Monday, December 02, 2013

The Mystery of Angkor Wat

Greetings All,
After our successful completion of the Dhaulagiri Circuit we could relax and spend a pleasant morning in the village of Marpha.  We visited the monastery where a memorial ceremony was going on and were invited to sit on golden mats in the back of the monastery to watch the proceedings.  Five monks were seated on each side of the room and the head lama was seated on a throne in the front right corner.  We watched in quiet respect as the monks chanted, played horns, clashed cymbals and beat drums.

Marpha Monastery
As we were leaving the monastery I had one last chance to spin the many prayer wheels asking for good health for my family and friends.

Peggy Spinning Prayer Wheels
All too soon it was time to leave Nepal but not before thanking our great trek crew for all their help during our trek.  They carried our heavy loads, set up our tents, prepared and served our meals, brought us coffee in the morning and were on the trail offering a reassuring hand on the tricky sections.  Dhanybhad (thank you) to our wonderful Nepali crew for a job well done!

Our Nepali Trek Crew

The last stop on our trip was Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the ancient temple complex of Angkor.  There are many temples built on the site from the 9th to 15th century by the Khmer Kings.  We started our tour with a visit to Angkor Thom, the last capital city of the Khmer empire, established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII.  At the center of the city is the great Bayon Temple.

Bayon Temple
Along the walls of the temple were many carvings depicting scenes from everyday life during that time.

Bas-relief Depicting Preparing and Serving Food

The next day we visited the Preah Khan Temple.  It was also built in the 12 century for King Jayavarman VII.  Hidden deep within the collapsing walls of Preah Kham was a tiny shrine dedicated to Jayadevi, one of Jayavarman VII's two sister-wives.

Jayadevi, one of Jayavarman VII's Sister-wives

One of the most curious carvings was that of a dinosaur in the Ta Prohm Temple.  Were dinosaurs even known in the 12th century??  Is this proof that dinosaurs and humans once coexisted??

Ta Prohm Temple Dinosaur
However most of the tourists were not interested in the dinosaur.  They had flocked to a doorway where the tree roots from the surrounding jungle had almost engulfed it.  It was here that Angelina Jolie had posed in a scene from the movie "Tomb Raider".  I jumped ahead of a large group of Chinese tourists queuing up to take their picture here and snapped a quick photo.

The Movie "Tomb Raider" was Filmed Here
We ventured outside of Angkor to visit one of the more quiet temples, Banteay Srei, a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.  Banteay Srei is built largely of red sandstone and is known for its delicate, intricate carvings.

Banteay Srei Temple

Close-up of One of the Carvings
That evening we climbed to Phnom Bakheng Temple to watch the sunset along with hundreds of other tourists.  They did not seem to care that they were sitting on and possibly damaging a 9th century temple.  We did not stay for the sunset.   
Tourists Watching Sunset from Phnom Bakheng Temple
We saved the best for last, a visit to Angkor Wat.  We asked our guide "how can we see the temple without the hordes of tourists?"  "There are only two ways" he replied, "one is in a hot air balloon, the other is in a helicopter".  The hot air balloon was out of commission so we chose the helicopter flight.  We needed a minimum of three so purchased a seat for our guide Smey.
Getting Ready for our Helicopter Flight
From the air you get a sense of how big Angkor Wat is.  The temple is surrounded by an outer wall with an apron of open ground.  The jungle is beyond and a 625-foot wide moat encompasses the entire complex.   
Ariel View of Angkor Wat
We couldn't fly directly over Angkor Wat so we did brave the crowds and visited the temple complex from the ground.  We managed to avoid the worst of the throngs but couldn't escape them when climbing the steep stairs to the central tower.
Monks Climbing to the Central Tower
Our last stop on our Cambodia tour was a visit to Kampong Plok, a fishing village on the shore of a freshwater lake, Tonle Sap.  During the rainy season, the lake fills with water and the village is over the water.  People get around in boats and go about their daily lives as if they were living on dry land.
Fishing Village of Kampong Plok
That evening we enjoyed our last dinner in Cambodia at one of the local restaurants.
Dinner at Champey's Restaurant
We're now back home unpacking and doing laundry (fun, fun!). Until our next adventure, stay happy and healthy.  See you later alligator (or crocodile).
Crocodile Leather Shop in Siem Reap
Hope to see you soon,
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Finding Hidden Valley

Greetings All,
Our prayers were answered when we awoke to clear skies the next morning.  French Pass here we come!  Our route climbed 2000 feet along the edge of a gradual ridge with spectacular views of the north face of Dhaulagiri towering 11,000 feet above us as we looked back.

Marc Climbing the Ridge to the French Pass, Dhaulagiri I is Behind

Looking ahead we could just make out the V-shaped depression of the French Pass on the skyline.

Approaching the French Pass

The ridge ended in a shallow bowl below the summit.  Another 400-foot climb to the top of the pass lay before us.  We put on our crampons and took out our ice axes for the final push to the pass.  Looking back we could see the rest of our group making their way up.  The massive bulk of Dhaulagiri I (right) and Tukuche (left) towered behind them.  

