Monday, November 19, 2007

Around Manaslu

We arrived in Kathmandu to meet up with our buddy, Oren, from SF and had a hectic 2 days preparing for our trek around Mount Manaslu and the Annapurnas. At just over 8,100 meters, Manaslu is the the 8th highest peak in the world, and although we wouldn't be getting anywhere near that height, we would be crossing the two passes over 5,000 meters, so we definitely needed cold weather gear.

The trip started in Gorkha, the home of the famous Gurkha warriors and a beautiful temple palace on the hillside. Many animals are sacrificed at the temple for the Goddess Durga during the Dashain holiday, which began a few days into our trip. Dashain is the biggest holiday in Nepal and lasts 10 days, and although it was great to see the local villagers celebrating with their friends and family, it also presented many headaches for us because most porters were either 1) unavailable, 2) more expensive, or 3) less reliable (aka, drunk all day).

Unfortunately, we caught the tail end of the monsoon season, which meant we spent my 30th birthday hiding from the rain in a dirty town just outside of Gorkha. But, Oren and Gil bought me some fun gifts, our cook whipped up a passable cake and the local kids taught us how to make a kite, so it wasn't all bad. Plus, because our tents were leaking, we got to spend the night in the Principal's office at the nearby school. How cool is that?

After traveling through the tropical low lands for several days we reached the Buri Gandaki river, which we would follow all the way to the Himalayas. Walking through the river valley, it felt like we'd discovered a real-life Shangri-La. A rainbow of butterflies and hundreds of cascading waterfalls fed our eyes daily, and smiling faces greeted us with "Namaste" wherever we went. The Dashain holiday made it all the more special, with children playing on the towering swings that had been built for the occasion and the local men happily divvying up the offerings of goat, water buffalo and chickens among their families.

But, as it was harvest season, it was not all fun and games - men and women were hard at work scything magenta amaranth in the terraced fields, threshing buckwheat, spinning cloth or splitting wood in preparation for the approaching winter months. It was an eye opening experience to view this subsistence lifestyle up close, and to consider that we were a good week-long walk away from the modern day amenities we all take for granted. There was a certain nostalgia to it - the simplicity of working the land and taking comfort in your family and spirituality - but it was also apparent that it's a tough life. For example, we were approached by many people with injuries in the hopes that one of us might be able to provide some much needed medical attention. In talking with the younger people, it is clear that they face a tough decision between eking out an existence in the mountains like their parents before or moving to Kathmandu and struggling to start their life anew in a strange land with its own problems.

As we made our way north, the terrain changed from tropical to dry Himalayan highlands. A cultural transition followed this change in environment, with Hindi temples giving way to Buddhist stupas and prayer wheels. We visited several gompas and monasteries, and even passed by one of the "hidden valleys" that Guru Rinpoche identified as a safe refuge for devout Buddhists in times of trouble.

At one point, Tibet was a mere 5 kilometers away, and Buddhism wasn't the only evidence of its influence in Nepal. We came across several yak caravans loaded with timber and other goods for trade heading for the border. It was a very curious sight, but also somewhat bitter, as we saw first-hand that forests are being clear-cut at alarming rates in large part to support the Chinese population growth across the border.

Crossing over the Larkay La pass was by far the longest and most challenging day of our trek. We started before sunrise, but the near-full moon provided plenty of light to guide us and the stark contrasts created by the moonlight gave us distinct feeling that we had been plunged into an Ansel Adam photograph. The path through the snow (which was thigh-deep in places) was not well worn and we were trudged forward slowly. Unfortunately, Oren was also battling a case of AMS (Accute Mountain Sickness), which is seriously debilitating and dangerous. We were relieved when we finally saw the prayer flags adorning the pass in front of us, but soon discovered that going down in the now slushy snow would be much more difficult than going up! But, with the support of our wonderful guide, Bhola, (and a few versus of "Eye of the Tiger") we all made it safely to the next camp.

We felt right at home during our final few days on the Mansalu circuit, as the path meandered easily along a glacial river and through beautiful pine forests reminiscent of the Sierras. It was a great transition from the rawness of Manaslu to the (relative) comforts of the much more developed Annapurna circuit, which we joined for the final leg of the trek.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cape Town to Kathmandu via Delhi

We left Cape Town a bit sad that another part of our trip was over, but when we transferred to the Etihad plane in Jo'berg, we were comforted by the many luxuries presented to us, like a virtually empty cabin, tasty meals delivered to our seats, and our choice of movies and games. After traveling on buses in Africa, this was pure heaven! (Thank you, Matty, for hooking us up!)

The flight had a stop over in Abu Dhabi, so we got a hotel in the city for the night. We didn't see much of the United Arab Emirates, but everything we did see left us with the impression that this is going to be THE place to be in the next few decades. Everything is new, new, new and both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are being designed from the bottom up to satisfy the pickiest of urbanites - from film festivals to fashion week and indoor ski resorts to Formula 1 racing, they've got it all. No wonder expats make up over 80% of the country's population (and growing)...

From Abu Dhabi, we flew to Delhi. Before we even left the airport, we got a taste for the madness that is India when we had to fight our way in line to try to purchase onward train tickets. We discovered we would have an unplanned 3 day layover in Delhi, as all the trains (and planes) to Nepal were completely booked.

We made the best of it and took in a few of the sites this crazy city has on offer. At first we tried walking places, but learned early on that it is worth a few rupees for a rickshaw - between the traffic, wandering cows and twisted tangle of streets, you are doomed to frustration. The open public urinals don't add to the experience either...

