail changes and wanderings).

One of the things I’ve learned from my first six national park ultra run adventures is that not only is there a huge diversity of landscapes within the park system, but often this huge diversity applies to a single park. Volcanoes NP transitions from rain forest, to subtropical, to chest deep grasslands, to barren lava beds and finally sandy beaches. And while the route we ran (really mostly hiking) in Volcanoes was not exactly what I thought it would be, it lived up to the showing the true character and diversity that Volcanoes National Park had to offer. The variety of landscapes, the ruggedness of the terrain, the battle between man and nature (nature is winning), and some beautiful solitude. So the project continues on, with six National Park ultraruns competed, and >40 to go, I’ve got a lot of work to do.

NOTES: 

First off Volcanoes National Park suffers the same issue as many other parks, a gross lack of funding. In fact we later found out that the park had laid off all their trail crews for months prior, explaining the overgrown trails. Because I’d this don’t expect super smooth runnable trails, but more an adventurous bushwack, bring a good map. Camping at the ocean side shelters would be quite nice, but Pepeiao want very inspiring and was full of red ants. Since lowers volcanoes is mostly dry grasslands don’t expect to find any water except for the rain collection at the shelters, inquire with the park as to how full the catch basins are and whether the trails have been maintained at all. Note that because of the volcanic activity this run does not include the active lava flows of Kileaua or Pu’u O’o, but both are must see side trips, especially where Pu’u O’o flows into the ocean. So if you’re looking for solitude in a unique volcanic moonscape, give lower Volcanoes National Park a go. Thanks to Vfuel for supporting my habits and to Ben for joining me for this adventure.

Lava flowing out of Pu’u O’o into the ocean at sunset.

The lava glow of the Kileaua crater at sunset.

Navigating Medical help in Chile

Morning stroll through the Plaza de Armas on my way to the clinic.

First off, I’m fine nothing major, but I contracted a nasty case of poison oak in California a week ago which has spread to all my lower extremities and has my left leg swollen as if I’d run 100 miles. I’m quite allergic and since it wasn’t improving I made the venture into the wide world of Chilean healthcare for a little assistance.

My swollen and rash covered leg, hard to appreciate my cankle and giant calf.

First off I was relieved to learn that the Chilean healthcare system is quite good. The network of pharmacies is wide, but while one can get many things over the counter, corticosteriods are not one. So my choice was a ‘hospital’ or a ‘clinica’ to get a prescription. Hospitals are government subsidized facilities while clinics are privately run (and often better), so I opted for the Clinica Davila near downtown Santiago. My traveler insurance doesn’t cover small medical visits, so that was of no use, so it was all going to be out of pocket.

Entry to the Clinica Davila, looks legit.

I walked in the main doors of the clinic and up to the front desk, where it became apparent I’d be doing my transactions in Spanish, I wanted to practice and what a way to learn. I was sent to a check-in desk where I was able to get my name on the list for a doctor consult, then came the fun adventure of getting my information in the system as a foreigner without insurance. The guy at the payment desk had a little trouble, but we figured it out, $45 later,  then came the wait to be called in to see the doctor. An hour later I was called in; the doctora examined me, we navigated my issues with my limited Spanish, she looked at my leg and prescribed an antibiotic and a steroid and off I went.

Bottom is my appointment form, top my prescription, mmm steroids.

I stopped in at the local Ahunada farmacia and picked up my meds without issue ($18). In total the process took about 3h, but if I didn’t speak any Spanish I’m not sure how I would have done it. So just a word of warning, that while the healthcare in Chile is wonderful and very available, finding English speakers is a tough task and be ready to fumble your way through the process if you don’t speak Spanish. Here’s to hoping the swelling goes down quickly and I can get back to normal. It’s been a rough start to 2017, full of all kinds of learning experiences.

I am Me. How do I Prove it?

Fu&@#%*, was one of the many curse words that flew from my mouth when I saw the window of our little Nissan smashed to bits and realized my backpack was gone along with my cell phone and wallet. I had no ID (none), no credit cards, no cell phone and really no way to prove who I was.

Smashed window and everything gone, well not everything. They left or dirty clothes.

The short of the lead in is I had misguidedly left a backpack containing my passport, travel journals, camera SIM card with 1000 photos, along with my wallet and cell phone in an area known for break-ins and thefts and was now paying the price. So that sucked, but now came the real question, could I get myself to the mainland via airplane without any credit cards or ID, and how does one get new ID when you can’t directly prove who you are? Hopefully my misfortune can help others through such troubles if they befall you.

Step #1 contact the police. Surprisingly the police were over within 15min; surveyed the scene, took down my name and address (no ID) and filed a report. The police were able to give me a letter stating I’d filed a police report that my ID was stolen, this would come in handy later.

Step #2
canceling stolen goods. Thankfully Ben still had his cell so we were able call in and cancel my credit cards and cell phone immediately. Later that night I went online to cancel my passport and global entry card, nothing needed to be done for the driver’s license.

Step #3
returning the rental car. Since the car was still perfectly drivable Economy Rental said nothing needed to be done right away. We took some photos and later that night drove to the rental car company to return the vehicle. They examined it, took down some notes then explained that once they got it repaired they’d contact me as I’d have to front the payment. Thankfully since I paid for the rental with my Chase Sapphire card they will be reimbursing the cost of the repairs (check your credit card). I also had the option of going through my car insurance, but opted not to. Also note that one cannot take out a new rental car without BOTH a driver’s license and a credit card, thankfully some good friends helped me out in the ride department my last day in Hawaii.

Step #4
airport travel and flights. I had a scanned copy of my passport so hoped that would help. Problem #1 you can’t pay for bags without a credit card. So I was instructed to buy a prepaid visa for a $5 fee to pay for my luggage, ugg. But with the passport copy they let me checkin (Hawaiian air). Problem #2 TSA, They looked at the copy of my passport and said that it was not acceptable. He called over the head officer, who first called the police to verify the police report, then called Homeland Security (I assume) and proceeded to ask me 6-8 random questions to prove my ID, and I guess I passed because they let me through after a thorough pat down and bag search. I made it! Apparently this also works if you’ve simply forgotten your ID but need to get through an airport.

Step #5
navigating life. There are quite a few things that one can’t do without an ID and/or credit card. You can’t buy food on an airplane, buy anything online, enter federal buildings (like a passport office), buy alcohol, enter a bar, among other things.

Step #6
obtaining ID. Since I had flown to California getting a new driver’s license was off the table, BUT if you have a flight within two weeks one can get an expedited passport. So I had to book my flight to Chile THEN they would allow me to apply for a passport, so I booked my flight, called the SF passport office and made an appointment. Now the tricky part, proving my identity without any actual ID. Without ID I would need to provide a whole bunch of secondary identification. Thankfully my awesome housemate sent my California driver’s license (from age 20), my CSU student ID and my rec card. In addition I printed out old bank records, tax forms, utility bills, medical records, insurance cards and a copy of my birth certificate and passport. After getting a personal escort up to the passport office (because of no ID) I presented my DS-11 and DS-64 forms along with the giant pile of paperwork to two separate people. After looking through all my paperwork he grabbed the four copies of photo ID and had my mom sign a DS-71 vouching for my identity, but leaving all the records behind. In the end it was fairly painless and my passport was ready 24h later ($195 total fee). If I didn’t have someone to vouch for my ID I probably would have needed all the extra paperwork.

Step #7
 driver’s license. Getting a new license (lost or stolen) in Colorado requires one to go into the department of revenue to apply for a new ID, a process I’m not looking forward to, but it should be mailed within 30 days. 

I have ID again! Hooray for expedited passports.

