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Into the Mountains of Yunnan: Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Baishuitai Water Terraces

Does anyone else have an image of the Yangtze River in their minds from oh, I don’t know, learning about it circa 4th grade?  Well, in my mind, it’s up there with the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile.  The little geologist in me was jumping in her britches when we first crossed over this mighty river on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, or in Chinese, Hutiaoxia.  The YANGTZE!  We’re driving adjacent to the YANGTZE!  Am I the only one here because I’m fairly certain my husband didn’t share in my giddiness either?

As you approach Qiaotou (the gateway town into Tiger Leaping Gorge) from the south, you have the Yangtze on your right and a series of 16-18,000 foot snow-capped peaks looming in the distance.  And this is just a small taste of what’s to come.

This was the portion of our journey that strangely, I was able to get the least information about despite its international acclaim.  I needed to know whether or not we would be able to physically take a car through Tiger Leaping Gorge and north toward Shangri-la and could only seem to get answers on how one would go about hiking that distance.  So we winged/wung it.  On our way, we called a guest house at the other side of the gorge (upper TLG) to see if they could fetch us from Qiaotou and sure enough, YES! we could drive our lazy little asses through the gorge without ever having to step foot outside.  With regret I say this because had our circumstances been different, we would have totally done the two day trek on our feet and not by car.  Did I mention that I’m pregnant (it’s not really public knowledge yet but I felt the need to explain our inactivity)?  At a mere 16 weeks, there was only a certain amount of body pushing I was willing to endure – as visions/visceral feelings about our Annapurna trek in Nepal surfaced, there was no way I was about to take on carrying a kid through this vast landscape.  And so, with excitement, we drove through the gorge.  And MY LORDY was it ever a gorge.  One of the deepest in the world, Hutiaoxia, at its greatest depth, spans an elevation of 12,434 feet.  And we drove right through it.  Sheer rock walls on either side of us, there were points in the drive (driving into the gorge from Qiaotou, you’re cliffside) that my stomach dropped into my toes, or maybe my head, I can’t be sure.  The larger Little Explorer, whom is nothing but a brave trooper usually, even announced that she’d “rather be walking over the mountain than driving on a cliff next to the mountain”.  But it was spectacular.  SPECTACULAR.  Again, we didn’t have grand expectations and knowing it was such a well traveled area, we/I had poo-pooed it as tourist hype.  Come on though, 12 thousand foot sheer cliff walls, how could that be anything less than spectacular?

Though that 30 minute drive was by all means fantastic, we were all happy to arrive safely at Sean’s Guest House, our home for the night.  The kids have taken to calling hotels, Hotel-Home – perhaps a result of the myriad they have stayed at to date.  We settled into our family room, thrilled to find out it even had a sweet built in stone bathtub, which meant clean kids and happy parents.  Though our stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge was the most expensive of our trip, the view from the patio more than justified it.

We dined leisurely on the deck that evening and made preparations for our next day’s journey.  We’d drive from our guest house, out of the gorge and into the mountains to the Baishuitai Water Terraces in Shangri-la county.

Again, we were totally unprepared for the incredible landscapes we’d come across on that drive.  Surrounded by 14-18,000 foot peaks, we were driving through the mountains.  There they were, just a stone’s throw away (okay, maybe a little further).  It was a 2.5 hour drive each way and I spent every moment I wasn’t  distracted by the kids, awe-inspired and gazing out the window.

The first dramatic scene unfolded as we crested a mountain pass and began descending into Haba Village.  Flanked on one side by Haba Snow Mountain, a near 18,000 foot peak, the valley that prevails down its foothills is astounding.  It looks like a lava flow made out of lush, green farmland.

The entire time, including that of our drive through the gorge, I kept envisioning what those rocky mountains would look like in the rainy season.  You could see where the water naturally flowed and all I could imagine was a mountainscape full of waterfalls and rushing rivers.  I, however, am not sure that I’d want to navigate those back country roads while all that water was flowing, so my daydreams put us hulled up in a little cabin for the season, watching the scene unfold from the safe confines of our abode.

Upon arrival to Bashuitai, we were all hungry little beasts and were ushered to a small restaurant by our driver and brought into the kitchen where there was a wall of prepped veggies.  We proceeded to point and explain in our primitive Mandarin what we wanted, quite uncertain about the dishes we’d actually receive.  Much to our delight (and despite the most grease-caked kitchen we’ve ever laid our eyes on), it was nearly the best meal of our entire trip.  Our host cooked everything to perfection and even had our picky little eaters chowing down on her tofu and cauliflower dishes.

