Because I’m half Swiss, I like to organize, although perhaps my methods are eccentric. Readers tell me that they’re intrigued by my references to various botanicals, or Swiss culture, or Irish politics, and would like to learn more. For a fast-paced read, I omitted many cultural and scientific details. I’ll be blogging about them instead. Each book in the Falcon series has its own posts that describe places I travel to for background research, and plants that feature in the books. The Inspiration blogs are general, ranging from music I like to write by, to my thoughts about religion, animals, and other topics. You can either browse all posts, or click on each category. If there’s anything you’d like to know about in particular, drop me a note through firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @GabrielleAuthor.
Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.
Our first day in Prague, we’re able to leave our BnB on the sixth floor safely, though this might be the world’s oldest elevator. The building we’re staying in is swank, but somehow disjointed, with a giant stair case entrance, and huge stairwells with stained glass windows. We wander along the river. Building after building displays intricate beautiful stone work, reflecting the fashion of the early twentieth century. The Art Nouveau facades are peach, sage-green, ivory, and occasionally, Pepto-Bismol pink. Curlicues writhe around windows, tall doors are ornamented with knockers. The shops have signs in Czech; not until we reach the tourist part is there information in English. Unlike cities like Munich, there are no bikes or mopeds, but traffic doesn’t seem especially heavy. The Charles Bridge is predictably crowded; we save walking it for another day and continue on to the Old Town, Staré Město, where the city hall, currently undergoing renovation, glowers behind the scaffolding. Its tower is rusty-colored and has a Game of Thrones feel. Nearby, the ornate doors show lion’s heads. Looking carefully, I notice one of the lions has something in its mouth.
Right. Don’t get on the bad side of the ruling class.
Our culinary adventure starts when we pass a place called Terroir. I love the concept of terroir. Soil and weather conditions combine to give grapes from each locale a unique flavor. Later that concept by was broadened by locovores to apply to vegetables and fruits. Terroir repudiates the idea of industrialized factory farming. We have to take a look inside this place.
We choose to sit in the wine cellar, surrounded by many bottles of fine French vintage. This early in the evening, we’re the only ones there. It’s magical and private; the thick walls of this twelfth century walls enveloping us in silence and shadows. The atmosphere lets us concentrate on my tasty sea bass and exquisite wine. I get a Chardonnay from Burgundy that’s so creamy on my tongue, it seems to spread. The carrots are thin slivers of taste explosion, and pureed parsnips add a nutty sweetness. Even better, the editor spouse and I can hear each other without having to lean over and raise our voices. We spend a relaxed couple of hours chatting intermittently with the sommelier about French elections.
Europe’s largest ghetto was in Prague, and before World War 2, 55,000 Jews lived there. Exploring the ghetto is a fascinating experience. Instead of the twisty small streets and miserable dwellings, we see broad streets lines with shops, the houses the usual gorgeous Art Nouveau style. We visit four of the synagogues on the tour, all four of them very different. What unites them is that none seem to be used regularly for worship. I reread my Rick Steves travel guide, and now a few facts jump out at me. The ghetto was razed in 1897, and the original 220 buildings replaced by 83 buildings. This was a good time for Jews, who had thrived economically with the more tolerant conditions. In the Spanish Synagogue, there are vitrines displaying the industrialist tycoons, glassmakers, writers, and artists of the Belle Époque. The very first man whose photograph I study died in Terezin, the concentration camp. It makes me unbearably sad. He probably enjoyed his prosperous respectability, never dreaming what was in store.
Of those 55,000 Jews in Prague, 10,000 survived the Holocaust. Pinkas Synagogue is a reminder of that. The names engraved on the wall by hand, of each person who perished, is poignant. The tracery of letters, black and reddish, form a startlingly beautiful weave over the plain beige sturdy walls. A sacred atmosphere is created out of this web of memory, the monumental loss of life somehow elevated, not trivialized, in this list. There are only 1700 registered Jews in Prague now, according to Rick Steves. Do they live in the gorgeous buildings surrounding the synagogues? Perhaps not, because the houses of worship are no longer a place where the living congregate. They have turned into memorials.
