Patagonia Part II: Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas
November 28, 2013
It was a beautiful two hour drive through the countryside from Torres del Paine to the nearest town, Puerto Natales. We passed more guanaco, thousands of sheep, cowboys on horseback with dogs herding cattle down the slope, windswept plains, glacial lakes, and jagged mountains. Soon the landscape graded into rolling grassy hills with scattered farmsteads every few miles. We reached Puerto Natales, which is a tiny town sprawled along the Chilean fjords. There were rusty ships in the pass, broken down piers here and there, and large, graceful swans, white with a black head and neck, with little grey signets paddling along behind. The fjords are framed by the tall, snowy mountains, an ever present backdrop in this region.
Soon I was dropped off at the EcoCamp office, where Fernanda was there to assist me with whatever I needed. Since I abandoned all my plans and am in a town I know nothing about, I asked her to just book me at a nice hotel. When I got there, it was the strangest thing. The hotel was made out of concrete and was cut into the slope above the fjord, and covered in grass, like a military bunker. I checked in anyway and was led down the dark corridor to my room, believe it or not, number 13. The inside of the room was all concrete as well, with the bed on a cement platform and shelving made of concrete. The saving grace was the picture window that opened up to the grassy fields and beautiful fjord.
The next day I got the heck out of that place and decided to splurge and stay at the nicest hotel in town since I was still not feeling well. Here I rested for two more nights, ate well, skyped with my dog, and got a facial and a chocolate body scrub while the wind howled outside and the rain came down in droves. On Thanksgiving Day, still smelling of chocolate, I boarded the bus for my final destination, Punta Arenas. I set out for a walk to pick up food for Thanksgiving dinner. It was quite an adventure, and somehow I ended up with an orange, something resembling a doughnut, and a brown block I thought might be bread pudding, but have now rendered inedible. But I have returned safely to my room, am feeling much better, and am thankful for all...
Patagonia Part I: El Calafate and Torres del Paine
November 26, 2013
I arrived in El Calafate, Argentina still dizzy from seasick patch withdrawl. I canceled my trek to the Perito Merino glacier and eventually was able to take a short walk outside my hotel, which sits on an open marsh with an ice blue lake behind it, and high, snow-covered mountains in the distance. The next day I was picked up for my private transfer into Chile. My driver Juan picked up some bread from the bakery for the border police, and we drove for hours into the icy, windy altiplano and down into the wide open steppe. We passed thousands and thousands of sheep plodding along over the brown, windswept plain. We had no trouble at the border because of our gift of bread, and once inside Chile I was handed off to a new driver who spoke no English. From there, it was a scenic 1 ½ hours to Torres del Paine National Park, passing fluffy rheas (like a small ostrich), huge herds of guanaco (something like a llama) even on the road, and an occasional condor gliding overhead like an ominous giant watching over us from the clouds. We passed trickling rivers and choppy lakes, and soon the famous towers came into view, three granite monoliths amidst the snowcapped mountains in the distance.
After some confusion as to where I should be dropped off, we reached EcoCamp, a compound of dome shelters nestled next to a cattle ranch at the foot of the mountains. I was shown to my “room,” which is a two-person dome tent made of layers of insulated fabric stretched over a metal frame, meant to withstand the high winds that the region is famous for. These domes are connected by wooden walkways and situated around the bathroom area, which is a larger dome with composting toilets, showers, and sinks. The community domes are further down the slope, where there is a bar, dining room, and lounge area. The rest of my trekking group finally arrived and we were served a very fancy dinner and briefed on our plans for the coming days. The treks involved 7-8 hours of hiking per day, much of it uphill, as well as multiple boat rides and sleeping in a refugio for one night. Since I still was not well, I opted to stay at the camp and recover, and possibly meet up with my group later for...
The weather turned bad again, but we did make our anchorage at Paradise Harbor (which is not really a harbor) so we could go ashore. On the way, a pod of orcas (killer whales) was spotted off the port bow, so we took some time to watch them. There were at least 5 of them, maybe more, and they came so close to the boat that we could hear them breathing each time they surfaced.
It was my turn to go mountaineering this morning so I got my harness and ice axe then set off on the zodiac to a steep little mountain covered in ice. We all tied up to one another and headed up in the falling snow.About half way up it was determined that the conditions were too dangerous and we could not continue safely. Instead, we did an exercise simulating various scenarios of falling and sliding down the mountain- with all gear, with ice axe only, and with nothing at all. It was incredible to slide down the steep slope and be able to stop myself, even at high speed. While we were up there it continued to snow, and we heard the thunderous crack and splash of a calving glacier somewhere nearby, but it was too foggy to see it.