We haven’t come across many Americans in our Asia travels, but for some reason, we came across quite a few during our time in TLG.  The first was while eating out of that greasy kitchen shown above – he was from Vermont and on holiday after a trade show in Hong Kong, whom we chatted with about Vermont’s heroine crisis and the future of our planet.   Another at our guest house – a Duke business school professor and his student, touring around after a university trip to Shanghai and Beijing, with whom we had great conversations regarding energy and the environment.  And also a couple from Washington DC, visiting their daughter who was studying Chinese in Kunming and whom provided equally stimulating conversation.  Though we surely don’t relate to all Americans, there is something nice about running into someone who relates on a deeper cultural level while in a totally foreign land.

Back to Bashuitai.  From the road, it’s only a 20 or so minute stroll up to the water terraces, but because we were unsure how long and how steep the path would actually be, we rented a horse from a sweet, horse toting hawker, to schlep the kiddos up the hill.  Who am I kidding – we rented a horse because our Little Explorers BEG to ride them at every chance they get.  And because I’m pregnant and lazy and the reality of carrying one of the them up the hill was clearly too much for me to handle.  BIG problems people, big problems.

As it turned out, the little bugger couldn’t even get them all the way up to the terraces and the path was so uneven that the woman guiding the horse was a nervous wreck the entire time and both the Mister and myself spotted the wiggling kiddies as they were shuffled up the path.  Basically, carrying them up the hill if needed, may have been the easier of the two options.

As we neared the terraces, a fresh stream of water flowed down the hill and with the sun blazing, it was all I could do not to strip down and submerge myself then and there.  Clean, fresh mountain water – how divine!  We compromised with a head splashing and moved on toward the main attraction.  The bottom side of the terraces are a series of rolling limestone pillows that glisten with the trickle of water flowing over.  It reminded me of a chocolate fountain – you know the kind you find in overpriced hotel buffet brunches, meant for strawberry and marshmallow dipping?  Or at fancy weddings.

We hadn’t taken into account the fact that we were arriving at the terraces on the backside of the dry season, so the water was probably quite a bit more stagnant than normal, which did and did not effect our experience.  The first set of water terraces was exactly what I imagined them to be – a totally unnatural creamy aquamarine color that screamed to be jumped in (which is very much not allowed).  I should explain.  The water terraces are natural limestone rock formations that have an eons worth (200-300 thousand years!) of calcium carbonate from the surrounding mountain spring water built up within them, giving them the unnatural, but totally natural pigment.

As we walked beyond the first set, the rest of the tableland, as it is also known, was a bit of a let down.  I’m assuming that it’s due to the season we were seeing them in, but the primary part of the terraces (the area photographed time and time again) was a series of algae infused pond water.  It was green.  And mossy looking.  Not the white pools with pristine aquamarine water we’d expected.  Algal blooms are generally a result of nutrient loading (mostly human introduced) and I’m really hoping that these pools weren’t just polluted but that because of reduced water flow, they naturally lacked both the refresh and calcium carbonate that the spring waters normally provide.  The rock formations were none the less a pretty marvelous geologic phenomenon to witness (the terraces at Bashuitai are among the largest crop in all of China).

Despite this minor let down, the kids then proceeded to catch and release tadpoles with our driver for the next hour – which honestly capped the excursion off just perfectly.

Because we had opted to spend almost an entire day adventuring to Bashuitai, we decided to stay another night in the gorge, so that we could head out on foot and REALLY see the gorge the next day.  What we were told would be a 3 hour hike turned into an almost 6 hour grueling trek that nearly made us miss our bus back to Lijiang the next afternoon.

The descent into the gorge, which we figured was about a 2500 foot drop, was peaceful and lovely.  The Little Explorers hoofed it most of the way, the sun was at a comfortable level of saturation in the sky, and we were experiencing the mightiness of the river flowing through the gorge for the first time.

However, this was all tempered with the small piece of knowledge that we’d then have to climb back out all 2500 feet, when the sun wouldn’t be at such a hiker-friendly place in the sky.  Deep breath.

The views/river/gorge was fantastic though.