So while it’s a pain in the ass to go through these processes it’s not too difficult, just time consuming. The really sad thing was losing my journals and photos, but life goes on. Lesson learned, don’t leave anything in cars in Hawaii, always split up IDs and credit cards and carry valuables with you at all times. Also make sure to back up cellphone contacts to an online source, I only had some saved. Now that I have a verifiable identity its off to Colorado for a few days on the 17th then Chile on the 22nd, let the adventure continue!

There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and I got to hang out in California for a bit.

House of the Sun: Haleakala Ultra Run

I grew up vacationing on the garden isle of Maui, splashing in the waves, building sand castles and occasionally fearfully snorkeling. As I grew older our vacation adventures grew a bit bolder, several times taking us to the summit of the mighty Haleakala to watch sunrise from 10000ft before screaming down the road on bicycles. That was when I first learned that some people rode bicycles UP the mountain!?!? Little did I know that the seed was planted for my own epic adventure on this island volcano.

Epic sunsets from Napili beach on Maui

Epic sunsets from Napili beach on Maui.

An unexpected turn in my travels brought me to the Hawaiian islands as a stop over between Asia and South America, starting my journey on Maui. Last year I set in motion a long term project to map out and run ultra distance routes in each of America’s National Parks. As of December 2016 I had completed four such runs; Grand Canyon R2R2R, Zion Traverse, Yosemite Valley circumnavigation and the Grand Tetons loop. This layover was going to be a perfect chance to explore two more National Parks; Haleakala and Volcanos. On December 20th with very little training under my belt I set out from Napili on the 2h drive to Kaupo for the start of the ‘Sea to Summit’ route of Haleakala.

The jungle slowly absorbing the road to the Kaupo ranch.

The jungle slowly absorbing the road to the Kaupo ranch.

Sunrise from the Kaupo ranch trailhead

Sunrise from the Kaupo ranch trailhead

Just after passing the Kaupo store I turned left up an overgrown ‘paved’ road and headed up the mountain. After 1.5mi of driving through the tall grass and bumping along (2wd) I reached the ranch gate and parked on the side of the road at 1500ft above sea level. One can start at sea level and run 2.5mi of road to the TH, but I opted not to. I hopped the fence and followed the Kaupo ‘trail’ signs to a dense field of grass where I promptly lost the trail in the heavily bulldozed brush. I bushwhacked up random ranch roads finally stumbling across more trail signs leading up the maze of Kaupo ranch dirt roads. I lost the ‘trail’ several more times on the overgrown dirt roads before finally popping out in a large grassy cow pasture where I was able to easily follow the marked path all the way to the National Park boundary. The route had been brushy and muddy to this point, but my hopes of better trail inside the National Park were quickly dashed when I looked into the waist deep grass with only faint evidence of where the trail might be, ah shit. It had already taken me 1:30 to cover a supposed 3mi (more like >4mi w detours), and things weren’t about to speed up. I thrashed my way up the overgrown Kaupo trail, occasionally stumbling on hidden rocks or tripping on a root, unable to run.

The trail at the National Park boundary, not really maintained.

The trail at the National Park boundary, not really maintained.

image

So that’s the trail? Looks like a grassy field to me.

As I passed the 5000ft mark the terrain finally became more volcanic and the grass receded. My pace quickened and I finally reached the turn off for the Paliku shelter at 7mi and 6500ft (2:55). I was entering the crater and the terrain was fully volcanic, a mix of gravel and small volcanic rock. I was finally able to run, and made good time over to the Kapaloa shelter (10.1mi, 3:45). The trail was beautifully smooth packed gravel and I kept jogging all the way to the bottom of the Sliding Sands trail where the steep climb to the summit began. I passed several of Haleakala’s iconic silverswords and the crowd of tourist descending from the summit road slowly began to grow.

The brush clears and the trail opens as I entered the crater.

The brush clears and the trail opens as I entered the crater.

image

Running through volcanic lava fields, something a bit different.

I chugged my way up the Sliding Sands trail finally reaching the summit road determined to finish off the final 0.5mi of road quickly. At 12:20p (5:35) I topped out at the Haleakala shelter at 10023ft above sea level after gaining almost 9000ft over 16miles (+2mi of detours). It was a clear and warm day, multicolored cinder cones dotted the crater and Paliku was barely visible at the far edge of the crater. Central Maui, the West Maui mountains and the ocean were all visible far below. After a few quick photos I jogged back down the road to the visitors center to refill water the went bombing down the smooth gravel of the Sliding Sands trail.

Entering the crater the scene is from another planet.

Entering the crater the scene is from another planet.

Silverswords along the Sliding Sands trail.

Silversword along the Sliding Sands trail.

The long smooth climb up the sliding sands trail.

The long smooth climb up the sliding sands trail.

The trail was fantastically fast and soon I was back in the heart of the crater slowly shuffling across. I was really starting to feel my lack of training now as the fatigue set in, but I still had 12mi to go, so go I did. The sun was relentless as it beat down on the black lava rock, finally back at the Kapaloa shelter I sat down for a short break (7:00, 22mi). It was dead quiet in the heart of the crater and I hadn’t seen another person for 3mi (and wouldn’t for the rest of the day). I took it easy across the rocky lava fields to Paliku (7:45, 25.1mi). Then back down the grass covered brushy trail to the Kaupo ranch boundary (8:50, 29mi). This time I managed to locate the proper route through the ranch roads (follow signs and blue flags), if you don’t see blue flags once you reach the brush you’re probably on the wrong route. 9h 15min after leaving my vehicle, I again hopped the fence and stopped my watch. It had been an exhaustingly beautiful day (32mi +>2mi of detours, 9000ft gain/loss) and for about 80% of the route I had the trail to myself.

On the summit of Haleakala at 10023ft.

On the summit of Haleakala at 10023ft.

image

Descending back into the crater from the summit road.

When there is no snow a volcanic sand angel is an acceptable alternative.

When there is no snow a volcanic sand angel is an acceptable alternative.

image

Found the ranch trail on the way down. Follow the blue flags for smooth sailing.

So went my fifth National Park ultra distance run. It was definitely the most trying to date, lots of bushwacking and route finding on unmaintained trails/roads. But it offered a unique glimpse into the variety of ecosystems 10,000ft of pacific island volcano creates. From dense forest to waist deep grasslands, rocky lava beds to weathered gravel and cinder of all different colors. This is definitely not a route for those looking for smooth trail (though the upper crater loop is beautifully runnable), but better suited for those looking for a unique adventure in a one of a kind environment. For the extra ambitious you can start from the road and run east and down to the beach before ascending a full 10,000ft to the summit.

As my National Parks project moves forward I am looking forward to more unique adventures in our amazingly diverse Park system. Coming soon to a blog near you a recount of my gnarly Volcano National Park run. Thanks to VFuel for powering my adventures and to all the hard working folks of our National Parks who make this project possible. To continued exploration into new and beautiful worlds.

Solo in Myanmar, but not Alone

When I set out from the United States in September the only thing that was certain was I was flying into Thailand, after that the possibilities were endless. As I made my way through Thailand and into Cambodia I kept meeting travelers who raved about Myanmar and it’s amazing people and scenery. Well, if this many seasoned travelers think so highly of it, maybe I have to go? Myanmar has just recently opened itself to more expansive tourism (2015), and due to governmental restrictions tourism is developing slowly in most areas of the country (a good thing). So as I was finishing my trek around the Annapurna area in late November I pulled the trigger and put in for an eVisa and booked a flight for a two week stint in Myanmar with almost no plan or idea what I was getting into.