We made it back to the ship for a late lunch and set out for our next destination, an Argentinian research base. I’ve decided to stay on board instead of going ashore, as it was pretty damn cold and it’s still snowing. We will stay here tonight and then continue south in the morning.
I’ve been on the ship for four days now and am finally settling in. Crossing the Drake Passage was rough, the ship rocking back and forth violently all day and all night.Meal times were the worst, as plates and cups and utensils would continually slide away if not held down. The seasick patch worked pretty well for me, although I did stay in bed as long as possible and not eat much. This morning things finally quieted down as we made our way through a beautiful channel full of sparkling icebergs and majestic glaciers on both sides. Here and there we would see crabeater seals lounging on an iceberg, penguins shooting up out of the sea like torpedoes, or huge whales surfacing right next to the ship.
Upon reaching Port Lockroy, a research station composed of a few small structures, we laid anchor and boarded zodiacs to go ashore. Gentoo penguins were everywhere, waddling around, sliding on the ice, or screaming their mating calls. I sat quietly on a rock and watched them go about their business like I wasn’t there. After that I stopped at the research station, which has a little store and place to mail letters. BBC was there filming a new show called “Penguin Post Office.”
We were taken back to the ship for dinner and I went up on deck around 10PM to see the sunset. The play of pink and orange light off the towering peaks was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. We will stay anchored here tonight then continue south in the morning. I signed up for kayaking, snowshoeing, mountaineering, and camping, so I may get to do some of those tomorrow if the weather holds out. Some people in the group are actually going scuba diving!
I’ve lost track of what day it is, but about three days ago we took a small propeller plane from Arusha to the heart of the Serengeti for an African safari. We made stops in four tiny dirt airstrips with no airport; the jeeps just pull right up to the airstrip and you get in and out. The flight was spectacular, with views of the great migration – thousands of zebra and wildebeest running through the vast open plains. We went straight into our safari as soon as we got off the plane – comfortable in our huge Land Cruiser with an open roof so we can stand. Driving through the Serengeti, we saw a myriad of different birds, some tiny and bright as jewels, glittering in the scorching sun; others huge and ominous, lurking in the tall grass. We reach a small lake with about 20 hippos frolicking in the murky water, wriggling their ears and snorting. A wide variety of antelope are grazing nearby – the impala are my favorite; sleek, beautiful animals with long, straight horns. As we drive on, we find a pride of lions lounging in the shade. The male is upside down on his back like a lazy dog wanting his neck scratched. Next, there is a leopard high in the treetops, giraffes grazing on acacia, herds of elephants playing in the water, and monkeys everywhere. The buffalo and ostriches were a lot bigger than I imagined, and all the animals went along with their business like we weren’t there. The names of the animals from The Lion King are actual Swahili words, and I can’t help but laugh when my guide says, “Look to your right, there is a pumba.”
Dusk approaches quickly, and the sky is lit with deep hues of orange and red. There is a storm approaching in the distance and thunder cracks as we race back toward the lodge over bumpy dirt roads. All of a sudden we are in the violence of the storm and gigantic raindrops pelt the windshield in the darkness. A herd of gazelle dart wildly in front of the headlights and the driver slams on the brakes, barely missing them. Hail crashes down, the size of marbles, cracking the windshield, as flashes of lightning illuminate the savannah. The driver can’t see, so we inch along slowly, and finally make it to my lodge...
I met with my group and was surprised to find that one of the three hikers is from the Big Island. The other two are a brother and sister from New York. We had a relatively easy day, hiking through lush green rainforest, with giant trees slathered in dripping moss. It was an elevation gain of about 5,000 ft. to get to Machame Camp, our home for tonight, at 10,000 ft. Our porters beat us to the camp, and everything was set up for us when we arrived. I am sharing a tent with the other girl in our group. We also have a large tent for eating and a bathroom tent with a portable toilet inside. Dinner was great – leek soup with fish and veggies.
