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The ultimate field trip

When I was a schoolboy,  we went on the occasional field trip. Museums mostly,  once the Ford car factory,  but my favorite were the geography trips.  Off we would pile into a coach,  excited school kids all along with a couple of teachers to ensure we’d be appropriately instructed and not kill ourselves or worse,  bring shame on the noble institution we were representing.  I think we even had to wear school uniforms.  One trip of note was to Malham Tarn in Yorkshire where we actually learned about glaciers  and what they did to the landscape  (not that there are any glaciers in England we could go play on  but hey,  we we were not at the Alaska Academy here,  we too were victims of geography) and to find fossils in the severely worn down and eroded Pennine mountains.  Another trip was to Arran Island in Scotland.  We were all in the full  flush of adolescence,  there were girls from a school in Paisley on the same trip  (yes there actually is a place,  it’s not just a pattern) and I think we  tried to discover the mysteries of Scotch whisky under the noses of our teachers,  it being logical,  given our location.  Distracted as we were I don’t recall any of the geography we were supposed to learn there.  On reflection though I think I must have learned to love field trips! 

The area of Upper  Mustang is the ultimate field trip.  It’s some of the most incredible landscape on planet earth,  centered on the steeply  eroded Kali Gandaki river valley,  whose namesake river and its merging  tributaries  drain the entire  Mustang plateau.  The river runs down from  the edge of the  Tibetan plateau right through the Annapurna range of the Himalayas  and eventually into the Ganges. The Kali Gandaki creates the deepest gorge in the world ( yes,  deeper than the Grand Canyon) as it runs  between two of the world’s highest mountains  of the Annapurna range Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.  What’s amazing is that 60 million years ago this  area was under the Tethys sea and when the  Indian subcontinent slammed into Asia it was   uplifted and the Himalayas formed,  draining that primeval sea away. And the river itself,  predates the Himalayas.  Nature,   always the great equalizer  with water and wind,  immediately started eroding the soft sandstone rocks out of which the hard granite mountains thrust. 

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The river narrows at Jomsom,  the start of our trek,  before it widens into a  beautiful floodplain.

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The river meanders throughout its floodplain on the Jomsom to  Kagbeni
trek on the first day.  It looks like a beach,  doesn’t it? 

The first night’s stay was in Kagbeni,  framed by apple orchards and   fields of buckwheat

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Windy,  cold but nowhere near as cold as it going to get! 

Leaving Kagbeni we walked along the edge of the river  as the cliffs deepened into tortured shapes,  blasted by the ever present (and often fierce) winds.  The whole trek was a series of climbs,  up and down these deep gashes in the earth. 

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Just before our ascent into the cliffside village of Cheli. 

I would like to have trekked with a geologist to really help me understand this extraordinary mix of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.   The sheer range and variety  was astounding.  Here are iron encrusted hillsides shaped by the incessant wind

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There’s a jeep track carved out of the sandstone and mud.  These gabions  of the loose rocks lying around and buried in the hillsides are laboriously made up by hand – many hands apparently – and lifted into place  to stabilize the edges of the road.  I suspect they won’t last long given the amount of water flowing down the high slopes to eventually find its way into the Kali Gandaki

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Crossing one of the interminable and very windy passes we came down the back side,  sheltered slightly and rounding a spur was one of the most amazing sights I think,  on planet   earth; 3 folded mountains like the flag of..believe it or not,  East Friesland (now go look that one up,  geography buffs) in red and blue and black

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I know this photo cannot do justice but if nature was an artist   she’d be hanging in the National Gallery 

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Or this,  where the soft outer sandy rocks are exposing fantastic shapes that take the breath away. 

Some I named…

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This outcropping  I called the “sphinx and the matroshka doll” 

And this..

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The Leaning Tower of Penis

And in the same vein…

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One lucky  mountain  indeed!

Even Buddhist mythology has its part to play geologically. 

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These rocks outside Dakhmar are said to be stained with the blood of a devil slain in battle with the good guys of course! 

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Note the cliffside houses carved out of the soft  sandstone.  Dotting Mustang are these refuges from times past where villagers sheltered from enemies.

I didn’t meet any girls from Paisley on this,  my ultimate field trip,  nor did I have any disapproving teachers looking over my shoulder but I was definitely sampling raksi,  or rice wine, the local equivalent of Scotch,  to warm up in the chilly tea houses each evening.  And to top it off  I found a fossilized ammonite,  a roughly 100 million year old piece of history  washed out of the Kali Gandaki.

