Trekking in the Langtang Valley (aka Shout it from the Mountain Top!)

The next part of our trip diverges from our travelogue mold. I’m not big on personal sharing on this blog, not because I don’t love to yap, but because this is a very public forum for a personal experience.

Carefully omitted here are the times we were tethered to the commode with traveler’s diarrhea, or those inevitable couples squabbles that crop up (especially on hot sweaty uncomfortable travel days).

Traveling isn’t always pretty, and most times it’s a dirty, cranky, hungry existence. But we like to share with you those exhilarating moments that make the long bus rides and dingy hotel rooms seem worthwhile. This next installment is equal parts exhilarating and personal. Consider yourself warned. 😀

Rainbow after the first day of trekking through the Langtang Valley.

Rainbow after the first day of trekking through the Langtang Valley.

Sunrise on the first day of the hike.

Sunrise on the second morning of the hike.

View of the river gorge on the second day of our hike up to Kyanjin Gompa.

View of the river gorge on the second day of our hike up to Kyanjin Gompa.

Sea-buckthorn berries, every teahouse along the way makes these little fruits into a deliciously tart juice...eerily reminiscent of Tang.

Sea-buckthorn berries, guesthouses along the way makes these little fruits into a deliciously tart juice…eerily reminiscent of Tang.

Trekkers, guides, porters, yaks, and pack horses all share the narrow rocky trails.

Trekkers, guides, porters, yaks, and pack horses all share the trails.

The gang.

The gang.

A prayer wheel, running on hyrdo power.

A prayer wheel, running on hyrdo power.

After 3 days of trekking, we made it to Kyanjin Gompa. This village is the halfway point and the base from where we made our hike to Tserko Ri.

After 3 days of trekking, we made it to Kyanjin Gompa. This village is the halfway point and the base from where we made our hike to Tserko Ri.

The guesthouse owner in Kyanjin Gompa.

The guesthouse owner in Kyanjin Gompa.

Relaxing at our guesthouse in Kyanjin Gompa.

Relaxing at our guesthouse in Kyanjin Gompa.

At the midway point of our 7-day Langtang trek, we made a summit attempt to Tserko Ri, a nearby peak. From a distance it appeared as a gently sloping hill, prayer flags flapping gently in the breeze. Looks can be deceiving.

The peak of Tserko Ri rises to 4984m or 16,350 ft. We kept hearing accounts of the hike that seemed to belie its docile appearance. Repeated warnings to start early in the morning, not to give up, and that it was totally ‘worth it’ for the view from the summit, came early and often from trekkers on their way back down. Worth what exactly, we were to find out for ourselves. These not-so-subtle hints made us suspect that this friendly looking hill would present us with some challenges.

The owner of the guesthouse where we stayed was a short wind burned Tibetan woman with hair down her back that skimmed the ground when released from its usual braid. She reiterated to us the same early departure warnings, but guesstimated the hike to be 2.5 hours up and 1.5 hours down. Heeding her advice, we struck out at 6am with headlamps lighting the way for the first half hour, freshly boiled eggs warming our pockets.

Just outside the village of Kyanjin Gompa, the trail dissolved into criss-crossing yak paths, each dead ending in a cryptic jumble of decomposing bovine turds. These talismans of the trail signified our increasing desperation, as if the yaks were trying to send us messages we simply couldn’t decode. Half an hour of following these shitty little paths, attempting to decipher the meandering trails, we hit upon the right track leading straight up the ridge, drawing a clear line to the summit.

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After 2 hours ascending along the ridge trail we felt the effects of the thinning atmosphere. Each step required summoning an enormous effort, accompanied by dramatic huffing and puffing , our heads pounding. At this point we could clearly see the prayer flags at the top, but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

In the valley below, the clouds began to roll in and cover the dry riverbed. Another word of advice we received concerned the quick moving clouds, which could not only make descent treacherous but also spoil the view from the summit. We were quickly sandwiched between dense fog smothering the valley below and increasingly dense cloud patches circling the summit. We each silently hoped our struggles would pay off for a clear moment at the summit. But that moment seemed increasingly distant with each step. More and more trail revealed itself between our tired shuffling feet and the summit, our progress impossibly slow.

We reassessed our summit time from 2.5 hours to 4.5 and set a firm turnaround time, giving ourselves a safe window of time before we needed to head back down to the village during daylight. Other groups of trekkers whizzed past us with their porters and guides tagging along behind.

As the hours ticked past, we began to accept the possibility of not reaching our goal. The prospect was dispiriting but increasingly looming. With each step, we fought off the pounding headache and shortness of breath from the altitude.  We kept pushing on and on. Finally, after 5.5 hours of walking through the thin air, we made it to the summit! Looking down past the trail we had covered, we all felt such a sense of triumph. The view was breathtaking, and the clouds held off for just a few moments, giving us a glimpse of the glacier capped peaks towering over us on all sides. The camera came out to capture our goofy oxygen-deprived smiles.