The rest of our group on their way up to the French Pass

We reached the top of the French Pass at 17,585 feet!  The icy wind could not cool our elation at meeting this objective which took us 4 years to complete. 

Us on the French Pass

We headed down the other side into Hidden Valley, a broad mountain enclave that remained undiscovered behind the Dhaulagiri Massif until the last few decades.  The snow conditions were optimal and with our crampons the decent was enjoyable.

Descending into Hidden Valley

We spent a frigid night in Hidden Valley.  When we awoke the next morning the thermometer inside our tent read 10 degrees F!  Frost had formed on the interior walls of our tent.

Us inside our Frosty Tent in Hidden Valley

We still had one more pass to tackle before reaching the end of the trek in the Kali Gandaki Valley.  Since we had camped so high we only had to climb 600 feet to the top  Dhampus Pass at 17,225 feet.  Our route took us up a gradual snow field to the summit of our 13th and final pass of our trip!

Us on Dhampus Pass

Yippee!!  Now all we have to do is to descend 4500 feet to our camp at Yak Kharka.  We had to cross a series of bowls before making the final descent.  We finally reached the place I had been dreading, the point at which we were forced to turn around 4 years ago when we attempted to do the Dhaulagiri Circuit in reverse.  It looked as daunting going up as it did going down on our first attempt.  A narrow path led up a steep slope when one slip could mean a long 2000-foot fall.  This time we had crampons to secure our footing and going up was much easier than going down. When I reached the top, I let out a huge sigh of relief, "I'm glad that's over!"  Kancha told us that this section of trail is known as Badasi Dari.  Marc replied "more like Bad Ass Pass!"

Us on Badasi Dari

We soon dropped below snowline and the Annapurna and Nilgiri Ranges finally came into view.

Descending to Yak Kharka, w/the Annapurna & Nilgiri Ranges

The next day we had to descend another 4700 feet to reach trek's end at the village of Marpha.  My knees and toes were happy to see the village below.

The village of Marpha

As we entered the main street, the same sign was there to greet us.  This time we had made it to Dhaulagiri Basecamp and beyond.  The circuit was now complete!

Us at Trek's End in Marpha

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dhaulagiri Here We Come!

Greetings All,
The first four days of our trek we meandered through small villages with terraced millet fields and farmland.  We stayed at a relatively low elevation, between 5000 and 7000 feet.  There were lots of ups and downs as we had to descend to a river crossing then climb back up another ridge.  We stopped at the village of Dharapani for lunch.  People living here were preparing for the long winter.  Straw and fodder for livestock had been gathered and stored on the roofs of their stone houses.

Typical house in the Village of Dharapani

Women were in the fields harvesting millet by hand.  They would cut the seed cluster from the stem of the plant with a sickle and toss it into a basket carried on their heads.

Nepali Woman Harvesting Millet

The next day we had our first views of the Dhaulagiri Range looming at the head of the valley.

Dhaulagiri Range from the Village of Muri

We stopped for lunch at the village of Muri.  Music was blaring from the ridge above.  We were told that a festival was going on.  We climbed up after lunch to check it out.  The festival was a cross between a fair and a casino.  The women were cooking, the men were gambling and the kids were getting a ride on a wooden Ferris wheel!

Wooden Ferris Wheel in the Village of Muri

Some of the villages had set up tiny shops for trekkers where you could stop for a refreshing coke or a bottle of beer.  A friendly sign reminded us that you had to be a patron to sit in the chairs and tables provided.

Coke Stop in the Village of Bagar

We left the villages and farmland behind and entered pine and bamboo forest.  We arrived at the campsite of Sallaghari to find that a massive avalanche had taken place during the monsoon earlier this year.  It obliterated the forest leaving behind an immense pile of rubble and dead tree stumps.  It stopped just short of Sallaghari.  We carefully picked our way through, mindful not to dislodge rocks onto the trekkers below.

Making our way through the Avalanche Debris

That afternoon we arrived at the Italian Basecamp at 12,000 feet.  Two other large trekking groups, one from France and one from Russia were already camped there.  Once a remote trek, off the beaten path, the word must be out the Dhaulagiri Circuit is a great trek.  The camp had been transformed into a tent city!

Tent City at Italian Basecamp
We spent two nights here acclimatizing and resting for our push further up the valley.  We were now
approaching the crux of our trek.  Leaving Italian Basecamp we had to descend an icy, narrow path to a glacier below.  Fortunately, Kancha, one of our Sherpas was there to offer me a hand across one of the trickier sections.  A rope had been fixed to aid our descent down a steep gully and onto the glacier.

Marc Descending the Gully

We crossed the glacier and climbed a series of zigzags up the ridge on the other side.  A narrow path led us around a cliff face where one misstep could spell disaster.  I didn't stop to take a photo.  We descended the other side to the Swiss Basecamp which was deserted.  The following photo taken the day before during a reconnaissance trip shows our route.