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Rip-off

Nepal,  as I wrote previously,  is a culture without shame when it comes to copyright and trademarks.. It’s not just trekking gear….  Here’s a few more examples that will give you a chuckle. 

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Yak Donalds?  Really,  but it’s right next door to

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Wonder if it’s open 24 hours…  But just down the road is

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For my non USA readers,  Applebee’s is a restaurant chain.  But wait,  there’s more

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Think Conrad would stay there?  And that’s all in one morning! 

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Maybe an offshoot?  The owner was a lovely man.

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The monk

James he says his name is. Just a  kid really ,  about 23,  spoke reasonable English,  wearing the deep maroon of a fully fledged Buddhist monk.  He has been asked by the trekking lodge owner to take us to the monastery in Gheling,  in a muddy village about half way to Lo Manthang. 

We’d arrived in Gheling after a fairly brutal 9 hours of slogging up one mountain  and down the next all the while thinking we were closer than we were.  It was day 3 of the trek and the late afternoon turned  coldest with the wind howling and my thin gloves useless,  my thick ones on top not much better.  On top of the weather,  there was an ongoing drama with the two Austrian ladies I was trekking with.  Apparently they were given a different itinerary by the organizer than both the one I was given and the one in the permit  (there’s an involved and expensive bureaucratic process to trek upper Mustang which states where you have to stay on each night).  We had walked to the village on  their itinerary (which I didn’t know then) and of course they wanted to stay.  For some reason (perhaps to meet this monk I didn’t even know existed? ) I got on my (very?  extremely?) high horse and insisted we keep going –  it was only early afternoon,  fine weather and of course,  I’m such a stickler for paperwork.  They were furious but I just marched off and they followed.  It actually made sense to keep on going as I explained to them later,  given the distances we had to travel to get to Lo Manthang,  our ultimate destination,  but for now they were quite upset.  The guide wasn’t helpful either.  He didn’t care where we stayed but when he pulled out his copy  of the itinerary he showed something different from mine  AND the Austrians.   Turns out there were five different itineraries which caused problems for us later but that’s another story. 

James,  really Jamu,  anglicized just for me,  took us to the monastery perched on a hill overlooking the village.  There were two halls,  a lower,  conventional Buddhist monastery,  with the standard two rows of wooden meditation benches arranged perpendicular to the altar and seating mats  behind the benches for visitors.  Apart from some lovely and lively murals adorning the mud brick building it wasn’t terribly compelling. 

The upper monastery couldn’t be visited by women –  a Buddhist quirk I had previously encountered at temples and monasteries in Myanmar as well  –  I wonder what the grand old man would have thought of that?  Probably the same horror as Jesus,  Moses,  Mohammed etc.  would for their respectively hijacked dogmas.  But I’m a man,  so I was allowed to ascend the rickety wooden ladder to the anteroom,  a rectangular chamber some 15x 20 filled with the miscellany of devotion.  Mats,  books,  candles,  a rice cooker,  a few chairs,  a cell phone charger,  a solar panel and lights  ( this village wasn’t on the grid at all,  as much as there is a grid in Nepal)  and a couple of folding tables.  Religion at its most mundane.  Another door was unlocked and we entered the almost pitch black space,   except for a tiny oil lamp burning on the altar.  Jamu turned on a  solar light and the approximately  20 x 20 inner sanctum revealed itself. There was a mat and low counter off to one side for the Lama of this monastery,  currently Jamu,  whose story I will relate below. Ornate  carved wood  floor to ceiling consoles with paned glass cupboards  above and locked cupboards below lined the other  two sides.
The fourth wall had a small window inset in the thick mud brick wall which Jamu opened.  In the increased  light I could see the entire chamber was painted,  but what paintings!  I shone my phone flashlight on them and was awestruck.

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Just a couple of examples!   I could not do any better with the poor lighting.  Jamu said they were painted about 30 years ago by the best monastery painter in India and Nepal.  A roving Michelangelo to be sure as the work was exquisite.

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Another masterpiece that will be seen by few in the flesh. 

The entire room was filled with art and artifacts to amaze.  On the alter there were intricately carved wooden and metal statues,   maybe 18 inches tall,  of figures from the  Buddhist pantheon. Behind glass I could not photograph them unfortunately.  They were definitely not your average laughing Buddha at the car wash.  These saints,  devils, princes of good and evil and spirit figurines  were,  according to Jamu,  some two hundred years old and from Tibet.  Along with the obligatory offering plate

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(yes,  I gave!)  and the carved Buddha’s of stone,  metal and wood,  there were piles of silk scarves,  amulets,  bowls for holy water,  plastic flowers,  a Pringles chip canister,  appropriated for use as an incense stick holder and  a solar lamp. 

The two pillars on either side of the altar had various item hanging from and strapped to,  including a corkscrew shaped tree root about three feet long –  at first I thought it was a metal industrial tool,  swords and daggers,  rifles from the rebels who fought the Chinese takeover of Tibet from Upper Mustang in the 60’s until the Nepali government put the kibosh on that (it is reasonably substantiated that the CIA was involved  in arming and funding the rebels which is why Mustang was closed to the outside world until 1989) and a real mummified human hand. 

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Yes,  I’m holding it,  it is dead and it’s real!

The hand belonged to a  thief a couple of hundred years ago  who came to steal the monastery art and valuables for his master who was in some sort of conflict  with Gheling (the story wasn’t that clear to me).  The thief,  apprehended in the act,  had his hand cut off by the Abbot of the monastery (so much for love and peace).

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The upper red building is the Lama’s private monastery.

The monastery was 483 years old and Jamu was the third son of a Gheling village farmer.  It’s customary to send a third son off to religious school for the priesthood and Jamu was dutifully shipped to monastic school near Rishikesh in India where he learned his passable English and after his studies and life in different monasteries he was appointed to look after the Gheling monastery for a two year period.  He has seven months left and then  he’ll go where they send him to do his work. 

Currently living with his family just down the lane from the monastery,  he said it was fun to be home with his brother and sister.  His  daily routine of early morning meditation,  births,  marriages,  deaths and fundraising and local volunteer work  to keep the ancient buildings from falling apart kept him busy.

As he showed me more of the ancient,  curious and unusual adornments of this tiny shrine,  I commented on the pretty yellow and white silk scarves (like the one in the photo above).  He said  the villagers donate them on almost any occasion for a visit to the monastery and he had a cupboard full of them.  He reached in and pulled out one of these offerings and gave it to me as a period gift. In a role reversal I wished him long life and the manifest blessings of the Buddha. 

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Day 1/2, A 1 act play with 4 scenes

Please note no Internet access for ten days.  Will be sending posts I’m roughly chronological order…….

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View from the plane flying over Annapurna range

Scene 1
Hotel room,  Pokhara,  the early  morning  before  the trek. 

Awoke in discomfort at 3 am.   The food and its attached bacteria  I ate the night before  aren’t  happy with me.  They are  twisting and turning and writhing and jumping up and down and wanting to escape the confines of my  gastrointestinal tract.  I’m wondering if it’s a one time jail break or a full blown prison riot.  Sadly,  it’s the latter.
Leaving at 5 am to go to the airport.  Drag my sorry ass into the shower  take some appropriate drugs and hope for the best.

Scene 2
Airport,  Pokhara,  7 am. 

Flight finally boards,  I’m hoping the plane is better held together than poor me.  It’s the same type of plane we flew to Lukla on ( see my other blog post http://trastavere.wordpress.com here).  Flight is uneventful.  Arrive in Jomsom,  about 40 miles north of Pokhara but with a bloody great big mountain range in the way.  Hence the plane rather than the 13 hour jeep ride. 

Scene 3
Lodge at Jomsom 8 am.
 
Eat breakfast.  Toast.  Hope it stays down.  Doesn’t. It just keeps moving on through…  Pretty town.  High desert and windier than hell. Start walking up  the river valley to our rest stop for tonight. 

Scene 4
Ancient village of Kagbeni. 1pm

Make it to Kagbeni after windy and dusty 7 km hike  and need sleep desperately.  No food = no energy.  Decide to go to bed.  Room has attached bathroom with hot water,  no less,  but is colder than a Minnesota winter blizzard.  I dump the dusty trekking gear and get in my down sleeping bag with two extra blankets  fall asleep,  punctuated by treks to the bathroom.  3 hours later feel a bit better. 

Postscript…  The bad guys finally vacated the premises the day after…. No problems for the rest of the trek. 

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Annapurna, Nepal, Pokhara, travel

All you need is love

I’m in Pokhara after a 9 hour bus ride for less than 200 miles.  God knows why we didn’t fly.  The roads  are beyond atrocious  …  But it’s pretty here

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Lake Fewa,  late afternoon

and in the end,  that’s all that really matters,  the aesthetic.  Assuming there’s  food  water and shelter surely a beautiful something,  anything,  is reason to bless the day.

