China Wrap Up

Zaijian China

I’ve been to China many times in the past to visit family, so to me, it has never felt like a tourist location. For that reason, I didn’t really consider China to be part of my travels, and added it to the plan in large part due to obligation (also, my route took me so close to it anyway that it would be shame not to go back). I hadn’t planned on spending too much time there, so when my plane tickets worked out to give me more than a month in China, my initial reaction was to be upset that it meant less time later in Spain in Portugal.

As soon as I went back, though, I realized how important family was. I’d been living away from home for so long that I had forgotten the benefits of having family around, but everyone immediately rushed to visit and make sure I was comfortable, just like always. Even though I’ve only seen my dad’s side of the family about 5 times total, they welcomed me with open arms and went out of their way to host me. Even more so for my mom’s side of the family, who were just as excited as ever to have me back. 3 years had passed since I had last seen anyone on either side of the family – how could I have let so much time pass?

What hit me the most was how fortunate I was that everything was still more or less the same, even though 3 years had gone by. There were close calls with one of my grandfathers a couple years ago, but now he is stable and staying at home. My other set of grandparents, who are pushing 83 and 90, are still completely self sufficient. And their apartment is exactly as I remembered it, though my small triangular room has since been converted by my grandpa into a home lab. Who knows if I’ll still be as lucky the next time I go back? This was a constant reminder for me to live in the moment and enjoy it as much as possible, while it’s all still here.

On the whole, outside of family, China has undergone some huge changes in the past 3 years. As always, there are new buildings on the horizon, and this time, there is a 6.8 km bridge in Dalian that skirts around the city out in the sea. Mobile technology is also better and more widespread than ever before. WeChat is the social media giant through which everyone communicates with the world, and payment is mostly done by scanning one’s phone. I almost couldn’t buy food in a local mall cafeteria because few stalls accepted plain and simple cash.

Politically, things are also heading in a good direction. Though I haven’t been following the news, the topic on everyone’s mind is the recent anti-corruption crackdown. Xi Jinping has led a big push to punish corrupt government officials, regardless of rank, slowly but surely owning up to and addressing governmental problems one at a time.

But, of course, the Great Firewall is just as strong and impeding as ever. No Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or even the Wall Street Juornal. With a paid VPN service, I managed to stay connected and even complete some work, but it’s no exaggeration to say that sometimes things took 2-3x longer. The Firewall is the biggest single thing that I dislike about China, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s going away any time soon.

In hindsight, China was exactly the break I needed to catch up on health, work, family, and finances. A month turned out to be perfect, and I wouldn’t have minded a little longer… but once again, adventure calls. I’ll be back again, definitely before 3 years this time!

Misc China Observations:

  • Payment via WeChat and Alipay is so common that people don’t have to carry wallets anymore when going outdoors. Every vendor, down to the lady with galoshes who sells seafood in buckets at the wholesale market, simply has a WeChat QR code taped on the counter that customers can scan. Boom, instant payment. Some places only accept scanning and cards, which made for a very awkward situation when I tried to take family out to dinner with only cash.
  • Especially because the population of unmarried men is much higher than that of unmarried women, it’s become a requirement for young men (or their families) to provide a car and a house to be considered eligible for marriage. Typically, the groom’s family provides the house for the newlyweds, while the bride’s family funds the renovations.
  • In the previous year, China passed a new policy that makes it impossible to get a temporary SIM card. All SIM cards must be tied to a national ID (for Chinese citizens) or passport (for foreigners). There are no more pre-paid SIM cards – the smallest plan you can get is a 6 month plan.
  • The Great Firewall SUCKS. But if a more or less reliable VPN is only $12/month, seriously, why bother?
  • Almost all the taxis I rode in have rear view mirrors that record and sometimes display live footage of the front of the car. This is because there have been lots of cases of people throwing themselves in front of cars and then suing the innocent drivers for damages.
  • Taxi drivers, bus drivers, security guards, and people in other common service professions are addressed as 师傅 “shifu.” This is typically how you would address, say, your kungfu master. But it’s a sign of respect for people in these blue collar service professions, a remnant of communist ideology.
  • For decades and even now, all school kids wear a red scarf around their necks to school. This is called the 红领巾, a Communist garment that symbolizes the corner of the flag dyed red by soldiers’ blood.
  • Every morning, students have an hour long routine where they line up on the school field for an assembly and then do collective morning exercises.
  • Leftovers are dumped directly in thin plastic bags, even soup.
  • By 2050, 1 out of every 3 people will be over the age of 60.
  • Chengdu is the city with the second worst traffic in China, so massive highways that are 8 lanes across are frequently seen and sometimes just common streets.
  • People prefer backing into parking spots over pulling into them, while the opposite is true in the US.
  • It costs roughly three months average salary to buy 1m2 of property in a city.
  • Foreigners that are not staying in hotels/other tracked accommodation have to go to the police station to register their whereabouts. This is probably applicable to many other countries, and China is just the only one where I would not stay in a hotel. But my thanks to the little old lady in the neighborhood who tattled to the police that there was an unidentifiable foreigner in the compound.
  • Cellphone cases with rings on the back are popular. These rings can turn into a stand for your phone, and also give you something to loop your finger through when holding the phone.