Street market in Yangon

The eVisa came back approved three days later so it was official, I booked a place in Yangon for two nights and would figure it out from there. After another stop through KL on 12/3 I was off to Yangon, and was dumped into a quiet modern airport, breezed through immigration and on to baggage claim. The first thing I noticed was all the locals were wearing lovely dresses and longyis and had smiles on their faces as they waited for loved ones. I shared a taxi into downtown with an Aussie (‘P’) and relaxed for the night. I spent the next two days mostly just wandering the streets and markets of Yangon. The most striking thing was how few tourist I saw. Sure there were a few at the Bongyoke market, Sule pagoda and Shewdagon, but we were by far the minority in a sea of Burmese. I actually felt as though people were simply going about daily life and I was a fly on the wall, very refreshing change from Thailand or Thamel (Kathmandu). The streets were crowded with fruit/vegetable stalls, food carts, electronic stores, longyi shops and thousands of stalls selling betel nut chew (huge in Myanmar).

Shwedagon Pagoda glitters at night.

I’m not much of a city goer but I truly loved Yangon and all the locals I met. And I have to admit I find the Burmese people very attractive (except their red teeth); friendly, well dressed people with soft facial features (thanks to thanaka), sorry, single male here so I notice these things.

Aung Mingalar bus station, oh the madness. Bottom, VIP night bus to Bagan.

First Bagan sunrise, temple all to myself.

Temples temples everywhere, 2200 to be exact.

Sunsets in Bagan are also pretty nice.

After three days I caught a shared truck from Sule up to Aung Mingalar bus station (1000 kyat) on the north end of town and proceeded into the madness. See Aung Mingalar bus station is not a station but a massive complex, covering 6-8 sets of warehouses, and it took me 20min to find my labeled bus. The VIP night bus to Bagan was quite comfortable, but dropped us off and 5am, ugh. I shared a taxi into New Bagan with a few others, paid the 25000 kyat Bagan entry fee, dropped my bag at the Mingalar hotel, rented a bike and immediately took off to watch sunrise. With no idea where I was going I simply rode toward the nearest temples finding a small one that was unlocked. I climbed (literally) up to the top just as the morning sun was illuminating the haze and the hot air balloons drifted by. Wow, what a welcome to Bagan, atop my own private temple. I spent the next two days riding my bike down random dirt roads past temples of all shapes and sizes, admiring the local’s sand paintings and chatting with the artist about life. But what made the Bagan experience were the sunrises and sunsets (didn’t miss one) perched atop a temple just watching the world go by with my new friends Sandra, Yongia and Sergio. Something about watching the soft early/late days light filter across the plains with just the shadows of temples popping out of the jungle is just magical. Finally it was time to catch another night bus, this time to Inle Lake and sadly I had to bid Bagan and the friendly folks of the Mingalar hotel farewell. Night busses may sound convenient (they are faster than trains) but they are bumpy and often arrive at ungodly hours, this one at 4am. Thankfully the Win Nyunt hotel had some space so I crashed out in a bed on the floor.

Sharing sunrise with friends.

One last Bagan sunset before heading to Inle Lake.

Exploring caves in Myanmar means temples and lots of Buddhas.

The following day I met up with my new friends; James, Doris, Morgan and Molly and we took off around Inle Lake for an afternoon ride, finished off by drinking wine with views of the lake. We all hit if off and enjoyed dinner, beers and roller blading (yes that’s right) that night and planned to meet up again the next day for a hot spring and a boat ride. Molly and Morgan ended up taking the morning off, leaving James, Doris and myself to head to the hot springs, which were a bust ($10USD spa, bah). Just as we were about to give up I pulled over to check out some random local pool where a group of locals (who spoke almost no English) handed us beers, sat us down, fed us and after that we were basically family for the next 1.5h. As we pulled away on our bikes bidding them farewell, covered in makeup and thanaka, we were all laughing hysterically and had no idea what happened, but relishing the experience. We then met Morgan and Molly at the boat dock for the standard sunset tour of Inle Lake, which was a nice mellow way to cap off such a wonderfully unexpected day.

Winery with views of Inle Lake, it’s a rough life.

Lunch with our new family. We were literally spoon fed and had our makeup done.

Doris gettingher makeup done.

Just making friends and getting our makeup done. Photo curtousey of James Fletcher.

Afternoon boat ride on Inle Lake amongst the floating villages.

Boat cruising through the floating villages.

Sunset on Inle Lake, relaxing end to a wonderful day.

The right people can make a good experience an amazing one.

Since I had another night bus I was able to spend one last day in Nyaung Shwe just relaxing with the others. Then at 4p I bid them farewell as I hopped the bus to Bago to connect to Hpa-an. So many amazing new friends on my journey, some I will hopefully see again. Once again dumped in Bago at sunrise to await an 8am bus to Hpa-an (apparently there was a direct bus from Inle I was not aware of), this gave me a chance to kick back and watch the locals just do their thing as everyone started up there day.

View from Lombini gardens up toward Mt Zwegabin.

View from the pagoda atop Mt Zwegabin toward Hpa-an.

Kawgun cave and it’s 7th century temple built right into the walls.

I arrived in Hpa-an in the early afternoon and strolled over to the Kan Thar Yar (Royal Inn) right on the lake where I’d phoned in for a room (14000 kyat, not online, 058 21600). Hpa-an is a fairly sleepy town surrounded by massive karst cliffs, caves and countryside. Nice place to relax for a bit. I went for a hike up Mt Zwegabin (so hot and sweety) for the amazing view, visited the monastery at Kyauk Kalap, strolled through temple caves and made some new Burmese friends by the lake. What a way to end my journey, calm, friendly and beautiful. Back to Yangon on the 9am bus I went after 2 days of relaxing in Hpa-an, and a slow 7h ride it was. Shared a taxi from Aung Mingalar back into town for 7000 kyat and settled back in at the Agga B&B. I spent my last day in Yangon just how I’d started, wandering the streets, shopping, eating all kinds of street food, a 5000 kyat massage (19th Spa, worth it!), and just watching the locals do their thing. I’m going to miss this place and these people, but the next adventure is calling, Hawaii with Ben!

Sunrise on Kan Thar lake in the center of Hpa-an.

Random assortment of fried Burmese street food. All delicious, especially the small square things.


Notes, Tips and Tricks:

As of this writing (12/2016) tourism is just permeating into Myanmar, but it definitely hasn’t ruined the spirit yet. The people are incredibly friendly, helpful and curious when it comes to foreigners. The only place where I really noticed the tourism was Inle Lake, everywhere else I was just an Asian man lost in a sea of Burmese. There are just a handful of budget hotel/hostel options online, but there are many more that are phone or walkin only, so while I mostly prebooked you should also be able to find walkin places of you’re into a little wandering. Note that a hotel needs a tourist license to rent to foreigners and not all places have them, look for signs in English. For food, the Burmese like it oily, fried and in a soup. So if you’re a picky eater, good luck, and look for the few upscale western restaurants and try the steamed rice dishes. 

My main recommendation for traveling Myanmar would be, travel slowly, stop and talk to locals and take in everything you can. Zooming by on a motorbike or taxi won’t give you the opportunity to really experience the country, walk or ride a bike when you can. My dozens of wonderful interactions with the people are by no means unique, I’ve heard many other stories from other travelers to the same effect, the people really are that amazing so don’t be afraid.

Getting around the country takes time. To/from the airport you can use a combination of shared truck to Te Mi and bus #51 to downtown, but good luck finding it (taxi 7000-8000 kyat, bargain for it). To/from Aung Mingalar bus station either bus #43 (300kyat) or shared vans from Sule Pagoda (1000 kyat or taxi 7000-8000 kyat). And expect the ride from town to the airport/bus station takes 1-1.5h. Bus travel is slow but more efficient than trains. Night buses work alright but don’t be surprised if you arrive at 1-5a. Motos, eBikes and bicycles can be found for rent in most places though your feet also work really well for getting around town.