At this point Zev got down on one knee and PROPOSED. I was so surprised that I promptly burst out crying. Not a dainty moist eye, but full on sobbing, snot streaming. What can I say? I’m a charming lady. Also, I blame the altitude; it makes you giddy and euphoric, a delightful reminder that your brain is slowly suffocating. The guides saw this commotion and burst into song, belting out a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ with all their might. Despite our best attempts to explain what was going on, they continued to wish me a very happy birthday.

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I was SO surprised, seriously!

I was SO surprised!

Relaxing at the summit.

Relaxing at the summit.

So happy.

So happy.

Max, enjoying the view at the top.

Max, enjoying the view at the top.

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Getting down was not as simple as one of the singing guides had explained to us, ‘oh, just walk downhill until you find the trail along the riverside, that will take you back to town.’ We followed many a dead ending yak trail and stumbled our way down a rubble-y mountainside until we finally found a real path again. It was a 4 hour slog back to the village, punctuated by exclamations of ‘oh my god, we’re getting married.’

On the long long walk down.

On the long long walk down.

The serenading guides.

The serenading guides.

Upon our return to camp, we celebrated our engagement with a huge feast of boiled eggs and ‘pizza’ made with chewy Tibetan bread. We crawled into bed early that night with sore legs and happy smiles. It was a fitting way to end an eventful day.

We relished telling our story to the trekkers we met as we descended back to civilization.  There was something fabulously elicit about keeping this secret for the 3 days it took to get back to Kathmandu and an internet connection to share the news with family and friends. On the way down we bought matching ‘Tserko Ri 5000m’ hats knitted out of baby yak wool to commemorate the occasion.

Many thanks to our fabulous trekking partner, Max (hyperlink), who was also our unwitting engagement photographer.

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Exploring Kathmandu

Ed. note: reporting live from the Andaman Islands off the coast of India! We’ll be diving here until mid-December. The undersea life is pretty spectacular but the internet connectivity is unimaginably slow.  I’m on a very painful digital detox these days.

Dreaming of the mountains in Nepal.

Dreaming of the mountains in Nepal.

When we started planning our big trip way back in June of 2012, we only had a vague idea where we were going. We planned to start in China and concentrate most of our time in Asia. But in the back of my mind I had a few plans, just one or two bucket list items. One of those was trekking in Nepal.

Nepal held mythic status in my mind. It sounded like a haven for backpackers, a place traveler’s rave about. We heard it was easy on the budget, culturally rich, and accessible for independent travelers. Our kind of place. When our diving plans came together for early October, it looked like we had two weeks open between Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands – so I quickly booked a flight to Nepal and sold Zev on my crazy scheme.

Max, a friend from DC who is now living in Addis Ababa, joined us for our two week jaunt around Nepal. Traveling with Max was a blast and it was such a delight to reminisce about the good old times in DC.

Our fearless navigator, Max!

Our fearless navigator, Max!

Stepping out of the Kathmandu airport, you can see the distant peaks of snow-covered mountains. It’s a very misleading introduction to the capital of Nepal. Heading into Kathmandu proper, the tranquility of the mountains quickly cedes way to a dusty, chaotic, unbearably noisy city with traffic choked streets, most of which are unpaved and so broken up you fear that your dusty Suzuki Maruti taxi wont make it to the guesthouse. The air of the city is heavy with a haze of dust and smoke. Nothing in Kathmandu is safe from the film that settles onto every surface and gives the city an ancient and otherworldly feel.

We stayed in the uber backpacker-y neighborhood of Thamel. Like almost all of Kathmandu, it has narrow streets and decrepit brick buildings with carved wooden latticework windows, but its storefronts are filled with a greater density of tourist shops than you ever thought possible. Each shop sells a near-identical [monotonous] mix of prayer flags, Buddhist paraphernalia, and knock-off cashmere shawls.

The clogged streets of Kathmandu.

The clogged streets of Kathmandu.

The Dream Garden is a serene oasis in the heart of Thamel.

The Dream Garden is a serene oasis in the heart of freneticThamel.

Rooftop kite flying in Kathmandu.

Rooftop kite flying in Kathmandu.

A tea shop in Thamel.

A tea shop in Thamel.

Cleaning out a shrine at Swayambhunath Temple

Cleaning out a shrine at Swayambhunath Temple

The famous Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu.

The famous Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu.

Every building in Kathmandu feels ancient.

This curious dog really cracked me up.

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Selling offerings outside a temple.

Selling offerings outside a temple.

Max met us at the airport and we spent a handful of days exploring Kathmandu and organizing the logistics for our 7-day trek in Langtang. Beyond Tibetan prayer flags, Thamel is a Mecca for name brand outdoor gear of questionable authenticity at prices and quality low enough to classify them as disposable, which proved perfect for our limited budget and total lack of space or interest in adding nylon baggy purple zip-off pants to my wardrobe beyond our trek.  We also stocked up on a metric shit-ton of granola bars, cookies, and a pack of highly prized German gummy bears to tide us over between meals on the trail.

