Friday, September 18, 2009

Our approach to Mt Kailash from Western Nepal

Julian and I are back in Kathmandu with Cynthia, having completed our kora (pilgrimage walk) around Mt Kailash. Here are some of our journal entries during our trek through Western Nepal:
 
Tuesday Sep 1
Arrived in Nepalgunj, a town in Western Nepal near the Indian border. Loaded up a trailer with our gear and checked in at Hotel Sneha. Increasing clouds.

Wednesday, Sep 2
Weather in Simikot reported to be cloudy. Flight cancelled. Julian and I each went jogging. I met him on his way back from a run to a nearby army barracks and we returned to the hotel together. After a mid-day meal of dahlbhat, we went for a walk around town. Then slept for a few hours in the afternoon.

Thursday, Sep 3
Around 5:00 am I got up to shut off the noisy air conditioner I heard a dripping sound and figured it was condensation from the AC. It lasted several minutes. I remember thinking, "That AC unit sure draws out a lot of moisture from the air!" Then I realized, it wasn't condensation from the AC; it was raining outside.

We learned at the desk that the rain in Nepalgunj and clouds in Simikot had caused flights to be cancelled a second day. No need to go to the airport.

Our guide, Lal Tharung, started discussing the possibility of returning to Kathmandu, then taking a Jeep to Mt Kailash, instead of trekking from Simikot. We discussed this with Deepak Mahat, owner of Thirdpole Treks.

We decided to wait one more day for the weather to clear. If the flight is cancelled a third time, we have the option of flying back to Kathmandu and executing Plan B. Julian is hoping to avoid the long drive from Kathmandu to Mt Kailash and back. So am I except it may be a better option than hanging out in Nepalgunj any longer (and losing any acclimitization I may have gained in Lhasa).

The rain gradually increased. Julian took this as a welcome respite from the heat -- he went ahead jogging in the rain. After running with him to the end of the driveway, I turned around and returned to the hotel, where I dried out my clothes.

Another day of dahlbaht (rice, lentils and vegetables), an afternoon nap and some reading. Julian just finished the book, Three Cups of Tea and now I'm reading it -- quite a well written, engaging book.

Friday, September 4
We met a couple from California, Vajra and Pema and their 14-month old son Mela. Vajra was getting just as impatient sitting in Nepalganj as we were. His contact in Simikot at the Sun Valley Resort, Sunny Travels suggested we drive to Surkhet and catch a helicopter to Simikot. We were told in Nepalgunj that planes could not fly to Simikot until the mud on the runway dried out. So we decided to go with Vajra and Pema, share a car to Surkhet and try to catch a helicopter.

We piled in the car and set out on a 3-hour journey to Surkhet. The road had many landslides partially covering the pavement, but enough rocks had been moved away that it was passable.

I had no idea how we were going to pay for a helicopter. Vajra thought the fare would be about $250 per person, but adding up all my travelers cheques, US bills, Nepali rupees, as well as Julian's money would have barely covered it, but not if there were extra charges for baggage, which of course we had a lot of. I had no idea what we were going to do.

We arrived in Surkhet around 1:00 pm. First we were told that there was only room for the couple to fly. We found a hotel, the New Nepal Hotel and rented a room. We stayed Friday night.

I asked whether there were any banks in Surkhet and was told yes there were. We immediately tried to find one, it being mid-afternoon Friday. We were eventually guided to Nepal Investment Bank. I went in and asked whether they cashed Travelers Cheques. No they didn't. I held up my debit card. How about this? Oh, yes, you must go downstairs to the ATM machine. Whoa! A stroke of luck.

Downstairs there is a dark narrow passage way with an electronics shop and next to it an ATM machine. I went in and inserted my debit card. The Withdrawal button was dead-- it did nothing. But the Fast Cash button brought up a list of different amounts of Nepali rupees to choose from. The largest about was 10,000, or about $120. So I withdrew the full amount 6 times and Julian withdrew the full about 2 times. We left. But then after dinner, I had been worrying that this probably still was not enough, so we walked back to the ATM machine and withdrew another 20,000 rupees. Now we had 80,000 rupees and the helicopter fare for three people with all our gear came to 72,000 rupees.
Stayed at the New Nepal Hotel. The evening was blustery, with the wind blowing and the rain falling horizontally. Lightning and thunder.

Saturday, Sep 5
We woke up to rain on Saturday morning. All day the weather was bad and helicopter flights were postponed. The morning weather was still not suitable for flying, but we were told to wait in our hotel until we got a call from the helicopter company. Around 2:00 pm we got the call and went to the airport. At 3:00 we boarded a Russian built helicopter and took off for Simikot. Flight was relatively smooth. Some fantastic scenery of vertical cliffs-- probably one of the most remote regions of the planet I have ever seen.

Spent the night at the Sun Valley Lodge in Simikot. Light misty rain falling.
 

Sunday, Sep 6
Departed around 8:00 am in light intermittent rain, our first walking segment of the trek. Hiked until lunch at Dharipari where Lal caught up with us. Then continued on to a house just about an hour short of Kermi.

