(un)Settling Down

Two guys take their marriage to unexpected places

It’s all downhill from here

After this, what's left to do but go home?

After this, what’s left to do but go home?

The last days of our trek down the mountain were a blur. Mostly a blur of aches and bruises and blisters and swollen knees. Or maybe that was just me. JL was fine; his back problems, which had plagued him for years, were gone. He was faster and stronger than the rest of us by the end.

We spent one morning soaking in hot springs, watching the river rush by. We spent a morning sweating through rice fields. And we spent an afternoon strolling on a gently sloping road. The days became easier. The hiking became routine. I noticed some new firmness in my stomach.

And then it was over. We spent our last night at Australian Base Camp, watching the light and clouds dance in the Pokhara valley and on the lake. We broke our no alcohol rule and shared a beer while we watched the sun set. We woke up before dawn one last time to watch the sun rise again over the mountains.

JL and I started talking about going home. Our flight was in just a few days. We spent our last hour hiking to the road arguing about how to go about having hypothetical children (surrogacy or adoption) assuming, of course, that we did a 180 and decided we wanted kids after all.

We were in our hotel before breakfast. Our nasty hiking clothes were dropped off at the laundry, and we each took long, hot showers with the most amazing water pressure I’d ever experienced. And then there was nothing left to do but wait to fly back to Kathmandu and then fly home.

We spent those days in Pokhara laying in bed watching terrible movies, eating anything that wasn’t dal bhat, and taking lots of showers.

What we came for

Yeah, I'd say it was worth it.

Yeah, I’d say it was worth it.

Our bladders saved the day.

It was still black out when JL shook me awake. “Do you want to to go see the sun rise?” he whispered. “I got up to pee, but it looks like the sun’s about to come up.”

I nodded into my pillow and fell back asleep instantly.

JL shook me again. “Get your pants on.”

Base camp was silent and empty as we walked across the stone patio. It was frigid. My breath fogged around cupped hands as I fast-walked up the loose stone path to a ridge overlooking the glacier. From there, we could see all the way across the valley to where the steel cliffs bit into the sky. Cold white light reflected off snow clinging to jagged cliffs. Wispy clouds scattered high across the sky.

JL’s cold, dry fingers tangled with mine.  The world was silent, and we held our breath as we turned in a slow circle. I held JL’s arm against the vertigo of the narrow ridge. The view all around us was perfectly clear. The glacier crackled behind us.

We had the mountains to ourselves for about 20 minutes. The light on the clouds slowly became brighter, warmer. Fog rose from the valley and snaked between the cliffs.

Our arrival to base camp the previous afternoon had been something of a letdown. A wall of featureless fog encircled the small plateau, so we spent the afternoon eating pizza and playing Scrabble. After dinner, there was a quick glimpse of the mountains at the other end of the valley before dark and more clouds obscured them again. We went to bed at 7:30 mostly because we’d run out of things to do. “Ninety-five percent chance of seeing the mountains in the morning,” Prem assured us.

He and Luke were the first to find us. “Where you been?!” Prem exclaimed, hands flapping near his head. The four of us stood and watched silently as the others, in ones and twos, shuffled out of their rooms and climbed up to join us. They clambered over the ridge and through the prayer flags, snapping photos and flipping the peace sign at the cameras. Some of them used flashes. JL and Luke tsked at them under their breath.

After an hour or so, clouds completely surrounded us and we could only glimpse the mountains between gaps that opened and closed as moisture evaporated from the ground and drifted away into the sky.

We blinked out of our spell and wandered back down to the kitchen for a thermos of hot chocolate and bowls of porridge.

After breakfast, the sky had cleared again. A British couple organized a group into spelling “Himalaya” in front of the mountains. This was after they took their naked photo near the prayer flags. The locals were not amused.

The mountains loomed over us as we strolled down the valley. “It’s funny,” I said to JL as I tripped over another rock. I was watching the mountains more than the ground in front of me. “I know lots of people do this trek. I know it’s like the most popular trek in the world. But being here—” I waved my hands at the mountains all around us, “—having done this, climbing up here and watching the sun rise over these mountains…I feel like I actually accomplished something. I really feel proud, like we did something amazing.”

“We did,” he replied.

 

Ain’t no mountain high enough

The last two days of our ascent were the hardest. Prem honestly thought we wouldn’t make it the last hour or two to base camp. The altitude really knocked us on our asses.

But we did. I didn’t expect to feel such an incredible sense of accomplishment. This is one of the most popular treks in the world, and thousands of people do it every year. But this was the first multi-day trek I’d ever done in my life. And it was incredible.

Jesus, take the wheel

On the third and fourth days of our trek, we got more leeches, ate some yak cheese, experienced our first taste of altitude sickness, abandoned Paula to her fate at Chhomrong (“I’m taking a vacation from my vacation.”), cleaned a chicken, and got rained on. And crossed several more death bridges. It was lovely.

It’s all about the climb

The first two days of our trek were mostly about putting one foot in front of the other. Usually to go uphill. We climbed something like 2000 meters in those first two days. A bit of a shock for a guy from northwest Ohio.

We discovered the joy and wonder of trekking poles in those first two days, though. We bought them reluctantly and self-consciously, but when we woke up on day 2 with a looming stone staircase in front of us, they were a godsend. We used them the entire trek (until my hands got too sore and numb to hold them, somewhere around day 8).

Practice makes…something

Our trusted hiking companion.

This guy adopted us outside of Pokhara and escorted us for the entire day.

We weren’t exactly sure what our practice hike entailed. Paula thought we were going for an hour’s stroll. Luke thought we were going to the Peace Pagoda south of the city. I thought I’d heard something about getting lunch.

