Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Just What You Were Looking For

Yes, I've started a new album on Facebook. Go ahead and have a look.

Sarangkot, 1590 meters

Saturday was reasonably sunny, so we decided to make the hike up to Sarangkot the following day, inspired in no small part by the Lonely Planet's claim that "The view of the Annapurna Himalaya from Sarangkot is almost a religious experience." I've come to take such claims with a grain of salt, of course, but I'm pleased to say that in this case (and thanks to a break in the weather), they seem to have gotten it right.

Sunday morning I joined Alex in consuming his usual, the massive Trekker's Breakfast: Oatmeal porridge, banana lassi, eggs, toast, home fried potatos, and coffee; all for about $2. We set out with our daypacks, following the road away from Lakeside for about 25 minutes before seeing what appeared to be the turnoff for the trail. A few men were working to build a stone road through a massive spread of rocks, dirt, rubble, trees and branches. We later learned that this was the product of an enormous landslide brought on by last year's monsoon, the wettest in some seventy years. The path over the landslide was rough, but soon enough we found ourselves climbing along a trail through the forest.

We cruised along for the first hour or so behind a guy lugging an enormous pack, all of us huffing and puffing, until we came to a clearing. There we saw the sky swarming with paragliders, like dozens of colorful insects. I realized then what our mate as carrying on his back.

The rest of the way took less than an hour, including a slight detour to the paragliding Take Off Point. We watched a tandem run and take off, the greenhorn shouting at the top of his lungs.

"Kot" means hill fort, but not much is left of the old kot at Sarangkot. The fort's site is currently occupied by a small military installation cum viewing tower and a Shiva temple. Ground has been broken (by the Sarangkot Committee for Religious Propagation) for another, larger temple, in honour of Durgha, I believe. After eating lunch and checking into a corner room with magnificent view, we climbed up to the lookout point to catch the sunset. It was too cloudy to see the sun directly, but the various breaks in the clouds created interesting photo opps, I mean light phenomena, like Jacob's Ladders. It was windy and rainy (and considerably higher than Pokhara, so considerably colder). On the way out, one of the Army guys asked if I'd take his picture. I told him 'maybe tomorrow'.

There's not much to do in the village of Sarangkot, so we walked around the town for a while and took too many photos. Then we went back to our room, took more photos, and got out our sudoku books to occupy us until dinner. Exciting, no?

We were out of the room around 6:30 the next morning. The previous night's rain had cleared the way for an amazing sunrise. We skipped up the stairs to the lookout point, where we found a couple dozen mostly-Chinese tourists already there. (Note: I've been surprised by the number of obviously-wealthy tourists from Mainland China that I've come across in Nepal.) As the sun began its ascent over the hills to the distant East, everyone began madly taking photos. Honestly, I often feel that digital photography is more disease than hobby.

The really huge mountains of the Annapurna range are to the North-northwest of Sarangkot. Due North is the nearly perfect pyramid of Machhapuchhare (6997 meters), the subject of the above photo. Before the sun actually made its appearance, it cast a reddish light on the northern range. Beautiful.

Once the sun was up in the sky and we were photoed-out, we went back to the guest house for breakfast. Around 10:00 we began our descent, which as usual was more challenging than the ascent had been. Alex's knees were wobbling by the time we reached the road.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


I washed my hair this morning, Friday, for the first time since Sunday. Why would I do such a thing? Well, it was not an experiment in stabilizing my scalp ph or anything, rather I had little choice in the matter. I recently spent a few days in Bhaktapur, and while I had an absolutely lovely room in a newly-opened hotel (all new brick, terra cotta tiles and private terrace with amazing views...), the water heater never managed to bring the water anywhere beyond tepid. A night in Nagarkot, which is over 2000 meters elevation, prolonged the wait. The Kathmandu Valley has been rather cool and cloudy lately.

Now that my hair is squeaky-clean and I'm feeling a lot better, at last I can write about Bhatapur, or Bhadgaon, the third of the Kathmandu Valley's old capitals (after KTM itself and Lalithpur). I love this place. On my first visit to Nepal 10 years ago, I was enchanted by my all-too-brief day trip to the city and subsequently wished I'd spent more time there.