As we were resting, a man showed up with a note which he gave to Lal. As Lal read it, we knew that something was wrong. Turns out that before leaving Simikot, we were supposed to take our passports to the police sation there and have them stamped with "a departure stamp". The Sun Valley Hotel had sent this runner to catch up with us, pick up our passports and bring them back to Simikot. Seemed weird to me. Especially since I didn't know how or when we were going to be getting our passports back. And why couldn't we get a departure stamp at the police checkpost in Hilsa, just before we departed Nepal? The idea was that after getting the passports stamped, the runner would catch up with us and return our passports. Hmmmm.

We finally relented, trusting in the Nepali system, strange as it was. In Kermi, we stayed under the roof of a home. It was nice to not have to use the wet tent. It rained for much of the night.

The trail was incredibly muddy everywhere. Mud mixed with cow dung, yak dunk horse dung, mule dung, sheep dung, goat dung and human excrement.

Monday, Sep 7
Hiked for about 8 hours to just short of Muchu. Set up tent outside of a temporary structure where Lal prepared out dinner. It was a stone wall structure covered with a blue tarp. Had to stoop inside and dodge the pieces of meat hanging from the ridge pole.

Sleeping in the tent was pretty wet. It rained hard in the night and water leaked through the rain fly and the tent roof, dripping on our sleeping bags. Fortunately when it was time to pack things up in the morning, the rain stopped for awhile.

Tuesday, Sep 8
Hiked to Yari. Seems like light misty rain is permanent in this region. Only a few times during the day when the rain stops and the sky brightens. Haven't needed to use sunglasses yet.

When we reached a police checkpost at Yari, we learned that our passports had been sent to Hilsa via helicopter. Okay. Hope we have them when we want to enter Tibet.

We stayed in Yari in a storage room for rice and supplies.

During the night, we heard a loud knock at the door. Went to check and found that a herd of goats had bedded down outside our door and one apparently had beat against the door four loud raps with its horns.

Later we heard rats running around on he ceiling, causing debris to rain down on us. A rather fitful night.

Wednesday, Sep 9
Today our goal was to reach Hilsa, the border town on the Nepal side and pass into Tibet. We had a long steep slog up to Nara La pass (15,000 ft), but fortunately this was the first day when we had a break in the rain for a couple of hours. After reaching the pass, it was a long gradual descent into Hilsa. It took us 5 hours to get there, arriving at 11:30 am.

Our Tibet permit was valid from Sep 8th, so by hiking from Simikot to Hilsa in four days, we were only now one day behind schedule.

Lal borrowed a cell phone from a local person who subscribes to a China telecom service (There are not Nepal Telecom towers in this part of the country). He talked to our Tibet guide, Mingma to let him and the driver know that we had arrived in Hilsa. I hadn't even realized that we would have a Tibetan guide as well our Nepali guide, Lal on this portion of our trek. An SUV and driver (the same vehicle and driver Cynthia and I had when traveling outside Lhasa) were ready to pick us up.

We went to the police station, showed our trekking permits and had them stamped. No one seemed to know anything about our passports.

Lal suggested we sit down and have a cup of tea. The person who might know something about our passports had left and "gone up into the mountains" for a spell. Oh, great.

After several minutes of drinking tea, Lal all of a sudden bolted out the door. The man with our passports had just walked by. Sure enough, he had the passports so we went back to the police station to once again fill out paperwork. Now we're ready to cross into Tibet. Except for one thing: the mules carrying our gear have not shown up yet.

Time for another cup of tea. And a walk around Hilsa. And another cup of tea. Finally, around 3;30pm the mules show up. We arrange for some locals to port our gear across the bridge.

But is the immigration office on the China side open? All of China, including Tibet is on the same time zone, so Tibet time is roughly 2 hours later than Nepal time. Is their office still open?

Fortunately, the Chinese immigration official, the customs agent and the medical officer who checks your body temperature by putting a thermometer under your armpit are summoned and arrive with our SUV in a separate vehicle.

Our luggage is carefully inspected. I have to discard the yak cheese I had packed for lunch. We give up our passports once again. We hold the thermometers under our armpits for 10 minutes and have them read. No one has any symptoms of swine flu.

Then we have to drive to the customs office in Taklakot and have all our gear scanned in a Nuctech scanner. More forms to fill out. I really need to memorize my passport number. Seems like every time I need to fill in a form, someone else has my passport.

We are delivered to the "best" hotel in Taklakot. Which means hot running water, but no towels. Julian and I relish the shower, shampooing our hair and washing our socks and underwear. It takes two wash cycles to bring the water to a point you can see through it.

Then dinner at a local restaurant. Some meat for a change, which will help us produce more red blood cells. Those will come in handy in the next few days. Elevation here in Taklakot is just over 13,000 feet. Neither Julian nor I are feeling any symptoms of being at altitude. I'm looking forward to a restful night in a comfortable bed.

 

 

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