Oct 26 – Day 2
Today’s hike was pretty rough. It was only half a day and we went slow, but it was a steep, constant, rocky uphill. The trekking poles I rented went missing and my ankle started hurting about halfway through the hike. It began to rain today, not hard, but a cold, biting rain. We are at Shira Camp now, at 12,600 ft., and I am already freezing cold. Hot drinks are brought to our tent as soon as we wake up to start our day.
Oct 27 – Day 3
It was a long hike to Barranco Camp at 13,000 ft. because we did an acclimatization trek to the lava tower at 15,000 ft. I took my altitude sickness medication in the morning and immediately felt nauseous, but started out in the freezing cold after a breakfast of hot porridge and peanut butter toast. About an hour into our ascent, a light hail began to fall. It got heavier and colder so I decided to put on my thick gloves. I held one in my mouth as I put on the other, and when I took it from my teeth there were brigh red blood stains on my white glove. I was bleeding from the mouth. Our guide said that this is a side effect of the altitude medication and I must stop taking it.
It hailed almost the entire day as we continued uphill through barren, rocky terrain, with heavy, white mist sweeping low and fast over the ground. Finally we reached our lunch spot, the lava tower, a vertical...
On Friday my new friend Tamera and I took a half day bus trip to the town of San Ignacio near the Belize/Guatemala border. We checked in to our beautiful suite, with a breezy balcony overlooking the town, then took another bus up to some of the local ruins. Cahal Pech was an impressive maze of stone structures, and we climbed on top and inside them all. Then further down the road is Xunantunich, where you take a ferry across the river, then hike a mile uphill to the complex. Iguanas scurried by while we were hiking, and howler monkeys swung from the trees at the top. The ruins were beautiful, and I ran up the hundreds of stone steps like Rocky training for the big fight.
The next day we had a “tour” to Tikal, where a driver took us to the border, handed us off to another man who got us swiftly through the border, who handed us off to a different driver, who took us the two hours or so to Tikal, where we picked up our guide, Ronnie. Ronnie’s job was to tell us all about the plants and animals and history of Tikal, but he wouldn’t walk and talk at the same time, and Tamera and I got restless pretty quickly. He got the hint soon enough, and we were bounding up stone steps again, racing to the tops of the ruins for spectacular views of the temples and the surrounding jungle. The steepest structures have wooden staircases built up the sides of them because people have fallen and died. The wooden stairs/ladders were pretty scary as it is, especially because they were slippery in the pouring rain. We also got to see all kinds of interesting wildlife, which I will post pictures of later. We walked right past a “Danger Crocodiles!” sign into tall grass and muddy ponds, where Ronnie swished a stick in the water in hopes of attracting some for us. Luckily the crocodiles were all taking a siesta.
Our adventure continued on Sunday, first with ziplining through the jungle, which was so much fun. Then cave tubing, where you sit in an inner tube and float down the river through pitch black caves with bats and waterfalls and stalactites. From there we explored the Belize zoo, and spent quite a bit of time with the jaguars, which was very cool.
Siem Reap is built up on the outskirts of the Angkor temples, with rows of market stalls along dusty roads with tuktuks and motorbikes racing by. Cy and I were lucky to have our friend, Cambodian archaeologist Piphal, as our guide. He explained the meanings of all the carvings and statuary as we explored temple after temple in the Angkor complex. Angkor Wat is astounding for its sheer size and artistry; Bayon for its famous four-sided stone faces and endless panels of bas reliefs; Ta Prohm for the filming of Tomb Raider, and Phimeanakas with its almost vertical stone steps. But my favorite was Preah Kahn. Cy and I arrived there late in the day, on our own without Piphal to show us around. The temple is only partially restored, with fallen bricks blocking some of the passages, and wooden scaffolding erected to keep the leaning walls from collapsing. At 5:30 a guard directed us to leave because the temple would be closing, but we continued on in awe of the intricate carvings and elaborate architecture. We soon found ourselves lost and alone in the maze of shadowy passageways with nightfall almost upon us. Quickening our pace, we raced through dark halls, turning back at each dead end and came to a courtyard opposite the side we came in. Ducking through doorway after doorway, we finally found ourselves back at the temple center, marked by a lone stupa, and were able to make our way back to the waiting tuktuk driver. Needless to say, we missed sunset at Angkor Wat, but the tuktuk ride out in the eerily still darkness was quite an experience.