Lessons from China

Lessons from China

1. Ask for help

I can be independent to a fault, and sometimes it comes back to bite me in the butt. Like when I first arrived in China.

My uncle came to pick me up from the airport, but I didn’t see him at the gate and I had no way to contact him. All I knew was his WeChat profile, but I couldn’t connect to wifi because I needed a Chinese phone number to do it. I needed a Chinese SIM card to do that, but I couldn’t get one without a Chinese national ID. Quite the bind, you see.

After walking up and down Terminal 1, where I arrived, I concluded that he probably wasn’t there. One of the shopkeepers told me that Terminal 2 was 800m away, so I loaded my luggage on a cart and ran to check if he might be waiting there instead. I couldn’t find him there either, so I ran all the way back to Terminal 1.

At that point, I finally gave in and started asking for help to connect to the internet. One woman who I approached unapologetically told me to ask airport personnel instead, but thankfully the next woman I asked allowed me to hotspot from her phone so I could finally call my uncle. Thank goodness for this kind soul!

In reality, though, it could have been much less stressful and a lot less hard. If I had just gone around asking for help in the beginning, I could have connected with my uncle right away. But I would literally rather run 2km with my bags and waste more than an hour than ask for help. This is a great lesson for work and for life – just save yourself the trouble and ask!

2. Family runs deep

My first stop in China was Chengdu to visit my dad’s family, who I had only visited a few times and usually in the company of my dad. This time it was just me, and I dropped by with little warning or coordination. More or less “Hey, I got a plane ticket into Chengdu on this day. Is it alright if I stay with you?”

I felt that I was imposing and worried that the stay might be awkward, but to my relief, it didn’t feel that way at all. They welcomed me with open arms, going out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and provided for. All with no strings attached. And conversation with my cousin, aunts, and uncles was easy and natural – we weren’t almost-strangers, as I had feared.

A live demonstration that family runs deep. No matter how little you see each other or long it’s been in between, there’s something that connects you and it takes little effort to find.

3. Few things are as important as family

Having lived away from home for so long and now traveled on my own for 2 months, I’ve learned to be fiercely independent and to be comfortable being by myself. I kept in touch with family weekly (okay, biweekly), but for the most part, I was in my own little world.

However, seeing family and being welcomed back to the familial circle reminded me of how nice it is to be part of a community where (mostly everyone) cares about and helps one another. Sure, there’s a fair share of drama and bickering, but it’s so nice to just belong.

You only have this one family, and the relationships will follow you for life. Big decisions that you make not only impact you, but everyone in your close family circle. Now, even though I’ll be on my own in distant lands again, family will still be close to my heart.

4. Understand differences by understanding context

This time in China, I had the opportunity to have some discussions about Chinese Communist ideology and policies, why they are the way they are and what Chinese people think of them. It’s easy to throw a blanket statement of “X is bad” or “you should clearly do Y,” but I learned that it’s all about the context.

For example, on the rigorous Chinese pressure-cooker education system that culminates in a single college entrance examination, the western view is that such a system suppresses creativity and only tests a student’s ability to take tests. This is true. But from a Chinese view, there are so many students in China that a more holistic system would take forever to evaluate. And if the system weren’t so black and white, there would be room for corruption and students with poorer backgrounds wouldn’t be able to compete.

5. Accept others’ generosity

A funny Chinese custom is the constant battle to pay. Because I hadn’t been back for so long, many relatives took me out to eat and insisted on paying for the meal.

A few times I was invited out along with my parents, and my mom found a way of thwarting the payment plans by sending my dad out to “go to the bathroom” halfway through. The check was taken care of, all good. But the problem was that the original invites got genuinely upset.

So accept the generosity and good will, and just find a way to pay the person back – next time.

6. It’s good to relax!

I arrived in China after two months of living the independent, on-the-go, penny-pinching lifestyle, and I was stuck in that mode for a good few days. It took me a week to realize that I don’t have to hand wash my clothes in the sink anymore – I can use the washer. Slowly, I let go and embraced a little more luxury, returning for a little bit to normalcy.

It was good to relax, and my body needed it. Almost as soon as I unraveled, I came down with a cold. It’s miraculous that I didn’t get one at all while shivering up in the Himalayas – yet I got one in Dalian, and I couldn’t point to anything in particular that could have caused it. I think it’s just my body finally taking the time to flush out the bad!

Cherry Blossom Season in Dalian

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Dalian is the mainland Chinese city with the closest ties to Japan, largely due to its location at the tip of the northeastern peninsula (if the map of China is a gigantic chicken, I like to say that Dalian is the the tip of the wattle on its chin – that’s what it’s actually called, look it up).

One of the ways that this is evident, besides the presence of many multinational Japanese companies and, sadly, the remnants of Japanese colonization, is 203 Park in nearby Lvshun. It claims to be the largest cherry blossom park outside of Japan (or maybe even including Japan?), and I happened to be there right in time for cherry blossom season.