After rewarding ourselves with popsicles and arming ourselves with multiple frozen snickers bars and what turned out to be not enough water, we began our ascent.  Foolishly, we opted to take the more steep route up, hoping that at least it’d shave some time/distance off our journey.  BAD choice.  At this point, it’s HOT, like hot HOT and there is little to no shade on the trail.  Up, up, and up we climb, with no end in sight.  The Mister begins carrying one kid at a time, while the other kid holds my hand and somehow shuffles their little weary feet up that monstrous mountain.  Remember, I’m carrying an apple inside my womb and have been rendered pretty useless – seriously, there was a point that even I wanted to cry – it was that bad.  As we carry on, neither of the Little Explorers has any oomph left in their step and our arsenal of Snickers is empty, which means only one thing: that the Mister will have to carry not one child, but two children up the mountain (one in the ergo on his back, one in his arms).  Someone really needs to give him a Father of the Year award for this one.  It seriously must have sucked for him.  By the time we reached the top, the smallest explorer was shoeless because it was so hot that his feet had overheated and were it not for the random broken sprinkler spraying dirt upon our arrival, we may have all keeled over.

But there was s broken sprinkler and there was a stream of water flowing next to the road we had reached and there was a ride back to our guest house.  And two large bottles of water once we returned.  And no missed bus.  We made it!  It was grueling, but spectacular.

Thoroughly exhausted but entirely fulfilled, we boarded our bus back to where our journey began – Shuhe Ancient Town in Lijiang – where we would find China’s greatest boutique hotel, eat bomb grilled tofu, and let teensy tiny fish nibble on our feet (yes, all 8 of them).

 

 

 

The Splendors of Yunnan: on the road from Lijiang to Shaxi

I’ve wanted to go to Yunnan Province since I was in college after a botched attempt to join a wildlands studies program focused on the relationship between the minority peoples and the environment in the region.  Images of remote ancient villages, vast mountain ranges, and the indigenous cultures of Yunnan imprinted themselves in my mind and have kept my interest after all these years.  Needless to say, I had high expectations for this area of China.

Located in Southwestern China, just north of Myanmar, Yunnan lived up to my expectations one hundred percent.  With less than a week to explore, we surely weren’t able to canvas the entire province, so I can really only speak to the northern part.  You’d need at least two weeks to explore both north and south of the capital, Kunming.

Our journey began in Lijiang, which as it turns out, is extremely popular with domestic tourists.  Lijiang is split up into three parts – Lijiang City, Old Town, and Ancient Town.  Just like much of Chinese antiquity, both Old Town and Ancient Town’s have been entirely reconstructed partially due to the destruction of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, where most of China’s historical relics and cultural and religious sites were destroyed.  Though they’re tasteful in that the ancient style is maintained throughout, it’s no doubt a glorified, glamorized version of its former self.  Because of this, we realized prior to arrival that Old Town could be left off the itinerary completely and that while in Lijiang, we’d focus our sights on Lijiang Ancient Town.  Despite its commercial appeal and club-hopping nightlife, our experience of Lijiang [Shuhe] Ancient Town was a net positive.  Yes, the eateries are far too expensive and yes, the shops are full of commercially produced goods with non-negotiable pricetags, but there is still much charm to be found and cheap, delicious grilled tofu to be devoured.

Our first night in town was spent at The Bruce Chalet, outside of Shuhe proper and adjacent to the surrounding farmland.  I don’t have glowing reviews about the room we stayed in, other than the fact that they upgraded us to a larger room for free, but the courtyard within the guest house grounds was beautiful, serene, and just lovely, and the all-you-could-eat freshly prepared breakfast was delightful.  Bruce is from Hong Kong and speaks impeccable English, which is always nice when you’re in a new area and need the skinny on the lay of the land.  Also nice when you show up in town, driven by a female taxi driver who refuses to take your coin money upon exit, holding your bags captive in her trunk while you try and figure out why she’s so bent out of shape and need someone to translate the altercation for you.  A word of caution with Lijiang taxis: don’t use them if you don’t absolutely have to.  They remain largely unregulated and totally unmetered because of local laws and as such, have pretty much all of the power.  A better alternative are blue vans that you can pick up just as you can taxis and can also be arranged through your guest house.

After meandering through Shuhe for the afternoon, with both a cultural performance and horse ride under our belts, we happened upon our best Lijiang discovery: the creek that runs through the west side of the village.  Though we later found out that upstream, in Baisha, the waterways are largely used as garbage dumps, our first glimpse of the creek running through Shuhe was clean and pristine – so clearly, we let our kids waste the evening away frolicking amongst its seemingly clean waters, racing leaves and throwing rocks.

