Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Goes Down Must Come Up

(Let's fast forward a bit to Nepal and we'll backtrack to China later...)

It's hard to put into words the physical and emotional roller coaster that is trekking to Mt. Everest Base Camp.

The scenery is obviously stunning!

For the first few days it could have been Canada or the Pacific Northwest, with a mighty river rolling through a pine forest--- however, you can tell it is Nepal by the Buddhist prayer flags and wheels. For those of you that don't know (which was me until this trip), Tibetan Buddhists believe that a blessing will spread throughout the world with each spin of the prayer wheel and flutter of the flags in the wind- nice, huh?

Lets not forget the incredible porters and yaks that go up and down the trail carrying supplies (and our bags- thanks yak!). These guys are incredible. They are TINY (way smaller than me) and carry a tremendous amount up these steep, rocky trails, with a lot of the weight supported on their foreheads--- we thought they are allowed to carry 70-80lbs.! It was hard to figure how long it would take us to get to our destinations since these guys could easily do it in half the time. Still impressed!

The dirty kids we met along the way in the sporadic villages were also pretty adorable.

I thought of Greg often since there were numerous suspension bridges we had to cross over the rushing river (that is too dangerous to raft to give you some indication of how mighty); these and the narrow paths and super steep steps alongside certain death cliffs made this one not for those fearful of heights. Oh, and make sure to stay mountain side or you might get bumped off the mountain by a yak ;-)

As we increased in elevation the trees started to disappear and the snow capped mountains surfaced--- pretty spectacular (and so quiet)! You had to remember to look up from the path and take in all the beauty.

It was pretty spectacular on the days we could see. We actually had pretty good weather, except when we hiked a particularly tough stretch for the sole purpose of the view. The journey to the Everest View Hotel was not rewarded with any view at all--- I'm sure it was lovely and the lemon tea was tasty!

The best part-- reaching base camp with a group of amazing people!

To name just a few... there was Linda, a 62-year-old midwife from Minnesota that inspired us all. The girls from New Zealand, Cathy and Claire, who liked to shop and totally made me laugh. David and Kristen from Saratoga Springs, NY who joined me in avoiding "dead people" while suggesting new career options ;-) Martin, our UN representative who just wouldn't take no for an answer while humming his latest music composition. Paula and Tracy, the Canadians who trekked up that long hill to Namche Bazaar with me and through the dense fog for that non existent view from the Everest View Hotel. Marcel who made sure no one was out of earshot--- Namasteeeeee! And my sweet Swiss friend and trekking (+ bakery) buddy for most of the days-- he was always nearby with an encouraging smile, checking that I was okay and offering his beloved masala chai. :-)

I thank them all for making this an experience of a lifetime.

Up, Down, More Up :-(
No one could really tell us how far we walked, but guesstimates were maybe 70-75km each way? We would usually walk anywhere from 8-16km a day (6-7 hours), but remember we need to get higher so a LOT of that was uphill. But no, not all uphill! There were plenty of downhills too, which just meant that all the uphill we just finished was really for nothing- talk about discouraging! It also always seemed that the hours of uphill came at the end of the day for some odd reason- giving us something to look forward to all day ;-)

It was exhausting (oh, my tired, achy legs), but at the end of the dayS we finally made it to the promised land- Base Camp and 4 rocks ;-)) Yay!!!!!!!!!

How Bad?
Yes, the nature squat was way preferable to the non flushing toilets at the tea houses along the trail. Tea house sounds charming, right? Yeah, not so much. They are basically flimsily constructed shelters made of plywood with no heating and plumbing. No complaints, they are better than a tent, but it was mighty chilly and loud in these joints.

Some were actually better than others and even had the option to pay for a hot shower which was really welcome after days of trekking (this was NO beauty contest or fashion show!).

After this experience I learned that my #1 priority isn't a shower, but a flushing toilet.

You really don't get used to that smell, hence why we usually opted for the pee rock along the way (not always so discrete).