I don’t know about the validity of those claims, but it certainly is big!

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Flowers in the whole spectrum of colors: white, white tinged with pink, pink, and even red.

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

And, of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a few flower-framed shots.

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Nothing beats this perfect camoflague though:

A woman blends seamlessly into a cherry blossom tree at 203 park in Dalian, China

I always try to make it out to see cherry blossoms when this time of year rolls around, so I’m grateful that I got to fit it in this year too while on the road. Maybe next year, cherry blossom season in Japan? Definitely on the bucket list!

Food in Chengdu

Spice-soaked skewers in Chengdu, China

Chengdu is the relaxation capital of China, known for panda bears, tea houses, and – of course – a wide variety of (very spicy) food! My relatives in Chengdu took one look at me and decided that I looked far too skinny. My cousin, in particular, took it upon herself as her personal mission to make me gain at least 5 pounds in the span of one week.

The 5 pounds thankfully didn’t happen, but not for lack of trying. Everyday, I had two meals that stuffed me to the brim. Here are some of the highlights:

Soup Pot – A large boiling pot of soup, which you use to cook raw vegetables and meat yourself. Just like hot pot, but minus the (spicy) “hot” and a little healthier.

Soup pot in Chengdu, China

Vegetarian Hot Pot – Hot pot with only vegetarian options and surprisingly, but very delightfully, nothing that tried to masquerade as meat. All sorts of tofu and new vegetables, including one that looked like it was covered in solid dew. This place also greets you by offering a bowl of lemon water to wash your hands in, and has all sorts of chargers available for use. My favorite of them all!

Vegetarian hot pot in Chengdu, China

Hot Pot and Congee – Individual pots that you cook raw meats and vegetables in. At the end, when the broth cooks down, you pour in half a cup of rice and make your own congee.

Hot pot and porridge in Chengdu, China

Spicy Skewers – Sticks of various meats and vegetables soaked in a spicy peppercorn broth.

Spice-soaked skewers in Chengdu, China

Spice-soaked skewers in Chengdu, China

Fish Baked in Paper – Fish wrapped tightly in wax paper with spices and grilled.

Fish cooked in paper in Chengdu, China

Grilled Eggplant – A popular dish at BBQ places. Eggplant cut open, sprinkled with spices, and grilled. Your not supposed to eat the skin, but the rest of it is delicious.

A midnight meal of spice-soaked sticks in Chengdu, China

Stir Fried Rabbit – Self-explanatory. People in Szechuan apparently consume more rabbits than other places in China. Below is an entire 3lb rabbit:

Spicy stir fried rabbit in Chengdu, China

Deep Fried Bugs – A gourmet platter of 5 different kind of bugs (not sure what they are, and not sure I want to know), deep fried to a crisp. Even in China, bugs are a novelty, so this was definitely not the most popular dish.

Stir fried bugs in Chengdu, China

Thankfully for my weight, but sadly for my stomach, I didn’t stay in Chengdu for long. I (literally) got a great taste of it though, and I’ll have to make sure to visit my Chengdu relatives more often!

Flight over the Himalayas

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

My dad always raved about crossing between Nepal and Tibet overland via the friendship bridge, deeming it one of the best experiences of his life. Since my route brought me from Nepal to China, I looked into retracing his footsteps to see for myself.

However, I got mixed reports about the route, both online and in person. The only fact I knew for sure was that the border crossing at Zhangmu, which my dad had previously used, shut down after the earthquake in April 2015 (the entire town, actually, might have slipped off the hillsides but nobody really knows for sure). Some travel agencies reassured me that the land route had reopened, and some online sources said that there was a separate border crossing but couldn’t agree on whether it had opened to tourists or not.

Eventually, I got a definitive answer from Land of Snows: yes, there is a separate border crossing called Kyirong, but no, it is not currently open for tourists, and it’s slated to open sometime during 2017, but nobody can say for sure. Also a fun Tibet travel fact: you actually can’t go to Tibet at all during March if you’re a foreign tourist, since many sensitive anniversary dates (e.g. of uprisings) are in March, so the Chinese government doesn’t process permits during that month to avoid social unrest. Good to know before you book a ticket there!

So, overland travel was out of the picture. That only left flying, which is pretty expensive out of Kathmandu – my flight from Kathmandu to Chengdu via Lhasa costed more than my flight from NYC to Colombo, Sri Lanka (which I got a fantastic deal on, but still).

Still, totally worth it, because the HIMALAYAS:

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

Going from Nepal to China, you fly right towards and around them. From Nepal to China, sit on the LEFT side of the plane, and from China to Nepal, sit on the RIGHT. Try to get a seat either as far up or down as possible, to avoid being over the wing.

I called in a few days early to specifically request the furthest back left hand window seat available, and thought I was all set. However, when I checked in and got my ticket, I saw that I was assigned an aisle seat. Thankfully they reassigned me pretty easily to a left hand window seat, and curiously one that was even further back than the one I initially confirmed. Alright, I’ll take it!

The view of the Himalayas and Mount Everest starts about 10 minutes in, and lasts for about a three minutes or so.