It doesn’t take more than five minutes of their pure joy being in nature to reaffirm for me that this is where children belong – in streams and near trees – not on pavement and plastic playgrounds.  Both of our Little Explorers could happily entertain themselves outside, playing in dirt and sand, for hours.  HOURS.  I’m sure this isn’t true of every child, nor would I ever claim that a city-kid is any less well-balanced because of reduced exposure to nature, I purely speak from personal opinion regarding my own children.

The creek is lined on one side with eateries, where a bottled local beer will put you back almost $10, but that are filled with couch like seating where you can melt the day away lounging creekside in the trees.  We justified our $9 side of french fries on the location/comfort and felt it was well spent.

Mid-way through the village, there is a street lined with restaurants and full of fruit vendors.  Most of the restaurants appeared to turn into clubs by night and were also quite pricey, so we opted for a smaller restaurant a bit off the main drag and a bag of delicious locally grown fruit.

The next morning we arranged a blue van from The Bruce Chalet to drive us to Shaxi – an intact ancient village about halfway between Lijiang and Dali.  In my search for more authentic ancient architecture/culture, Shaxi was one the few accessible villages and well worth the detour south.  And it also happened to be very near a national park preserve that in my opinion, is a must for any traveler headed to northern Yunnan, Shibaoshan.  Dali is up there with Lijiang on the tourist trail and crossed off our list because we were less interested in commercially reconstructed culture and wanted as much as possible, with limited time and two kids in tow, as much access to ancient China as we could get our feet on.  Just like the taxi’s in Lijiang, the blue vans are unreasonably expensive – we paid moret to be driven the two hours from Lijiang to Shaxi as we paid the following day for a driver to tour us around for nearly 8 hours, covering far more distance.  And for this reason, staying off the tourist track generally leads to a more authentic, albeit more economical journey.

As we rounded corners on back country roads, with trees giving way to magical little villages nestled in the hillside, we knew Shaxi was a good choice.  Our night spent in Shaxi was at Dali Shaxi Cato’s Inn, presumably including Dali because Shaxi has for the most part been off the tourists beaten path until quite recently.  A major highway was completed last year that has made villages in between Lijiang and Dali much more accessible.  Cato himself met us at the bus terminus in town and transported our bags via his rigged up bike trailer through Shaxi new town and into the cobblestone streets of Shaxi ancient town, where his inn was located.  Sure enough, upon our first glimpse, we were happy with our decision to visit Shaxi.  It was sleepy, it felt authentic, the people were friendly, and the surrounding landscape was just what we imagine Yunnan to be – green, mountainous, and fertile.

We spent our afternoon perusing the local Friday market in the new-ish area of town – which was actually the reason we traveled to Shaxi when we did.  The Friday market finds local villagers (Yi and Bai ethnic minorities) from all over the valley bartering and buying their weekly goods.  We even scored a few cheap Chinese DVD cartoons for the kids – something I’ve been looking for for quite some time.  As we sat eating lunch that afternoon, it was so fun to watch the procession of Bai women carrying their acquisitions in traditional woven baskets on their backs, back across the river to their villages.

Shaxi’s southeastern border (don’t quote me on that) is a meandering river that I’m sure in the rainy season is much more picturesque than the dry version we witnessed.  Nonetheless, it makes for a scenic evening stroll down its bank, with the sun gleaming out from behind the clouds floating above the lush mountains in the distance.  Even at the end of the dry season, this valley still feels lush and vibrant.

For dinner that evening, we quite randomly decided to walk into a fairly indescript restaurant in the alleyway headed towards the west gate in ancient town, called Hungry Buddha.  As it turned out, we stepped off an ancient Chinese street and straight into Italy.  The Italian owner, Mauro, has lived in Shaxi for a number of years – transplanted via Shanghai, where he worked as an Italian chef.  With a simple menu, he has created a boutique restaurant that lives up to every adage of Italian cooking, in precisely the location you’d least expect to find it – making it all the more charming.  As well crafted as the food, was the design of the not much more than 300 square foot restaurant.  I could have stepped back out onto the streets of Florence and assumed I was just dreaming it all into being.  And the best part?  He sources most of his ingredients locally, makes everything from scratch (cheese and all)  AND only cooks vegetarian fare.  All of which are hard to find, from my experience, in China.  Often, international restaurants boast their “imported” products because it gives them some aire of prestige.  But here it was, the most authentic international cuisine we’ve come across, made out of ingredients sourced within the immediate area.  Without a doubt, the pizza we ate there will hold up as the best pizza we’ll ever have in China (and in a long list of other countries as well).