The ancient ruins were by far the highlight of the trip, but we had a great time on our breaks from temple exploration as well. Our dirtbiking plan didn’t happen because when we got to the tour place they only had 250s and 400s. Way to heavy for me, and my feet couldn’t touch the ground. Instead we opted for a boat ride up the Tonle Sap to a mangrove forest and floating village. The village was entirely on stilts, with men, women, and children going about their business in little wooden boats. We got out at the school, where a little girl showed us around and tried to sell us school supplies to give to the kids. We also saw the Angkor Museum, rode an...
I'm in Bangkok again. My daughter is with me for this leg of the trip and it's been nice, as traveling by myself tends to get lonely. We met up with friends for the first two days, and they hired a private guide to take us to the best sites of the city. The Grand Palace complex was truly amazing, with golden stupas, glittering so bright in the sun I had to shield my eyes, ornately carved temples with pearl-shell inlaid detail, structures covered in colorful ceramic mosaic, golden buddhas, the famous emerald buddha, and mythical statues everywhere you turn. The Old City was equally stunning, but in a different way. Crumbling brick temples looming large on the smoggy horizon, vertical stone steps leading to hidden caverns, rows and rows of stone images, most of them decapitated by relic hunters of long ago, and orange-robed monks kneeling in prayer. While I was exploring the ruins where they filmed the movie Mortal Combat, I stumbled across a cave full of bats. The smell was horrendous, but it was exciting nonetheless.
The rest of our time was spent eating, shopping, and at the spa. The markets here are incredible. They sell anything you can imagine. I bought a Dolce and Gabbana bag, a pair of Versace sunglasses, and six pirated DVDs for about $30. And we had mountain apple and dragonfruit smoothies where they cut up the fruit for you right there and blend it with ice. I had a two-hour massage in my room for $30. And at the spa I had a body scrub, steam bath, facial, and pedicure. Fabulous.
Today we went to Safari World, which is like our zoo on steroids. There's a drive-through safari part, with lions, tigers, rhinos, and all the usual, but in huge numbers. And then there's a walk through zoo and marine park with stunt shows and animal shows. The orangutan boxing and elephant show were great, but my favorite was Spy Wars, with pyrotechnics, things exploding everywhere, and people falling from incredible heights. But the best part of the day, and of the trip so far, actually, was getting to hold a baby orangutan and feed a tiger cub. You don't get to do that kind of stuff back home. We ended the day with the best pad thai from a street vendor in Siam Square. Loving Bangkok. Vietnam tomorrow.
I spent all day Wednesday & Friday at the Pacific Archaeology Conference, which was great. There were scholars from all around the world, with lots of Pacific Islands represented, as well as the president of Palau, president of the World Archaeological Congress, & someone from National Geographic. What was really refreshing was that about half the audience was made up of local Palauans & the papers were televised & broadcast live on the radio. I wish we could drum up that kind of community interest for our SHA conferences. I hung out with my friend Hinanui most of the time, and we had a spectacular dinner at a fancy restaurant on one of the islands.
On Thursday we took a boat to the Rock Islands, which are hundreds of little limestone islands, undercut at the tide line & covered in jungle, so they look like mushrooms rising out of the sea. Some have caves and some have beaches, like Ulong, where they filmed Survivor. We stopped there for lunch & hiked to one of the archaeological sites, which had pottery all over the surface. We also went to two snorkeling sites - the first was called The Cemetery because at low tide the corals stick up like skeletons. There was a patchwork of colorful corals, a wide array of fish, and bright blue and purple giant clams. The second site was Rainbow Reef, where I was just astounded by the numbers of fish; it's so dense with fish that they actually hit into you as you swim. At the end of the day we stopped at The Milky Way, a milky turquoise lagoon with white mud at the bottom that supposedly is good for your skin. We didn't make it to jellyfish lake, but there were jellyfish at The Milky Way & it was pretty creepy to have them brush up against you.
Today I explored Babeldaob, Palau's largest island with my boss, Carole. We drove out to one of the traditional villages & came across an old Japanese historic site with a plane wreck & rusty old machinery & cveramics all over the ground. A long shimmery blue snake was sunning itself at the edge of the jungle. From there we hiked to Ngerchelechuus Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Palau. The trail was wet and muddy & there were scores of pools with mini waterfalls along the way. The...