Don’t miss a sunrise or sunset in Bagan, you’ll regret it. I can give you directions to my random little temple if you wish, but I won’t post it publicly ūüôā Lastly if you’re the big package tour group kind of person you better stray from the group or you’ll miss why Myanmar is so wonderful, it’s not about snapping iconic photos it’s about experiencing the culture. Safe travels and happy adventuring to all.

People of Nepal (Volunteering in Shishaghat)

Annapurna Basecamp, the Himalaya are truly amazing.

When many people think of Nepal the first thing that comes to mind is usually the soaring Himalaya or Mt Everest. But to those who have traveled the country the amazing people come in a close second. The soft spoken and kind demeanor, their unrelenting helpfulness, and most importantly their positive outlook on life even when circumstances dictate otherwise. The cliche goes, ‘You come for the mountains, but return because of the people’.

I had planned to spend roughly 1.5 months wandering Nepal and knew I’d have 8-10 days at the end of my journey with no scheduled itinerary. So I poked around Pokhara (hehe) for possible volunteering opportunities at local schools,  farms, orphanages, but nothing really popped up that seemed right. Then one day as I was surfing instagram a tag line caught my eye, ‘The_Help_Nepal_Appeal‘ liked one of my photos. So I pulled up the webpage, read a little more and was intrigued enough that I contacted the organizer Jody Dontje to see if there was anything that suited my talents and time I could help with. Surprisingly she got back to me very quickly and a long email chain back and forth ensued. See, when one is trekking (like I was), Nepal’s already unreliable Web Access becomes even worse, though it’s a wonder there is email at all. So just a few days before I finished trekking the Annapurna region it was settled that I’d be heading up to the village of Shishaghat to volunteer in the school and to observe and assess the new English program and special needs program.

Me and part of my adopted family.

Normal classroom setup at Mahendra Joyti.

I spent the 22nd lounging around Pokhara preparing to spend 9 days in the rural village when I came down horribly ill that night. No way I was going to be traveling in that state so I had to delay my departure 24h. Thankfully antibiotics work and on the 24th of November I was on a bus headed to shishaghat. Thanks to a helpful driver and my village liason Keshar I made it to the village without issue and setup camp for 8 days with Indira and her daughter Akritti in there lovely little home. After a short half day intro to the school and the programs, that saw me mostly observing, Saturday was a day off so Keshar had planned some festivities. Sadly my stomach hadn’t fully recovered so I came down sick again Saturday night. I struggled my way back to being healthy enough to join the kids at school Sunday afternoon.

Morning prayer at Mahendra Joyti school in Shishaghat.

Enough about my health struggle, which lasted several days, and on to the more important things; the school, children and community of Shishaghat.

My roll in the school was very loosely setup, but the few things I was setup to assess was the quality of the English teaching program, the special needs class and to interact with the kids to expose them to a foreigner. I was thrown into class 4-7 science lectures, talking about geology, basic physics, biology and ended each class talking about my life, American culture and traveling. In Shishaghat they don’t get much exposure to foreigners so simply hearing me speak and talk about many subjects is a lesson in itself. They have wonderful memories and are fascinated by many things, but don’t have the chance to implement and experience many of their lessons.

Teaching about some basic American culture. Photo by www.Zahariz.com

Teachers and workers of the Help Nepal Appeal. One big family.

Both the students and my fellow teachers were wonderful, so friendly, so helpful and open. It’s not just a job, it’s a community and a family. In my short time at the school I made numerous new friends, learned about Nepali culture and village life and got a good dose of perspective. When you break it down, life is very simple, and there are so many wonderful things there is no need to focus on the negative. The children were so energetic, excited and curious, but they are working with such simple tools it’s stunting their development and learning. For them, simply being exposed to foreigners and new thought processes opens their eyes to new possibilities. Interacting with the teachers also helped us both learn about each others life style and teaching styles. 

Some of my fellow teachers and the folks of the help Nepal appeal. Photo by www.Zahariz.com

Sharing stories with the kids of the village. Photo by www.Zahariz.com

Wedding day in the village, all are invited.

My words will never express my gratitude to the community of Shishaghat for taking me in for that sort time. The experience was more than just about teaching it was about cultural immersion for both myself and all the students and teachers. I’m hoping my sorry time was able to open up some of the kids to new possibilities and to help our world’s grow cost together. There are so many lessons to be learned merely by sharing ones life with others,  and we’d be a better world of more people did so. So I’ll leave it at that. I encourage everyone to go out and give some time,  share a story, no matter how basic. If you’re looking to work with some wonderful people,  The Help Nepal Appeal is a great organization, Jody is working hard and making a big difference in many ways,  and Shishaghat is an amazing community. Hopefully some day I will be able to return to Shishaghat and all my wonderful new friends, but for now is on to Myanmar to continue to share stories and cultures and hopefully continue to grow. Thanks to The Help Nepal Appeal and Jody for setting everything up,  Zahariz for the great photos and Vfuel for supporting all my adventurous habits. 

Village liason Keshar showing us around the Madi river.

Annapurna Sanctuary Trek

‚ÄčNovember 15th, Day 1 (or 10), Tatopani to Gorepani.

After my whirlwind tour of the Annapurna Circuit I planned to use my fitness and acclimatization to easily cruise up to Basecamp in a few days. After a relaxing afternoon in Tatopani restocking, hot springing (worth the price), and planning I was all set to tackle the steep but short trek to Basecamp. Another casual 8am start down the road before the steep uphill started. The climbing was steady and relentless up through Ghara and Shirka (2:05). Views back down the lovely lush valley were quite expansive. The trail then mellowed for a bit through Phalate (3:10) and Chitre (3:50) before the final steep push to Gorepani.

I put my head down and hammered out this last section reaching town just before 1p. Gorepani was much larger than I’d expected with several small trekkers shops, bakeries and dozens of guesthouses. I took a free room with a view at the Greenview Lodge and spent the afternoon relaxing. For those searching for the best views in town head higher on the hill, you probably won’t get a free room, but those places had phenomenal decks from which to watch sunset/sunrise. 17km, 1700m+, 4:40.

Terraced hillside near Shikha.

Dhaulgiri views.

Lots of pleasant first hiking up to Basecamp.

Sunset and sunrise from Gorepani on Annapurna.


Day 2 (or 11), Muldai Tower dayhike.

I stayed in Gorepani for two nights so I could go for a trail run without the big pack. The goal was the Muldai Tower at just over 3600m, hopefully with some sweeping views. Waited until the warm sunny hour of 930a to hit the trail armed with my inov8 running vest and a hand bottle,  jogging past tons of people enroute to Deurali Pass. At the pass I refilled water and the fun began. I located the signed trail to Muldai behind the tea house and set off on the narrow single track all by my lonesome.

The trail was easy to follow, though narrow and steep at times, as it undulating along the ridge before sweeping around a massive rock promentory. After many switchbacks I was finally deposited back on the ridge as the views were just starting to get good. The climb kept rolling up up up, until the tower was finally in sight. At last I climbed the rickety steps to up the 10ft tall tower (2:10) and was able to relax and marvel at the views from 3637m.

Ahead were stunning views of Manaslu, Machhapuchhre, Annapurna and Nilgiri. Behind the entire sweep of the Dhaulgiri massive was visible,  and far below the Pokhara valley was shrouded in haze. After several photos,  some video and lots of gawking I trotted my way down the steep trail through Muldai and into Dobato (making a loop). I hung a left in Dobato at the guesthouse finally reaching the pass to Swarta… holy downhill. Before me lay 1400m of relentless downhill to the river far below. The trail was steep but offered good footing as I pounded down into Swarta (3:40). I briefly lost the trail before refinding it and reaching the crossing of the Ghar Khola at 2000m (4:40).