We Have Two Options
Raj and Hari, our Nepalese guides, were great about keeping us safe and generally on track. They took good care of us, maybe with the exception of the menu. "Excuse me, I will now take the breakfast order. We have two options- porridge with apple and egg with toast." Same, same! It became a joke since the menu variety was so limited and oddly enough heavy on the Chinese, which would have been okay had I not just come from China where I actually ate good Chinese food.

Is That A Headache?
I was in constant fear of altitude sickness as the days went by, not something to be toyed with. There was the constant reminder of how serious things could get with the frequent sound of rescue helicopters going up and down the mountain--- a sound I really didn't like on the way up.

Unfortunately altitude sickness did strike our group. First my trekking buddies, Kristen and David, had to go back down the mountain in the middle of the night in what sounded like a harrowing trip to the medical clinic, getting lost when they lost the yak trail.

Then, in the scariest moment of the trip, Catherine (NZ) collapsed on the trail and had to be airlifted out. It was terribly upsetting watching as she struggled with oxygen running out or not working. Thankfully Jake (Canada), Brooke (Delaware) and a couple of foreign doctors that happened to be nearby were able to get her stabilized for the flight back to Kathmandu.

It seriously made me reconsider going any higher since your mind starts to play games with you, convincing you one of the symptoms is starting. Luckily I was fine! I stayed hydrated, drinking 6 liters of water a day, but that garlic soup wasn't my thing.

The good thing is that everyone was okay once they got to lower elevation.

Crazy Landing
All I have to say is you should all go to YouTube and watch the Lukla landing video. Insane! I have never experienced a steep, uphill runway on the side of a mountain. It took serious skill to land those tiny planes. The day we flew out one pilot did crash a plane into the wall upon landing, but all were fine.

However, there have been some accidents at this airport, so they don't seem to chance it which is why fog closed the airport for days at the end of our trek. Luckily we got the last plane out a day after we arrived in Lukla, but some Brits we met early along had been stuck for 4 days and spent the $1600 to helicopter out, along with most people going stir crazy in a town with not a whole lot going on (the fake Starbucks was packed!)

Get Me Outta Here!
Arriving in Kathmandu at the start of the trip was definitely a love/hate experience. The city is total chaos with no traffic lights and CONSTANT honking from the cars and motorcycles that are trying to cram their way through the tiny, windy streets (that should really be 1-way, but aren't). It is also amazing filthy- the state of their streets and rivers is really horrendous and sad.

It is also really lively with colorfully dressed locals giving it a really distinct energy. In fact, on our first night we ran into a festival parade with people all over the streets celebrating. We also got stuck in a roadblock of riot police and army personnel when the president passed--- they do have those Maoist issues still.

Eventually, the honking won out and I couldn't wait to get to the peace of the mountains.

Then after weeks of peace (and bad food and plumbing), chaos was just what I was craving.

Since the original trip itinerary changed, we arrived at Base Camp two days early, meaning we were really just killing time to get back to Kathmandu. At this point I was totally exhausted and just had enough, so joined my two German-speaking friends and left our guides for a 2-day trek down the mountain alone (don't worry, it was near impossible to get lost).

We had a lovely time stopping first in Phakding (and their Reggae bar that inexplicably played no reggae- sorry Donovan) and then Lukla waiting for a flight out.
Unfortunately, right after we dropped our bags at the lodge I ended up twisting my ankle pretty badly (and ignoring the loud snapping sound it made). Yes, we walk over 100km and I hurt myself basically outside the airport- how stupid!

I was happy to be back hobbling around Kathmandu, eating yummy food, celebrating with a cocktail, massage and a tour around the city, including the Monkey Temple which has hundreds of monkeys scampering about.

We even got back in time for the biggest Hindu celebration of the year, the Dashain Festival, when thousands of animals are sacrificed. I skipped the public sacrifice in the main square after seeing the animals all over town for sale--- those poor goats didn't know what was coming.