Palau is a whole bunch of islands, a few of which are connected by bridges, so you can drive between them. There are no street names, and most of the cars are right hand drive (although my rental car is not), so it was a little scary driving around at first. The speed limit is 25 mph & lower everywhere, though, so it's pretty low key. I'm staying at the Sea Passion Hotel, which is on a small stretch of sandy beach with islands and caves and reefs right in front. I rented a kayak & paddled around all the little limestone islands, which are inhabited by a wide variety of birds that are continually squaking & flying overhead. As I paddled, the water was a translucent turquoise in some places & teeming with fish, but in other places it dropped off so that it was black & you could only imagine what was beneath you. I went snorkelling in the lagoon fronting my hotel & was surrounded by fish of all colors and sizes, who didn't seem bothered that I was inches away from them.
Today I ventured off by myself to look for a trail that leads to the top of a small mountain with a radio tower on it, with 360 degree views of the island. It was hard to find, but a lone farmer that was working one of the fields showed me the trail. On the way up I almost stepped on something crawling that looked like a giant hermit crab in an African snail shell. When I got up there, three shirtless Palauans were making repairs to the tower & they pointed to an older, rusty metal tower & told me to climb up for the best view. They assured me that it was safe & held the rickety old ladder while I climbed up. Near the top I started having second thoughts, because it was a long way down if I fell, but I forced myself to continue & was rewarded with the most spectacular views all the way to the rock islands on one side & to the largest island of Babeldaob on the other side.
I also had a chance to go to the museum & the aquarium; the crocodiles & nautilus were pretty cool. And I met up with my friend Suzanne for a great dinner of fresh yellowfin tuna...
We arrived in Seattle on Sunday & spent the morning in the city before boarding the cruise ship. Pike's Place market had the freshest flowers and fruit and seafood. The huge giant squid at Seattle Aquarium was pretty amazing; the otters were cute and fun to watch as they raced around on their backs holding shellfish to eat. We had a 360-degree view of the city from the top of the Space Needle then left for the ship. The Star Princess is truly gigantic, with 17 floors, including bars, clubs, swimming pools, restaurants, shops, theaters, a casino, a spa, and a gym. There are 2,700 passengers with us, mostly old retired couples, and 1,200 crew, all foreigners. The food is amazing & included in the price of the cruise, so I've been eating way too much. Other than that I spend most of my time in the gym, jogging around then deck, & at the slot machines n the casino. Humpback whales were spouting and slapping their tails from the upper decks as I ran.
Our first stop was Ketchkan, a long, narrow little town composed of wooden buildings on stilts. We saw a lumberjack show where they throw axes and climb tall poles and carve things with chainsaws. The next morning on the ship I woke up to a myriad of little icebergs outside my window. We were in Tracy Arm Fjord, a narrow passage surrounded by granite cliffs and snow capped peaks with hundreds of waterfalls cascading to the sea.
We arrived in Juneau yesterday, where several huge bald eagles were fishing or just sitting around on the dock. We took a tram, or cable car-type thing up one of the mountains to hike around in the snow in a light rain. From there we got on a helicopter & saw some spectacular glaciers with the bluest blue ponds, deep crevasses, and a few bears here and there. The dogsled camp was situated on one of the glaciers, on a 3-mile flat between two mountains. It was extensive, with 250 dogs, and staff that have raced in the Ididerod. It was freezing cold as we took turns driving the dogs, fresh snow stinging our faces. At one point we tipped onto one runner, and our guide said it was the closest she ever came to flipping one of the sleds.
This morning we went rock climbing & rapelling...
I stayed in my room at Dingboche almost the entire day, content to lie in my sleeping bag and do absolutely nothing. Slowly I feel the strength return to my weary body. There has been talk of hiking to Pheriche today, which is just over the hill, so that I can meet up with the rest of the group, but by 5 PM Puri has not come to fetch me and I believe I will spend another night here. During my long afternoon of nothingness I plucked my eyebrows. It was the first time I had a close look at my face in a while & I was quite taken aback. My eyes were red and puffy, nose peeling & wind-burned, nostrils scabbed all around, lips a collage of purple peeling scales, and my hair was in a single piece. Yikes! I set out to brushing my hair, which was a big job indeed.