The graveyard itself is massive, but more in bulk that in actual area. For more than 300 years, Jews were only allowed to bury their dead in this area, so bodies were buried on top of other bodies. Gravestones are crowded, or lean to the side, or have the only their tips poke out of the ground that’s covered them with successive interments. The stones, blackened with moss and lichen, reflect back the patterns on the mottled bark of the tall trees growing here and there. The stones seem to replicate the haphazard nature of personality; forced into community, there are some that lean together, huddled, supported by each other, while others seem to draw back into whatever space they can find in the crowded monuments of the dead. The area is bleached of life, except for the green of the leaves, and yet the emptiness and absence feels full. The passage of time, the idea of many lives, these abstruse concepts seem to vibrate in the air and make it heavy.
The Belle Époque was a period of gaiety, the Can Can in Paris, the beautiful women and flowers in Mucha’s paintings evoking the idea that style can obscure the dread that underlies so much of life. The grand gold and saffron colored houses still line the streets, offering high-end fashion, coffee, apartments for the well-off. Life goes on.
But we will not forget the graves.
Last week I hiked up to the Segnés Pass, 2627 meters. It wasn’t a pretty sight, me scrabbling up those last few meters, grappling with my sticks in one hand, scrabbling for a handhold with the other. At the pass itself, there’s an old military barracks that’s been repurposed as a simple guesthouse. From it, a young man watched me with concern, and offered help. “I’m alright,” I said, faintly embarrassed.
And I was. Because I saw this:
Altogether, my hike was more than six hours, an elevation of 1200 meters on foot, and the same down again. Why do I do this?
To answer the question, I need to tell you a bit about how I grew up. Like most households, mine was run by my mother. As a venerable old person, she lives a tightly circumscribed, almost cloistered existence. Shifts in temperature distress her; she makes minute adjustments in her curtains and windows to control her environment. Last time she was to travel, she cancelled because the heat was turned off in her apartment, and she didn’t want to return to a cold home.
In other words, she’s like a beautiful hot house flower. Precious orchids thrive in glass houses, which could be a prison of sorts. It was for me. As a child, I had insomnia, and my dreams were marked with images of flight. I like nothing better than to see endless sky and distant vistas spread out before me.
Freedom. Freedom to go where I want, when I want. The freedom that comes from knowing I can take some discomfort. Maybe I’ll be sweaty, maybe it will be windy, I might even have a blister. I can handle it.
My hike begins in the village of Elm. In October of 1799, villagers bore witness to the hunger and desperation of General Suvorov’s Russian army, fleeing the French under the command of General Molitor. Starving and barefoot, the 17,000 Russians, Tartars, Kalmucks, and Cossacks resorted to boiling goatskins taken from the villagers, and bolting them down, with the hair still on. Despite Suvorov’s efforts to maintain discipline and order, some soldiers killed livestock and ate it raw. The villagers, forced to accompany them as guides for the mountain crossing, fled under the cover of dark, leaving the soldiers to make their own way. Over 2000 of the emaciated, weakened men perished in the same range I’m about to hike.
I intend to climb well-fed, and I know where the pass is.
I’m staying at the Hotel Segnés so I can get an early start the next day. Dinner is whatever’s on offer, which happens to be a tasty lasagna, with a big fresh salad, and dessert. For a Swiss meal it’s a bargain, which is a good thing, as Elm doesn’t offer a variety of restaurants.
I’m up by six and fed before eight. Since I don’t want to hike more than 7 hours, I’m taking the cable car part of the way up, through the Tschingel ravine, named after the Tschingelhörner, the hornlike peaks where I’ll be crossing over into the canton of Grisons. (Graubünden). The majesty of the dark and gloomy ravine is marred by an ongoing silly recording broadcast loudly in the cable-car.
I escape the cable car and head up. The “horned gods” are awaiting. I draw closer and closer to the Martin’s hole, a circular break in the peaks. The church in Elm is lit by sun pouring down through the opening twice a year. Legend has it that Martin was watching his sheep, when a giant climbed over from the neighboring canton, with an eye for some mutton. The brave shepherd fought for his flock, and flung his shepherd’s crook at the intruder. Instead of hitting the giant, the crook flew into the stone wall and shattered it, creating a hole. Much thunder ensued. Presumably the sheep were saved, hopefully not for General Suvorov’s starving army.
As mentioned before, the old army barracks is right at the top. There, I spend close to an hour chatting with Patrick, the young Austrian who serves me soup and warm tea. The simple stone hut isn’t much of a tourist draw, and not busy. Patrick has arrived for his three month stay fortified with books. He’s just finished a book by the Dalia Lama. I suspect he likes the freedom up here, and the quiet.
