Playing in the Giant Sandbox along the Pakistani Border

People often think that the desert is a barren, lifeless landscape of unending repetition, but that couldn’t be more wrong.

The sand itself is an amalgamation of thousands of different colors that join together to give off a unified appearance. But, even that changes as the sun paints the sand in different hues from sun-up to sundown.

The desert is full of surprises. It’s a land in constant motion – an ocean of sand cascading in waves toward an unseen shore.

It’s a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” adventure park. It’s a pale-blue-sea-sand-baby-landscape of rippling waves and blinding skies. It’s constantly changing, upgrading, and modifying its look.

It’s also a land of extremes. The blistering sun bakes the sand by day while the dark-sky-moon grabs it by night, holding it captive in its icy grip and whispering secrets into the wind.

There are prickly burs, nature’s landmines. There are also prickly flowers whose pastel colors belie a pointy petal. There are buzzing bees, and fluttering flies. And, of course, there are people.

My first trip deep into a desert took me time traveling to my childhood sandbox. I’d always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of the little green army men that I played with in the sand. What did their world look like from the vastness of my bucket-shaped landscapes?

Now, I felt I understood.

Muslim men in long tunics led me along a desert “road” through small gypsy villages of dark-skinned and florescent-clothed desert dwellers. Their modest homes, made of mud and sticks, barely visible against the backdrop.

In the Great Thar desert of India, the only shade comes under mushroom-topped trees. Your bathroom is a bush and your food comes with dry, tasteless chapatti bread – both your fork and spoon for the accompanying mush.

No matter how much my bum hurt and no matter how often my testicles complained, the bumpy ride atop the humpy camel could not stop me from staring in awe at the sun-baked sands.

You hear stories of camels being violent, nasty creatures but my impression was the total opposite. They’re some of the goofiest creatures you will ever meet and, when domesticated, have an almost doglike playfulness and affinity for humans.

They roll around in the sand, kick their feet up like giant dogs, and regularly jiggle their jowls in a comical motion that I generally reserve for late night party pictures.

Certain moments bring you back to reality. Others catapult you into the realms of the bizarre.

The gypsy children, sensing a foreigner, seemed to know just one phrase in English, “school pen,” which they repeated endlessly with hands outstretched.

Though my group of travelers came from different corners of the world (1 North American, 2 South Americans, 2 Asians, and 2 Europeans), they looked at us all as one thing only – foreign.

In an already unfamiliar landscape, I came across one of the strangest communities I have ever seen.

As we approached a small village to water our camels, a group of young children rushed up to ask for “school pens.” I began wondering why these kids wanted pens (What would they write on? Wouldn’t they prefer something a bit better than that?). But I soon realized that what I had first thought to be a group of young girls was actually a crowd of both boys and girls. Yet, the boys were all dressed in saris or other traditional Indian women’s outfits, complete with the necessary bangles, piercing, jewelry and makeup.

What could possibly be going on in this village and why were there just three boys in the whole town who dressed like boys?

In this far western corner of the country, women are married off at alarmingly young ages. 14, is considered old – too old. Would these young boys be sent off to marry like their female counterparts in Rajasthan?

I never got an explanation. My guides shrugged it off – or perhaps misunderstood my question entirely.

Some mysteries must stay in the desert.

Every now and again when you’re traveling you have one of these AHA! moments where you grasp the magnitude of your journey. You realize that that little boy in the sandbox in Virginia is riding a camel through the desert along the Pakistani border… and that’s pretty wild!

You remove yourself from the moment to step outside and look back in on it.

You dream big as a kid, but so often there’s a Grand Canyon between your dreams and your realities.

So when you find yourself swept up in a foreign desert, picking the grains of sand from your growing beard, you try and seal up the moment in some remote memory box. You pick and choose the elements, creating a miniature shoebox diorama in your mind to dig out at a later date when you’re buried in bills and threatened with the insanities of everyday monotony – so that one day, you can say AHA!, flip the switch, hike up your drawers, and jump back on that camel for a journey to the unknown.

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The Poon Hill Trek: Notes from a Frozen Journal

I’ve never put up a post full of notes before because I thought it’d be incredibly boring.  Maybe it is.  I don’t know.  But, I thought I’d give it a try this week.  If nothing else, it will give you some insight into the process that goes into each of these posts on MarkontheMap.  It’s a little less polished, more candid.  I hope you enjoy…

The Poon Hill Trek

Day 1: Nayapul to Tikhedhunga

Elevation Change: 500m to 1,540m

Dominant Landscape Feature:  Latticed hills

Notes:

-There are many tourist facilities, hot showers and western toilets at the start of the trail.  I am surprised.

-Several times throughout the day donkey caravans overtake us, carrying supplies to the villagers along the track.  Bells jingle on the costumed donkeys and their master grunts, spanking them with a whip.

-A donkey farts on me – right in my face.  I cannot get the smell out of my nostrils.

-It’s remarkably hot, I started the day in a sweatshirt and pants, but now I have stripped to shorts and a T-Shirt.  Maybe they were right; maybe it won’t be as cold as I thought.

-There are a few groups passing with porters and large backpacks.  Is my small, school-sized backpack going to be enough?  Did I bring enough supplies?  Am I missing something here?

-Why did I hire a guide?  I could have walked this by myself.  This path is the highway of the region; it’s packed with villagers.

-Late winter flowers are blooming.  My room at the teahouse has a view down the mountain ridge, but I can’t stop looking at the bright orange flowers all around me.

-Across the way, yaks are working the latticed hills like characters on different levels of the early Donkey Kong.

-I’ve just watched this man walk down to the river, collect stones in a bag, carry it across the bridge and repeat for an hour.  He hasn’t stopped.  He must have done it 15 times since I’ve been here.  And what have I done in that time?  Stare at him.  And stare at the waterfall.  I’m a bad person – or maybe just lazy.

-“Namaste,” “Namaste,” “Namaste.”  Everyone in Nepal greets you when you pass.  I love it.  I think my new favorite word is Namaste.

-Okay, it’s officially cold.  I’m putting on my yak’s wool socks and going to bed.

Day 2: Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani

Elevation Change: 1,200m (drop) to 2,750m

Dominant Landscape: Steps, endless steps

Notes:

-Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up Up

-I don’t know if I can walk up anymore.

-I don’t think that some of these other trekkers I see are going to make it up this hill.  Several are passed out in pools of their own sweat panting like dogs.  Again, what exactly do they have in these gigantic bags?

-School kids from the hilltop town of Ulleri are racing down the mountain to get to their school in Tirkhedhunga.  Does this mean they have to walk back up later today?  Everyday?  According to my guide (who is growing increasingly unfriendly) “Yes.”

-Why are all of these donkeys in hippie costumes?

-Mmmm.  Tea never tasted so good.

-Going to the teahouse is like going to the local pub.  I’m getting tea drunk on the views.

-I thought that this hike would be a great escape in nature.  But, this is no wilderness adventure.  The lands I’m trekking through have been inhabited for centuries.  If anything, this is a cultural adventure (albeit in a harsh landscape).

-It’s raining – a lot!  Everything I have is wet.  The guide told me it doesn’t rain this time of year so I didn’t pack my waterproof jacket.  I’m in wool, wet wool.  My nose is running.  I hate cold rain.  I can’t think of a worse precipitation.

-We’re escaping the rain at this nice teahouse with a fire in the two home town of Nayathani.  To get here we had to walk through what looked like a rainforest – almost like fiordland in New Zealand.  Seems like some weird microclimate, like it might always rain there (thanks guide!).

-My anger towards my guide is growing.  He was supposed to speak English.  Maybe he is, but I don’t understand him and I don’t need him.  Why did I waste my money?

-It’s thundering.  I made it to a teahouse at Ghorepani.  We are close to 3,000 meters high in the Himalaya.  The thin walls of my blue lodge are shaking.  There is no electricity, but there is a fire.  I hang everything I have up to dry.

-The teahouse owner’s daughters are friendly and speak English.  They want me to play cards with them but the game is so mindless that I give up after an hour.  The game is called “Donkey Game” and one of the girls is called “Dynasty.”

-There is one hot shower in the place.  It’s in the dark kitchen, so I shower, naked, in a kitchen, with no light.  I forgot my towel (awkward).

-After dinner there are few other hikers at the house with us.  Their guide has a guitar (and a friendly sense of humor) so we sit by the fire as he sings Newari folk songs.  Dynasty joins in, but he keeps asking her to stop because she’s not very good.

-There is something comforting about all of this – like I am sitting around the fire at Boy Scout camp.  For a second, everything feels familiar.  Then, I realize where I am at, and that I don’t understand the tunes, and that I am nowhere near anything that looks like home.

-I’m going to sleep.  I wonder if we will be able to hike to Poon Hill in the morning, or if the clouds will again stop me from seeing the towering peaks.

Day 3: Ghorepani to Tatopani

Elevation Change: 2750m to 1190m

Dominant Landscape:  Snow-covered peaks

Notes:

-Everything is white.  I don’t have proper boots.  It’s going to be a long day.

-Himalaya means “abode of snow” in Sanskrit.

-We will not climb Poon Hill.  Poon Hill is covered in a deep snow and there would be nothing to see.  My perfect Himalayan photo is lost (again).

– All I can see is white: white fog, white ground, my fingertips turning white.  The snow is about a foot deep.  It’s still snowing.

-The landscape is transformed; every nook and cranny of the hills is accentuated, highlighted with white.

-I’m sliding downhill, but the snow is lessening the lower we get and I’m removing layers.

-I have to go #2 and my guide recommends that I go on the side of the path, he will be my lookout.  Great!

-What are these mountains called, I ask my guide when the clouds finally clear.  “Those are not mountains,” he says quite seriously, pointing to some 5,000m peaks, “Those are little hills.”  Only in Nepal!

-I see graffiti of a hammer and sickle in several small towns as I zigzag down the mountains.  I am in Maoist country.

-It is a long way down from the cliff over the Kali Gandaki gorge to the town of Tatopani.  My knees hurt from the endless stairs.

-There is a hot spring next to the river, I sit and bathe along the edge of the deepest gorge in the world.  Local men are in their underwear, and a few schoolgirls jump in, clothes on.

-My guide will leave tomorrow.  It’s his decision.  He has a “sick wife.”  He will not give me back the money he owes for additional days.  I am angry about the money, but happy he is leaving.  I am on my own.

-Totopani is the biggest town I’ve seen so far.  They’ve just completed a bumpy road here from Beni that two or three jeeps plow through each day.  Women and babies peek out of dark alleyways as goats, and chickens wander the streets.  It’s a visual feast.

-The Poon Hill trek is complete! But, my hike is not over.  It hasn’t yet reached the halfway point.

-From here on out, there will be very few tourists.  It’s winter, off-season, and I am going further than foreigners on a quick Nepal vacation can go.

***After completing the Poon Hill trek (never having seen Poon Hill or the famed peaks), I plowed further away from civilization. Joining the Jomsom Trek at Tatopani, I hiked north without a guide along the Kali Gandaki Gorge through the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya and onto the Tibetan plateau.

Never before had I ventured so far away from everything I’d ever known.

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap treks through the world’s largest gorge along an ancient Tibetan salt route from Tatopani to Marpha.