Cato and his wife, Helen, both speak very good English and turned out to have some of the best customer service we’ve experienced in this vast country.  Though their inn is probably two to three times more expensive than a standard budget guest house in the area, both the location and the quality make it worth the price.  Because it’s the end of their dry season, many of the guest houses in the ancient village don’t get water during the day because the pumping systems aren’t powerful enough to get the limited (but seemingly abundant – based on the constant stream of water flowing through town) supply to where it needs to go.  As such, we didn’t end up having water for our entire stay (though Cato did fetch us a water basin so we could at least flush our toilet).  Instead of making us bear the brunt of that burden, they comped our breakfast the next morning – which is served out of their restaurant, Fusion Kitchen, and complete with freshly made yoghurt and homemade bread – and also comped our room upgrade.  So what we left dusty and grimy – we saved $50.

After arranging a car and helping us cart our luggage to the main road, Cato sent us off to explore Shibaoshan and then onward to Hutiaoxia, Tiger Leaping Gorge.  Shibaoshan was just icing on the cake during our visit to Shaxi, as our detour south had already proven totally worthwhile.  We were prepared for green, alpine mountains and a spattering of temples, but were utterly caught off guard by their majesty.  Shibaoshan, Stone Treasure Mountain, was one of the first nature reserves to be protected in China 31 years ago and has remained largely untouched and unspoiled for this reason.  Because of inaccessible roads and its remote location, Shibaoshan survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and  has also remained off the tourist circuit until just last year when the Dali-Lijiang interstate was completed – even so, we didn’t witness one large coach carting matching tourists or anything that resembled mass tourism for that matter.

Our first stop was Baoxiang Temple (pictured above) and having no expectations, we set off into the forest and up the couple-hundred-or-so steps to reach it.  Might I add that both of the Little Explorers made it 95% of the way without needing to be carried – this kind of endurance is totally appreciated and completely novel to us still.  And then we discovered Atlantis.  Set into the face of the mountain, Baoxiang Temple was constructed during the Yuan Dynasty around 1291 A.D. and is stunning.  As you cross through the first part of the temple, you enter into a courtyard where you get the first glimpse of the the portion built into the cliffside, complete with a waterfall cascading down its periphery.  All of it entirely unexpected.  More charming still were the sacred monkeys that roamed its interiors, acting as its protectors (and protect they did, on more than one occasion, a Little Explorer felt threatened by an aggressive simian).  And to top it off, and this probably contributed greatly to our experience, was the fact that other than the monkeys and a few male caretakers, we had it all to ourselves.   To speak of the caretakers, we found it interesting that they seemed more like security guards/cultural protectors than Buddhist monks.

The next and final stop was Shizhong Temple and its surrounding grottoes.  After our stair climb, the Little Explorers had it in them to trek the mile or so through the forest out to the temple but required a fair amount of coaxing/carrying on the ascent back out.  Shizhong Temple is best known for its ancient rock carvings, which are some of the oldest in China and also some of the most intricate.  Dating back to _____, these rock carvings speak to the spread of Buddhism from Tibet and also reflect the matriarchal traditions of the Bai people.  Photography is strictly forbidden for fear of compromising the carvings, and being the respectful tourist that I am, I have no proof of these ancient carvings unfortunately – but I do have evidence of the alpine forest we hiked through below – which almost made me feel like I was hiking through the Sierra Nevadas in California.  Again, we were some of the only tourists adventuring through the area which created another fanciful, magical journey into ancient China.

And then it was naptime.  So we took to the road and let the Little Explorers dream about other adventures as we made our way into the mighty Himalayas.

Trekking the Annapurna Himalayas … With Toddlers in Tow

I really ought to have written this post when the feelings were still fresh and my muscles were still feeling the near-agonizing burn left after our grueling trek.  I’ll start off by saying that 2 of those 5 days were quite possibly the most physically challenging of my life (documented below – my crouched body position is out of sheer necessity).  But would I do it again?  In a heartbeat.

As with most Annapurnian trekkers, we began our journey in the city of Pohkara.  The third largest city in Nepal, Pohkara ranks just behind Kathmandu in annual visitors.  Three of the ten tallest mountains in the world – Dhaulagiri,  Annapurna I, and Manaslu (locally known as Fish Tail) – are within 30 miles of the city, so you can imagine the lure of this lakeside enclave.  Most hotels and hostels boast at least partial views of the mountains.  This was the view from ours.

