How I Spent My Christmas Vacation
Away in a Manger Would've Been a Lot More Comfortable

By Jacquelin M. Sonderling


Walking the walk...
(Click to enlarge)

Let's get something straight right off the bat. I'm not a hiker. I'm not a backpacker or a camper. In fact, I'm not even very athletic. To me, "camping out" is not being able to stay on the concierge level of a 5-star hotel. "Roughing itĒ means flying coach class. And a strenuous workout would be bellying up to the bar and hefting another glass of bubbly northward. So don't ask me why I decided a trek through Nepal would be the perfect Christmas vacation. I just did.

Welcome to Kathmandu or Which way to the nearest Hyatt?

18 December 1998
4200' (Kathmandu)


The Stupa in Kathmandu
(Click to enlarge)


My first look at Nepal and the Himalaya is from the air. As we approach, I can see just the peaks of the mountains poking through the haze and clouds -- little snow-topped caps. The chief steward comes through the cabin, proudly pointing out Everest. (That, apparently, was a business class perk, I found out later from my coach class camping compatriots.) I'm really in the land of these magnificent, magical mountains.

We lose altitude, and I can see some of the ground -- it's brown and kind of non-descript. Then, as we get closer, I see more mountains, and their outlines are remarkable -- dramatic sharp straight lines -- like something the Alps aspire to be when they grow up.

Before long, we're on the ground, and I get a taste of how really third-world Nepal is. I mean, I've seen third-world before, but this is Third World. It makes Vietnam look luxurious.

I make my way through immigration, find a cart, claim my bags, pass through customs -- and I'm on the street looking for someone, who, hopefully, is also looking for me. To my left, men are yelling, "Taxi, madame! Taxi, madame!" Ah, yes. I've heard call before! Suddenly -- I see the sign for the hotel! Potala Guest House. Yes! I've been met!!! We pile my suitcases into the dented, rusty once-white-now-paint-peeling van and head off the 7 kilometers (I take my driver's word for it.) to the hotel. I laugh as we pull out into traffic. The van feels like it's made out of a tin can. "Seat belts" and "air bags" are concepts that don't exist here. No need to worry about the trek -- I'll be lucky to make it to the hotel alive!

We're not more than a few yards out of the airport when I see the cows. Not a lot - just a few, every now and then. But there they are -- lying down, rooting through the garbage, whatever sacred cows do. None looks very well fed. But then again -- none look to be ailing. Not that Iíd recognize either a sick or a well cow unless it was well-done on my plate. In the next day or so, I'll realize that Kathmandu doesn't smell from garbage, even though it's tossed into the streets every morning. Between the cows and packs of dogs that root through it, there doesn't seem to be any leftover organic material to rot. Maybe not the cleanest way to dispose of garbage, but it seems to work for Nepal.

I'm getting my first look at Kathmandu, and it's not pretty. The roads and streets are dusty and dustier, barely paved. People keep to the side while vans, cars, motorcycles and diesel-spewing trucks fight for space on the narrow to very narrow roads. All seem to drive the same way -- one hand on the gear shift and the other on the horn. Closer to the hotel, the streets narrow even more but look marginally better. Translation: shops with cool stuff to buy. But we're still talking dirty and dusty. About half the people on our trip will tell me how charmed they are by Kathmandu. Now, I know charming. Iíve done charming before. I was charmed by a lot of Vietnam, China, Yugoslavia (when it was Yugoslavia) and other places I've been. But the allure of Kathmandu escapes me.

We arrive at the hotel. Well, "hotel" isn't the right word, really. The Potala Guest House is, well, basic. Ok. I was expecting basic. But this is b-a-s-i-c, and it's missing something that in my book is really, really important. Heat. The afternoon is warm -- shirt-sleeve weather. But this is December. And this is Nepal. And I just have a feeling I'm gonna need a little heat. There's a television, connected with cable (no, I don't turn it on. I'm on vacation -- remember??) But there's no heat!!! Oh, man. Those concerns that have been knocking at the back of my brain are getting louder... and I'm afraid this is gonna be one loooooooooooooong trip...


Hi ho! Hi ho! It's off to trek we go! or Field of Poop

21 December 1988
Trek Day 1
4200' (Kathmandu) down to 1600' (Begnas Tal)

Namaste! Schoolchildred give traditional greeting.
(Click to enlarge)

After two days exploring Kathmandu, it's time to get down to the business of why we're here: the dreaded trek. My brain is knocking again. What have I gotten myself into?

Trek Day 1 begins with a wake-up knock on the door at 5:30am. But my roommate (soon to be "tentmate") Gaby and I beat the alarm by 10 minutes. By 6:00am, about half the group is sitting in Peter Owens' (our group leader) room, drinking tea and eating croissants, cinnamon rolls and bananas. Kalu, one of our sherpas, laughs and jokes as he passes out the rolls and fruit.

(A note here about our "sherpas." Sherpas are actually an ethnic group native to Everest. Here, we use the term "sherpa" generically to mean "guide." Our guides are actually Tamangs and Rais, ethnic groups native to Annapurna.) "Didi," Kalu says to Meredith teasingly, using the Nepali address meaning older sister. "You already eat four!" Most of the guides/sherpas are there, with a couple of the kitchen staff, and everyone's feeling festive. Ok, I think. How bad can this trek thing be?

The next half-hour is a hustle of final packing, checking left bags with the hotel and getting duffels down to the lobby. (yeah, duffel bags. Trust me when I tell you I didn't check a duffel bag with the airline. Like, I was really gonna be flying Business Class with a checked duffel bag. I don't think so! It went inside my suitcase. Bite me! I may be camping, but I don't have to be barbaric about it!) Our porters take the duffels while we walk en masse the few blocks to the bus where we pile on -- 17 trekkers, our sirdar (camp manager, Jai Rai), six guides, about 26 porters and kitchen staff -- plus Jai's ten-year-old son, Kim. Most of the day will be spent in the bus -- we're about 200 km from our first night's camp. The ride is long enough for me to wonder again what the hell am I doing here? It's been hard enough staying in such a basic hotel (Gaby and I managed to get a heater, which dramatically improved conditions Ė until the electrical outlet it was plugged into burned up.) I like my comforts. I don't like being cold -- and I'm gonna be cold. This damn well better be worth it -- and at this point, the jury's still out!

We get to Begnas Tal much earlier than expected -- about 2:30pm. Our camp site is a field behind a fishery, next to a dam. There are no cows at the moment -- but smelly souvenirs tell us they've been here recently. Jane, Meredith, Heather and I grab out daypacks (oh yeah. I forgot to mention that. Me, who doesn't lift anything unless it's weights in the gym, has to carry a daypack. Mine has only the most important things -- camera, lenses, film, extra battery, toilet paper, sunblock and water. Later in the trek, drying laundry goes on the back -- socks and t-shirts flapping in the breeze.) and jump off the bus while the guides and porters unload and set up camp.

(Let me introduce you to a few key players on the trek -- the trekkers. With two exceptions, we fall into two categories -- those 45 to 50ish and those over 60. The two exceptions are Clayton, in his early 30's, and 24-year-old Heather. We have four women and one man in their 60's -- that's Ursula, Gertrude, Jane, Ruth and Nahum. The rest of us - Doug, Cheri, Meredith, Jim, Billie, Gaby, Sylvia, John and me -- fall in the 45 to 50ish category.)

We pick our way through the meadow muffins to the flight of stone steps running up the nearby hill. (We don't know it at the time, but Nepal is one big stone staircase.) The four of us take off for parts unknown. Midway up the steps, I look back at camp - tents are rapidly popping up -- and our "home" for the night is quickly taking shape. Also from where I stand, I can see the lake -- Begnas Tal --Tal means lake -- and it's beautiful. Ok. I'm feeling a little better.

We do a quick exploration of the neighborhood -- actually, we're in someone's back yard before we realize it. Several somebodies backyards, really. We manage to scare a little kid just by trying to say hello. She must not be used to westerners tromping through her backyard! Our curiosity sated for the moment, we return to camp. Then, with the help of sherpa Salamsing, we head to "town" to select fabric for our lungis.

Lungis, we've discovered, serve two purposes. First, a lungi is a sarong-like skirt the women wear. Secondly, and most important for us, it's also used for bathing. Each village has at least one, but more likely several, faucets that provide water to the people. This is where they gather drinking water, wash clothing, dishes and themselves. Now, this has been one of my big questions all along. I'm the kind of person who likes to bathe on a regular basis. And so far, I haven't exactly had an answer as to what we'll be doing to keep clean...if anything at all. Now I know. The more experienced campers have brought along handiwipes. I brought soap and shampoo. Anyway, we buy our lungis with great plans to use the lake for a quick bathing dip to at least clean a few "parts." But when we get back to camp (a mere five minutes from the lungi shop), afternoon tea and coconut cookies are waiting for us. The lake is now in shadow, so it's also too cool. You've got to move quickly in Nepal if you want sun. We decide bathing will have to wait, and we'll relax until dinner instead.