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

During that time, someone asked me a total of 4 times to help him take pictures with his phone. I obliged, since I would ask someone to do the same for me if I really did get stuck with an aisle seat, but I can’t say I felt too apologetic when I accidentally dropped his phone the fourth time. If you’re going to ask strangers to help take pictures with your shiny new iPhone 6/7, you should probably get a case to make sure it’s not slippery.

The Himalayas passed quickly, but the ensuing view was no less stunning.

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

Especially as we approached Lhasa:

The view on the plane from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, Tibet

This was a great way to say goodbye to Nepal. Considering that there are scenic flight services that cost hundreds of dollars by themselves, this flight actually turned out to be quite a steal!

Another tip: try to go as early in the morning as possible, since the clouds come in and the winds pick up, making it dangerous to fly in the afternoon. As a result, those flights are often canceled, and even if not, you won’t get to see the good view.

Nepal Wrap Up

Namaste Nepal

Coming into Nepal from India, I was ready for a mental break from being on guard all the time about sanitation and safety. Because Nepal has long been a popular destination for westerners, I thought that it would be more developed and more tourist-friendly. I was surprised to find it at once much less developed than I expected, but still a comfortable place to be.

Nepal’s main problem is infrastructure, and I witnessed many of its infrastructure issues firsthand when coming in over land. The entire road from the border to Kathmandu was bumpy and dusty, and along many stretches it was literally crumbling on the sides into the gutters. Many buildings in Kathmandu were under construction, but progress looked to be slow because workers manually poured cement one pan at a time. Everyone wears face masks, because you can see plumes of dust and smoke travel towards you in the air. And in Pokhara, there were days with up to 5 power outtages in a row. In all these ways, Nepal felt like a much less developed place than India.

The April 2015 earthquake definitely seriously hampered development, and you can still see the effects of it, most clearly in Durbar Square. The majority of the temples are still in ruins or propped up on stilts, and it feels as though the Square has been simply cleaned up but not truly rebuilt yet. Talking to my stepdad about his experience in Nepal two decades ago, it seems as though few advancements have been made in the way of development – if anything, certain things may be worse off now because of the earthquake. Even one of the guides on the trek voiced his concerns that money has been coming in with tourism, but there hasn’t been any development and the Nepali are not getting richer.

But at the same time, Nepal is clearly a place that is familiar with – and good at – tourism. Almost everyone speaks English, and the western comforts are easy to find, especially in the lakeside resort town of Pokhara. Pokhara is a total tourist town, but I totally loved it. It was everything I needed after 1.5 months of curry in India and Sri Lanka. Nothing tasted so good as the first meal I had there of authentic Korean food, side dishes and all.

From the start, trekking was the focus of my time in Nepal. It took me a while to commit to one, and up until almost the day before leaving, I was convinced that I was going to do the Annapurna Circuit instead of Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). In retrospect, ABC was the perfect one to do (of course, I have to think that now because it was the one that I did). It’s challenging but not pushing the limit, and it still rewards you with breathtaking views.

Before the trek, I was focused on finding information, getting the necessary gear and permits, and trying to plan around the weather. In between, I thankfully still managed to see a bit of Kathmandu and Pokhara. But it wasn’t until we started off on the trek that I breathed a sigh of relief, and not until we reached ABC that I was truly able to relax. Up until then, I had to be constantly ready to make adjustments, and I was always questioning if we had made the right decisions to set us up for successfully seeing ABC. It was only afterward that I was finally able to sit back to soak in the views and explore, and it would have been nice to have a little more time to do it.

However, Nepal is also one of the few places that I know with certainty that I will visit again. So many treks still left to do! On the bus back from Pokhara to Kathmandu, I sat in front of a Russian woman who is in Nepal for the 8th time, and who has completed all the treks that I could name (which, to be fair, is not many). I don’t think I’ll be that extreme, but I do see the magic – it’s just one of those places.

Until next time, Nepal!

Misc Nepal Observations

  • Dust is everywhere, even on paved roads. Face masks are very common, and all of the clothing in the shops have to be dusted and washed off before being worn.
  • Construction is very slow and labor-intensive. In many places, there were people pouring cement one little pan-full at a time.
  • On buses, there is always someone leaning out of the door on the left side. He helps the driver scout and measure distance when passing through traffic or along the edge of a narrow road. There’s a. Patting system, which I roughly deduced to be one pat on the side of the bus to stop, and 3+ pats to keep going.
  • Taxis have meters, but it’s very had to find one that will actually use it. I read in a guidebook that it’s customary to tip a driver that agrees to use the meter…because it’s that rare, apparently? Totally defeats the purpose of having meters.
  • Alcohol ads are everywhere, and every little roadside shop stocks bottles of beer.
  • Buses are super ornate, sometimes with mini painted Hindu/landscape murals on the sides. Many look like they’re dressed up on the way to a Cindo de Mayo party.
  • A lot of buildings and temples, especially in the old area of Kathmandu, like Durbar Square, are propped up by diagonal sticks. This is due to leftover structural damage from the April 2015 earthquake that they still haven’t been able to fix.
  • Many buses, especially the gigantic ones, have little tootle horns – sounds that you would expect to come from a clown car. It’s a little hard to take them seriously, but their heft barreling down the road makes up for it considerably.
  • There are frequent power outages in Pokhara and Kathmandu, though I only experienced them in Pokhara.