After our 8+ hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park, we decided to take the more efficient route and book a private coach to transit from Chitwan up to Pohkara.  In the end, we paid only dollars more for a far more enjoyable ride.  After our experience arriving into Sauraha (just outside of Chitwan) having not booked a hotel, I decided that again, I’d make our travels a tad bit more efficient and pre-book rooms through Agoda.  How grown up of me, huh?  The issue with this organized, adult-like method is that you don’t know what a place is going to look like or how it’s going to feel until you’re there – which is the precise reason we often choose to fly by the seats our pants.  Based on good reviews and limited time, I chose Hotel Trekkers Inn.  It was fine, I have no real complaints, but I wouldn’t recommend it over the dozens of other good-looking hotels in the area.

The day before our trek was the big Little Explorers 5th birthday.  And it was a big day indeed.  She started her day with an Elephant Safari in Chitwan National Park and ended it being serenaded by a traditional Nepali band, shown above.

Because we had chosen a trek that was VERY much on-the-beaten-path, we decided (after dozens of hours of research and contemplation) to not go with a larger trekking agency and to do-it-ourselves (a decision that I would later regret, if even for just a moment).  Lucky for us, we befriended a guide prior to arriving to Pohkara who we decided to take a chance on.  Having read stories about tourists being scammed and about the fact that it was illegal to take a non-government registered guide into the Annapurna’s, we were just a tad apprehensive even though he assured us all would be fine.

I’ll get the negatives of our DIY trekking experience out of the way because honestly, those are not the memories I’m left with (but may be useful to someone reading this someday.  Hopefully.  Just maybe.)

1) It didn’t end up being any more cost effective, in fact, I think we paid a premium for food and lodging.

2) We didn’t end up doing the trek we thought we were going to do because of miscommunication – we intended to do the VERY commonly done Poon Hill loop trek but ended up retracing our ascent because our guide didn’t realize that I meant the loop when I said “Poon Hill trek”.  Once he filled out our paperwork for our permits, we weren’t able to alter our course and the miscommunication wasn’t realized until the deal had been sealed.

3) We BARELY were even let into the conservation area (for the exact reason stated above).  They made an exception for us and didn’t even make us pay fines.  Our guide hadn’t trekked in the area for a number of years, as it turned out, so he wasn’t familiar with new laws.  Had we fully understood this (we did, our guide did not – we went with his apparent expertise), we would have just sent our porters ahead and said that we were doing a self-guided trek, which would have been perfectly legit.

4) We were slower than we could have been had we had professional porters.  Ours were all from Kathmandu and for most, it was their first trek ever.  Despite the fact that they weren’t in-shape, trained porters, they did do a great job.  They were all buddies and seemed almost as happy as we were to be out in the mountains.

Okay, enough of the glass half full stuff.  In the end, it worked out perfectly and we had a magical experience.

Now, I’ll paint a glorious picture full of terraced hillsides, remote villages, waterfalls, masala tea, rhodendendron forests, and mountains – lots and lots of mountains.  In total, we trekked for 5 glorious days.

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedunga

We began our trek walking through the village of Nayapul.  Nayapul is the commercial hub of the area and lacked the charm of most the other villages that we visited.  Just past Nayapul is Birethani.  Birethani is set upon the Modi River and is a delightful surprise after walking through Nayapul.  Full of charm, I could have easily stayed for a couple of nights.  But alas, we had at least 1500 meters to climb that day, and it was already 2pm.

And so began our ascent.  We climbed up what turned out to be a dirt road that we could have just as easily hired a jeep to drive up in about 1/10 of the time.  The first stretch of the hike runs parallel to the beautiful Bhurungdi River, passing cascading waterfalls and pristine swimming holes around every corner.  About halfway through our hike, a local school had just recessed for the day, so we were able to walk through the villages with local children.  The littlest Little Explorer had fallen asleep in front position in the Ergo, so I had the pleasure of trekking up the steepest part of our hike with dead weight on my torso (something I vowed to not allow happen again during our trek).  When he awoke, a little girl I had been walking with greeted him with a piece of chocolate and went on her way.  I was told that some of the children hike for over an hour to get to school every day.  We hiked for a bit over four hours the first day, making it to our goal destination, Tikhedunga.

Though we do have photo proof that our porters did help cart the littles, they were much more willing than our children were.  They were each carried by someone other than family for about .00002% of the trek.  Looking at this photo, with Ras carrying both a bag AND a child makes me feel like the world’s biggest whiner for bitching about having to carry *just* a child.  Our porters each had one bag and most porters we saw on the trek had two – which seems insane – but at least made us feel less guilty for having them shlep our shit up a mountain.  Though the smallest Little Explorer dozed a few hours of the initial ascent away in the ergo, the bigger Explorer walked 90% of it with her own two legs.  This was no small feat; her aunt, with whom we were traveling, told her no less than 50 mystery stories to coax her little legs into walking just a little bit further.

Our guide’s first mate, who turned out to be the greatest asset, scouted the tea houses in the area before settling upon Green View Guest House.  We dropped our bags in our basic but totally acceptable rooms and headed to the dining area for a round of masala tea and beer.  As it turned out, all of the beds on our trek were more comfortable than any bed I’ve slept in throughout  Asia – they were all super basic thick foam mattresses that were soft enough for me and firm enough for the Mister.  Blankets were minimal to non-existent and pillows were lacking, but we didn’t trek four down sleeping bags across a continent for nothing and were more than happy to test out our new gear.

What we probably didn’t realize at the time, was that the meal we were about to partake in – namely, Dal Bhat, Vegetable Momos, Masala Tea, and Everest Beer – would pretty much be the extent of our sustenance for the next five days (aside from breakfast which consisted of an omelette, tibetan bread (which is basically fried bread) with honey, masala tea, and coffee).  If I had to choose four things to survive on for a month, these four might honestly make the cut.  Simple, vegetarian, and delicious.

Dal bhat is a lentil based soup that is served with a heaping mound of rice, a side of greens, some sort of pickled veggie, and often times another vegetable side dish.  It was always slightly different based on the ingredients on hand and is offered as a bottomless dish: for literally $2-5, it was ALL YOU COULD EAT dal bhat.  If we weren’t the gluttonous Americans we are, we could have easily eaten for less than $10/day each, but alas, after a long ass hike, it was hard not to treat ourselves to veggie dumplings (momos) and cold beer as well.

Day 2:  Tikhedunga to Ghorepani

The next morning we set off through Tikhedunga on what would be the most strenuous hike of my life.  In total, we hiked for almost 10 hours, gained over 5000 feet in elevation, and climbed up what felt like 2 billion stairs.  CARRYING CHILDREN nearly the entire way (save the glorious periods where my brother or sister-in-law took a beating – thanks guys!).  It was the day of the never-ending-stair-climb.  Seriously, you wouldn’t believe the amount of stairs.  Just about when you were ready to start whining though, you’d see a woman carrying a load on her back or a procession of donkeys carrying everything from cement to Snickers candybars, and realize that while you were doing this for FUN, this was their daily life.  Getting anything and everything to where they need it, required walking up and down these stairs – hundreds and hundreds of stairs.

We stopped for lunch in Ulleri, where we caught our second glimpse of the mountains we were trekking towards and powered up on, yup, you guessed it!  dhal bhat and veggie momos.  With some masala tea to put some oomph in our step, we were on our way onward and ever upward.  After a few more hours of stair climbing, FINALLY!, we entered a forested dirt trail.  Though we were about a month shy of their blooming, the rhodedendron forest between Banthanti and Nanggethanti was magical.  Who knew that rhodedendron trees could get so gigantic?!  Our intended destination on Day 2 was Nanggethanti, which would have meant we’d be done trekking by about 6pm that evening but when we arrived, the only tea house with vacancy left much to be desired and we were just crazy enough to make the push to the closer side of Ghorepani, not quite realizing what this entailed.

With a 38 pound fawn on my back (the largest of the two Little Explorers), I cluelessly set off into the forest.  What I failed to take into account was the fact that I had given away my daypack to lighten my load and had just broken off on my own, just as the sun was setting.  My niece and two of our porters were somewhere in the distance, that much I knew.  As daylight faded, I somewhat frantically trekked up that mountain hoping to find someone who wasn’t as ill-prepared as I.   As I trekked up the hill with my kid on my back, no source of light, no source of defense, it occurred to me that I was trekking through the Himalayas in the dark – a sure-fire prey.  My niece saved my arse on more than one occasion on the trek – when I found myself alone, without my daypack – which meant without food or water – she always seemed to be at the right place at the right time.  On this particular eve, I couldn’t have been happier to find her, with her food, water, and headlamp.  What we thought would take little over an hour ended up taking at least two and after 10 hours of arduous hiking, you can only imagine the pure elation we felt when we entered into the Poon Hill area – and that much closer to warm food and a bed.

Again, our assistant guide scouted out the local spots and decided on a little tea house chalet with a crackling fire and plenty of dal bhat to go around. Shikhar Guest House turned out to be a great little tea house with the best shower we came across on our trek.  We were all so spent by the time we ate dinner (which wasn’t until at least 8pm), I think we may have even left the Everest Beer off our nightly fare.  We had gained nearly 5000 feet in 12 hours and were now at about 9500, so the altitude surely wasn’t helping any.  This and we knew that we’d be waking up in less than 8 hours, around 4am, to do a sunrise summit of Poon Hill.