Our Route Shown in Red

From the Swiss Basecamp we descended onto the glacier and the going became much easier.  We were now on our way to the Japanese Basecamp.  When we arrived, our tents along with the Russians had been set up.  It was a cramped camp and we had to sleep on snow.  At least our tent was further away from the Russian mess tent.  They had a habit of drinking and singing after dinner.

Japanese Basecamp (our tent is the lower right one)

The following day we continued up the Chhobardan Glacier with spectacular views of the Dhaulagiri Massif looming above. 

Our group on the Chhobardan Glacier 

We were on our way to Dhaulagiri Basecamp where climbing expeditions launch their attempt to climb Dhaulagiri I in the spring.  At 26,796 feet, it is the 7th highest mountain in the world.  We arrived at Basecamp with impressive views of Dhaulagiri I and the West Icefall.  Somehow climbers make their way up this treacherous jumble of ice to reach the summit of Dhaulagiri.

West Icefall on Dhaulagiri I

We spent another day at Basecamp to rest and acclimatize.  The Sherpas and porters preformed a puja ceremony to pray for good weather and to bless us and our equipment.

Galden Preforming a Puja Ceremony at Basecamp

We hope our prayers will be answered and that the clear weather would hold for our attempt to cross  the French Pass tomorrow!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Farewell Bhutan, Namaste Nepal

Greetings All,
After completing The Snowman Trek we visited the Phobjikha Valley, home of the Black-necked Cranes.  Every November cranes migrate from Tibet to spend the winter here.  The last crane species to be discovered due to the remoteness of their range, Black-necked Crane numbers are declining and the species is considered to be vulnerable.  We spotted 4 in the valley but they were too far away to get a good photo.

The next day we had a long drive to Paro, making a few stops along the way.  The first stop was at Punakha Dzong, the most majestic structure in Bhutan.  Built in the 17th century by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the Tibetan Buddhist lama responsible for unifying Bhutan, the Punakha Dzong is strategically located at the confluence of the Pho (father) Chu and Mo (mother) Chu Rivers.

Punakha Dzong

It was here that Shabdrung successfully held off invaders from Tibet who sought to retrieve a sacred relic that Shabdrung had stolen from Tibet.  Shabdrung had constructed two entrances to the Dzong and his army kept going around through them convincing the Tibetan army that they were out-numbered.  He also threw oranges in the river which the Tibetans thought were precious relics.   For these two reasons, the Tibetans retreated never to invade Bhutan again.

Our second stop was at the capital city of Thimpu.  Above the city is a reserve for the Takin, Bhutan's national animal.  The takin is a curious beast, a cross between a wildebeest, cow and goat.  A stocky body is supported on short legs with large two-toed hooves.  A large head with a distinctive long arched nose is crowned with stout horns that are ridged at the base.  Some of the takin were grazing on their knees, very similar to the way warthogs feed.


The Bhutanese believe that the Takin was created by Lama Drukpa Kuenlay also known as the 'Mad Monk".  One day his followers asked that he preform a miracle.  Before he compiled he demanded that they bring him a whole cow and goat to eat.  After devouring both leaving only the bones, he stuck the head of the goat on the bones of the cow.  The "Mad Monk" uttered a command and the beast came to life and began grazing in the nearby meadow.  The animal became known as the Takin and can still be seen today grazing in high mountain meadows.

The next day we left Bhutan and and as a parting gift Marc learned in the Paro Airport that the Red Sox had won the World Series!

The Red Sox win the World Series!

We flew along the spine of the Himalayas to Kathmandu, Nepal.  Everest, the highest mountain in the world, was clearly visible with a cloud plume outside the plane window.

Everest (back & center) from our plane window

Aahh, to be back in Kathmandu!  Somehow the chaos of the city only adds to it's unique character.

Kathmandu, Nepal

We spent 3 days here doing laundry, cleaning equipment and preparing for our next trek.  We flew to Pokhara on November 3 and spent a relaxing 3 days at Tiger Mountain Lodge.  We spent the mornings bird watching around the lodge.  Our favorite birds were the Blue-throated Barbet and the Black-lored Tit.

Blue-throated Barbet
Black-lored Tit

We met our next trek group at the Pokhara Airport on November 7.  We were another multinational group consisting of 7 men and a woman from the UK, 3 Americans (us and a man from CA), a woman from Switzerland and a man from France.   The trek started with a crammed, bumpy bus ride to the village of Darbang.

We camped in the school yard where the Nepali army was training civilians riot control tactics in preparation for the upcoming national election on November 19.

Riot Control Training outside our Tent

The following day we would begin our second trek, a challenging 13-day circuit of Dhaulagiri, the 7th tallest mountain in the World via the French Pass and Hidden Valley.  Here is a map showing our trek route.

Trek Route in Red

I hope the knees and bruised toes hold out!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc