Sunday, February 28, 2010

Flying over Pokhara.

The day after returning from the Poon Hill trek, I boarded a jeep with a couple of Russians and drove up to the viewpoint of Sarangkot. A little while later, we strapped ourselves in to a huge fabric wing, and leaped off over the Pokhara valley.

It has been my dream for a few years now to experience flying, and lucky for me, Nepal turned out to be a great place to try it. The weather on that morning was sunny and clear, with excellent visibility of the snow-covered peaks looming off in the distance.

Preparations at Sarangkot, with the Annapurnas in the background.

Wearing my harness was like wearing a turtle shell. It consisted of a little cupped seat that I could lean back into during flight, and was attached to my guide's harness as well as to the wing.

Getting strapped in to my harness/seat.

The launch was the most exciting part. When Rajik, my guide, had lifted the wing up from the ground, he yelled to me "Go! Run!" and we began moving towards the edge of the cliff. Then all of a sudden - whoosh - the ground dropped from beneath me, and I could only see my feet dangling above the valley, 1000 meters below.

Yes, the views were grand and all, but for all I cared, we could have been flying over a dump. It was exhilarating enough simply to be in the air, not to mention sailing at eye level with hawks and other large birds. The ride was smooth, with Rajik behind me doing all the work. Our maximum altitude was 2000 meters.

Taken while paragliding. Lift-off point far below. See the mountains floating on the clouds?
Rajik's knowledge of the English language seemed confined to paragliding-related words. One time I tried making conversation, but he replied only with a terse "No talk. I'm busy adjust thermal current." The other sentence he said was, "When I in Moscow and cannot fly, I become like crazy!"

Rajik and me, flying over Pokhara.
Here's a video made during flight. Ignore the fact that I look like a giddy 12-year-old, and check out that view!

After 45 minutes of being in the air, my stomach began to churn, which meant that I had to reluctantly turn down Rajik's proposition for "acrobatics". Around that time, we began our descent. Ten feet off the ground, I got out of my harness/seat so that I'd land standing up, but I fell over anyway. Even so, the landing was surprisingly gentle.

Next up, hang-gliding? Or learning how to paraglide solo?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Trekking in the western Himalayas.

Last Friday morning, my Sherpa guide Ganesh picked me up from my hotel and we took an eight-hour long busride to Pokhara, 200km west of Kathmandu. The city is the jumping off point for excursions into the Annapurna Conservation Area, which belong to the Himalayas.

The plan: four days on a circuit through the mountains, up to the viewpoint of Poon Hill, famous for its views of the looming Annapurna peaks.

Day 1: Ganesh and I hopped a local bus, which took us on a 2-hour ride to the town of Nayapul. From there, it was a short half-hour's walk to the trailhead at Birethanti. After eating a huge lunch of dhal bhaat, the first of many over the next days, we started the route.

Locally-made buffalo cheese in Birethani. I snacked on a wedge of these by the fire later up in Gorephani.

The first two hours of walking were pleasant and easy. We walked over streams, rickety bridges, and flat fields, with colorful glimpses of village life.

After that, the route began to climb. And climb and climb, relentlessly, unforgivingly. I dragged myself up, step by laborious step, stopping every few minutes to find my breath before continuing again. Ganesh was so patient with my sorry state.

Up and up and up, with hardly a few feet of flat ground anywhere.

The steepest section came right before our stop at the town of Ulleri, making a climactic ending to the day. Hiking in Nepal is unique in that villages dot the mountainsides the entire way up. For this reason, camping is almost unheard of, even for the hardy. Every hour or so, we'd arrive at a small town with lodges (or teahouse, as they call them) and restaurants run by locals. They were always clean, the dhal bhaats were always delicious, and the hospitality was always warm.

A typical town with plenty of accommodation.

A happy arrival at Ulleri for the night.

Day 2: Since we covered more ground on Day 1 than originally planned, we had a short day today of only three hours of walking. Again with the relentless uphill steps, though they were markedly gentler climbs than yesterday.

Dhal baat, which comes in a different form everywhere.

We reached the town of Gorephani at noon. I befriended an American couple, and we whiled away the rest of the day around the fire in our teahouse.

Interesting tidbit: some of the lodges had internet access. Imagine, up at 3000 meters! Ganesh told me that there's even internet at 5500 meters at Everest Base Camp. Just can't get away from it these days.