Lessons from Nepal

Lessons from Nepal

1.  You’re not always going to be efficient

It’s not possible to be completely efficient when traveling, especially when you leave room for flexibility.

Coming to Nepal, I initially booked a bus to Kathmandu because I was planning on doing the Annapurna Circuit, which starts near there. However, I changed my plans to do the Annapurna Base Camp instead, which starts and ends in Pokhara.

On the way to Pokhara from Kathmandu, I realized that we were doing some pretty significant backtracking. In fact, if I had gone straight from the border to Pokhara instead of looping around to Kathmandu, I could have saved about 3 hours…per bus ride.

But that brings me to the next point,

2. But you make the best decision that you can at the moment and you adjust afterwards as necessary

Kind of self-explanatory. Though it helps to have as much information as possible when you are making the decision, which brings us back to the previous lessons of doing some research beforehand. Yep, I learn.

3.  It’s not always necessary to go for the top

The highest point of the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek is ABC itself, and just two hours below that is MBC, with its own spectacular view. On Day 7 of the trek, we left early to reach MBC, and then continued upward to check out ABC as well. The morning was crystal clear the whole way, but clouds rolled in juuuuuust as we were reaching ABC.

We stayed up at ABC for a few hours hoping that it would clear, but to no avail. All we saw was a big foggy wall of white. That night we stayed at MBC, and I had a fierce debate with myself over whether to make the trip up to ABC again in the morning. It was a four hour round trip, but when would I be so close to ABC again?

I was almost on the verge of going, but then I asked myself why I wanted to go. Yes, it was a spectacular view, but I had seen it all the way up to ABC the day before – all I was missing was pictures of the Annapurnas from that particular angle at ABC. And yes, let’s be real, all I wanted were pictures. I would barely have enough time or energy to actually appreciate the view after making the hike up and coming straight back down.

So in the end, I opted for a peaceful morning with sunrise at MBC instead. The view there was also something to behold, and once I let go of seeing ABC, I was able to sit back and enjoy it. You don’t always have to go for the best or highest thing, sometimes it’s important to remember to just enjoy where you’re at!

4. Don’t backtrack

At one point during the trek on the way down, I lost a hiking buddy who was supposed to join for lunch but then never showed up. I wasn’t sure if he was ahead of or behind me, but I didn’t want to go back down into the town below to search for him, so I pressed on.

Thirty minutes later, after I had already descended about 250 steps, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he might be waiting for me back in town. After another ten minutes of arguing against myself, I finally gave up and turned around. I climbed back up the steps I had just gone down, checked around and couldn’t find him, and set off on the same trail for the second time.

Turns out he was way ahead of me, and thankfully we did manage to find each other before the sun set. But I learned to take care of everything that I can before moving forward, so that I don’t have to backtrack. If I had just gone to check in town before setting off for the first time, I would have saved myself from going down and up and back down hundreds of steps.

5. Clarify prices and expectations before taking a service

This one I learned indirectly by observation, but it’s a very important lesson indeed!

One of the friends I met while traveling wanted to get a tattoo and found the perfect artist to do it. The tattoo ended up taking almost an entire day and exceeded the friend’s expectations, but when it came time to pay the bill afterward, the price suddenly jumped to 3 times higher than expected.

Turns out that my when my friend had asked for the hourly rate, the tattoo artist had given the rate for black and white tattoos. But the tattoo was in color, and which was twice the previously quoted rate. Neither had really asked or clarified until the end. And it had taken almost twice as much time as the friend expected.

Ultimately my friend paid the requested price – because it WAS a tattoo, and a beautiful one at that. But I definitely learned that I should clarify prices beforehand when I go in to get my own tattoo (just kidding, parents! Just checking if you’re reading).

6. Once you’ve tried your best, shake it off

I went into a bit of a shopping spree buying gifts for family in Pokhara, unleashing some dormant consumerist force that startled me quite a bit. In the middle of it, I unwittingly overpaid for a blanket that I later realized was not as thick or as big as I wanted it to be.

Though I suspected that returns were not allowed, I figured I might as well take it back to the shop and try. The salesman said that regrettably the boss didnt allow him to do returns, and at best I could exchange it in for a different blanket and pay the difference. I pulled out every negotiation trick in the book that I could think of, but he had all the leverage because he had my money.

Finally, when I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I kept the blanket and left. It was a little difficult to transition from full-on combative mode to making peace, but the shift is important to do as soon as possible. Once you’ve tried your best, there’s no use in holding on.

A similar situation happened on my last night in Kathmandu, when a group of literally hundreds of Indians descended on my hotel at 2am. They were an extremely loud and disorganized group with no concept of what time it was, so they were standing and shouting at each other in the hallway right outside my room.