Camp is set up by the time we return. Actually, it's usually set up within just a few minutes of our arrival. The sherpas assemble our tents while the porters deposit our duffels and the kitchen boys lay out equipment and food. Watching them, you appreciate how well-choreographed and organized the trek is. They've obviously done this many times. With just two exceptions, we're housed in two-person tents that resemble pea green and lavender igloos. Oh, I think, this won't be very comfortable -- but I can do it. Actually, I have no choice. I have to do it! Oh well, I tell myself, four nights and we're up. Then we start down, and it'll be over. I can do that.

We also discover an interesting Nepali business tactic -- if we won't go to the village to shop, the village will come to us. Two men from Begnas Tal have spread cloths on the ground and laid out a selection of candy bars, jewelry and trinkets, like the Tibetan whispering bowls we bought in Kathmandu. I glance at the goods -- never let it be said I passed up the chance to shop! -- but nothing catches my wandering eye.

Afternoon tea is part of our new daily routine. Someone from the kitchen staff gives us a ten-minute warning. "Ten minutes tea!!!" the appointed announcer will yell at the top of his lungs -- and like Pavlov's dogs, we gather on our meal tarp. (If the weather's mild, which we soon discover is all relative, we just spread the tarp, set up camp stools in a huge square, and dine al fresco. At higher altitudes, when it's colder, we set up a dining tent.) To the side of the tarp is a large metal bowl filled with warm chlorine water for washing. Everyone is very careful about dipping hands in the water to wash off any strange Nepali bugs that might have attached themselves to our hands in hopes of imparting some dreaded disease. Everyone, it seems, except me. Oh, don't get me wrong! I dutifully, even happily, dip my hands. You get very grimy trekking, and it's a pleasure to be clean, even if it's only hands. But I just don't seem to share the same fear of bugs that my fellow trekkers do. In the hotel, I brushed my teeth in tap water and suffered no ill consequences other than horrified looks from my compatriots.

Lemon tea and coconut cookies give way to dinner, which is the first of a string of delicious and filling meals. We start with lentil soup (lentils are a mainstay of the Nepalis, and we'll have dal †many times in many forms.), followed by rice with eggplant, Thai baby corn and mushrooms with some German sausage thrown in (a German couple in Kathmandu makes it. Go figure.). Mango chutney and fried baby mushrooms round out the meal. I pass on the dessert - chocolate pudding with rum and chocolate sauce, followed by tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

At every meal, we have the option of dining vegetarian. We do have one real vegetarian on the trip -- Clayton. A couple of others seem to be veggie just to set themselves apart -- and not because it's something they follow at home. But, you know, in Nepal, a lot of the Buddhists and Hindus donít eat meat. So when in NepalÖ

We're finished with dinner by about 6:15 -- but it's completely dark. The sky is perfectly clear, filled with more stars than I think I've seen in my life. It's absolutely spectacular! I can pick out Orion -- and I wish we had someone with us who knew the constellations. The warm afternoon has given way to a definite evening chill. Peter called the climate at Begnas Tal "balmy." But to me it's just plain cold. I need my jacket and gloves. But it's still warmer than Kathmandu, and for that, I'm grateful.

We're faced by the same question that will plague us every night after dinner on the trip. What do we do between dinner and bedtime? But tonight, we have a surprise. Our camp staff is treated to about a gallon on raksi, the locally brewed rice liquor. In exchange, they'll put on a song and dance show for us. They gather in two rows, one seated, the other standing behind, with two of the men playing drums for accompaniment They sing and dance their little hearts out, serenading us with Nepali folk songs that are pleasant to listen to -- but really have no meaning for us since we don't know the words! (We were never able to get a real translation, either, other than "it's a love song." And when I finally did get some of the words, I began to understand. They don't really translate well into English.) The guys seem to dance for themselves and each other more than for us. I'm amazed at how comfortable they are with each other -- sitting on one another's laps, arms around each other, completely uninhibited.

By 9:00pm, most of us are calling it a night. It's a little early, especially since all we did today was ride in a bus. But we figure we'll have an early morning and a tough day ahead of us tomorrow. So first we hit the blue toilet tent, strategically placed off to the side of the line of sleeping tents, and marked by a huge, fairly fresh cow pie, roughly the size of Nebraska. Now, I say it's fairly fresh, although we quickly discover that the moist night air works wonders on reconstituting even the driest cow pie. Whether the line of tents was planned to use the pie as an obstacle or a reminder of which direction to the toilet tent, was never fully understood. I only know that a large footprint through it was later attributed to Jim's extremity. Needless to say, I took the long way around that night.

Avoiding the cow pie didn't mean clear sailing through the campsite, by any means. You still had to make sure you didn't entangle yourself in the ropes and tent stakes. If you tripped, at best you'd utter a few foul words. At worst, you risked the potential of uprooting someone. And, I realized, you also had to take care not to stumble back into the wrong tent. All housing looked alike.

Back in bed (well, bag, really), I discover the new batteries in my flashlight are fading. Not a good sign. And, naturally, experienced outdoorswoman that I am, I didn't bring a back up set. That is, I didn't bring a back up back up. I'd already replaced them once in Kathmandu. Well, I didn't wanna read anyway. I say good night to Gaby, who reads for a while longer before turning off her headlamp. I'm jealous of her lamp. I covet her headlamp. But Gaby's quite generous and puts it in the overhead net where we can both use it during the night if we need to. Gaby also tells me that if I take the nylon sack that holds my rolled up sleeping bag, stuff it full of clothes and wrap it in my towel, it'll make a good pillow. I wonder if it's that obvious that I have no clue what I'm doing out here. Anyway, I appreciate her help. And I'm fortunate to have her as my tentmate.

From the tent next to me, I hear snoring. The self-centered, socially-inept John maybe? From elsewhere in the camp I hear what sounds like a radio. That, and a couple of staffers talking is the only other noise tonight. So far, no animals -- cows or other four-footed creatures -- and no insects to break up the silence of the night.


Let The Trek Begin Or Are We Having Fun Yet?

22 December 1988
Trek Day 2
On our way to 2100'


Typical village house.
(Click to enlarge)

Ok...I've made it through my first night. The pad I bought in Kathmandu is little more than a foam core to buffer me from the cold ground. I guess it does the job, but it doesn't do much for comfort. I'm used to a king-sized bed, and I like to sprawl. Ever try to sprawl in a sleeping bad? Doesn't work. My hip bones dig into the ground, and I wake up during the night with hurting hips. I flip sides, my sleeping bag sliding around on the pad. It's not until the next day that I realize I had my bag on the wrong side of the pad. Hey! How was I supposed to know the stupid thing had a right or wrong side?

By 5:00am, people are beginning to stir. John and his wife, Sylvia, either don't realize or don't care that we can hear every word they're saying, every deed they're doing -- like brushing their teeth, discussing Clinton's problems and so on. As we get to know them better, I decide Sylvia would be aghast if she knew. John, I'm convinced, just doesn't care.

Sounds are coming from other tents, too, but this is still private time among the campers as we greet the day in our own ways. By 6:00am, people are beginning to leave their tents. But it's still pitch black, and the headlamps many campers wear look like fireflies flitting in the night sky. I'm envious of every working flashlight I see. By now, Gaby and I are sitting up with our tent unzipped. At 6:15am, two of the kitchen staff start bringing us tea and cookies. "Tea?" one asks. "Coffee? Hot chocolate?"† This is a good thing. A very, very good thing and one we will grow to love.

We have until 7:00am to have everything packed, so the next 45 minutes is a rush for all. The warning call for breakfast comes -- "Juice! Ten minutes!" -- and we convene on the meal tarp.

While we're eating (pomelo juice, porridge, a fruit and nut bread and coffee, tea, coffee and hot chocolate), our porters load up our tents and duffels and hit the road. We watch them walk up the incline to the ridge that separates us from the lake, mount the steep stone steps we explored yesterday and will climb today.

Our six sherpas are staggered throughout the trekkers. There's always a lead guide and a rear guide. The rest seem to rotate among us, each one watching a small group of hikers, going where he's needed, keeping tabs on anyone who may be tired or in trouble.

The weather is cool -- great for trekking -- probably somewhere in the upper 40's. But it won't stay cold for long. Within 20 or 30 minutes, we're peeling the layers. The scenery also changes quickly as we climb. At times it's almost tropical, with bamboo and palm trees. We see spiders that are easily three inches wide and have spun enormous webs, and we pass scattered houses. After about half an hour of climbing, we catch up with our porters and take short break.

The porters are absolutely amazing. They carry three of our duffels -- about 20 pounds each -- plus their own packs. It's all tied together, then slung on their backs, braced with a strap across the forehead. They climb up and down the same paths we do -- but instead of hiking boots, many of them wear rubber thongs. Truly amazing!

We climb up and up and up -- until we have a spectacular view of Begnas Tal and the rice paddy-looking fields that terrace up the mountain. We've circled the lake and seem to be on the opposite side from where we camped. The weather is now sunny and warm -- warm enough to peel down to a short sleeved tee-shirt. This kind of trek would be impossible to do at any other time of year.

Still we climb the steps. We can only imagine who built them or how long they've been there or how many people have crossed them. Some are well space steps, others are nothing more than a few rocks jammed into the earth. They're held together by soil and the ages - no mortar between the stones.

Still later, we pause at a chantara, a rest stop, high on a hill, and eat some of the sweetest oranges I've ever tasted. They're something like a cross between oranges and tangerines and are sweet and refreshing. We rest underneath the trees planted long ago -- it's a Nepali custom to plant trees at rest stops to give shade to travelers.

The area we're passing through looks fairly comfortable by Nepali standards -- houses that look like they're made out of brick and concrete, small crops growing, water buffalo and goats and healthy looking kids that aren't too dirty, although they do have runny noses. (Almost every kid in Nepal has a snotty nose!) Peter says this is probably a mid-level family village, ok by Nepali standards.

As we pass people on the road, we place our hands together and say, "Namaste" (pronounced "nah-mes-tay" and meaning "greetings to you and the spirit that dwells within.") The Nepalis we pass do the same. Sometimes they're curious about us. Other times they don't seem to want to really have anything to do with us. But they're always polite and responsive.

We continue our climb until finally, mercifully, we come to the top of our hill and Majhthana, the village where we eat lunch. Our kitchen staff is already set up and cooking -- and it smells great! We dip into our washing bowl, settle in for hot tea and brownies, sit back in the sun and relax.

When we've finished lunch, true to form, several women gather together to find a "ladies room." I guess no matter where we are, we still have some kind of genetic need to go in groups! For our purposes, though, the "ladies room" is whatever bushes we can find that will give us the most seclusion and privacy. And, surprisingly enough, we usually find an area with at least three "stalls!"

This afternoon, we get a nasty surprise. After all of our morning uphill, we're now gonna head down to get to camp! We're on another stone staircase -- this one treacherously steep and slippery. As bad as it is, Peter tells us it's been improved. What was once only a footpath is now a horse trail used for transporting kerosene. Oh, happy trails if this is a good path. I'd been planning on wearing my running shoes for most of the trek because all the books said that's what people wore. I was very thankful I'd decided to wear my hiking boots that morning instead. I'd wear my boots for the entire trek, I decided.

It takes us about 45 minutes to get down the slick steps. This time, we stay close to our lead sherpa and watch as he marks the direction we travel -- sometimes an arrow scratched in the dirt, sometimes an arrow scratched onto a stone. Every now and then we move aside to let the porters and kitchen staff pass us with their heavy loads. Later in the trek, we'll use them as an excuse to rest for a few minutes. "Porters!" we'll call out. "Porters!"

Our home for the night is a field next door to a village called Khatal Danda and just above the clear, cold rushing Madi Khola (khola is river in Nepali.) As soon as the porters deposit our duffels, Heather and I grab our soap, towels and lungis and pick our way through the cow pies to the river. After all, when in Nepal, do as the Nepali!

We attract a lot of attention as we pick out our bathing spot along the riverbank. A group of young men and boys -- mostly teenagers -- gathers on the bridge that spans the river, equal parts curiosity over the strangers and probably hoping to catch a glimpse of female body parts.

Heather and I are laughing as we slide our lungis on and our other clothes off. She hits the water first - an expletive bursting out as she feels the full impact of the cold water. The rivers and village water are mostly glacial runoff -- chilly to say the least! But Heather braves it, crouching in the cold wet clean. I grit my teeth and go for it. It's cold -- but it feels good. The boys on the bridge are fascinated.

We rinse a few "parts" and climb out as Jane makes her way down to the water. Clayton appears, along with Nahum, Gertrude and Ursula. Next comes Gaby, and we've got a full house. Still the boys stare. Their hope springs eternal -- but we're discrete, and they don't get even a peek!

Jane's blouse gets caught in the current and starts to drift downstream. She makes a grab for it -- catching the shirt but ending up completely submerged. The three of us can't stop laughing. The boys on the bridge are transfixed. But now we don't know what they find more interesting -- the women laughing it up or the men's bathing area where Nahum and Clayton are washing a few discrete yards away. Finally, we towel off and start back for camp. The boys are all eyes as we walk past them over the bridge.

In camp, it's a strange afternoon. Kids from the nearby village keep wandering through, watching us. We're obviously the main attraction. I guess it's a little taste of what it's like when we walk through their villages, snapping pictures. One little girl walks up to me as I'm writing in my diary. Her nose is not running. That's good. "Namaste," I say. She answers me. I tell her what I'm doing, but she just keeps staring. I show her other pages in the book. She stares. I ask her if she speaks English. She says something, but I only catch a couple of words. I ask her to repeat -- but she doesn't seem to understand. Finally, I give up and go back to writing. She leaves me and goes to watch someone else.

The kids aren't a problem -- but they gather in groups to watch us and have no desire to leave, especially not once we've been called for tea. One of the campers wants to give them some of our cookies, but Jai, our sirdar, nixes that because it only encourages them to beg. Finally, some adults come through and Jai says something to them. The kids are quickly ushered away.

It's dark for dinner -- we're in the shadow of a mountain, so we lose the light quickly. Dinner again is quite good -- spinach pasta with turkey tetrazzini and fried mushrooms. Afterward, before it gets too cold, we sit around the "dining room" tarp and talk. Jim breaks out his supply of Johnny Walker and reads us a chapter of his book, "Shopping for Buddhas." This becomes a nightly pre-bedtime ritual for us. Gaby and I go to bed fairly early -- I'm freezing. The camp site feels damp because it's so close to the river, I assume -- and I'm chilled to the bone.


Stairway to Heaven or Eat Your Heart our, Jane Fonda

23 December 1998
Trek Day 3
2400' climbing to 4800'


Kitchen staff make it look easy.
(Click to enlarge)

It's cold when I wake up -- and still very dark. We're hoping that since we lost the sun early, it will rise on our side of the mountain early. We're in luck. As our tea arrives, so do the first rays of sun.

"Good morning!" comes the already-familiar greeting as the two kitchen boys crouch outside the opening to our tent with their rattan tray. "Tea!" After sipping the piping hot brew, we're ready -- sort of -- to greet the world. Well, ready to pack our stuff and then greet the world. In case we missed the routine on our first morning, we get a good look at it now. We're barely out of our tents when the sherpas start breaking them down. And before we've even finished breakfast, some of the porters are on their way to our next destination.

I didn't sleep well last night, but I'm thankful for small things -- my back doesn't hurt. Neither do my feet, ankles or legs. I held up on my first full trek day quite well, thank you very much. As for whether I'm having fun yet -- two more nights to the top. Then it's down.

Breakfast this morning, by the way, is tomato and onion omelets, steamed bread with peanut or sesame butter, regular butter, strawberry or plum jam, plus our coffee, tea and hot chocolate. We eat heartily and a little before 8:00am, we strap on our packs, pull ourselves up and head out for the day. Oh, joy.

We cross over the Madi Khola on the same bridge from which the boys watched us bathe last night and start our morning trudge through dry, empty fields. We've already discovered we'll make most of this trek not looking at the beautiful scenery, but looking down to see where we're walking. In the paddies, we step over rocks, dried stalks of grain -- and those ever-present meadow muffins. I never knew they came in so many sizes and shapes. I'm quickly becoming an expert in bovine droppings.

Not long into our climb the terrain changes -- from the fields we pass into tropical foliage again -- some almost jungle-like. We climb. And climb. And climb. I'm starting to hate those stone steps -- and it's only Day 3 of the trek -- Day 2 of climbing. I'm gonna be in trouble. The steps here are all odd sizes, rising up at various heights. It's impossible to judge your step distance evenly, so each step is a different size. It's easier to walk up an incline, but Nepal, it seems, is one big staircase.

Early in the day, it becomes too hot to wear the sweats or leggings I had planned to use. Besides, leggings, I've discovered, are not really acceptable. Too revealing for the Nepali. So -- out comes the lungi I bought. Unfortunately, I'm not as adept at wrapping it as the saleslady who showed us how. After fumbling around, I remove the elastic cord that holds the water bottle to the outside of my daypack and turn it into a belt. Voila! Tirtaman, today's rear sherpa, waits patiently for me to make my costume change.

"Nepali didi!" he pronounces when I finish. I've gone native -- and boy, is it comfortable! This I can get used to real fast!

Back to the grind -- er -- climb. We climb and climb and climb, past houses with small gardens and water buffalo and goats and a few chickens. Suddenly, we see one of the Himalay rise up in the background, and Jane and I decide we need pictures. I mean, here we are, dressed in summer garb, in front of a Nepali house, with a snow-capped peak rising in the background. It's a Kodak moment if ever there was one. I snap a shot of Jane on her camera and hand her mine. As I'm posing, a woman herding three small goats comes down the path -- and into my picture. Jane snaps, adding one more ingredient to this already unbelievable country we're passing through.

Pictures taken, we resume our ascent until lunch, where we stop at a small village called Pokharkhet. While the kitchen crew sets up lunch, Jai speaks with the woman who lives just below our picnic site, and we're invited in to see her simple house. It's small -- just two rooms -- but immaculate. The house itself is made out of brick and mud, but painted a soft peachy-orange. In the kitchen, the mistress of the house crouches in that familiar Asian squat, stirring a big black cauldron of raksi, the Nepali answer to lighter fluid. We get a taste -- and it's great. Better than what we had for dinner in Kathmandu on our first night together. It's smooth and quite tasty -- and it's still being cooked. This woman has a bumper crop of raksi brewing!

A couple bunches of dried chilies hang above the fire, and some simple wooden shelves hold her staples. The wood timbers of the ceiling are charred black by fire from the cooking spot. The smoke curls up and out through a hole in the ceiling.

The bedroom also is plain -- two cots and a few shelves. No lights -- no electricity. A few steps away from the house is a lean-to that shelters the water buffalo. I moo at him -- he fixes me with that blank water buffalo stare and tries to take a step toward me but is stopped by a rope around one foot. Whatever I said, it must've meant something to him! Either that or my natural animal magnetism!

Back up on the luncheon tarp, we dip our hands in the ritual chlorine water, then snack on tea, cookies and black olives. For lunch, we feast on tabouleh with salmon and grilled cheese, tomato and onion sandwiches which are soaked with enough grease to instantly clog the arteries of the entire population of Boston. But they're good. We've no sooner started wolfing them down than the kitchen staff comes around offering more.

"Second tabouleh!" calls Birkha, spooning more on to my plate. I add some Nepali hot sauce, which greatly improves the taste. This is not my favorite meal.

"Second sammich?" asks Matta. I shake my head, but Clayton helps himself -- his fourth half sandwich. We've discovered he's got an appetite that matches the porters. He's a good sport about it and takes our teasing well.

Today, we have the choice of staying on the tarp a little while longer to relax in the sun, or get on with the afternoon hike. A few decide to nap -- but I choose to go on, trudging back up those damn stairs, higher and higher. About 45 minutes or so into our long march, Jai points to a ridge opposite where we stand and says, "We're going there."

"There?" we ask. He seems to be pointing three hilltops away.

"There," he says, "where that tree is." Yes, he is pointing three hilltops away -- at least three hilltops away.

"Does it get any better?" I ask, ever hopeful, but knowing the truth. Jai is kind.

"Maybe a little -- later," he answers, non-committedly Yeah. Right. Maybe later. Much later -- like, three steps before we get to camp. It's only the third day and my cynicism is already running rampant.

The scenery is much drier up here, as we reach the top of our mountain and start to cross the ridge. We pass a school, and all the kids come out to stare.

"Namaste," we say to them. "Namaste," they reply.

More steps and a spectacular view of the valley we left behind. A man and woman see my lungi and start talking about it. We exchange "namastes," and the man follows me for a short time. I'm a hit with the Nepali!

Up yet more steps, past more village, which seems almost deserted, and then past three more women from three generations. They also notice my lungi and seem to make it their topic of conversation, laughing and chattering. They love it, too.

Up a last set of steps and we're on the plateau that will be our home for the night. There's a magnificent view of the valley, the surrounding mountains -- and a Himalay!!!

What is it? I ask excitedly. Lamjung -- the goal of our trek! We all gaze at it in silent wonder. This is what we came to see. It's right in front of us. But all too soon, clouds roll in and obscure our view. With the clouds comes the night chill.

Before dinner, Jim, Heather, Clayton and I set off to explore the village -- Yanjyakot. It seems rather prosperous -- and we generate a lot of interest, especially from the snot-nosed kids that gather around us and follow us through the village. We're fascinated by a sow and her four little piglets running around the village. The kids are fascinated by my mirrored sunglasses -- and want to touch the lens of my camera. No go there!

Back in camp, it's cold enough up here to set up the dining tent. Our nightly repast is mashed potatoes with a kind of chicken stew. Talk about fresh meat - just a few hours before, this poultry was running around our campsite!

The foul aren't the only creatures that wander in from the village. The women ask to put on a cultural show for us -- for only a small fee of 100 rupees per person. We agree -- except I don't stay for long. I'm coming down with the cold that one of our members so thoughtfully brought from home and that is now starting to spread around camp. The women of the village are pretty -- the songs are the same as we've heard. But it's cold, I'm getting sick, and I've already pulled on an extra sweater. Jeez! I hope I can make it through the next two days! I tell myself that if I can make it through what I'm sure will be the toughest night -- the highest, coldest night -- I can make it through the trip.


Jingle Hell

Trek Day 4
24 December 1998
4800' climbing to 7500'


Kitchen staff and porters lead the trail.
(Click to enlarge)

Gaby and I sleep late -- 6:00am! At 6:15, the kitchen crew brings cups of milk tea -- tea brewed with milk and spices -- and our usual cookies. I've taken to running the metal cup up and down my legs to warm them up as I ease myself out of my sleeping bag. Why I ever thought I'd enjoy this is just beyond me. Wait. Let me clarify that. I'm not not enjoying myself. I'd just be enjoying myself a lot more if I had a warm bed to sleep in at night. And a bathroom with a door I could close. And a shower. Oh, yes. A shower.

I pull myself out of the tent, one hand clutching my tea cup, the other firmly attached to my toothbrush. As I turn around, I'm facing the most incredible Himal view -- the Annapurnas, Machhapahhare and Lamjung in a perfectly clear blue sky, the dawn just breaking over them.

We all dive back into our tents for our cameras, and suddenly the world is better. This is what I came to Nepal to see. This is why I decided I could camp for ten days.

Our rushing sherpas hustle us back to work packing -- they're already breaking down the tents from underneath us. Hey! This is my vacation, ok??? But no -- we've got a trekking schedule to keep! Breakfast of mango juice, porridge, French toast, bacon and spicy potatoes is waiting for us. And, of course, there's the trail.

As we pass through the village, Meredith, Heather, Cheri and I stop to wash our hair at a communal water faucet. The women make room for us, happy to share their water with the foreigners. We try not to crowd them out, and soap patiently as we wait our turns. Everyone laughs as, one by one, we wet, lather and rinse our hair, our own group snapping pictures!

We catch up with the rest of our group, feeling much cleaner. The day is getting quite warm, and even my thick tresses should dry fairly quickly!

About 10:00am, we stop. This is the last running water stop in the last village we'll see for the next two or three days. Any other water we cross will be from rivers. This is the time to wash, fill up water bottles -- whatever. Everyone does -- and I change into my lungi.

Today's trek is very difficult for me. Because of my cold, I'm winded easily. Both Peter and the sherpas are concerned and remind me to let them know if I need anything. I find their concern reassuring. But the morning, as tough as it is, is also rewarding. We're now walking toward the Himalay -- and see the snow-capped mountains almost every step of the way.

Not long after we think weíve passed out of the last vestiges of humanity, a group of young women passes us while we catch our breath at a rest stop. I notice that one of the girls is wearing a lungi with the same pattern as mine! Oh, sure! All the way past Yanjyakot, and I run into someone wearing the exact same thing I am! About the same time, another girl in the group notices my lungi, and this sets off a round of laughing, pointing and chattering. The girl who's dressed as I am seems a little embarrassed, but everyone else loves it.

As we get on our way once more, the girls jump between the women of our group, laughing and talking.

"Namaste, didi," my "twin" says to me. "Namaste, bini," I answer, laughing. Bini means "younger sister."

She sticks out her hand and gives me a very firm handshake.

The girls are on their way to chop wood for the village and carry some very serious scythe-type knives in belts at their waists. We pass some that are having a man sharpen the blades on long boulders. Don't wanna get in the way of those! The girls tag along with us for awhile, laughing, talking, joking among themselves. Finally, it's time to head our separate ways -- but not before I take a picture with my lungi friend. She's a little reluctant -- shy, I think -- but in the end, relents.

The path we're following is used by shepherds in the spring, but now it's deserted. The jungle we climb through is made up of all kinds of trees and plants -- some familiar, like rose bushes! But many more are foreign. I seem to be climbing mostly with Doug and Cheri today, and every now and then, one of them will stop and say, "Mmmm! Smell that? Kind of spicy!" But my cold has my nose so plugged, I can't smell a thing!

Our trek takes on a pattern. From time to time, as we climb higher, we stop to catch our breath. At other times, we pull over to the side to let the porters and kitchen staff with their humongous loads pass by. While the porters carry our belongings, the kitchen staff is burdened with huge baskets containing all the food and equipment, including kerosene stoves for cooking. And while we're struggling with our colds and the elevation, they slowly, steadily trudge by us up the hills wearing rubber flip flops on their feet!

Our noon meal this day is a "box lunch" because there's no running water. We dine on crackers with tuna, peanut butter and jelly, yak cheese and salami. Not necessarily gourmet, but tasty and filling!

We're prepared for an arduous afternoon -- several more hours of difficult climbing. But after just an hour, we reach our camp -- a flat spot that gives us a magnificent view of Annapurna III and Machhapuhhare. It's our reward for a hard day's hike. Another plus -- we're so much higher up with an unobstructed view, so we'll get a longer day! And -- we're anticipating a beautiful sunset! But late afternoon, the clouds roll in and cover the Himalaya.

This is Christmas Eve, and although our staff is made up of Buddhists and Hindus, we will celebrate the holiday. First, Kim -- Jai's 10-year-old son -- makes the rounds with a kitchen basket, collecting the small wrapped gifts we've been asked to bring. Next, we gather by the fire (we can build one up here because a) we're burning dead wood, and there's nothing else in danger of catching fire and b) there's no one here to tell us not to!

Heather is selected to play Santa Claus. She dons a red stocking cap with a white pompom, and as Peter reads off the names of the staff, she chooses a gift and hands it out. The presents are all small things -- socks, caps, scarves, toothbrushes. But they're things the staff needs, likes, wants -- and appreciates.