Bhaktapur was founded in the 12th century by King Anand Dev Malla, and still retains an ancient feel. A mere 12 kilometers East of Kathmandu, it is nonetheless far enough away to escape the worst of that city's traffic and pollution. (Lalithpur, on the other hand, is is basically an extention of the capital, seperated as it is by a mere river.) Rather a lot of smoke is created here as well, as the city is ringed with brick factories and massive smokestacks. In town, potters are constantly working the kilns to produce every manner of souvenir (masks, sugar bowls, incense burners, etc) and, well, pottery. The work is beautiful, and very reasonably priced. Bhaktapur also produces much of Nepali's distinctive hand-made paper products.

The prime activities for visitors to Bhaktapur are shopping for handicrafts, wandering the bricked streets and lanes to the various historical squares, and hanging out on rooftops to soak up gorgeous views of the Himalaya. Long ago I visited Bhaktapur during the monsoon, at which time I had to content myself with views of monuments and kite fights (a la The Kite Runner). This time it was clear the day I reached- though it clouded up afterwards- and I managed to snap a few photos of the distant mountains as the sun set.

Friday, January 11, 2008

As proof that I haven't been completely idle

I've added a new photo album to my Facebook account. You can view it here

Hashish, Madam?

One of my favorite memories of my first visit to Nepal (1998) is of being called "madam" when offered drugs. It didn't stop at hash either, but was usually followed up by opium, grass, and so on. This trip has proved to be simillarly amusing, although I think the list of products may have increased.

A few years in India (and 10 years of hard living) has somewhat taken the shine off of being addressed "madam", though.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Today I took a tempo to Lalithpur, a.k.a. Patan, one of the other two capitals in the Kathmandu Valley. The Nepali tempo is a unique form of public transport: 3-wheeled, the back has two opposing benches large enough to hold 10 Nepali-sized adults with a reasonable degree of comfort. And best of all in this smog-choked valley (you should see the black gunk I clean out of my nostrils each evening), they run on electricity. The 4-5 km ride cost 9 rupees, or about 17 cents US.

I already visited Lalithpur a while back with Alex, but that day we'd walked the whole way (6km from our guest house), stopping regularly en route, and we were starving by the time we reached Durbar Square around 3pm. After we'd eaten (and taken about a gazillion photos from our rooftop cafe), it was quite late and the sun was well on its way down. Let's just say that I felt a tad rushed.

I got off 0n the main road and made my way along the narrow streets and brick alleys of the old town roughly in the direction of Durbar Square. Lalithpur is wonderfully atmospheric, all brick and intricately-carved wood, with tiny lanes opening into large courtyards. Bathing tanks, stupas, shrines and temples abound, and they're often filled with people doing laundry, kids playing, and men gambling. I took a different route than I had last time, and discovered a whole new set of such wonders. By the time I boarded a tempo for the ride back to Kathmandu, I'd taken over 80 photos :S

Monday, January 07, 2008

Buddha Eye

I just love the Nepali stupas.

2K7RL Part II

6. Mukatsukuze- Shigeru Muroi

Muroi is an actress and writer hailing from Toyama Prefecture, where I happened to live for a year as a high school exchange student once upon a time. Reading these essays, I immediately felt that something about her language was familiar.

“Mukatsukuze” is an expression of disgust, and this work is full of comical expressions of that sentiment.

7. In the Country of Last Things- Paul Auster

Unlike (#10) Leviathan (and most of Auster’s other work), I didn’t get immediately sucked into this novel. It’s too bleak (the word “distopian” comes to mind). And even after reading it, I’m not sure what it means. The story is told in the form of a letter written by a young woman to a friend at home. In it she relates her experience of the past couple of years in a place that defies understanding. The city and its inhabitants are in the midst of total economic, physical and existential decline.

8. Ghostwritten- David Mitchell

Nine disparate but connected tales (part of the fun is finding the connection,) Mitchell’s debut was a huge success. (TBC)

9. Sun After Dark; Flights into the Foreign- Pico Iyer

I wish that I had written some of the essays in this collection. Iyer is Indian, has lived in the US, and now calls Japan home. He seems to have been everywhere and seen everything I might possibly be interested in. AND he makes his living from it.

Not long after reading this book, I discovered a copy of Conde Nast Traveler magazine in my guest house (run by disgruntled Tibetan monks) in Dharamsala. It contained an essay Iyer wrote about a visit to Koya-san. Mount Koya is a holy mountain, topped with temples and monasteries of Japan’s esoteric Buddhist sect, Shingon-shu, located a surprisingly-brief one hour train ride from bustling Osaka. I hope to make my own little pilgrimage there next year. Shingon (literally “true word,” the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit mantra) is Japan’s version of Tantric Buddhism, and very similar to the Tibetan Buddhism of Vajrayana. I later traveled to Ladakh with a Japanese guy who’d attended a Shingon middle and high school, and he was a great source of information as we monastery hopped, meditated and took lots of photos.