I tried going out to talk with them, but I couldn’t even communicate with the universal gesture of “shhhhhhhh.” The only hotel staff I could find was the security guard, who was also fairly frazzled and assured me that he would do his best to get them to settle and quiet down. I even called the hotel manager, who assured me that he would do his best (read: call the security guard).

Nothing worked. But having tried everything I could, l put in some ear plugs, laid down to sleep, and saved this story in my archives, for bad experiences make for good stories!

7. Every day of your life is precious

The day after returning from my trek to ABC and reconnecting with the world, I found out that my previous employer, Quidsi, is being shut down by its parent company, Amazon. This wasn’t totally surprising, and the company outlook is partly why I left.

But when I heard the generous severance packages, I couldn’t help but start calculating. If I had just stayed for another 3 more months, I would have had a lot more to travel with.

However, who could have known? If I stayed, I might have made more money, but I also may have gotten sucked in and never left. In the past two months, I’ve seen and learned so much, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There’s no point in staying even one day longer in a situation that you’re not happy in, because you never know what day might be your last.

Relaxing in Pokhara

The lake at Pokhara, Nepal

Pokhara is a total tourist town from top to bottom, but after a month and a half of curry and 10 days of trekking, it was exactly what I needed. It has the western comforts of cool, laid-back cafes, used bookstores, and rowdy bars, all — most importantly — with pretty good wifi. Mix this with beautiful views and a peaceful lake, and I almost didn’t want to leave. It’s the first place where I’ve stayed for extra days with nothing planned, finally getting to rest for a few days after 2 months of non-stop travel.

With all those extra days, I got to visit a lot more places! Some of my favorite locations in Pokhara:

  • Mo2’s Delights: Despite being in Pokhara for less than a week, I managed to establish myself as a bit of a regular at this restaurant. I went no less than 5 times, and when Mo2’s was closed for its weekly break on Tuesday, I was a little at a loss for what to do. It was (hopefully still is?) #1 on TripAdvisor for cheap eats in Pokhara, and for good reason: cheap momos (around 150-250 rupees or $1.5-2.5 for 10), straightforward pricing (“No taxes, no fees, no tension”) a fun atmosphere, and pretty darn good wifi. The owners are a hardworking husband and wife team who are incredibly welcoming and kind. Unfortunately this is the only picture I have of the place (sorry for the half-chewed food):

Momos and yogurt with fruit at Mo2 in Pokhara, Nepal

  • Natssul Korea: An authentic Korean place that makes for great comfort food.
  • Europa: Gigantic burgers for less than 150 rupees ($1.5). Enough said!

Veggie burger at Europa in Pokhara, Nepal

  • OR2K: A cafe/restaurant where you lounge on pillows and soak in a crazy beautiful view:

OR2K Cafe in Pokhara, Nepal

  • Bamboo Cafe: A hut next to the water where you, again, sit on pillows and look at the water. But also complete with dogs and cats to pet, dangerously delicious cocktails, and probably one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.
  • Seeing Hands Blind Massage Clinic: A place with a great mission and pretty stellar massages. My only complaint is that there was a mosquito in my room, which netted me about 8 mosquito bites (talk about being helpless bait) and made an otherwise great massage a little more itchy than my liking.

Masseuse at Seeing Hands in Pokhara, Nepal

  • Tibet Gallery: I wandered in this shop with the intention to take a quick glance, but ended up staying for more than an hour while the owner told me about the different types of (real and fake) cashmere and launched into a lecture about shady shopkeepers and karma. She gave me some honest recommendations (“Don’t go for the expensive one, it’s hard to maintain. This one is cheaper and doesn’t take much care”), so I took care of all the gifts I needed here.

Buying cashmere scarves in Pokhara, Nepal

And last but not least, the beautiful view:

Pier out to the lake at Pokhara, Nepal

Lake at Pokhara, Nepal

The lake at Pokhara, Nepal

Annapurna Base Camp Trek Day 8-10: Back down

Day 10: The view of the Annapurnas from Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Now that we had already reached ABC, there was a lot less stress. No more worrying about weather and timing, the only objective was to get back down in one piece.

Day 8

On day 8, we woke up at MBC to a spectacular sunrise. We didn’t get to see it from ABC, but that didn’t make it any less beautiful.

Day 8: Sunrise at ABC from MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Funny enough, even though it is common to stay at MBC and hike to ABC for sunrise, we didn’t see a single person on the path to ABC that morning. I wonder if it comes in waves, and for some reason everyone we hiked up with decided to stay at ABC instead?

Anyway, we left MBC at 9am, when the snow wasn’t quite as icy. It was definitely faster going down, but we also needed more concentration to not slide down. The scenery on the pass between MBC and Deurali was just as beautiful on the way down:

Day 8: View on the way down from MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 8: Prayer flags on the way down from MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 8: Porters on the way down from MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 8: View on the way down from MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Going downhill, the 2 hour estimate between MBC and Deurali was actually correct. Deurali in the distance:

Day 8: View on the way down from MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Everything took about 80% of the time that it did when coming up. From Deurali, it was another 1 hour to Himalaya, 2 hours from Himalaya to dovan, and then less than 1 hour to Bamboo before the rain hit right aruond 3pm.