Doing It For The Orphans
At the end of the day this trek was to benefit the orphans, so it was nice to visit their homes.

We first went to Brighter Futures where most of the kids were away for the holiday (like our Christmas). We toured the facility and a neighboring village- it was nice to get out into the countryside to see a different type of Nepal.

Then we eventually found Shining Stars where 30 incredibly personable kids reside. They appeared to be the happiest orphans and put on a bit of a singing and dancing performance, after greeting us with flowers and tika (red dot on my forehead).

They also had one of the crazy big, bamboo swings that I SO wanted to try, but after my ankle injury in Lukla I thought better of it.

After seeing street kids in Kathmandu huffing, I was really glad that I was able to do something to help give these 44 kids a better life and a real chance at a future.

Thanks again to everyone that donated- you are really making a difference!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I'll Get There Eventually

What's another 12-hour overnight bus ride with Ambien? Off to Istanbul for my last 5 nights in Europe.

I arrived early and shockingly successfully navigated the tram and maze of streets in Sultanahmet to find my hostel, so I had time to kill before check-in.

Since I haven't met a palace I didn't like, I decided stop #1 should be the Topkapi Palace. I'd get to the Blue Mosque later.

The money pit of a palace (the entry fee was expensive and then you had to pay more to get in the Harem and for the audio guide, and then for the Harem audio guide!) was actually pretty spectacular. Construction on the Palace started in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror and subsequent sultans lived here into the 19th century.

The Palace is organized into 4 courtyards, each further restricting access until the final interior courtyard where only the sultan's family was permitted (and now me and all the Asian tourists).

My favorite parts were the Treasury (like Moscow, I enjoy seeing all the bling) and the Harem. This may not be news to anyone else, but I was interested to learn that the ladies of the Harem had to be foreigners since Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. The sultan was allowed four wives and as many concubines as he could support.

Throughout all the buildings the tile work was stunning- if I were a decorator I would not have mixed so many patterns, but it totally worked!!

That evening I had the pleasure of meeting Gokturk (my new sailing friend for those of you that don't recall Turkey Pt. 1) for a lovely seafood meal overlooking the Bosphorus in a local neighborhood. He drove me around and showed me all the hot spots where locals hang, plus a mall that felt just like home.

I had big plans for the next day in Beyoglu (formerly known as the European quarter)--- get my hair done and by tickets to see U2 (their first concert in Turkey, and maybe their last?). Since I couldn't spend all day on nonsense I first visited the newish Istanbul Modern which I loved. I seriously think it is my favorite contemporary art museum of the trip.

Would you believe that Turkey's Ticketmaster equivalent still has you wait in line for hours for tickets? Sad, but true! Since the World Basketball Championships were going on at the same time the line was over 3 hours wait. I opted to get my hair and eyebrows done (all for the bargain price of $65!!!!!!!!!!) and join when the wait was only half that long- ugh!

After that exhausting day I wasn't up for a big night out so I just grabbed two kebabs from the meticulous street vendor (I didn't realize I was being so piggy ordering 2 until after I saw them made) and watched some fireworks from the roof deck while talking to Laura. The rest of Istanbul was breaking their Ramadan fast on the lawn outside the Blue Mosque.

Two days down and still no Blue Mosque- today was the day since I had to walk by it 18 times a day- damn, it is closed for some special visit from some special person. Oh well, there are still days ahead of me!

Along with everyone else due to the rain, I opted for the Haghia Sophia, the one thing in Istanbul I remember learning about in grammar school (but don't really remember why- think maybe religion class?). Originally built by Emperor Justinian as a church in 537, it was converted to a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest. Now that it is a museum it is an odd mix of Christianity and Islam, with mosaics of Jesus and 19th century medallions inscribed with Arabic letters. The most impressive part though is the sheer size of the dome built with special bricks that make it appear as if it hovers unsupported.

The most amusing part? They have a wall of foreign dignitaries that have visited the museum. Apparently there have been new, better visitors (like Obama and the Pope) so they put stickers over people that had been on the plaque. I really want to know who was downgraded! Can you imagine the meeting where they discussed who was expendable? ;-)

I had planned to see a few other sites, but the friendliness of the Turkish men was getting really old. Sure, it was charming for the first couple of days in the small towns, but in Istanbul it was close to downright harassment. I had enough!!!!

I only surfaced again from the hostel to see the Whirling Dervishes. It is pretty mesmerizing to watch the men spin so gracefully for 45 minutes and envisioning me tripping over my own feet if I attempted even one twirl.

The next day I felt better about venturing out in the company of two men from the hostel heading to the famous Spice Market, or Egyptian Market (no one bothers the men, so unfair). The market has been around since 1660 selling spices, nuts, olive oil soaps, figs and our favorites- Turkish delight and dried fruits of every variety imaginable (yum, strawberries). We had a good time sampling the merchandise.

After a little ceramic shopping I then had to scamper back to meet a group headed out to the U2 concert. Why do we have to leave SO early? Cause the Olympic Stadium takes 2 hours to get to through Istanbul's horrendous, gridlocked traffic (Turkey has never had the Olympics so unclear why they have a stadium that they clearly didn't finish after their failed bid.)

But wait, we were only in the bus for a short distance, the bulk of our journey was on the old train where men stood by the open doors for a little air--- insanity!

Anyway, we finally arrived at the concert to discover that U2 isn't so popular here- the stadium was maybe 1/3 full so the 360 degree thing didn't really pan out as they expected. Most of the people there appeared to be tourists- I hung out with Australians, South Africans and Dutch. I guess I should have known when the hostel workers didn't know who U2 is.

There must have been a few locals there though since Bono made some political statement and was booed- can't imagine he is used to that!!!

The concert was really good, if lacking atmosphere, but the 3 HOUR trek home was less so. Unbelievable!!!!!!

Part of the U2 group included Cindy and Jeff, my companions for the last full day in Istanbul- we packed in a lot!

We started off at the Grand Bazaar and believe it or not, I couldn't find anything worth buying in over 4,000 shops. I did want to get into a game of Rummy tile with one shopkeeper, but no time.

All that lack of buying got us hungry so we ate at some tiny hole in the wall spot. Language was a barrier that became frustrating, plus my indecisiveness, so they just made me a pide (Turkish pizza) segmented with each of the options. It was delish!!!!!

Belly full it is obviously time for a traditional Turkish scrub at the Cemberlitas Hamami, dating from 1584. The scrub was far inferior to the Korean versions I have had, but when in Turkey do as the Turks USED to do ;-)

That finally leaves time for the Blue Mosque, at last!!!! In this case it really was saving the best for almost last. It is stunning inside! In 1606 the goal was to make it grander and more beautiful than the Haghia Sophia. I would say Sultan Ahmet I succeeded. There are tens of thousands of blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name.

That evening we walked across the Galata Bridge (a little tardy for the planned sunset) to the hip part of town full of cool restaurants, bars and boutiques- glad I found it eventually.

What better way to top it off than some pudding at Saray Muhallebicisi, a pudding shop in operation since 1935 owned by Istanbul's mayor. 35 varieties- which to choose??? We opted against the burnt chicken breast pudding, but the rice pudding was scrumptious.

Since the metro closes early we needed a taxi to bring us home- what a crazy adventure. 1) They never really seem to know where they are going (I guess cause the city is HUGE- you need places for all 20 million people) and 2) like Italy they like to chat even though you don't understand. It all ended with me on the driver's phone talking to someone about a great place to visit for a good photo--- too bad I was leaving tomorrow (not that I understood anyway). It was sweet though- the Turkish people were always looking to be helpful, even if that did border on harassment.

Before catching my afternoon flight to Doha I had time for one more stop- the Basilica Cistern, another goodie built by Justinian in 532. It is the best looking reservoir I've seen.
Goodbye Europe! I hope Asia is as kind.