Shingon (literally “true word,” the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit mantra) is Japan’s version of Tantric Buddhism, and very similar to the Tibetan Buddhism of Vajrayana. I later traveled to Ladakh with a Japanese guy who’d attended a Shingon middle and high school, and he was a great source of information as we monastery hopped, meditated and took lots of photos.

10. Leviathan- Paul Auster

This is classic Auster, surely a novel to read again. It has all the elements I’ve come to savor and expect: the Auster-esque narrator, a doppelganger, an odyssey, questions on the true nature of reality. If you enjoy Murakami, I urge you to check out Auster. I sincerely envy those of you who have yet to discover him.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

2007 Reading List (in roughly the order I read them)

Last year, inspired by Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping or the Dirt (neither of which, I confess, I have read), I began keeping track of the books I read. Rather than throw all 40+ books at you at once, I'm going to toss them out in easily digestible groups of five.

1. number9dream- David Mitchell
Mitchell (who, by the way, was born the same month as me) is shaping up to be one of my favorite authors. He crafts intricate tales spanning ages and continents. Not unlike the work of Armenian-Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Mitchell constructs his novels around a narrative or thematic device.
Unfortunately, this is my least-favorite of the three Mitchell novels I have now read. On one level, it’s the story of a young man from the country who comes to Tokyo in search of the father he never knew. It’s also the story of his life, told through remembrances and flashbacks. It took this thick-headed reader a little while to catch on to the fact that much of the “story” is actually his internal fantasy life. And then there are excerpts from the diaries of his great uncle's World War II naval heroics and bizarre short stories that our protagonist reads… ambitious, yes, but in the end it doesn’t really add up to a gripping novel. See #8 (next post) for Mitchell’s debut, which is a much better read.

2. Homage to Catalonia- George Orwell
This is Orwell’s account of the time he spent fighting the Fascists in 1930s Spain. He accounts the situation as he experiences it, and contrasts this with the popular depiction of the conflict in the European press. Beyond a lucid exposition of the political situation, the day-to-day drudgery of early 20th century warfare is well detailed. Orwell is a talented writer and a socialist in the true meaning of the word.

3. Hagoromo- Banana Yoshimoto (red denotes books I read in Japanese)
Typical Banana, Hagoromo is the story of a young woman’s reawakening following the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Chance encounters lead to new connections, and childhood mysteries are revealed. While I enjoyed reading it, after finishing I was left feeling sort of, “Eh, so what?”

4. (A Very Short Introduction to) Indian Thought
Excellent. This slim volume, part of a series published by Oxford University Press, gives a lucid account of the major schools of Classical Indian philosophy. It is both a great read and intellectually stimulating. I particularly appreciated getting a sense of how Buddhism (both early and later Mahayana developments) fit into the overall scheme of things. Recommended for anyone curious about the Indian worldview.

5. House of Leaves- Mark Z. Danielewski
A monster of a book, and absolutely brilliant. It’s unlikely I would have completed it had I been otherwise employed. Multi-layered, the narrative switches between a manuscript about a bizarre documentary film and the man who finds and becomes obsessed with it. As the puzzle of the manuscript (which contains copious foot and end notes and is heavily annotated) deepens and the tale of the ill-fated film becomes darker, the narrator’s own life spins further and further out of control.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Hollow Shell

So I wrote about the passing of my iBook. Well, yesterday when I went to pick up the corpse from the doctor's office, I asked them how I might dispose of it. Much to my surprise, they offered me 4000 Nepali Rupees to take it off my hands. That's a little over US $60. I of course jumped at the offer.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

R.I.P. Apple iBook (2003-2007)

It's official: after 4 years and 8 months of loyal sevice, my laptop has breathed its last. Fortunately, I backed-up my data on an external hard drive before leaving Mysore. And on the bright side, now my backpack has become significantly lighter :)

Coincidentally, Alex's laptop (running Windows xp) also decided to stop working recently. It's currently in the shop, where they're trying to retrieve his recent photos before reformatting. This is the 4th time he's had to reformat since he got the laptop one year ago. I never did a thing with my Mac :P