Note that Gorepani (and my bed) lay at 2800m, so with 1200m of climbing already on my legs I set out on the final soul crushing ascent. With only a small vest on this should not have been so bad,  accept I’d consumed 100g of cashews and one pack of crackers all day…oops. So head down and exhausted away I trudged. Some good old fashion type II fun, as I finally returned to Gorepani around 3p (5:32), thoroughly exhausted but satisfied. Ate some pastry, enjoyed daal bhat dinner with Ryan and Beth (from Philly), and crashed early after the long day. 30km, 2000m+, 5:32.

The tiny Muldai tower perched atop is view point with Dhaulgiri behind.

Just another afternoon trail run in front of Annapurna.

Panoramic views from the Muldai Tower.


Day 3 (or 12), Gorepani to Chomrong.

Slept in a bit after my longer than expected day and felt sluggish as I started up the trail toward Deurali pass. The descent from the pass followed a stream through a lovely green valley to the village of Banthanti (1:30) then dropped precipitously before the short 200m climb back up to Tadapani (2:40). I elected to take the high route from Tadapani to Chomrong, skipping Gandruk, but of course the first thing I did was descend 800m to the Kimrong Khola, before starting the slow climb back to Chomrong.

My legs were heavy and the hot sun definitely took a toll on me as I slogged past numerous small guesthouses, so I was very relieved when I finally arrived at the hill top restaurant (4:00). From here the views really started to open up and the terrain eased a bit before I finally descended into town. Chomrong is the village of 1000 steps (or more), so I settled in at the international guesthouse high on the hill in a pretty spectacular room with a view. My easy day had proved not so easy after all, so is trekking in the Himalaya. 16km, 900m+/1600m-, 4:53.

Lovely green forest on the trail from Gorepani to Tadapani.

View from the edge of Tadapani, not too shabby.

Views get good as you near Chomrong.

Room with a view in Chomrong, literally.

Fires burn bright on the shoulder of Machhapuchhre.


Day 4 (or 13), Chomrong to Deurali.

Down down down 200m of steps only to climb right back up to Sinuwa (0:45). Then the trail climbed much more slowly before turning straight downhill on steep stairs into Bamboo (2:15). I was very glad that the trail after Bamboo eased a bit and steadily climbed up through pleasant forest where I finally reached Himalaya (3:45). It was early so I continued to plod on up to Deurali where I took a dorm bed at the Deurali GH, as all the other places were full (first time). I did some laundry and enjoyed the sunshine the rest of the afternoon. Everything in this portion of the valley is ala cart, hot shower, wifi, battery charge all cost extra. 14km, 1500m+, 4:45.

Location of guesthouses in the upper valley.

Looking back at Chomrong and all the stairs from Sinuwa.

Fog creeping up the valley toward Deurali.

Day 5 (or 14), Deurali to Annapurna Basecamp (ABC) + Lookout hike. 

Was in no rush being I only had a few hours to reach Basecamp so got stated at the crack of 8:25a. The morning was still chilly but quite a few groups were already ahead of me, but I soon passed them and was hiking alone. The valley opened up and I was bathed in warm sunshine as I reached MBC (1:00). The final climb to ABC was quite mellow as I was now surrounded by the vast amphitheater of rock and ice. I cruised into ABC at 10:35a (2:10) and had the place to myself. I was able to enjoy a snack and relax before the masses arrived.

Just before noon I set out on the trail behind ABC bound for a high view point overlooking the valley. I made quick time up the several hundred meters and was soon perched high above ABC, but this wasn’t enough so I kept climbing the spur ridge toward Patal Hiunchuli. Stopping only once I’d reached the edge of the moraine and the vertical walls guarding the upper mountain at 4800m. It was a good lesson on feeling tiny, as I descended the lumpy grass tufts back to ABC. Sunset from the lodges was quite wonderful, consisting of pink and red hues on Machhapuchhre, followed by an equally spectacular night sky (though very cold). Another early night before sunrise the following morning. 

Views aren’t too shabby on the trail to ABC.

View from my high perch above ABC.

Evening clouds rolling up the valley in front of Machhapuchhre.

Packed house at ABC.

Sunset on Machhapuchhre.

Pretty spectacular night sky over Annapurna south from ABC.


November 20th, Day 6 (or 15), ABC to Jinhu.

Everyone was up early to watch sunrise on Annapurna, which was cold but quiet pleasant. I actually enjoyed sunset much more than sunrise, but both were lovely. After a quick breakfast I strolled back out for one last view of the valley only to run into Steven who had run up that morning from Himalaya. So we set off down valley together, picked up his bag in Himalaya (1:40), and cruised off on the long road to Jinhu. The steep climb out of Bamboo went by quickly, but the miles were starting to wear on Steve so we took a snack break in Sinuwa (4:10) before tackling the Chomrong stairs.

We ground our way up the stairs into Chomrong, checked in with the ACAP then continued up to the small German bakery for pastries. Clouds had settled in over the valley obscuring the views. Filled with pie and danish we finished off the climb through Chomrong and hit the cutoff down to Jinhu. The 400m drop into Jinhu went by quickly and we snagged a room at the Evergreen to colapse after our long day (6:42). Though we were both fairly tired we dragged ourselves out of the room and down another 200m to the Jinhu hot springs. The series of the pools along the river bank were bustling with people, but the warm water (body temp) and serene atmosphere was just the relaxation we needed. We soaked for an hour,  chatting with others and relishing in what an amazing day it had been. After trudging back up to the hotel we vegged out the rest of the night and crashed early. 22km, 400m+/2800m-, 6:42.

Morning silhouttes, pretty nice.

Avalanche roars down south Annapurna.

Back in Sinuwa at the Chomrong stairs.

Jinhu hot springs along the river, nice way to end the trip.


November 21st, Day 7 (or 16), Jinhu to Pokhara.

Started the day with a skype call to the family, while slow, it still amazes me this is possible in these remote regions. Then Steve and I set off for our last day on the trail, a nice mellow downhill to Nayapul and eventually Pokhara. The trail mostly consisted of gently rolling terrain along the river,  a nice change from all the steep stairs. We cruised through Kyumi (1:50) and just kept on walking. Soon after the trail ended and we were dumped out onto the road, so we began to prepare ourselves for the long dusty road to Nayapul when all of a sudden there was a bus in Siwar picking up tourist to Pokhara! Sure, why not. So for 400 rupees we hopped on the bus and ended or trek. The first part of the bus ride back to Nayapul was along a very bumpy dirt road and I was tossed around pretty good in the back. Finally at Nayapul we were back on ‘pavement’ and the drive sped up and smoothed out. After only 2:15 we were deposited at the Baglung bus station of the north end of Pokhara. Since we’d had such a short day of trekking we opted to walk the 3km to the hotel and to see a different side of the city. So ended my trekking days in Nepal. 9km, 100m+/400m-, 2:15.

Final view down valley as you exit the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. 

NOTES;

When it comes to bang for your buck the Annapurna Sanctuary is worthwhile. Beautiful forest, expansive views, waterfalls, glacial rivers and of course the amphitheater at the end all make for a spectacular journey. What you won’t find is authentic Nepali culture or much solitude. Most of the trek is set up purely around tourism, you will still meet many wonderful people from all over the world, but this trek is immensely popular (for good reason). Also this was the first time as an independent trekker finding a room wasn’t easy (from Himalaya up) and I didn’t get free rooms most nights. So if you’re looking for a one week trek with lots of wow factor this is it, but if you want a more authentic experience of Nepali mountain life and culture maybe check out the Langtang region instead (see previous blog). Overall each of my three treks offered something a bit different and made for a wonderful experience in Nepal. 