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Our bus,  at a rest stop

I  can look and find it even on a thoroughly uncomfortable stuffy  bus ride,  with a ticket that says “Air Conditioned Luxury Bus” but isn’t,  where the question is met with an indifferent shrug yet a smile.  Because it is the smile that’s the payoff,  right? 

I’m sure there’s not much disagreement that love is a form of beauty.  Even though the building below is,  well let’s call a spade  a spade,  ugly,  it surely was named beautifully

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It’s an orphanage  in  the middle of the journey somewhere. 

And I found some of that love on the t-shirt of one of the kids, 

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I  Love Nepal the t-shirt says.  Sure,   not hard to do.  It’s a lovely  country with much beauty amidst the ugliness.  And much ugliness amidst the beauty. 

Dust.  Nepal is dusty.   It’s pervasive dust,  choking,  irritating,  cloying,  filthy,  penetrating and definitely ugly.  It’s just not right to see  a once green urban  tree struggle to  photosynthesize wearing its coat of grey or the dawn sun always colored blood red,  or the views of the majestic mountains surrounding Kathmandu and north of Pokhara obscured by thick haze.  Blame geography  as much as traffic or lack of sidewalks or the desiccated landscape  9 months of the year. The topsoil of the entire North Indian plain  ends up blowing towards the Himalayas and relief comes  only from the monsoon rains. I bought a mask

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Yeah,  call me Darth

It helped with the dust immensely.  And it had the curious side effect of feeling like I was in my own private burqa (it’s actually a niqab but lets not split hairs) in the  sense I could feel protected and anonymous at the same time.   Safe almost.  Isn’t that the whole point made by supporters of the tradition?  I say  walk  a mile in their shoes before you have an opinion..

I saw pretty yesterday  walking around the back streets of Kathmandu away from the trekking area.  Incredible falling down  architecture

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And the biggest laundry basket I ever saw

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Obviously an ancient public spring/bathing area  put to timeless  use.  Even with all the dirt in the air the women (not the men)  mostly look fresh and clean in their traditional clothes.

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A devotee at a Hindu festival with lots and lots of candles

And a bit of  cultural tolerance..if you look at it that way

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In Nepal it’s  not a specifically Jewish symbol…  And ironically the Hindu cultures also use the swastika cross  but with the arms pointing  the  correct way,  not the perversion of  the Nazi symbol.

Cooks will fall in love with this photo. 

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There’s a whole area of the street markets devoted to spices.   Just next door was a seller of dog muzzles,  fabric pouches designed to stop your friendly guard dog barking its head off all night.   Strangely enough he also sold tape measures. 

We are leaving tomorrow at 5.30 am for the 20 minute/50 mile flight North  over the Annapurna range to the start of the trek.  If the weather is bad the flight will be canceled (it looks good now at 8 pm)  and we’ll have to take another bone jarring 12 hour drive instead…  I hope for a great view of the range  as we fly over and  expect to see a whole lot more  beauty on this  trek as I  continue my love affair with this incredible land. 

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Kathmandu, Nepal, Swayamphu World Heritage Site, travel

All in a day

Yesterday I took a break from touristy Thamel and equipment shopping and decided a museum was in order.  I also wanted to spend time with my friend’s kids and give them a day out with a hopefully educational bent.  For those of you reading who are my children or who are familiar with my media business  (you know who you are haha) you know that imparting knowledge to  children is as much food for my soul as a good salad and a well balanced pinot is  nourishment for my body.

So much for my conceived plans.  The nine year old didn’t want to go.  She wanted to spend time with mom,  so Subham,  the 13 year old boy and I set off for the Natural History Museum on the other side of town.  I had this idea that a kid born and bred in Kathmandu would know the local geography somewhat but that too,   I was to find out,  was another  misconception. 

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This is a road.. Well a future one anyway. 

The roads in Kathmandu are in a state of disrepair,  to put it mildly.  No one seems to know why they are dug up with some grand plan in mind (probably sewers and sidewalks)  and left for years half finished.  Corruption,  graft ,  bad planning,  budgets…  Take your pick.

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This is a gleam in a planner’s eye,  I assume. 

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And this a little further along.  5 years the locals said (in this dormant pre-road  state!) 