Finally, the trekkers retire to the dining tent (a must at this elevation!) for Christmas carols and tea -- although tea tonight is actually a very nicely spiked eggnog that Billie's thoughtfully brought along. Dinner is ox-tail soup, dal baht and butterscotch pudding for dessert. After dinner, we head to the fire and get our regular reading of a chapter from "Shopping for Buddhas."

Once in bed, I decide that if I have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I'll use a bush instead of the toilet tent. It's too cold to go any farther than necessary! In fact, it's about here that I pretty much stopped drinking liquids past tea time. Nothing -- except the most dire emergency -- is gonna pull me outta my warm sleeping bag in the middle of a freezing cold Nepali night! And I'm not the only one who's decided to forgo midnight treks to the little blue tent.† If you have a strategically located nook, cranny or bush, that does the trick for a midnight run. You just want to make sure you time it so your run doesn't coincide with sherpa patrol. Two sherpas act as lookouts on two hour shifts. Jane discovered it tonight. She carefully dressed in black from head to toe, not considering the glowing beacon she became once she dropped those black disguising drawers! Oh well -- I'm sure the sherpas have seen it all!


Nepali Law of Nature #1: Up Doesn't Just Mean Up In Nepal

Trek Day 5
25 December 1998
7500' climbing to 11,000'


Frosted fern .
(Click to enlarge)

How cold was it last night? It was so cold the chlorine water outside the toilet tent froze over! (I haven't mentioned this water before. In much the same way as we have a bowl of hand-washing water by the dining tarp/tent, we have another one outside the toilet tent. Only there, we also have a bar of sickly orange soap that you just can't seem to wash off your hands. I have a feeling most people do what I do -- just kinda stick one hand in and swish it around. I don't ask, because I'm sure no one will admit to it. But let's get real. We're trekking, camping, have no showers -- how clean are we?) Anyway, we had a good, thick layer of ice on top of the water bowl. And a light layer of white frost lies over all the ground cover and plants, including the ferns. I'm used to seeing ferns in tropical settings, so it's a little unsettling to see one covered with frost.

I pop -- well, no. "Pop" isn't quite the right word. I unfold myself out of my tent (it's getting harder and harder to get out of this thing. It should be getting easier, I would think, as I get used to it. But it's not.) and catch the beginning of a beautiful sunrise. First order of business is to take pictures, then brush teeth, then "Juice!"

We get warm pineapple juice to start, and it's great! The inexperienced camper that I am, I don't know this is a backpacker's trick. But I don't care. When I get home, I can zap my winter juice in the microwave for ten seconds and enjoy it even more. For breakfast, we get that old friend, porridge (hey -- you might be sick of hearing about it! But porridge is good in the cold! And it makes a good start for a trekking day!) ham and steamed bread with all the usual trimmings. This is gonna be a tough day, so we need energy.

As usual, we climb. And climb. And climb. The first part is through now-familiar jungle, but this time much more dense than before. And this time, the path seems to go straight up the side of the mountain. We often need hands and feet to make this climb.

The jungle is cool, but the views are sensational, with eye-popping panoramas appearing just when you think you can't take one more step. At one point, we stop for a photo op to show how vertical our climb is. Whoever has the camera handy takes the picture, promising to send copies to all! I'm not the photographer today. I knew it would be a tough climb, so my camera is safely tucked away in by daypack instead of hanging around my neck.

We emerge from the jungle and into tall grass, dried from no rain. Still we climb higher, pausing now and then to marvel at the scenery, as well as how far we've come. It's warm, but not too hot since we're gaining altitude. We keep thanking whoever we feel responsible for the good weather. We emerge from the tall grass as if we had just summited Everest -- and at the top of the ridge we get our own breath-taking view -- Annapurnas II and IV, Lamjung and Manaslu.

Snap! Snap! Snap! go the cameras. Kalu passes out peanuts to anyone who wants a snack. And a number of people decide this is the Christmas card shot. Pretty soon, we're gathering together in groups, taking pictures. Then it's time for an impromptu group photo. Pat Malal and Tirtaman volunteer to shoot while we pose.

Our climb now takes us through what seems like miles of rhododendron forest. We're starting to feel the elevation more -- so are our porters. They stop to rest more frequently -- but still, they trudge on with our loads. As difficult as our hike is today, the reward is our almost constant view of the Himalay to our left. Sometimes they're mostly blocked by trees, only their tips showing. Other times, they stand in their silent majesty. The sun warms us, but a cool breeze reminds us we're Nepal in December -- and the weather could change at any time. Our lunch stop is along the trail -- the great surprise is that the kitchen staff has found water so we get a hot lunch -- ramen plus a Tibetan chicken noodle soup, Gouda cheese and cookies.

The after-lunch trek is tough. Most of us discover we're winded just walking the few steps uphill from our bathroom bushes. Nevertheless, we're off through the rhododendron forests -- trees of all shapes and sizes. Some with narrow trunks, some as large as redwoods and some with what looks like three or four small trunks sharing the same root base. All are wrapped with moss, hanging from branches, trunks and exposed roots.

We pass beds of ice crystals that are hidden so well the sun has yet to melt them. They look more like little swords or shards of glass than crystals -- beautiful and fascinating.

I'm getting slower and slower. Jai passes us, saying we have about half an hour more to go -- but that's at this pace, and I'm slowing down even more. Soon, it's just Jim and me, trying to put one foot in front of the other. Krishna -- one of the rotating sherpas -- keeps careful watch over us.

"Slowly, slowly," he tells us. "Don't worry," I pant. "Slow is fine for us." Slow is all heís gonna get.

Even with our snailís pace, we're about the middle of the pack.

This has been one of our longest -- not to mention hardest -- trek days. Usually, after lunch, we hike for an hour, two hours at the longest. Today, it'll be closer to three hours for some.

Jim and I set goals for ourselves.

"To that tree, and we'll rest," I say. He nods, either not wanting or not able to use breath to reply. At one point, I say, "How much more up can we go?" And Jim answers in all seriousness, "We went down for awhile, so we have to make that up. Remember, up never just means up in Nepal."

It takes a while, but we reach camp -- and a glorious view facing the peaks from Annapurna South to Machhapuhhare to Lamjung. Over a small rise (which takes my breath away to mount) is Manaslu. We are thrilled! There's no rain and no snow. About three-quarters of the time, there's at least one storm. And even though we've got clear blue skies and gorgeous views, it's still quite chilly. A breeze comes off the mountains -- the Himalay -- remember? They're big and snow-covered and COLD!

Dinner tonight will be inside a stone building used by traveling shepherds. But first -- the call to tea! Manju, our chef, has made a huge pot of hot chocolate, spiked with rum for anyone who so desires (and we so desire!), and served with chocolate cookies. The perfect thing! Christmas dinner -- because remember, this is Christmas! -- starts with bean soup, then moves on to mashed potatoes, stuffing and a sauced chicken and cranberry sauce. Biscotti is our desert.

After dinner, we read another chapter of "Shopping for Buddhas." It's not as good as it was at the beginning, but it gives us something to do. After all -- it's barely 7:00pm! But the porters and kitchen staff are anxious for us to go to bed - the stone building will be their night housing, and they want it to themselves. As we settle into our tents, we hear party sounds from them. Must be a big card playing night!

Meredith joins us in our tent tonight because she was too cold last night. But tonight, in spite of the extra body in our tiny tent, I'm freezing and just can't get warm. This is the most miserable night I've spent, and I can't wait for it to end!


Slip Sliding Away or Would You Please Point Me Toward the Elevator?††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

Trek Day 6
26 December 1998
11,000' descending to 8000"


Anapura II .
(Click to enlarge)

It's cold outside, and a light wind makes it worse.† Am I miserable? Yes. What keeps me going is that we've reached our peak -- and it's all downhill from here. At least...I think it is. Hah!

I go out to take some sunrise pictures, but my light meter isn't working. Even though I've been sleeping with my camera and film in my sleeping bag (and lemme tell you, it's been getting kinda crowded, what with the camera, film and next days clothing in there with me!), it's too cold. I guess at exposures and snap a few pictures anyway.

I grab a cup of tea from the kitchen boys at my tent (6:30 today rather than 6:15. We got to sleep in!) and head over to the roaring fire on the other side of the camp site. Porters and a few trekkers are gathered around. My fingers are so cold that they hurt. Those damn pictures had better come out!

Wanna know how cold it is? It's so cold that the water outside the toilet has frozen completely. And people are trying to brush their teeth with semi-frozen toothpaste.

All in all, things could be worse. It's cold -- but it's clear. No rain or snow. And the mountains are amazing. To think I'm here, among some of the highest, most beautiful peaks in the world is mind boggling. Still, a warm bath would be heaven right about now. Heck, even a lukewarm bath would be great. Just to be clean...

We no longer know what day of the week it is. We only know this is the day after Christmas. But days of the week have lost their meaning. I'm counting the days, as I now do several times each day. We've gone up four days, now we're going down. I can do that.

The morning is free -- our first free time since Begnas Tal. I use it to get this diary caught up (trying to write in a sleeping bag is not very comfortable or inspirational!) and to find a nice private bush for a little bathing. I have no desire to climb any higher -- it looks like bare hill above us. Not enough inspiration for the exertion!