Annapurna Circuit 9 Day Trek

‚ÄčNovember 6th Day 1; Besi Sahar to Tal

After catching a bus from Pokhara to Besi Sahar (550 rupees) on November 5th I’d intended to catch another bus to Nagdi, but when the driver told me 300 rupees for the 14km ride I said no thanks, checked in with the ACAP and stubbornly walked off. The road went by quickly and I soon found myself in Bhulbule and then Ngadi. These first 14km were pretty uninteresting and can easily be skipped, though I enjoyed the quiet morning stroll. Then began the climbing up through the terraced hillsides of Bahundande, Badalbisuanaa, Lili Bhir and Ghermu (which would be a lovely place to stay). At Syange I rejoined the road for the dusty climb up to a short bit a trail into Chamje. Here I missed the bridge so hoofed it along the road all the way to Tal as the valley was bathed in deep shadow. It had been a long 35km, 8.5h day, but the low elevation sections were behind me and into the mountains I went. 37km, 1400m+, 8:26.

Mountain views near Ngadi.

Terraced hillsides of Bahundande.

Looking down on the village of Tal from the road.


Day 2; Tal to Chame

A more causal morning start had me following the single track out of Tal past several waterfalls through the deep gorge all the way to Dharapani. The lush green trail was sunk deep in the river gorge, and I lost it several times as it was not very well marked. Finally I reached Danakyu and began the steep 600m climb up to Timang, where we were teased with views of Manaslu the whole time. After this exhausting steep climb I settled in for lunch on a roof top in Timang with superb views of manaslu. After lunch it was back on the dusty dirt road through Thanchowk, Koto and finally into the bustling town of Chame. I set up shop at the Tilicho GH for the night, a friendly and quaint lodge. Being my birthday I treated myself to fresh apple pie as I chatted with the other travelers. 23km, 1200m+, 7:15.

Views of Manaslu from Timang.

The Annapurna range finally reveals herself.

Birthday apple pie and custard.


Day 3; Chame to Gyaru

Another casual start in the chilly shade of the valley at 8:25, cruising up the dusty road. When I reached the lovely apple orchards of Bhratang I was overwhelmed by the 50-70 people lining the road in front of me. Apparently I’d found all the other trekkers I hadn’t seen the previous two days. I quickly passed them all by, arriving in Dhikur Pokhari around 11am. Here the massive sweeping face of the Swargadwari Danda dominated the skyline. The terrain soon turned very arid as I passed into the rainshadow of the Annapurna massif. As I neared Upper Pisang fantastic views of Annapurna II and IV appeared. I paused on the outskirts of Upper Pisang for lunch and to gawk at the views.  Till now the trail had been climbing pretty gently, then just 1km from Gyaru it jumped up in cruel fashion,  gaining 300m in a series of relentless switchbacks. I grunted up the slope reaching Gyaru just before 2pm. I settled into the Annapurna hotel,  basic accommodations but a million dollar view. Special thanks to Jessie Wilburn for the suggestion, as sunrise (and starry skies) from this village is a must see, best views around. 19km, 1100m+, 5:10.

Swargadwari Danda looming over the river.

View on Annapurna from near Upper Pisang.

Roof top view from Ghyaru


Day 4; Gyaru to Manang

This was to be my easiest day with the big pack on, but I also intended to throw in a side trip to Kicho Tal (Ice Lake), so it wouldn’t be much of a rest day. After watching a beautiful sunrise over the Annapurna range from my hotel rooftop I set off early across the rolling traverse towards Braka. The views across the valley and to the villages far below were quite spectacular. The terrain was pretty easy going until I hit a broad valley near Julu and stared across at the steep 300m decent and climb that awaited me, well damn. I flew down the hill as usual, then came the grind straight back up, ugh. I made decent time and was deposited in a high hanging valley on a gently descending trail, one of the most pleasant sections of trail I’d been on, fantastic views to boot. I cruised on over to the junction with the Ice Lake trail,  dumped my main pack in some bushes and with only a running vest set off up the 900m climb to Ice Lake.

I was huffing and puffing pretty good but made great time to the lake (1:30), and had it all to myself for 20min. The still lake waters reflected the Annapurna massif as some bighorn sheep bounded up the hill behind me. What a place to spend a morning. Then,  abruptly the wind picked (11:20) up and my scene was gone. I jogged back down the hill (0:45) picked up my pack and mosied on over to Manang. I settled in for the night at the Yeti hotel,  a decent but over priced large complex and just wandered town the rest of the afternoon. Manang is a nice place to grab a pastry and stock up on supplies as its the last cheap hub east of Thorung La. Then it was early to bed again. 25km, 1500m+, 6:25.

Sunrise from Ghyaru.


Cruising the trail between Ghyaru and Braka.

Reflection of the Annapurna massif in Ice Lake.

Descending from Ice Lake, there is a tea house half way with some lovely views.

November 10th, Day 5; Manang to Thorung Phedi
I took a slow and steady pace leaving Manang, climbing from 3600m up the valley. There were nice views of Annapurna and Gangapurna behind me, but I was slowly leaving them behind. I took a break for soup lunch in Yak Karkha (4000m), then continued my trudge up valley. The altitude was slowing me down but I kept slogging forward,  crossing the Kone Khola and taking one last tea break before the final push to Thorung Phedi. There are three guesthouses at 4500m set in a high arid valley. Not much views of the mountains here,  but a spectacular valley none the less. It was a chilly and restless night as I didn’t sleep well at the altitude which made me nervous for the following days climb to Thorung La. 15km, 1100m+, 5:06. Resting HR 64.

Views back at Annapurna from near Yak Karkha.

Tea house break just before Thorung Phedi. Nice views and thin air.

Looking up the endless switchbacks from Thorung Phedi to Thorung high camp. How many people can you spot out for an acclimatization hike?

Day 6; Thorung La Pass to Muktinath.

Worried about the altitude I awoke early and hit the trail at first light (6:15am), wrapped in my down jacket. The first part of the climb out of Thorung Phedi consisted of 400m of steep switchbacks up to Thorung high camp. As I slowly climbed upwards I felt OK,  winded but moving steadily. The sun began to illuminate the valley behind me and Annapurna III glowed pink in the morning light. Surprisingly after only 45min I crested the hill arriving at Thorung high camp (4900m), feeling fairly spry. The sun was slowly creeping down from the pass toward me, and soon I found myself bathed in its wonderful morning warmth. The rolling uphill to Thorung La seemed to drag on,  but finally I saw the thousands of prayer flags that adorn the pass, pushed the pace a bit,  and at last plopped down at 5416m atop the pass (2:15).
The pass is set between two sizeable mountains so the only views are backward and forward down the trail, still expansive. I put on all my clothing and proceeded to hang out on top for 1.5h, enjoying the scenery and people watching, in no rush to descend as the thin air felt good. After quite a few photos I decided it was time to go and bounced off down the steep trail toward Muktinath. The steep and dusty descent past Chambarbu and to Muktinath went by quickly and can definitely be a quad killer (1600m-). I strolled into the bustling voyage at Muktinath and took a room at the Hotel Caravan among a sea of local Nepali. I joined the locals and explored the sacred sights of Muktinath, I still feel strange wandering around holy sights of which I don’t have a particular affiliation, but the culture was intriguing and beautiful none the less. 17km, 900m+/1600m-, 4:30 moving.

Morning light creeping toward Thorung High Camp.

The final portion of the climb toward Thorung La pass. Don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the scenery.

Atop Thorung La pass amongst the prayers flags at 5416m.

Nepali pilgrims bathing in the sacred fountains at Muktinath.

November 12th, Day 7; Muktinath, Upper Mustang, Jomsom.