We set off on a real traffic choked road (i. e lots of potholes but a bit of asphalt)  and grabbed a taxi to go to the museum..  Now Kathmandu is not London and there’s maybe only 5 or 6 museums.  The driver assured Subham  (my Nepali translator too)  that he knew exactly where it was as my young companion didn’t have a clue),  a fare was negotiated ($2.50 for the record). And off we jounced.  10 minutes in we end up on a very wide completely torn up road to the National Museum (closed anyway) and it became painfully apparent after aimless drivng for twenty minutes more that the taxi driver (who wouldn’t even acknowledge he was lost)  had no comprehension,  either geographic or linguistic of the words “natural”  or “history” and certainly not together..  He was obviously loathe to display his ignorance and ask anyone either. That make him a typical male?  It took me jumping out of the taxi at a stop to go ask another taxi driver the way. 

At the museum entrance he asked for twice the fare. Long way he said. It was actually shorter if he had gone  straight there but I gave the rogue half the extra he asked for and told him to go learn geography,  culture and English,  in any order he chose. 

My poor 13 year old was a bit upset as I am sure his mother told him to look after me and he knew he had abjectly failed.  Well perhaps in Nepali terms but I assumed him vehemently that everything was fine. 

The museum turned out to be a  very large shed-like structure full of stuffed animals. 

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An enormous stork.. 

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A monkey out on the town

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Flat animals (must be endemic)

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Three guesses (it was gorgeous)

More of a research lab for the local University..  But it held our interest for half an hour. 

We walked up the adjacent  hill to the Swayamphu stupa.  Although overly commercialized with sellers of religious bric-a-brac the world heritage site was rather lovely. 

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And

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And I love this one…  Look at the top of the head… 

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But the highlight for me was a meditation hall with several monks playing music and praying.  The lovely thing about Buddhism is that it welcomes you in to have your own experience.  Subham , being a good Hindu,  wouldn’t go in the room. 

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I sat for a quiet twenty minutes,  feeling peaceful.  The last time I meditated in Nepal I fell off a mountain (yes,  you can ask)  but this time I was a bit more careful and only slipped on a step

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while I was taking a photo..  They were kinda steep… 

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Going down sir?

We walked back home on those pseudo roads above with the benefit of no traffic  other than the occasional foolhardy motorcyclist,  until we got to one of  the market areas where we took tea..  Subham hadn’t a clue where he was or indeed how to get back to his neighborhood. But being the superb navigator that I am…. 

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Selfies! 

The poor kid was tired out by the time we got home but just right near the  house on  a building site I saw a bunch of kids… 

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Heavy Lego?  I guess you play with what’s available.. 

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Kathmandu construction is generally  brick…  And the unregulated brick kilns contribute to the foul air.

At least I’m in far better shape for the trek now..  I’ve walked maybe 20 miles in last 3 days… 

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Nepal, travel

Where’s Waldo

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Zoom in..  You’ll be horrified. 

Prepping for a trek in Nepal is pretty simple.  You really only need to bring your well broken in boots and a few personal items. Although  trekking companies give you comprehensive lists of gear to bring  it’s all available here and at about a quarter to half the price of the US or Europe.   So no need to schlep vast amounts from home, just  come to the world’s largest emporium for hiking equipment. 

It’s a bit of a knock-off a knock-off racket.  Nepali companies copy designs from the world’s leading equipment companies like North Face,  Mammut,  Columbia and so on,  build the gear and embroider the branded names.  To the  unskilled eye they look real and frankly,  the quality isn’t half bad.  For the casual trekker it’s fine.  But they go one step further; now they are knocking off the  Chinese copies of the Western brands!

Temptation  rears  at every turn of the road with dozens of shops selling the same stuff.  I’ve now bought three pairs of trekking pants!  Anyone need a backpack cheap? 

I suggested to one  factory owner he start his own brand and sell a little bit less than the fake brands.  He immediately offered me a discount on a  fourth pair of trekking pants! 

But they are all very pleasant and somewhat low key.  Not a bad shopping experience. 

The list includes all the normal gear for trekking  and you are also  suggested to buy water purification tablets and drugs too such as broad spectrum antibiotics,  codeine, diamox for altitude sickness.  Off to a pharmacy I go. Yes the photo at the top of the page is indeed a pharmacy.  Zoom in and see if you can find anything.  How the owner keeps track of things is beyond comprehension.  But he knew exactly what pile to burrow through.   I’m now fully  equipped and ready to conquer Mustang! 

 

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