A little after 5 PM there was a knock on the door & I opened it to the smiling faces of Puri & our two teenage sherpa porters. "Zoom Zoom" they say, which is our signal to start moving. Aparrently we are going to Pheriche, even at this late hour. They hurriedly help me pack my things & we are off. Somewhere along the way Puri disappears and I am now in the hands of two teenage boys. Lord help me. Suddenly an adolescent yak charges toward us on the trail, bucking its horns and rearing its hind legs. I freeze in fear, but my sherpas laugh and yell obscenities in their language and kick their feet in the air. The yak is subdued & I think, "What better companions to have with you in the face of a yak attack than rambunctious teenage boys." And for the moment I feel safe. We climb the hill behind the village and our situation is suddenly reversed. Fog is closing in, darkness is fast approaching, the village is nowhere in sight, & we are obviously lost. Moreover, I fear a bout of diarrhea coming on, and this would probably be one of the worst situations you would want to find yourself in, in the company of teenage boys.
Puri arrives and the three of them argue and point. I imagine that they are saying "Where have you led us, dumbass?" "Dude, I'm trying to take her over the...
It was a rough hike on Monday from Dingboche to Lobuche (~16,500 ft.). I was still sick and it was a desolate walk though rocky, barren hills, as we have long passed the tree line. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a rushing white river then stopped for lunch at a small tea house in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere I go I get stared at from the villagers. Even though this is a very multicultural place, with groups of Europeans, Iranians, Japanese, and others passing through, they don't know what to make of me. When the locals ask where I'm from, they never know where Hawaii is or have even heard of it. I try to explain it to one man, as an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He doesn't know the Pacific Ocean. "It's part of the United States", I say. A look of dawning comprehension glows on his face and he replies "Ah, it's by North Dakotah!" I give up trying to explain after that.
At the lunch place I couldn't enjoy my French Fries (which they call potato chips) because of the severe cold. The sun is covered by cloud and the wind whips right through my down jacket & I am chilled to the bone. We continue up a steep, tall, rocky hill, and with my stuffy head and hacking cough, I fall to the rear of the pack again. I stuggle up the mountain, one foot in front of the other, lagging farther and farther behind. Two sherpas flank me like lionesses on the heels of the weak gazelle, and their presence goads me forward. Finally I crest the ridge to see scores of stone shrines, monuments to the climbers who have died in these mountains. I wander around, reading the inscriptions, and realize that most of these are for sherpas, with only a few European or Japanese names here and there. I glance at my favorite old sherpa, who happens to be resting here, and for once he does not smile. The mood here is somber indeed.
We continue a long, long way, although the rocky ground is relatively flat now. Soon the tiny village of Lobuche comes into view and we check in to our next tea house, Above The Cloud Lodge. The names keep getting better and better. But my health does not. I feel myself deteriorating...
It's finally happened - I got sick. It's not too bad so far - I've been waking up every morning with a bad headache & sore throat but then I drink a liter of water & it goes away. But today I have a runny nose and coughing. One of the other girls has been sick as well. Word around the village is that there are 700 people at base camp & 80% have gastro (stomach problems). My stomach is not feeling quite right, probably because of the extreme change in diet, but I still consider myself lucky if this doesn't get worse. Some of the other girls are getting dizzy on the high hikes or having muscle soreness or knee pains. I don't have any of those problems, except being under the weather makes the high climbs even more challenging. Our guides are very attentive, though, constantly offering us medication, which I refuse. Tonight they say they will give me a steam bath, where they'll boil hot water & put my head over it & cover it with a towel. Hopefully it will clear me up because our hardest days lie ahead.
Today we stayed at Dingboche & did an acclimitization hike to about 15,000 feet. I went up pretty slowly because I'm not feeling well but the altiude didn't seem to affect me. At the top, it seemed as if we were shoulder to shoulder with Ama Dablam, which wasn't really the case, but it was an amazing illlusion anyway. The wind was whipping the tattered prayer flags about, and it was so cold that I had to keep my hands over my nose to shield my face from the wind. We've been having great weather, though; it's so strange to have the sun out and it's freezing cold.
If all goes as planned I will be at Everest Base Camp in two days and then will attempt to summit Kala Patar the next day. After that we head down. The amenities are getting sparse and more expensive as we push higher and higher, so I don't know if I'll have internet until the way down. It dropped down to the 20s last night, but I was warm in our tea house. It only concerned me slightly that the old woman who used her bare hands to feed yak dung into the fire is the same woman who...