More time to spare meant more pictures:

Day 9: A porter in the forest on the way down, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: Forest on the way down, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9

We left Bamboo at around 8:30am with the goal to make it to Chhomrong before noon. This we did manage to accomplish, but the stairs up from the river to the village of Chhomrong were a lot worse than I remembered. On your way DOWN the mountain you’re not mentally prepared to climb UP, so it was about twice as difficult than it otherwise would have been.

Chhomrong in the distance, almost at eye level. All the way down to the river below and then up to the same elevation – some wings would be nice right about now!

Day 9: View of Chhomrong on the way down, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

A little friend that I made in Chhomrong, with the most peculiar choice in accessories:

Day 9: Posing with a friend in Chhomrong, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

We rested in Chhomrong for lunch, and then set our sights for Landruck down the hill. Some friends recommended it as a place to stay, and it was on a path straight down to Nayapul that we hadn’t taken yet. Sounded good to me.

Landruck doesn’t look far on the map, but it actually takes a while to get to. You have to go all the way down through Jhinu (the village with the hot springs), so I made my way back down those stairs again. I really hate those stairs.

From Jhinu, the path keeps going all the way down to the river, and then continues alongside it.

Day 9: Path along the river to Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: Path along the river to Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

The walk along the river was nice and flat, but we had to climb a big hill in order to get to Landruck, which was near the top. After a long day of hiking already, the stairs went on and on, for almost a full hour.

Landruck was a village worth visiting, though! The village is stretched out along the path, and we got some great pictures of villagers as we walked through:

Day 9: Young female porter outside Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: Villager outside Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: Taking pictures of kids in Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: A little girl in Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: A little boy in Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: A cow in Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 9: Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 10

In the morning, we were rewarded with a last glimpse of the Annapurnas again when the clouds parted. A great parting gift!

Day 10: The view of the Annapurnas from Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

We could have taken a Jeep straight down from Landruck to Pokhara for about 500 rupees ($5) per person, but we wanted to do a little more hiking before leaving. Our plan was to go to Kimche, on the other side of the valley, and take a bus from there.

Day 9: Jeeps in Landruck, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

We heard it was a leisurely 1.5 hour stroll, so we left at 10am.

What fools.

The way from Landruck to Kimche basically consisted of going all the way downhill to the river, and then climbing all the way up the other hill to higher than we started in Landruck. That day also happened to be the hottest day yet, so it was a big struggle.

The one good thing that came out of the struggle was that at the top of the hill right before Kimche, we collapsed on a family’s front yard and shared cookies and mandarins with a local mother and daughter.

Day 10: A mother and daughter on the way to Kimche, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Yeah, don’t do that (I mean the hike to Kimche, not the sharing). Turns out you can catch the same bus that leaves from Kimche further down the road, so you can take a leisurely stroll down along the river instead of climbing up the hill to go to Kimche. But whatever, I think it was a good parting hike, right when we were getting sad about leaving the Himalayas. A little of a “yeah, you think you’re going to miss me? Here you go, have fun!”

The bus back down was pretty crazy. We took the 2pm bus, and it spent a good 1.5 hours making switchbacks to get down to the river (to where we could have gotten on instead…but enough about that). The the whole way was bumpy, and as people kept coming on, it was extremely crowded. I only managed one picture as we passed through the lower villages, for fear of smashing my camera into the window as the bus jostled.

Day 10: View from the bus to Pokhara, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Eventually, the bus followed the river to Birethanti, where we had started the hike. Then it took the same road back to Pokhara, which was a bit more scary on the way down, when gravity threatend to overcome the breaks.

At 5:30pm, we were once again standing in Baglung Bus Park. 10 days older, several shades tanner, and tremendously richer with new friends and memories. I returned to reality with a heavy heart (though when “reality” is extended travel, that’s not half bad), but I’ll be back in the mountains of Nepal one day. Until then!

Annapurna Base Camp Trek Day 7: ABC

Day 7: Path from MBC to ABC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Finally time to climb to ABC!

We left promptly at 6am in anticipation, ahead of the crowd. It was semi-dark that early in the morning and hard to make out the route, but still light enough to see this sign:

Day 7: Avalanche risk area sign on the path up to MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

A little after Deurali, the path crossed over the river and continues up to its right:

Day 7: Crossing the river on the path up to MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

We were told that there would be snow all the way from Deurali to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), but it was fairly dry for about the first third of the path. The big storm was the previous week, so each day the snow melted a little more. We had heard from others that they could hear and even see avalanches along this stretch, but we didn’t hear anything – just the stream as we walked alongside it.

Because we left early, it was just us and the porters. They rushed past us in regular tennis shoes and with heavy loads on their backs, while we carefully picked our way through the rocks and snow.

Day 7: Porters on the path up to MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Porters on the path up to MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

About 30 minutes in, we crossed back to the other side of the river (the side that we had started on) and then from then on, it was all snow. The snow was still frozen over because it was early morning, and it took a lot of concentration not to slip.