We visited the sandstone Red Fort, an old palace-cum-military fortress that gave us a glimpse into the history of this 5,000 year old city. Afterwards, we visited the Jama Masjid Mosque, a wonderful example of the old city's Mughal architecture. From the old city, we headed to the newer area of Connaught Place, where we enjoyed modern India's offerings, including a proper coffee house.

A few delicious meals later (India is a vegetarian paradise!) and we were on the train headed to Gorhakpur to make our connection to Nepal.

Around Cape Town

Nearby Cape Town are some really lovely places that make for a great escape from the city. To take advantage of them, we rented a car and headed out on a little adventure.

We started our trip in Stellenbosch, the unofficial capital of South Africa's wine country. The scenery is beautiful, the estates are elegant, and the wine is delicious and cheap (at least by Napa standards...). There were even cheetahs and eagles to play with at one of the wineries! What's not to love? The historic wineries, most of which were founded in the 1700s, gave us proper perspective on the relative youth of our own beloved Northern California wine industry. The town of Stellenbosch itself was also a delight- charming tree-lined streets lined with quaint shops and restaurants, and just a hint of hipness thanks to the local university students.

From Stellenbosch we headed east over the Helshoogte Pass. The Franschhoek Valley is a bit smaller and friendlier than Stellenbosch, and as it sits in the shadows of some really glorious mountains, it may also be just a bit more beautiful. We also got to visit a really excellent car museum at one of the wineries. And the wine wasn't half bad either!

After some gelato in the town of Franschhoek, we continued southeast towards the coast to Hermanus, a town famous for whale watching. We arrived at dusk with enough time to catch a few right-back whales playing in the bay before heading to dinner at local seafood restaurant to celebrate Gil's 33rd birthday. The food was imaginative and inspiring (my first time trying abalone...) and the wine we had stocked up in the previous days was put to good use well into the night. Good times.

The next morning we saw even more whales, including a mother and a calve swimming no more than 15 feet from the shore. We headed back toward the city, taking in the coastal views and the colorful fynbos plants indigenous to the area. We stopped for a while at Betty's Bay to be entertained by the comical penguin colony and then continued on to Simon's Town for the night.

The following day was spent hiking around Cape of Good Hope, which contains Cape Point, the southwestern most point of the continent. From the cliffs we could see more whales swimming around, as well as seals diving in and out of the waves crashing on the rocks below. We also caught some ostriches playing on the beach and several baby ostriches on the western side of the peninsula - so cute!

From there, we headed back to the city, stopping in Hout's Bay (Cape Town's version of Fisherman's Wharf...) for some fish and chips, followed by sunset cocktails at Camp's Beach. Icing on the cake. We love Cape Town!!!!!

Cape Town

Cape Town is just like San Francisco - except it's on the opposite side of the world, and even more beautiful. Ok, perhaps that's an oversimplification, but they do have some remarkable similarities and we felt right at home.

We stayed in the "City Bowl", an area that sits right in the shadow of Table Mountain, a strangely flat mountain that towers over the city and anchors your view no matter where you are in the city. It was very central and gave us access to lots of fun neighborhoods, like trendy Tamberskloof, tranquil Gardens and funky Long Street. After 2 months in culinary hell (sorry, dear Africa, but you will not be remembered for your food), we were ecstatic to be back in a city with a wonderful selection of world-class restaurants - all at a fraction of the price you'd pay in SF, NY or London. There were also tons of fun bars where we could enjoy live music or catch the American's embarassing defeat in the Rugby World Cup playoffs. We've actually become fans of rugby - the game is quite nasty fun when you get into it.

From the City Bowl, we could walk to the base of Table Mountain, where we started our ascent to the top. We took the "non-recommended" route up, which was seriously tough and involved some real climbing at points. The mountain was shrouded in clouds that day, and we constantly thought we were closer to the top than we really were. (It is bigger than it looks!) After 3-4 hours of hard slogging, we finally made it to the top and were rewarded with breathtaking views of... thick, white clouds. Fortunately, after a coffee and sandwich break, the clouds cleared up enough to give us a few fleeting glimpses of the "twelve apostle" mountains standing guard to the east and the Atlantic seaboard kneeling down below us. In a city of "buenas vistas", this one takes the cake.

We also ventured out to visit those same coastal neighborhoods we peered at from Table Mountain. Beach life is something that Cape Town far exceeds SF in. While spring was just beginning to gain a foothold when we were there, you could tell that places like Camp's Beach and Clifton really heat up in the summer time. With beautiful views of the coast and the mountain from pretty much everywhere, we were honestly tempted to cancel our trip and start looking for a condo...

However, as with all cities, Cape Town has it's darker side. While it's safer than the likes of Johannesburg, there is a terrible crime problem that any local will be happy to frighten you with their first hand accounts of. The electric fences and security system advertisements everywhere will quickly confirm the stories you've heard. We were actually targeted in an ATM scam, but had already been warned by some fellow travelers and saw the signs early enough to avoid any problems.

The crime problems are no doubt rooted in the country's history of racial division, which lives on in the economic divide that still persists today. East of the peninsula lie the Cape Flats and Townships, where thousands of people in this first world country live in third world conditions. Driving by on the highway you can't help but be shocked by the sea of tiny shacks with corrugated tin roofs piled on top of each other, all sharing electricity from a single pole.

Despite the social problems the country and city will need to face going forward, Cape Town is a very special place that we'll look forward to visiting again in the future. 2010 Soccer World Cup, anyone?