Day 3: Ghorepani – Poon Hill – Banthanti

A brutal 4am wakeup found us slipping out of our cozy sleeping bags and into the freezing darkness to make our final 1500 foot ascent to the peak of Poon Hill.  I put on my power suit and carried the smallest explorer the entire way, somehow battling through the altitude and exhaustion.  It’s amazing what you’re able to accomplish when you don’t have any other choice.  It wasn’t until we reached the top of Poon Hill, with two entirely miserable children, at 5am, that we realized how ridiculous of a push doing the sunrise summit was for us.  Here we are having hiked for two days – two incredibly physically challenging, exhausting days – to get to the top of Poon Hill and our kids, who have been such troopers the entire way, are really and truly falling apart at their seams just as we reach our gold.  Lesson learned: don’t do a sunrise summit with two travel weary children.  Wait until the sun is up, it’s no longer in the teens, and your children are rested and fed.

The views of the Annapurna Himalayas from Poon Hill are absolutely magestic, but I have to say that the climax of our trek was most definitely tempered while I did all I could to calm down/warm up the smallest Little Explorer.  I could have stared at those mountains for hours but all I got were minutesjjj

With the Little Explorers lured by the promise of hot cocoa and a movie, we made it back down to our tea house just before physically collapsing.  I hurt but it felt good.  I had pushed my body farther than I can ever remember doing, testing my mental and physical barriers – but my heart was still ticking and I was in the Himalayas for the love – how incredibly rewarding.  By this time, we knew that our descent would be at a leisurely pace, which surely helped get the legs moving again after a lingering breakfast that morning.  We’d have three days to do what we just did in two and we’d be going down! and not up.

We got back on the trail with the lofty goal of trekking 3 hours back to Banthanti.  After our last encounter with the magical rhodendron forest (and being saved for the second time by my snack and water carrying niece), we reached our tea house, Fish Tail Guest House, where we leisured the afternoon and evening away with our last views of Fish Tail, sipping on mass amounts of masala tea.

Day 4: Banthanti – Tikhedunga

A mellow hiking day, we spent no more than 4 hours on the trail, trekking from Ulleri back to Tikhedunga.  After our 10 hour push on day 2, combined with our steep morning ascent up to Poon Hill (and back), each stair was stepped with utter calculation, as my legs were nearly useless.  Slowly but surely we made the descent to Tikhedunga.  Our assistant guide once again found us the best tea house to hang for the night, Tikhedunga Guest House, and we all hiked down to the creek below for a refreshing dip (boys dipped their bodies, gals dipped their toes – I’m usually one to take the plunge but this water was FRIGID, flowing straight down from the glaciated peaks).  It’s well worth mentioning that at this point, you should envision me wincing with every step I took – every muscle in my calves felt as though they were about to dissolve.  For real.  I’ve never felt so sore in my life.

We shared stories with our porters and guide around a campfire that evening, until we once again remembered that despite putting in your dinner order at 6, don’t expect it to be ready until 8:30 or 9, especially if you’re outside sipping beers by the campfire – DO NOT expect them to come get you when the food is ready.  It’s a Nepali minute – we came to joke that they had to cultivate the produce for our meals after we put in our order.  There were times when you realized it just takes a bit longer when a restaurant is working to feed a crowd with a single burner stove, but there were others where there really was no explanation at all for the delay.  Most of our food was fresh and tasty – we just learned to order much earlier than usual.

Day 5: Tikhedunga – Nayapul

The final descent!  We were all well rested, well fed, and still in mass amounts of pain when we set off for our final 6 hours.  As much as I relished the idea of not having to trek up a mountain carrying the dead weight of a child, I think we were all mostly sad to be leaving the mountains.  Under different circumstances (read: without young kids and with more time), we would love to do the entire 21 day Annapurna Circuit – it’s definitely on our bucket list.

This was our first big trek through villages only accessible by days on foot and most certainly laid the groundwork for many more to come.  Generally speaking, this is the perspective I’m most interested in capturing through travel – that of authentic culture, isolated (at least to a certain extent) from globalization, in unspoiled (at least to a certain extent) countryside.  But I’m just a small town girl at heart, so I’m almost always more interested in getting away from people and things and into natural environments where my spirit is free to wander.