It turned out we were doing a seven and a half-hour hike straight up the side of one of the mountains ringing Pokhara. We wound around the lake and then cut in, spending most of our morning climbing stairs. Within an hour, Luke was crouched with his head between his knees, puking his guts out. I was already sunburnt. Paula hadn’t brought any water. Nobody thought to bring the trekking poles we’d just bought.

“Um, Prem, how does this compare with what we’re doing tomorrow?” JL asked as we caught our breath in the shade.

“Tomorrow is higher and steeper.”
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The Cliffs Notes version of our Annapurna trek

annapurna-base-camp-map

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” JL tells people when we talk about this trek.

It’s probably true for me, too. It’s not that we’re totally decrepit or out of shape, except that we kind of are. We found ourselves coming to the end of our year-and-change, round-the-world trip of a lifetime, and we wanted to end it with a bang. And with something that would help us drop a few pounds. When my friend Luke, who was working in Nepal, put out the call for people to join him on a trek in the Himalayas, it seemed just the thing to end our trip on a high note. Literally.

“Plus, I can’t wait to see some yaks,” JL said about 15 times on our flight from Bangkok and our prep days in Kathmandu.

We met our guide, Prem, who promised us we could do our planned route in nine days, ten if we wanted a detour to the Australian Base Camp at the end. But he wanted to take us on a practice hike first. Since we’d ignored his advice about leaving early from Kathmandu (and we all know how that turned out), we decided to take it on this. It was a good thing we did.

So here’s our 11 days’ hiking in Annapurna. No more than 100 words per day, because we’re all busy people.  This may have been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the coolest.

Day 0: Pokhara to Kaskikot (practice hike)

  • Duration: 7.5 hrs
  • Distance: 17 km
  • Elevation gained: 800 m
  • Falls: 2
  • Vomiting: copious
  • Yaks: 0

You couldn’t call our practice hike a “success,” exactly. Within the first hour, one of us was vomiting. The sun scorched the backs of our necks and knees (we forgot sunscreen). We visited Prem’s mother-in-law for lunch.

She quartered an enormous cucumber and served it with a small dish of salt. Then she brought us dal bhat: rice, dal (soupy lentils), curried potato and peas, and a spicy achar (pickles). We walked down through several small towns to the bus stop and took the bus back into Pokhara.

“We might need twelve days after all,” Prem told us.

Looking down at Pokhara from the top of our practice hike. With paraglider.

Looking down at Pokhara from the top of our practice hike. With paraglider.

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The slow road to Pokhara

Kathmandu traffic

Prem, our trekking guide, arranged a car for the four of us to take from Kathmandu to Pokhara for our Annapurna Sanctuary trek. The four of us had debated whether we needed a guide, how we would find a guide, and how we would pick the right guide for our trek. But Prem just fell into our laps, the Nepali brother-in-law of a friend of JL’s from high school.

We talked to him on the phone, and he made everything sound so easy. He’d take care of everything, from guesthouses and food orders to porters and transportation. For novices like us, it was a godsend. (I know, I know, we’re weak for not doing it all ourselves and independently. We were exhausted and totally inexperienced and out of shape and wanted to be taken care of. Leave us alone.)

Our driver had wanted to leave Kathmandu at six to avoid traffic. We’re on the edge of town; it won’t be so bad, we told ourselves. We pushed him back to eight.

He seemed a little disgruntled when he picked us up from our building. He didn’t speak much English, and he mostly ignored Luke’s attempts at conversation. He was even immune to Luke’s Nepali singing. Read more…

A day in Bhaktapur

BhaktapurWe started with a pot of milk tea just off one of the main squares. A light rain was falling, even though it was fairly bright out. At Luke’s suggestion, we took the local bus from Kathmandu out to Bhaktapur, a city about an hour away. Once the capital of the Malla Kingdom in the Kathmandu Valley until the 15th Century, Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The best part about it is that it’s mostly closed to cars. It’s the perfect place to spend the day wandering narrow, twisting streets and alleys and getting completely lost in the maze. That’s just what we did. We walked from square to square, getting lost quite a few times, and watched people gather in the street for a ceremony that involved giving and receiving rice.

One of Luke’s friends came for a day visit a few years ago. They ended up staying three nights. It’s that kind of town. It’s so easy to get lost in and so peaceful compared to Kathmandu. And it’s so interesting. You really feel like you could explore it forever and keep finding hidden temples, new food, and beautiful narrow streets you missed.

Going to Kathmandu

Statue in Durbar Square in Kathmandu.

Statue in Durbar Square in Kathmandu.

We thought we knew chaos. We thought we knew traffic that made you cover your eyes and clench your butt. We’d been to Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Penang, Bali…all places with pretty terrifying traffic by Ohio standards. Or even by DC standards.

But then we took a taxi in Kathmandu. Up and down steep hills, jerking to the right or left as the road curved around tight corners hemmed in by brick walls, stopping short, my hands digging into the back of the seats in front of me as we stare at the lights of a truck or a bus coming straight at us. In the wrong lane. The blare of horns as we weave around pedestrians, cyclists, and motorbikes. The grating of metal on concrete as the bottom of the car scrapes against the side of monster potholes.

Every time we got out of a taxi, we said to each other, “That was the worst one yet.”

We met two friends, Luke and Paula, the day after we flew into Kathmandu. The plan was for the four of us to hang out in the city for a couple days and then hop a bus to Pokhara for a 10-12 day trek through the Annapurna part of the Himalayas (depending on how slow and fat we were).

Kathmandu was amazing and completely, utterly overwhelming. Narrow, twisting streets hemmed in by tall shophouses, mud and traffic and livestock everywhere, temples and statues and the smell of curry around every corner. It’s such a cool place. It felt like the most “exotic” place we’d been this year.

By the way, that Bob Seger song really sucks.

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