A tailbone breaking 7 hour bus ride later, and we were at the trail head! I must admit that we didn’t know what to expect from this trek. From what we heard, the Langtang route is supposed to be one of the easiest and also most beautiful walks in Nepal. Perhaps we were sorely out of shape (definitely the case), but the walk was very challenging, especially because we carried our own granola bar-laden packs. Each evening along the way we stopped at a little guesthouse, indulged in a solar heated shower and settled down to some card games and a hearty meal of ‘Sherpa stew’, fried pasta, or some other tasty starch concoction.

This is what I was after. A great view of the Himalayas.

This is what I was after. A great view of the Himalayas.

The trail splits around a stupa.

The trail splits around a stupa.

Komodo by Boat

The real reason we slogged all the way to Flores was to catch up with my cousin, Mackenzie, who was in the area completing a research project. She was visiting remote villages across Indonesia to interview local villagers, and saw parts of the country that few Westerners ever visit. Having spent a few days recovering from our epic ferry ride to Labuan Bajo, Flores, we met up with Mckenzie and her gang of fellow researchers and hopped on another, much smaller, boat for a three day tour of the Komodo Islands. It was so nice to meet up with family from back home and hearing about her project was fascinating.

Our trusty vessel.

Our trusty vessel.

After getting on the boat and stowing our massive stock of snacks and beer, we motored to Rinca Island, one of the two islands where you can see Komodo dragons, for our first trekking trip. Rinca’s savannah covered hills felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Since it was mating season, the Komodo Dragons were busy getting busy in the woods, but we did manage to spot a small one hanging out at a watering hole, and got up close and personal with the gang of elderly dragons that hangs out at the park ranger’s kitchen. We were told that they stopped feeding the dragons in the mid-90’s, but these guys must be senile enough to keep coming back anyway.

A 'small' dragon.

A ‘small’ dragon.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger station.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger’s station.

On day one we also went on the first of many snorkeling trips, where we found a baby bamboo shark sleeping under a rock, and managed to snap our best photo of the trip, of a baby box fish. We’d heard incredible things about the marine life in the Komodos, but neither of us imagined how spectacular it could be until we got there. As a rule of thumb, the crazier the ocean currents, the bigger and better the fish. To say that the ocean surface in many places around the Komodos looked like the agitation cycle of a washing machine wouldn’t be an exaggeration and the abundance of sea life certainly upheld that saying.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

Our captain, Matt, who has been working on tour boats in the islands for nearly 10 years, was truly a jack of all trades. After every snorkeling trip, he welcomed us back onto the boat with a plate of piping hot pisang goreng (battered fried bananas), and prepared delicious dinners with fish purchased from local fisherman who paddled out to our boat in canoes to deliver their fresh catch. We slept on the roof of the boat, under a sky filled with the stars of the southern sky. After half a year in the southern hemisphere we’ve only recently adjusted to the sky with no north star and an upside-down big dipper.DSC_0153

Our epic second day on the boat consisted of two hikes and three snorkeling trips. Although the big game animals, manta rays and Komodo Dragons, had taken the day off, it was still another day of jaw dropping scenery. Our 4 hour trek across Komodo Island began in temperate forests that felt surprisingly similar to our home landscape of the eastern US. Climbing up past the forests through the palm-tree dotted savannah to the top of a ridge provided breathtaking views of the island, all the way back done to the ocean. The paths up and down the hill were steep and dusty and we all took a few spills. Had we not seen dragons the day before on Rinca, the lack of wildlife, heat, and difficulty of the trail would have probably been overwhelming, but we managed to keep our cool and enjoy the view. Our two snorkeling trips to Manta Point were fruitless, but well made up for at our third spot, the Cauldron, where we saw more turtles than you can count (if you can’t count to 5), and a few of our boat-mates even spotted a dugong! To wrap up the day on yet another high-note, Matt lead us up a hill on an uninhabited island to watch the unset over a crystal blue bay.

The temperate forests on Rinca.

The temperate forests on Rinca really reminded us of the Shenandoah in Virginia.

Gorgeous views greeted exhausted hikers.

Gorgeous views, exhausted hikers.

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One of the many turtles we spotted while snorkeling at Cauldron.

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

DSC_0282 DSC_0290DSC_0264After getting off the boat on day three and saying goodbye to Mackenzie and her friends, we met up with friends from Bali who also happened to be in Labuan Bajo. They were heading back out to the islands to spend 2 nights at Seraya Beach Resort, a row of bare bones bungalows along a wide strip of untouched white beach and a bay full of pristine coral. Having no plans other than an eventual hot and crowded 4 hour public bus ride to begin exploring inland Flores, we happily joined them for a few days in a hammock soaking up Komodo’s spectacular scenery.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Our bamboo beach shack was also occupied by some kleptomaniac rats.

Our bamboo beach shack was also home to a rambunctious (and prolific) family of kleptomaniac rats who evidently thought Eliza’s shorts would make a great nest. Fortunately they didn’t fit through the rats’ front door.