We gather at the meal tarp for lunch -- it's warm enough by now to eat outside. We have macaroni and cheese and a pumpkin-like squash that Manju bought along the way. This is one of the best meals we've had. Next stop -- somewhere downhill. Our first taste of down is through tundra, frozen and brittle from the cold. Gradually, the foliage thickens until we're in a deep forest. All the forests seem vaguely tropical, with ferns everywhere, high or low elevation, dark, sunny, wet or dry.

We've been warned the downhill will be slippery, and sure enough -- it is. We're slipping across wet rocks, beds of dry leaves covering roots, rocks and uneven ground. I slip and fall once, tweaking my right knee a little -- but nothing serious. So far, I've been without sore muscles or blisters, which absolutely amazes me. I don't wanna hurt myself now! Not with the end in sight!

After two or three hours of trying to stay upright on the downslide, we reach the river -- and a very unsteady looking bridge. The span is made of three horizontal beams, about 4" square. The beams are lashed together by branches, tied on top and below about every three feet. The first porters to reach the bridge cross it one by one, loads still intact on their heads and backs. Then Jai stops all traffic while the porters come back and sprinkle the bridge with dirt to ease the slipperiness. They resume crossing, one by one, and then it's our turn. Jai helps each of us up to the bridge -- but you're on your own to cross. Two of the beams are steady. But the third rocks in the opposite direction with every step. I try to focus on the bridge and not the water, at least eight feet below. About mid-way, I consider going down on all fours. But I figure it will shake the bridge more to change position. So I keep moving. Besides, Iíd lose face if I started crawling! And Iím not about to do that!

Kalu is at the other side to help us down with good strong sherpa hands. Whew! The Nepalis seem to like to make bridges as scary as possible. It's about another half hour of up and down -- I've had about all the up I can take -- and we hit camp -- a lovely clearing from which we can hear but not see the river.

Jim breaks out his booze -- Johnny Walker. He made a mistake at the Bangkok Duty Free Shop and bought the really expensive, aged stuff. His mistake is our pleasure tonight! We toast having made it this far with few visible scars. We toast the campsite's lower elevation, the warmer air and a Merry Fucking Freezing Christmas. Nahum joins with his brandy, and we're left feeling rosy and warm -- for the moment, anyway.


Motrin and Mantras

Trek Day 7
27 December 1998
8,000' descending to 4,800'


Camp overlook .
(Click to enlarge)

I froze to death again last night. Not as badly as at the top -- but uncomfortable just the same. I'm tired of being cold. I'm tired of not being able to curl up in a ball at night. I'm tired of not sleeping well, and I'm tired of squatting to go to the bathroom. I'm also tired of being dirty. Other than that, I'm having a marvelous time.

I'm not the only one who's getting tired. Even some of our experienced hikers are tired of the discomfort -- although everyone is still in a pretty good mood. Everyone, that is, except for John, our resident sourpuss. John just doesn't seem to know how to get along with people. His wife, Sylvia, is quite nice. But John -- well, John's just a pain. But we more or less ignore him and don't let him bother us -- too much.

By this point in the trip, too, we're all -- except John and Sylvia -- trading things. The unexpected round of colds has wiped out peoples' supplies of toilet paper -- except mine. I packed extra, having no intention of running out of that necessity! So I give a half roll to Gaby, who's out completely. And I give a packet of kleenex to Cheri. Heather has given me an extra flashlight, with dying batteries. Cheri has given me some (old) batteries for the new flashlight, and Gaby will give me some good ones later.

Breakfast is bacon and omelets. I eat extra bacon because I know I'm gonna work it off (Actually, I eat it because I love bacon!) Everyone is psyched for what's been billed as one of the hardest days of our trek. We start off by our usual time -- somewhere between 7:45 and 8:00am -- and soon we're surrounded by jungle -- trees with vines, twisting and turning, moss clinging to everything. The ground is soft, but not muddy, and the temperature is mild, a little cool since we're in the shade.

We dutifully stay close together. Jai has been very clear that he wants everyone closer than usual. Manju is leading the way, using a big kitchen knife to chop away the foliage and mark our path by taking out chunks of tree bark at intervals along the path. About 20 minutes into the hike, we come to a sudden halt. There's a lot of chatter as the sherpas and porters yell back and forth. A few minutes later, the verdict is in -- the path hasn't been used in so long it's become impassable. The solution -- climb a few hundred feet up the hill -- on no real path -- and see if we can find another way.

We hoist ourselves up by digging our feet into the moist hillside, feeling for strong tree trunks and vines, and -- whenever necessary -- using hands and feet. We pass the word along to each other -- good strong tree trunk. Don't grab this root. We make a second try to continue our horizontal march. Again -- no good. Once more, we move up the hillside until -- three's a charm! We find a usable path. Or maybe a better way to put it is -- we've found a suitable place to blaze a trail!

Ok. Now we've got good news and bad news. The good news is -- it hasn't been raining, so there's no mud. But the bad news is -- we're going just about straight down. The ground is soft -- a very soft soil that often has the consistency of mulch. There is such a thick carpet of leaves that you have no idea what's underneath -- good hard ground, roots, rocks -- or maybe nothing at all. So each step is precarious at best. All along the line, I hear people slipping and falling. Pretty soon, Clayton, Heather and I are traveling in our own mini-pack. We yell warnings to each other about soft soil, loose rocks or sticks, prickly bushes to avoid and trees to hang on to. Sometimes the warnings work -- sometimes they come a little too late and are answered by a resounding "Shit!" A couple of times I inadvertently choose the butt slide as the most expedient way to descend. My hiking boots have as much dirt inside as outside -- and still we go down!

But this is actually fun -- the best day I've had! We're laughing our heads off almost every foot of our descent. Which is a very good thing, because we go non-stop through this jungle forest for the next three hours. There's no place to pull over for a rest -- other than rolling off the edge and sliding to the bottom -- wherever that may finally be!

We finally do reach the bottom -- the river -- tired, legs aching, but laughing, only to discover that one of our kitchen porters -- Matta -- is missing. It's serious enough to have a man missing -- Matta could be hurt, lying injured somewhere. But on top of that -- Matta was carrying our stoves, which means no hot lunch! Two others have been sent to look for Matta while Manju does a quick improvisational lunch -- coleslaw, cheese and cookies, salami slices, trail mix with M&Ms and fruit cocktail.

A river stop also means the chance to do a little discreet bathing and a lot of open hair washing and laundry. And after lunch, Peter offers up extra strength Motrin. I partake because I feel the morning's workout in my thighs. I haven't had any problems so far -- and wanna keep it that way.

On our way again, we have to cross another small bridge over the river. I eye it suspiciously -- we could probably walk across the rocks just as easily. This bridge is three thin tree trunks lashed together. It's much less steady than yesterday's shaky span, with one trunk dancing to its own rhythm. Once again, we go one by one. I look back after I cross -- Heather is down on all fours making her way across.

Our afternoon isn't nearly as much fun as the morning -- warm, dry and uphill. We pass through what looks like marigold fields -- although the plants aren't in bloom. Along the way, we hear Matta has been found -- then pass him sitting with Jai. He apparently thought we were stopping some place else for lunch -- and took a short cut. When he realized he'd missed us, he went to a place he knew we'd cross and waited.

During our afternoon trek, Tirtaman has somehow missed the down path, so we -- again -- create our own through a tightly knit grove of trees. Jai is pretty pissed when he catches up to us -- losing Matta and a trail in one day is a bit too much. Later, when we reach camp, we hear Jai letting the entire staff have it.

This path meets up with one of the area's main "highways," and we start to see people for the first time in two days. We're also descending these horrid stone steps again. At first, I've got a pretty good pace going. But I'm tired, it's been a long day, and downhill rock steps have never been my forte. Besides, there are so many steps, it takes about an hour -- at least! -- to get all the way down.

Our campsite is above the river, but the water is so loud, it's almost deafening, especially at night. I'm worried I'll be as chilled as I was the second night of the trek at the river. Oh, I'm so ready for a hotel! And not like the one we had in Kathmandu! A real hotel with a real bed and bathtub and room service!!! But we have a beautiful view of Machhapuchhare from our campsite -- and that makes everything better. It always seems that when things get the toughest, you turn a corner and there's a glorious view.

Clayton, Doug, Gaby and I head to the river for a little bathing (Bathing, it seems, has become our favorite pastime. Maybe that's because we can do it only in little pieces. There are parts of my body I haven't seen in days now. I'm not even sure I remember what my entire body looks like.) Clayton dives right into the chore -- not literally, because the stream is too shallow and too cold. I stick my feet in -- socks and feet are caked with dirt after the day's downhill. The kitchen boys are filling water jugs (upstream from us, thank you very much!) so I don't want to start washing just yet. But pretty soon, it's obvious they're purposely taking their time. The temperature is dropping quickly, so I take off my wind breaker (I have on a jogging top, so I'm modestly covered.) and start washing and -- yes -- shaving! The guys try to look like they're ignoring me, but later Gaby tells me they were trying to curve their eyeballs around to see!

We join Nahum and Jim for the cocktail hour (bye bye, booze!), so we're feeling pretty good when we sit down for our tea and snack -- tiny white kernels of some kind of popped grain, buttered and salted like popcorn. We're digging out bowlfuls, loving it. And just four nights left of sleeping in tents.


Nepali Corollary #1: Down Doesn't Just Mean Down in Nepal

Trek Day 8
28 December 1998
4,800' climbing back up to 7,000'


Women outside Sikles.
(Click to enlarge)

Everyone is ready for a hotel. Maybe it's the thought of climbing back up. Maybe it's just that no one is the camper he or she thought. But most of us have agreed -- we'd be really, really happy to be in a bed tonight. Gaby and I are counting the remaining nights. I don't count tonight -- but she does. That means three more nights. I like my way of counting better.

After a wonderful breakfast of chipatis and cheese omelets, we cross yet another bridge. This one is quite high above the Madi Khola -- a suspension bridge with actual wooden planks and heavy metal cables to grab on to. Except some, if not most, planks are loose, others are missing altogether. As more people get on, it sways, precariously. And some joker thinks it's funny to bounce, making the bridge pitch even more. Somehow, we all make it safely across.

Today is uphill again. But not just uphill. Straight uphill. I'm so tired of climbing that I'm gong very slowly. The stone steps seem interminable and almost insurmountable.

We come to a clear, clean and very cold river where the porters have stopped for breakfast. Looking for any excuse to stop, I whip out my shampoo, drop my head in a pool of water and do a quick wash. But this spot on the river has a lot of sand in it -- and I'm having trouble getting it all out of my hair. Maila comes to my rescue, with a fast, thorough and very cold rinse. It feels like needles sticking me all over my head! I have to plead with him to stop before my head freezes over! But I'm clean -- and back on my way uphill.

We're on the road to Sikles now. I'm not sure what's so wonderful about Sikles - if it doesn't have a Four Seasons, it doesn't really matter to me. It's just another campground.

As we get closer to Sikles, we start to see people again. We haven't seen any other humans since leaving Yanjyakot on Christmas Day. I pass a young couple and notice a distinctive and rather pleasant smell, which is interesting because I didn't notice any on the trip up. At first I think the smell is some kind of food, but then I realize it's the smell of wood burning. It must be from their homes, like the one we visited several days before. The whole house must be permeated with the smell of wood burning until it's in everything they own, their hair -- even their bodies. As I said, it's not at all unpleasant.

We start to pass a whole assortment of people. Three women and a water buffalo. One woman is so old she barely has any teeth in her mouth. She says something to me, holding her hands out. Pat Malal, the sherpa who's walking along with us, can only translate a couple of words of her dialect.

"Chocolate," he says. "She wants chocolate."

I don't have any chocolate, but I dig in my daypack and come up with a spiced apple energy bar. I don't think they're too bad -- and I sampled quite a few before I bought my supply for the trip.

"Is this ok?" I ask Pat Malal. He shrugs, so I hand it to the woman. I'd sure love to be around when she bites into it and finds out it's not chocolate!

Climbing the last flight of steps into Sikles, I see Jane a short distance ahead, surrounded by three Nepali women. Jane is videotaping -- and the women are fascinated by the large viewfinder on the camera. Jane lets them watch over her shoulder as she tapes the people, the village and the landscape. Then they laugh self-consciously as she turns the camera on them.

Sikles is a beautiful village. The stone steps and paths are in good repair, the houses well-kept and clean. The windows are covered with intricate wood carving, rows of pumpkin-like squash rest on second floor roofs, women sit outside their homes weaving blankets and shawls and the men weave baskets and mats with strips of dried bamboo. The residents watch as we walk through, still greeting us with "namaste," curious but not about to disturb their daily lives for us.

We make a stop at the Annapurna Conservation Area Project headquarters, where efforts are being made to teach Nepalis about hygiene, ecology and so on. They also try to make trekkers more environmentally conscious. A look around -- and then we're free to explore the town. And lo and behold! What do we find? A hotel! But don't get excited -- this is not part of any luxury chain you know. The proprietress happily shows us an upstairs room -- well, I suppose you could say the entire upstairs is one room. Divisions are made with something along the lines of plywood (although each "room" has its own door.) The room has three single cots, each covered with a sheet. The little girl who's giving us the grand tour proudly uses a switch on the plywood wall to turn the single light bulb on and off. Ok, it probably wouldn't be much warmer than the tent. Or much more comfortable. But it would be a bed, off the ground. I sigh, turn around and leave the room, and thank the woman for showing us around.

Above Sikles, our sherpas pitch our tents and set up camp. We're on a wide plateau with a spectacular view of Sikles and Annapurna IV. We're eye level with a white eagle, soaring in the clear sky. It's an almost magical moment, just sitting in the warm sun, watching the eagle toss and turn on the currents from front row seats.

The Nepali are very industrious -- and if we won't stop in their village to shop, they'll bring the stores to us. At first, it's just one very beautiful young woman with drinks and candy bars. She spreads a colorful cloth on the ground and sets up an aluminum tub with beer, soft drinks and bottled water, all sitting in ice water to cool them. We're attracted to the cold drinks. Our sherpas (most of whom are married, by the way!) are attracted to the young woman.

Since we won't be walking anywhere for the rest of the afternoon, Heather and I decide to split a bottle of beer at lunch. (The perfect compliment to our planned luncheon of Texas chili burritos! Sorry -- Nepali tea just doesn't make it with that!). With my stomach full, I decide it's time to do a little laundry and some mini-washing. We have our own water spigot, but since it's right next to the building that houses our kitchen, about all I'm gonna wash is my feet. I found out later there was an actual, real private shower -- but since it would've been cold water, it's probably ok that I didn't know. The temptation would've been just too great. And if there's one thing I like less than being cold in a sleeping bag, it's being in a cold shower.

If we seem obsessed with bathing, it's probably because we're never sure when -- or if we'll have water. Sometimes, along the trail, you'll find yourself doing a "sniff test." I'm fairly lucky -- I don't have a terribly -- shall we say -- ripe scent when I get hot and sweaty. But every now and then, I'd catch a whiff of -- well, something. So a quick sniff -- just to reassure myself it wasn't me! Paranoid? No -- just being considerate of my trek-mates!†

Laundry and bathing finished, it's time for -- shopping! By now, several other women have come up with their wares a discreet distance from our tents. Two necklaces catch my eye -- both appear to be made out of some sort of carved wooden beads. I quickly find out it's not wood -- but yak bone. Yuck! is my first though. Then Billie says, in her southern drawl, "Whale... ya gotta do something with the bones when they die. It's just recycling." I agree -- and start the bidding on a necklace that's made up of the eight auspicious Tibetan symbols. The woman wants 600 rupees for the necklace, a little more than $9.00. As a matter of principal, I won't pay her asking price. I offer 500 rupees, about a little less than $8.00. She won't budge. I do my best. I don't have the money, I tell her. That's all I have. She won't move. Then Jai, our sirdar, jumps in. I have no clue what they're saying, but it's getting heated. He sounds angry. She still won't negotiate. He's sitting next to her on the ground, both of them cross-legged. But he's not looking at her -- and she's not looking at him -- and neither one is looking at me! I'm no longer part of this negotiation!

Jai's angry stream of words keeps pouring out. But she gives as good as she gets. For nearly five minutes they go back and forth, Jai's words a non-stop torrent. Finally he shoves the necklace at me.

"Here!" he says, not really looking at me. "For 500?" I ask, taking it.

Yes, he nods. I scamper off to get the money. I have no idea what he said, but I got my price! I also got the most unique looking piece that was for sale!

Billie, meanwhile, wants to buy a lungi. But the ones for sale seem too expensive to her, so she drags me to the lungi blanket for consultation. I feel the fabric, then, to Billie's dismay, confirm what the merchant has been saying -- these are a good quality fabric. And much better than mine. No comparison. The merchant also says she has my lungi at home -- (I had no idea I was buying such a popular lungi!) and that it's not as nice as the one Billie wants. Billie (who's making her fifth trekking trip to Nepal, by the way!) ultimately buys the lungi, paying far too much for it. But it is beautiful.

After our shopping expedition, we set up our camp stools so we can take our tea watching the sun set. Our show includes silhouettes of the merchants, a few trekkers still picking over their goods, and some of the local boys practicing their kick-boxing. It's a beautiful show. Almost as beautiful as our dessert that night -- a rich, moist chocolate cake that Manju has somehow managed to bake on the kerosene burners the kitchen staff uses to prepare our meals! It's iced with chocolate and decorated with cashews. It is a work of art that tastes as good as it looks! Manju, we decide, is a genius!

The villagers have offered to come dance for us (for a small fee, of course.) But we vote them down in favor of buying local liquor for our own staff and letting 'em go wild. The young women from the village wander over -- they are obviously smitten by some of our very attractive sherpas. There's a promise of much ado after we retire to our tents tonight!


Field of Poop II: The Sequel

Trek Day 9
December 1998
7,000' going to god knows where


Hair wash in Sikles.
(Click to enlarge)

I'm worried. My first thought this morning is that it wasn't too cold last night. Does that mean I'm getting used to this?! Probably not -- because that thought was quickly followed by others, more familiar, almost a mantra by now.

I want a bed.

I want a real toilet.

I want to be clean.

But -- I also want breakfast. So I struggle out of my tent, clutching my hot tea. (The one thing I will miss at the end of this trip is our morning tea delivery.) We dine on ham and chipatis and porridge, preparing ourselves for another day of up and down. And up and down it is. So up and down that our lunch stop is an outcropping of rocks, barely big enough for all of us -- and certainly not big enough for us to sit around the dining tarp!

Our campsite tonight is a dried, empty field at the head of a gorge that fills with water during the rainy season. But now, we're high and dry. For our tent location, Gaby and I select the terrace with the best view -- and the path of least resistance through the piles of water buffalo and goat poop. One little black goat is still in the paddy -- obviously busy making sure we don't run short of the stuff.

More and more, our afternoon routine includes parts bathing, and today is no different. We've got a stream next to camp, so off we go. Our kitchen boys have taken some long leaves of bamboo and fashioned a spout of some sort to narrow the stream's flow. We think they're ingenious -- but then, they probably do this almost every day. We city folk are so easily impressed, it's pathetic!

It seems as if the whole town as come out to watch us bathe. Some that can't see well enough move around a clump of bushes to get a better view. I never knew that washing hair and laundry (and a few body parts) was so fascinating! They love Nahum, who's carefully shaving a little downstream from us. Everything we do mesmerizes them -- all ages, men, women and children.

Even though it's still light, Gaby and I retire to our tent to read. The afternoons get chilly early, and bed -- or bag, as the case may be -- is the most comfortable place to read. Our tents have back and front doors, and since it's still mild and the views are beautiful, we leave both open. Wrong move. We're quickly swarmed by local kids. They creep closer and closer, until they're practically inside our tent. At the same time, we notice an invasion of small bugs. Coincidence? Maybe. But we use it as an excuse to close the bug netting on the door. It doesn't discourage the kids -- they still crouch outside, watching. We can't concentrate with all the little eyes on us! Suddenly I see a little hand flapping around the inside of our front door! It's one of the little runny-nosed kids trying to get in! I reach over and say, "No, no, no!" and the hand withdraws. Some things transcend language differences. Mercifully, the call for tea comes! We zip up our tents and scamper off through the poop piles to tea. The sherpas will be busy patrolling the camp tonight.

Dinner starts with mushroom soup, followed by macaroni salad and mo mos, which are basically Tibetan dumplings with sauce. Dessert is chocolate mousse pie with an Oreo cookie crust. We all remind ourselves we won't be able to eat like this much longer.

It's a pleasant, mild night -- I think we're at about 6,000'. I don't really know -- or care -- any more. I just want to be DOWN. Most of us have decided that these last couple of days of seemingly aimless up and down haven't been too interesting. We're ready for Pokhara.

There's a little breeze, but it's almost warm. Gaby and I think back to the first night when Peter kept saying the weather was balmy. It really is all relative, I guess. Either that, or I really am getting used to this. And that scares me. A lot.

The villagers come to dance and sing for us tonight. Again, it's the songs we've been hearing since the first night. We're practically singing along -- but who knows what we're singing! We're making sounds, but who knows if it's the right words! At least we know the tunes now! Our guys are screaming and yelling tonight -- there's the promise of a big party later, after we've gone to bed. The staff must be getting kind of antsy to return to some sort of civilization, too.


Hello, Room Service? I'm on My Way!††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

Trek day 10
December 30, 1998
Who knows?


The trail ahead.
(Click to enlarge)

I'm finally feeling some of the effects of the trek† -- I apparently bruised a couple of toenails on the big downhill the other day. Nothing serious, mind you -- the big toe on my right foot and the second toe on my left foot. But it's enough to make my hiking boots uncomfortable. So today I opt for my running shoes. I really miss my boots. We're getting to the bottom of our breakfast feed bag. Granola and warm applesauce. But there are also these pastry things filled with cheese or cheese and bacon. They're fairly greasy -- but good! I long ago decided fat doesn't count when you're on a trek. And even though we're getting close to the end, we still have a full day ahead today.

What follows breakfast is two and a half hours of excruciating uphill. It's steep, rocky, wet -- and the damp leaves on the rocks make the trails very slippery. I'm not terribly comfortable in my running shoes, so I take it very slowly. I've made it through with no injuries so far, and I have no intention of hurting myself here. At about 10:30, we gather at a rest stop, exchanging cough drops, sun block and other necessities of the day. Jai point out a plateau across the valley below us. That's our lunch stop.

But here's the good news -- it's almost all flat!!! And what isn't flat, is down-sloping. It's slippery and rocky -- but it's down. It only takes us about 45 minutes to get to our lunch spot -- a beautiful open space with -- what else -- spectacular views. While we're sipping tea, waiting for lunch, we spy two more eagles, soaring above. One returns to a nearby tree. The other keeps circling around -- higher, then lower, just above eye level. We've seen eight eagles on this trip, each one different, each one exquisite.

After lunch, it's a steep, hard downhill. But unlike our fun descent -- was that two days ago? Three days? I've lost track. I only know this is the last long hiking day. Anyway -- this is a hard descent. And somehow I ended up at the front of our little pack, with Heather behind me and Clayton behind her. I offer to drop back because my running shoes are slowing me down. But they assure me the pace is just fine.

The ground is hard and dry and dusty. The rocks are hard. The trail is steep. But I see tiny yellow flowers that look like they may be related to orchids. And I know I'm getting closer to the bottom -- and the end of the trek. Am I a little sad? Yes, I guess so. The people are fun, and I actually enjoy the exercise. Will I be glad it's over? Yes. Do I want a bed, bath and private toilet? Absolutely!

After an hour or so of this steep downhill, we reach the outskirts of a village. The incline lessens, and we're walking almost flat. It's not long before we pull into port -- or rather -- field. Gaby and I pick a spot, then rush to the river before word spreads that strange westerners are in town. We'd like to wash without being the center of attention for once! And my goodness! Bathing two days in a row! I'm almost heady with anticipation!


Warm Water, White Wine and other Civilized Delights

Trek Day 11
December 31, 1999
Hot showers at last


Our turn to wash.
(Click to enlarge)

We wake up on the last morning of the trek and discover it's not too cold outside even though a low layer of fog covers almost everything. After breakfast, we set off on a walk -- not a hike -- through the little town next to our camp field. We'll walk for about an hour to meet the bus that will take us into Pokhara -- and back to civilization.

The road is quite wide -- although it's very rocky. A man on a motorcycle passes us twice -- I think maybe he wants to make sure we've noticed him. It's a little strange after not seeing any motor vehicles for ten days.

The people in this little town are already up and about when we pass through a little before 8:00am. There are tiny stores already manned by their owners, a small grainery making a huge noise, mothers feeding breakfast to their children. All the normal goings on of a regular town waking up.

The deeper we get into town, the more cosmopolitan it looks. We pass several large buildings -- one is a school. We can't figure out the others. Maybe government or official buildings of some sort And the closer we get to our bus, the more goods we see in the shops. A number of them are tailors -- fabrics and sewing machines crowded into tiny spaces.

Just before we board the bus, Heather and I decide we need to make one last pit stop. Cheri joins us -- and, once again with power in female numbers, we look for a place to quickly do our business. We're out of luck finding anything private. And we're conscious that if we're not quick, we'll keep the entire group waiting. So -- since we've been living a "when in Nepal" philosophy for the last ten days, we figure what the heck? Let's just pull off to the side of the road.

Cheri goes first and makes quick work of it. I'm next -- squatting as a cow comes down the road toward us. We start giggling. Heather crouches as a man passes us. He eyes us without the least bit of curiosity. Heather backs further into the bushes, trying to hide herself but only managing to prick her backside on a nettle bush. She yelps, instantly in pain and burning from the nettles. Cheri and I sympathize -- but can't stop laughing. In fact, we're laughing so hard, I'm almost snorting. My sides are hurting, and tears are running down my face. How typical of our entire trip!

We walk back to the bus -- now boarding our trekkers -- laughing all the way. Then we realize we've brought along a souvenir of our pit stop -- something quite nasty all over our shoes. Now we're laughing and scraping, Heather still moaning about her scratches. Meanwhile, Meredith tells us, she's just asked to use someone's facilities -- which were clean and odorless. But not nearly as much fun for a final trek experience!

Within minutes, we're trundled onto the bus for the 25 minutes or so it'll take to get to our Pokhara hotel. Someone at the back of the bus, one of the porters perhaps, starts singing a slow, sad song. It's one we recognize and could probably sing with our made-up Nepali words. For a moment, we're all lost in memories of our trip -- which is just about over. It's always a little sad when an adventure comes to an end -- especially an adventure that's had as much to offer as this one. But I can't deny that I'm happy -- no, thrilled -- no, ecstatic that we're at the Fairmount Hotel -- which has a hot water heater big enough for all of us to shower at the same time!!! Hot water, here I come! I toss my clothes on my bed -- a real bed! -- close the door to the bathroom -- a real door on a real bathroom with a real toilet!! -- and lather to my heart's desire -- just as my fellow trekkers are doing in their rooms around the hotel. We reunite for a relaxing lunch by the lake, an afternoon of shopping and then -- New Year's Eve. As we sit around, drinking our wine and munching our yak cheese and crackers, one of the trekkers asks me if I'll ever do a trip like this again. I respond quickly and in no uncertain terms -- no!

But I must admit -- there's a place in Nepal I'd love to see called Tengpoche. It's over by Everest -- and, well, I understand it's lovely this time of year...

Read more: Part 2!

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