Day 7: Path up to MBC along the river, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Pro tip: At the Himalaya hotel earlier, I saw a porter wearing plastic bags over his socks in his shoes. I figured I might as well try, since my shoes were sure to get wet at some point because of the snow, and they worked wonders! My socks stayed completely dry. Also, take at least one hiking pole to steady yourself on the ice, especially for the return trip down.

Everywhere you looked, there was a picturesque scene waiting to be captured. Glad we didn’t do this stretch the previous day in the fog!

Day 7: Mountain view on the path up to MBC in the snow, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Mossy rocks on the path up to MBC in the snow, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Mountain view on the path up to MBC in the snow, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Eventually we saw MBC in the distance, but it was still a good half an hour away. This one here is just the first of the guesthouses, which is located about 10 min below the other ones. So don’t go up to the first guesthouse, unless you specifically want to stay there!

Day 7: First glimpse of MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

This is the main collection of guesthouses at MBC, with a view of the Annapurnas.

Day 7: MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

We reached the top guesthouses at MBC at around 9am. All the estimates said 2 hours from Duerali to MBC, but they’re lies, all lies. Maybe when there’s no snow, but it was a solid and very strenuous 3 hours for us.

At MBC, we stopped for breakfast because we had skipped it in order to leave early. While we ate, we had a view of all the people slipping and sliding in the snow on their way back down from ABC. Surprisingly, there were also butterflies everywhere. Up at 3700m?

Day 7: Guesthouse at MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Butterfly up at MBC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

We decided to stay the night at MBC, leaving our heavy bags there while we made the hike up to ABC and back. This is what most people we had talked to did (though they made the hike up for sunrise, and walking up in the early morning seemed more pleasant). The guesthouse owner warned that the fog typically rolls in around 1pm, so we set off at 10:45am to make the 2 hour hike up to ABC.

The path from MBC to ABC ran through a field of snow, with only some portions of exposed rock. It must have been better than on previous days, when the snow was piled higher. But still, there were many places where you could sink into the snow up to your thigh if you weren’t careful!

There was a big uphill push in the snow for about the first 30 minutes, but after that we walked along a relatively flat ridge. The day was so clear that we could see ABC way in the distance (right above the left shoulder of the person closest to the camera).

Day 7: Path from MBC to ABC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

About 30 minutes in, we saw a few clouds rolling up the valley. Uh oh. They seemed to be moving slowly, thank goodness, but we picked up the pace as much as we could.

Day 7: Clouds appear in the valley, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

They eventually filled in the basin where MBC is. But they were still all behind us, and we were so close!

Day 7: Clouds appear in the valley, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Path from MBC to ABC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

It still seemed like we could beat the clouds. But just as we arrived at the ABC sign, we saw wisps of fog coming over our shoulders.

Day 7: Reaching the ABC sign just as the clouds roll in, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Somehow, in the span of about 10 minutes, the clouds had accelerated and overtaken us! You can see the difference between our own photos and the one above of the people before us.

Day 7: Reaching the ABC sign just as the clouds roll in, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Reaching the ABC sign just as the clouds roll in, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Day 7: Reaching the ABC sign just as the clouds roll in, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

All gone, within about 2 minutes.

So close, we were so close!!

It was only 12:20pm, but the clouds had obviously came early. We stayed for 2 hours at ABC hoping that it would clear up, but nope. Finally, we left at 2pm in order to make it back to MBC at 4pm.

SO BUMMED. But what can you do?

Look at the wall of snow that they still had to deal with at ABC:

Day 7: Shoveling snow at ABC, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

The whole way down was pure slush, which soaked my shoes through and through. Good thing I had the plastic bags!

At night, it was extremely cold at MBC. Sleeping at night is fine because we have sleeping bags and thick blankets, but we were freezing in the common area while we waited to get food. Finally, unable to take it, we ordered a heater for 150 rupees ($1.50) per person, even though we had no idea what it would be.

The heater turned out to be a propane tank with an open flame, which they put under the (wooden) table.

Day 7: Heater at MBC guesthouse, Annapurna Base Camp Trek, Nepal

Talk about a fire hazard! It was super effective, though, nearly (literally) burning holes through our pants.

I don’t really get the pricing scheme – if only one person orders the heater, do they only get 150 rupees for it? Also, everyone benefited from the heater. After we left, the guides and porters all rushed in to take our places next to the heater, as it still hadn’t burned out yet. In any case, the guesthouse owners, guides, and porters must all rejoice whenever a foreigner orders a heater.

I thought about getting up early the next morning to try ABC again, because it’s quite common to make the hike up from MBC for sunrise. But ultimately, to be honest, my main motivation would be to get some pictures. In order to squeeze a 4 hour round trip in before hiking down for the day, I wouldn’t really have time for much else.

So I decided not to, though I did wake up at 4am to see the stars. With little light pollution and a thin atmosphere, the sky is so clear that you can see the edges of the Milky Way. It’s gorgeous, but it was so cold…and my camera couldn’t capture any of it, even with a 12 second exposure. I guess there are some things that you just have to enjoy in the moment.

Generally, success! All that was left was the way down.

Continue on to Annapurna Base Camp Trek Day 8-10: Back down