I set out on the trail toward the villages of Jhong and Putak to explore these traditional Mustang villages. As I climbed away from Muktinath following a well beaten path and a series of red arrows (not the red or blue flags) I had the suspicion that my route was taking me a little deeper into Mustang than I’d initially anticipated. Soon I was 500m above the valley, looking back at the expansive views, and forward into a deep valley surrounded by rock towers and massive desert mountains. A couple of Nepali confirmed that if I went down and turned left at Chhuksang I’d reach Kagbeni….I was totally about to descend into the Forbidden Kingdom of Upper Mustang.

I descended the steep trail past several small groups, finally reaching the small village of Tetang with its terraced hillsides,  mud huts, gompas and isolated silence. After another 45min I reached Chhuksang and the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki river. I turned left onto the road and began the long (2h) walk to Kagbeni. The surroundings were surprisingly arid and reminded me of the Native American reservations of the SW. Mudstone towers lined the road, deep canyons reached back from the river and views stretched for many miles. Finally after almost 15km I reached Kagbeni, exhausted. The forray into Upper Mustang had been a wonderful glimpse into a life style long forgotten. Kagbeni was interesting,  but after Mustang didn’t have the same intrigue, so I quickly set off for Jomsom along the wind blasted dusty road. This was by far the most miserable section of hiking. 6km of dust storms in the wide open valley, so i was very excited to pull into old Jomsom and find a place for the night after my long day. Jomsom is the bustling hub of the circuit compete with airport, markets (in new Jomsom) and the bus stand. I was just glad to relax and take a load off, enjoying my first yak burger of the trip. 35km, 800m+, 7:00.

Sunrise from Muktinath over a temple with Dhaulgiri in the background.

Looking back from the high pass to Mustang toward Muktinath.

Descending into the Mustang village of Tetang, born of a different Era.

Looking back at the village of Chhuksang along the Kali Gandaki.

November 13th, Day 8; Jomsom to Kalopani.After some debating I decided to close the loop and walk the western section of the loop to Tatopani. From old Jomsom I headed up the hill following the trail on the east side of the valley. I made a short side trip to Hutsapternga Gompa(1:00), perched high on a hill with superb views of the valley. I stayed on the trail,  bypassing Marpha, couldn’t handle more road, eventually reaching the Tibetan settlement at Chhairo (2:00). I paused briefly to listen to the school children reciting the morning prayer and talked with a few locals at the school.

The trail continued to climb and descend along the east side of the valley, avoiding the dust bowl and visiting numerous small settlements. The people all seemed much friendlier and more open, maybe because the new road has left them to a quieter and less tourist riddled life? Views of Dhaulgiri are phenomenal on this part of the circuit, and I mostly had the trail to myself. After many ups and downs I finally rolled into Kalopani/Lete and the See You Lodge. This town has one of the better all around views on the circuit, Dhaulgiri behind and Nilgiri and Annapurna I across the valley. It’s a shame so many people skip the Western portion of the circuit. 27km, 600m+, 5:57.

Hutsapternga Gompa shining in the morning sunlight.

Dhaulgiri towering above the Kali Gandaki river.

 

Sunset on Nilgiri and Annapurna from Kalopani.

Day 9; Kalopani to Tatopani, the end.

My last day on the trail, up and our early to avoid traffic on the first section of road to Ghasa. I then rejoined the trail East of the river for the rest of the day, avoiding the road again. Walking through the now lush forest was very pleasant as I passed countless small villages, a few waterfalls and lots of view points. I paused in Gharpad to enjoy some fresh oranges and guavas with some locals before descending into Tatopani. Tatopani was a small village with plenty of small markets,  a nice hot spring and an interesting mix of Western and Nepali travelers passing through. It was a nice place to relax after my long days in the circuit, but not much more than a way station with fresh fruit.

Lush forest enroute to Tatopani.

Nice little trail side cascade.

After 8.5 days of hiking I’ve reached Tatopani and the end of the Annapurna circuit. Up next a trip to Basecamp.

So ended my 9 days whirlwind tour on the Annapurna circuit. Full of amazing scenery, wonderful people, and some eye opening experiences. I’ll leave you with some final thoughts and notes before signing off.

NOTES; 

Trekking on the Annapurna circuit is not a wilderness experience, you’ll see tons of other travelers,  jeeps and motorbikes. In every village you can find both hot food and snacks to carry away. So technically you could probably carry almost no food and be fine (though you pay for it). It’s easy to simply fall in with the travelers and not meet the locals, so take the time to branch out.

I did the entire 190km loop in 9 days, definitely not recommended for most people. I’m extremely fit and I spent time elsewhere in Nepal acclimating. Climbing over 5400m Thorung La is no joke and should be treated with respect. My short time also only allowed me a few side trips, something many people would prefer to take more advantage of. Though I did walk the western part of the loop from Jomsom to Tatopani, something I highly enjoyed and recommend not skipping by using the bus. Lastly,  always remember to look around and keep an open mind. You never know what each day and experience will bring, so try to soak in as much of it as possible. It’s a fantastic journey that has not been ruined by the roads, the experience has just changed a bit over the years, but in the end it is what you make of it. Stay tuned for the next blog detailing my quick adventure up to Annapurna Basecamp. 

Running the trail down from Ice Lake with. Annapurna in the background.

Langtang Trek post-Earthquake

After meeting up with AJ in Kathmandu to plot or Annapurna trek we parted ways for a week. She was off to Bhutan while I decided to use my flex time to make a quick jaunt into the Langtang valley on one of the lesser traveled trekking routes.

By all accounts the Langtang adventure starts with just getting to the trailhead. Online I read of horror stories about 9-10h bus rides to Syabrubesi (trailhead) that only covered 120km! I will say, the ride lived up to the hype. As soon as I was dropped at the bus station I realized I was in for an adventure. The bus station consisted of a road side shack where guys were shouting in Nepali, passing out tickets and pointing at various busses parked along side the road. Thankfully my nice taxi driver helped me get a ticket then instructed me where to find the correct bus. As we loaded on the bus it was evident that other than one girl from Canada it was all locals.

A little bus on truck action along the road. The usual passing entailed 2-4″ to the cliff on one side and a couple inches in between the two vehicles.

The not so smooth road to Syabrubesi.

As we pulled out of Kathmandu in the jammed traffic weaving around motos, parked busses and people, I started to understand the adventure that is ground transit in Nepal. We slowly weaved our way along the mostly paved two lane highway to Trisuli Bazaar where I bid the Canadian woman farewell and it was me and all the Nepalis for the next 4 hours, and the fun had just begun. From Trisuli Bazaar the road turns to half paved half rough dirt and only 1.5 lanes wide. Our driver navigated the rough dirt road,  passing other trucks and busses with inches to spare on all sides. Finally reaching Syabrubesi after 7.5h of some very impressive driving. This is one you have to experience for yourself to truly understand it.

Lovely trail through the forest.

Finally in Syabrubesi I found a quiet room for the night and enjoyed a nice meal with the local family (as I was the only guest, a trend). After the earthquake of 2015 this region has experienced extreme hardship,  both in the form of lost lives and homes and in lost revenue. The main trail through the valley only reopened in the last year, and the tourism still hasn’t returned. I set off early the next morning making my way up the rocky staircased trail into the Langtang valley. I hike passed several small villages (tea houses) in route my lunch stop at Lama Hotel. I ate a huge lunch of vegetable fried rice with fresh chili yak cheese, all locally made. After lunch I sluggishly plugged my way to the guest house at Riverside for the night as clouds filled the valley. Again I sat with the owner and his family for dinner and watched a few Nepali music videos, as I was the only guest (notice a trend). Then to bed early (8p) as darkness settled in around 530p.

Early morning light on Langtang Lirung from the Riverside guest house.

Earthquake ravaged Langtang, much still lies as rubble.