Day 3: This was the big morning. I stumbled out of bed with a wake-up call of 5am, grabbed my headlamp, and we joined a train of other fellow trekkers for the 45 minute climb up to our destination of Poon Hill. When we reached the top, at 3210 meters, it was still pitch-dark outside. I picked a spot, sat down, and waited for the sun to come up and illuminate this:

Annapurna South on the left. Mt Dhaulagiri on the right.

First rays of sunlight coming over Annapurna South.

Macchapucchare ('Fish Tail') peak on the left.

Close-up of Mt Dhaulagiri.

Just to prove that this was real!

I'll let those pictures speak for themselves. I'll just say that it was unreal. It was like one of those perfect images that you see in glossy travel magazines, the ones that you just glance over and immediately forget about because it's hard to imagine that anything that pristine could possibly exist in real life.

Well, it does, and here's a panorama video of it:

Walking from Poon Hill back into Gorephani at around 7am.

When we left Gorephani after breakfast, we ascended for a little while longer. The clouds were just settling in.

Porters carrying their loads, sharing our path.

My awesome guide Ganesh and I, at the highest point of our trek.

Meghan and Galen, the American couple I befriended along the way.

A peek at the Annapurnas through the thick clouds.

Then the descent began. We walked through snow for hours.

Spring is coming. Flowers poked out through the snow.

As the elevation decreased, we entered into thick rhododendron forest. The red blossoms were everywhere. They formed a red sheet over the trees and lined the footpath for miles.

By the end of the day, we had walked about eight hours, a solid five of which were downhill. We spent the night at the town of Ghandruk. Ascents pain the heart; descents pain the legs. I could feel the soreness building up as I went to sleep.

Day 4: I awoke not being able to move my lower body, and was worried about the final descent back into Birethanti. Thankfully, the soreness went away as we started walking, which is fortunate, because if we went any faster than we did today, we'd be jogging. We reached the end of our journey by noon.

The visibility up on Poon Hill was breathtaking, Ganesh was a fantastic hiking companion, and the feeling of being back inside nature was incredible. A truly memorable four days in the Himalayas.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The 'medieval' town of Bhaktapur.

Springing out of the lush Kathmandu valley is Bhaktapur, a World Heritage site, a town seemingly frozen in time. Every inch of the town, from the crumbling buildings to the cobbled streets to the old palaces was made from a rich blend of wood, mud-brick and copper. Amidst those earthen tones were the splashes of color from saris, run-down workmen trucks, and the bright blue doors that dot the alleyways. The place was dripping with romantic allure, reminiscent of a medieval era.

Bhaktapur is composed of two main squares, both dominated by centuries-old pagodas, palaces, and other architectural structures. Most everything was exquisitely carved, and all devoted to the Hindu god Shiva and his various reincarnations. I spent the first few hours of the day ambling around the two squares.

This is Nyatapola, the tallest and most classical pagoda in Nepal, guarded in front by five gigantic pairs of temple guardians.

This was a small part of the incredibly ornate Golden Gate, made of gilt copper repouse. The gorgeous figure, only as big as my hand, depicts the 10-armed deity Taleju.

Mayhem in the streets, as women flock to buy offerings for the worship of one of their local gods, Bhairab, an incarnation of the more mainstream Shiva.

The main part of Bhaktapur took only a few hours to see. After that, I wandered the backstreets, and discovered the heart of the town. Newaris (a prominent ethnic group of Nepal) continue life as is on the streets, refreshingly untouched by any sort of commercialization or catering to foreigners. The feel of an intensely proud, inward-looking culture pervades the entire town.

I spent the rest of the day moving from place to place, sitting down in inconspicuous places and watching the people go about their lives -- the conversations between locals, the women with children, gossiping old ladies, schoolchildren going home for the whole day.

I sat, and took photographs, and no one noticed me, and I had a richer few hours than all my time so far in Nepal.

Perhaps spoiled by previous foreigners, these innocent-looking young boys asked me for money in exchange for taking this photo of them. They were perfectly happy with candy instead.

My favorite part of Bhaktapur was Potter's Square, where each step of the pottery-making process can be observed, from kneading the clay, to forming the pots on the wheel, to carving out the designs, and finally to drying them in the sun. I spent quite some time here.

And then goodbye to Bhaktapur. I took a taxi back to Kathmandu before sunset, not wanting to risk the sketchy roads after nightfall.

As you read this, I am doing a 4-day 3-night trek in the Annapurna mountain range, 200km west of Kathmandu. Following that, I am going paragliding in the same region, before heading back to Kathmandu on February 25th.