From Khumjung we had a short but steep hike to Tengboche, which boasts the world's highest monastery. We started our hike at about 12,000 feet, dropped down to 10,000, crossed the river, then climbed up to 13,000. It wasn't as bad as it sounds; we did it in a half day. The monastery at Tengboche sits on a high plateau surrounded by snow-capped peaks with sloping fields with yaks grazing all around. It has an ornately carved entrance, then a courtyard with a tall flagpole of prayer flags and the monks quarters all around. Prayer wheels and mani stones circle the building's exterior. To enter the inner sanctum you must remove your shoes. We were so fortunate to witness one of the ceremonies there. Monks dressed in deep red robes sat cross-legged on benches sipping tea, refilled by the young boy monks. We sat on carpets to the side, colorful tapestries hanging down all around us and golden statues and offerings in the front of the room. Soft light filtered in from the open windows, and the whole place was dim and smoky, almost suffocatingly so, with incense. All of a sudden the head monk entered and sat on a higher bench, a drum started beating, and there was sonorous chanting and horn blowing and cymbal crashing. It was the experience of a lifetime. I sat there in awe and reverence, as the chanting continued. They don't allow video, and words can't explain it all. After about half an hour my companions got restless and we left to hike up a small mountain to see Everest at sunset. For dinner I had the best dal baht yet, with some kind of crispy fried chip on top. And then straight to bed; I am so exhausted I don't even care how dirty I am, but I slept comfortably in my $200 Capilene4 long johns & yak booties within my down sleeping bag.
We were awakened at 5 AM for the sunrise view of Everest. I haven't been as impressed with it as some of the other peaks, which seem higher because they are closer. But the play of pink light off Ama Dablam was quite a show. Today was supposed to be one of the longest hikes, from 13,000 feet down to the river again, and then up to 14,500 feet. It wasn't that bad really. We've been doing all the...
Yesterday was an acclimitization day, so I was awakened at 5AM for another gruelling hike up vertical stone steps to see Everest at sunrise. Unfortunately it was shrouded by clouds, but the neighboring peaks of Lhotse and Ama Dablam were stunning. After breakfast we did another short hike to a small terraced village and then back to Namche, where I had a real hot shower and spent the afternoon shopping at the Bazaar. The jewelry is amazing and so cheap, I bought several pieces & a yak fur hat and booties. For dinner I tried the tuna pizza with yak cheese, which was great, kind of like an open-faced tuna melt. The menus have been very similar at all the tea houses - lots of Chinese food - fried rice, fried noodles, momo (like mandoo) and you can have them with either meat, eggs, or veggies. And they usually have pizzas and pancakes (one big doughy pancake), lots of potato dishes - hash browns with all kinds of spices & lots of curry was amazing - and then all the traditional food, like dahl baht (veggies & rice & you pour lentil soup over it) and sherpa stew, which is a mix of everything they have. I haven't braved the yak steaks yet but might try it on my way down.
Our hike today was a short but difficult one. It took about 3 1/2 hours to reach the small village of Khumjung. The trail was steep in places and dropped off a cliff to one side in other places, but the view was spectacular the whole way. Stunning high peaks on all sides. Towering above us, higher than the clouds. I can't take my eyes away from them, they are so, so beautiful. I can understand now why people die to climb these mountains. I am trudging along at 12,000 feet but my whole being longs to stand on the powdery white peaks, to be on top of the world. The trail continues through countless stupas and prayer wheels and mani stones, which are carved stone tablets, sometimes painted, sometimes plain, sometimes carved on a huge boulder, but often on slabs piled up along the trail. We stop briefly at the Everest View Hotel, a Japanese establishment, which, as the name implies, has spectacular views of the mountains. From here, Everest is not as impressive as the surrounding peaks...
I have lost track of what day it is but about two days ago we left Kathmandu for Lukla. Our Yeti Airlines flight was delayed 4 hours and we were overjoyed that we actually got to leave that day. It was a short flight on a small plane, not unlike my many Molokai Air Shuttle trips, except for the Lukla airstrip. Holy shit! The runway is angled upward between a cliff and a mountain, so you land at an incline and race up toward the mountain where there is a large stone wall at the end of the runway. Departing should be equally exciting, as you take off toward the cliff. There is no room for error, obviously. It was fantastic to finally be in the mountain region, where the air is clean and the landscape spectacular. We had a short 3 hour hike the first day to the Sherpa village of Phakding. Along the way were high mountains and deep gorges, terraced villages with farm plots, ancient stone carvings, stupas, and prayer wheels, with a raging turquoise river below. The trail was busy with yaks, mules, dogs, trekkers, and sherpas carrying insanely large loads on their backs fastened by a strap around their heads. In Phakding we stayed at Hotel Beer Garden. I ordered a hot shower for 250 rupees (~$4.00). At best it should have been called a "luke warm shower after 10 minutes of warming up." Stepping out into the cold air with my wet body, I have never been so cold in my life. Ever. Not even close. I seriously thought I was going to die before I could dry off and put my clothes on. It was not pleasant. And the cold will get much, much worse as we ascend ever higher.
Today was supposedly one of the hardest trekking days, even though we're only at about 9,000 ft. elevation. What makes it worse is that I am hiking with a group of 20 year-olds and sherpas. It was supposed to be an 8 hour hike and we did it in six. Bastards. Even the sherpas were amazed at how quickly we arrived at Namche. I really thought I had trained enough for this, but apparently not. The first part of the day was not too bad. The scenery was fantastic, with the trail winding in and out of villages and over the milky turquise...
On my flight from Taipei to Bangkok I sat next to an old monk dressed in bright orange robes. He ordered the chicken meal and drank a coke with it. Then he bought two cartons of cigarettes and Shisedo sunscreen from the duty free cart. It was a fitting end to my stay in Taipei, a city of contrasts - cigarette-buying monks, vibrant temples among crumbling gray tenements, green mountains beckoning above speeding cars and smoggy air. But nothing could prepare me for Kathmandu, in all its slumdog splendor. Words cannot describe this place, but I will try until I can figure out how to upload my pictures. It is the epitome of a third world city - motorcycles and cars honking & weaving through narrow, unpaved lanes, kids & oxen, roaming the streets. And people, people everywhere. I met up with my trekking group - 5 women & one man, all from Australia except for one New Zealander. We walked through the city last night & enjoyed a nice dinner at a cafe on the street.
This morning I was awakened by a cacophany of birds, monkeys, and dogs screeching and howling. I walked around the shops in Thamel (Kathmandu) & bought a pair of rain pants & a jacket - both North Face Gortex for 3500 rupees - about $40 for both. Score! Then we went to two temples - first a hindu one then a buddhist one. At the Hindu temple we watched people burning dead bodies by the river and kids rummaging in the dirty water for coins thrown in with the ashes. There were gurus all painted up and monkeys everywhere. The stench of the burning was sickening. The Buddhist temple was a little more tame. I circumambulated and spun the prayer wheels then got blessed by a monk. I am now back in the city & the power is scheduled to go off in 5 minutes. Tomorrow we begin trekking.
First of all let me say that I don't know if this wil post correctly because everything on my screen is in Chinese. Okay here's what I've been doing so far:
Tokyo was awesome. The first night I got in, Jeff & I went shopping in Harajuku and had dinner there. For dessert I ate the best crepes from a street stand. We got up super early the next day and caught the subway to Tsukiji Fishmarket, where they sell any kind of sea creature you could imagine & some you probably couldn't. We also got to watch the auction where there were huge, huge aku and other fish. Navigating through it was treacherous, with bicycles and flatbed carts racing by in all directions and people rushing around everywhere. We waited almost an hour to get in to a good sushi restaurant at the fishmarket but it was worth it. The whole place seated about 12 people, who sit around the counter, where the fresh ingredients are on display and the sushi chefs do their thing. It was $50 for 11 pieces but I ate things I've never even seen before, like whole baby squid and some kind of shellfish that was so fresh it was still moving on top of the rice. The miso soup was the best I've ever had, with some kind of fish parts at the bottom.
In Tokyo we also went to some amazing gardens with lakes and bridges and tea houses, winding pathways, immaculately landscaped plants of all kinds, and cherry blossoms in full bloom. So, so beautiful and relaxing. The subway system was great - easy to understand, clean, and safe. Sometimes we were packed in like sardines but most of the time it was pretty empty. Last night we met Willene & her husband for dinner and drinks in Shinjuku. It was so nice to see some familiar faces so far from home.
I left all my Hawaii friends in Tokyo and am now alone in Taipei in the pouring rain. It's like a slum scene out of a kung fu movie - dirty, crowded, cars & bicycles weaving in and out through all lanes of traffic. And no one speaks English so I had a hard time telling the taxi drivers where to take me. I was mistakenly dropped off at the Chiang Kai Chek National Memorial instead of the National...