I awoke at sunrise to clear skies and views of Langtang Lirung looming above,  why hello there, ate and set off on the trail in shadow. I rolled passed several more tea houses finally reaching the avalanche at Langtang, where in 2015 half of the town had been buried under thousands of tons of rock. The village is slowly rebuilding, but less than half the structures have been fixed and many are still piles of rubble. I quietly slipped through and as I climbed higher in the valley views began to widen and the mountains got bigger…wow. I took a break at the village of Sidhum for some Seabuckthorn juice and talked with the owner about the slow rebuilding process, as several locals hammered away on his new guest house (previous one destroyed).

High mountain views and yaks on the way to Kyanjin Gompa.

img_20161101_170314.jpg

View out the back window and front door from my room at the yak hotel.

The village of Kyanjin Gompa.

Then it was off to Kyanjin Gompa where I was greeted by panoramic mountain views, prayer flags and desperate guest house owners. Within 10min of arriving I’d  already been offered and shown accommodations at five different places, when one woman showed me a room at the yak hotel with panoramic mountain views and said as long as I ate my meals there I’d stay for free, I couldn’t say no. So I settled in for two nights at my high altitude accommodations (3800m). Once again I sat with Pema and his family in the kitchen for dinner as I was the only guest in the 20 room hotel. After star gazing for a bit I again went to bed early.
I watched sunrise from the comfort of my sleeping bag, Langtang Lirung out the back window and Langshisha out the front,  wow. Pema suggested I go up Tserko Ri, as it had the best views in the area,  so I donned my running vest and warm clothes and set off for the nearby peak. After a short flat section it was the business, 1100m in 5km, topping out at 4984m high. The thin air was pretty crushing above 4300m, but I just kept slogging away reaching the summit just after 10am in 2:15. I’d had great views the entire hike up but was still awe struck by the 360 degree Himalayan panorama that presented itself. Besides being short of breath I felt pretty decent and spent over an hour up top chatting with two other parties and snapping photos. I finally gave in that I couldn’t stay up there forever so jogged back down the steep trail,  returning to town in just under an hour. I spent the rest of the day mingling with locals over a piece of cake at Dorje bakery, learning about the rebuilding procees and the troubles since the earthquake. Sunset arrived with more clouds, but they lifted just at the last minute revealing Langshisha bathed in lovely pastels. The trail up Tserko Ri, 1100m of relentlessly thin air.

Panorama from the summit of Tserko Ri looking west.

View from Tserko Ri looking east.

I even got to run a little bit. Downhill of course.

Sunset on Langshisha from the village.

Clear and starry night sky able Langtang Lirung

The next morning I took a short jog into the basin below Langtang Lirung before breakfast, then bid my hosts farewell and headed back down the valley. As I walked down the valley I tried to process all the highs and lows of the past few days and to understand all the struggles these people had endured, and most still put on a smile. I stopped in Ghodatabela for lunch before continuing down to Lama Hotel for the night.

Early morning trail run. 

Views from the high route just past Sherpagaon.

Another quiet night, but this time I had a chance to chat with two other guests (from Germany and Indonesia). My final day on the trail I opted for the high route through Sherpagaon and was rewarded with wonderful views from this high trail carved into the side of the steep mountains before making my final precipitous drop down 1200m of switchbacks into Syrabrubesi. But the adventure was not finished,  oh no. It was Tihar, one of the biggest Hindu festivals of the year so there would be no busses for two days,  well damn. Thankfully I found a nice Nepali (nira I think) who got me a ride back to Kathmandu on the Jeep he had called. So we squeezed in the trunk (yes seats in the trunk) of the Jeep and sped off. Because of the festival there was no traffic on the road, and our driver took advantage, whipping around turns, flying over bumps so we’d catch air. Poor Nira got sick and I don’t blame him,  as we did the drive in just 4.5h. Safely back in Kathmandu I was able to relax and enjoy the Tihar festivities that were everywhere.

Happy Tihar. Lights and colored designs decorated all the doorways.

So if you’re looking for a tea house trek without the crowds, but with all the culture, mountain views and a little adventure, then Langtang is for you. Since the earthquake the valley had been very quiet,  even though the tall is open and plenty of infrastructure is available.  The people of the valley need the tourism and their valley deserves it. The feeling of desperation was evident among many of the people and it really breaks my heart. You want to help as many people as possible, but there is only so much one can do. For now I’ll leave you with all these photos and say that you need to visit this wonderful place for yourself. 

Cambodia,  Malaysia and the road to Nepal

‚ÄčAfter my world wind tour of the Angkor temples things slowed down a bit (relatively speaking). The nice long bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh gave me a nice glimpse into the rural Cambodian life, lots of small wooden shacks,  rice paddies, and an overall quiet life. Phnom Penh is an interesting city, coming into modern times, but with an infrastructure that can’t quite keep up, but still some pockets of traditional life along the waterways and in the markets. 

The madness of Phnom Penh where bikes, mptos, busses and cars all mingle with markets.

Slower pace of life along the rivers of Phnom Penh.

I only passed through then was soon off to Sihanoukville, the launching point for the beaches and islands along the Gulf of Thailand. In my short time there,  sihanoukville didn’t have a lot of character. Split into an industrial warf area and a tourist party zone, bleh no thanks. I was glad to catch the boat to Koh Rong the following day for some more relaxed beach side living. When I was dropped at Ramdoul pier and slogged it through the jungle I wasn’t sure what to expect. Basic wooden shacks, mosquito net beds, cold showers, and no need to wear shoes or change out of one’s bathing suit. My kind of digs, so I extended my stay to 4 nights.

Basic beach side living, all one needs to relax in style.

Lazy living beach side in hammocks, I could get used to this.

Beach sunsets are one of my favorite things.

Stroll to palm beach with Pascal, Ann-Christin and Mario.

Cambodian fishing village in the north shore of Koh Rong.

Not much to say about the next four days except I spent most of the time lounging in hammocks,  waking the beach looking for seashells (and swimming), and hanging out with lots of cool people. Oh,  and there was our nightly swim with the bioluminescent plankton that always made me a bit giddy and never got old. They are only visible once you’re away from all light and you have to get in the water,  waist deep or deeper is best.  Diving underwater with my goggles on was like swimming through a sea of stars,  so surreal! When my four nights were up I was definitely sad to go,  but Nepal was waiting! So I caught the slow bus back to Phnom Penh with Mario (from SOB), where I bid him farewell.

Ocean side sunrises are pretty nice too

Lounge area at Sons of Beaches, lots of hammocks and lots of sand.

On the 24th I was dumped into Kuala Lumpur for a one night layover which I spent wandering Chinatown (bao!) and relaxing by the iconic Petronas towers. Lovely very clean and modern city,  Malaysia, I will be back. Then it was off to Kathmandu, and I was dropped right into the madness. Made it through visa applications and out of the airport, right into the hectic traffic of the dusty streets, more semi-organized chaos. Kathmandu feels less like SE Asia and more like what I imagine India to feel like. Really nice people, densely packed brightly colored houses and really really cheap outdoors gear. AJ (new friend and travel companion) and I spent the next few days working on our bargaining skills (need work) and getting all the permits settled. I am taking gear orders for those interested ūüôā

Kuala Lumpur, a blending of the old and new.

Petronas towers and all their glory. Lovely place to relax for an evening.

Sunset over the colorful houses of Kathmandu.

Momos and Naan for $3? I could get used to this.

Then she (AJ) headed to Bhutan for 6 days while I went off for a solo adventure into the Langtang Valley. Stay tuned for a ton of photos and sad stories from my trek through the Langtang Valley, a place heavily ravaged by the 2015 earthquake and still struggling to recover. Hope your life is an adventure,  no matter where it leads.