Then I’m off to the other side, Canton Grisons. After a tricky descent, which is secured with some wobbly chains, but is still very steep, I arrive at a flat high plateau. Streams spread out like a web over the short grass and isolated clusters of brilliant blue gentians. As I descend off the plateau towards the Swiss Alpine Club hut Segnés, the flowers become numerous. There are thousands of yellow buttercups interspersed with white yarrow and more gentians. Some wild pinks and the orange of hawkweed dot the grass. I follow the famous Flims waterway down to Foppa, where I catch a ski-lift down to Flims itself.
Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.
If David Sedaris can do confessional, so can I. This all starts with a visit to my doctor, a stand-up kinda guy. I haul out the six different remedies for my sluggish digestion for show and tell, and he sets me straight. Exercise induces peristalsis. That, and fibre. Additionally, he suggests artichoke -based drops for my gallbladder.
I already eat a fairly healthy diet, thanks to the editor-spouse, who works from home and relaxes by making huge dinners. However, I do indulge in fatty foods, and I’ve slacked off on the exercise since I came back from Annapurna Base Camp last year. So the artichoke drops don’t have to work even harder, I resolve to eat less fatty food. I plan a five-hour hike across the Rossberg’s three different peaks in Canton Schwyz. (see last week’s post for more on Schwyz).
The night before, I arrive a little before ten at night in my hotel, in the pretty little town of Rapperswil, on Lake Zurich. I’m tempted by the sumptous array of cheeses I see, and order a small plate. Turns out I’m supposed to choose my own. After intensive descriptions of five, my head is spinning. “Just chose one of each type. One kind of blue cheese, one soft cheese, and one hard cheese,” I say.
I’m sitting down, reading Tana French and sipping a nice Yvorne, a Swiss white wine from the Valais, when a shadow falls across the table. The cheese plate.
I’ve borrowed a photo from Pixabay, because I didn’t have the presence of mind to take one. Multiply what’s on the photo times six. Yes, the thirty or so morsels are only thumb size, but that’s a hell of a lot of cheese. I point that out. “You said you wanted one of each,” the implacable young man says. “
“No, I wanted one of each type,” I wail. He doesn’t answer. His gaze is on me, intent, still fairly friendly. A lot of the cheese is soft and runny. I imagine the effort it must have taken to cut it; to arrange it on the wooden board.
I’m going to need another glass of wine to get that down. But tomorrow, I’ll hike five hours.
The next day the market is in full swing outside the hotel. There’s lots of greenery, but I can’t very well travel with a backpack full of salad. I chose a nut croissant,
I’ll be hiking five hours after all.
Except that I don’t follow routes that well. I make it to the top of the first ridge, enjoy the view, eat only half my croissant (oh I’m so good) and proceed to the next peak. Or maybe not. Somehow, I’m going back down. By the time I realize this, I don’t see another path up, and I hate retracing my steps.
Then I come to the metaphorical crossroad, so to speak. I see a path going back up. Way back up. I also see a sign informing me that the farmhouse five-minutes away has homemade ice cream.
I’ll give you three guesses on what wins out.
At least I’m supporting local farmers. Mrs. Gehren invites me into her kitchen, as it’s getting cooler. As I eat my ice cream, made with milk from the neighbor’s cows, an elderly biker comes in. He orders a coffee and asks Mrs. Gehren for a nut croissant (Nussgipfel). Since she doesn’t have one, I give him mine. That saves me the guilt from throwing away the uneaten portion, since I’m now consuming ice cream. Typical Swiss fairness—he offers to pay me for it, which I decline. In meantime, she comes back with a big portion of strawberry cake, which she discovered. He eats that too. He’s all skin and muscle. When I ask him about his Swiss Alpine Club pin, he says he used to do a lot of hiking, but now his knees are not up to it, so he took up biking. He’s seventy-nine. Yeah, when you’re like that, you can eat two desserts, and he probably doesn’t need artichoke drops either.
When the world ends, the hardy Swiss will still be puttering away in their all-weather gear, taking refuge in the alps, and building gadgets from scratch. In the apocalypse, my money is on them.
In meantime, I head back to the railway station, grazing on cherries from the orchards. I make a quick stop to buy some honey from a roadside box. But I’m saving that caloric expenditure for another day.
Oh, it really wasn’t that onerous. But it was hot, and the 500-meter ascent (a third of a mile) of the mountain of Mythen took place in little over an hour.
It’s summer, and time to explore Switzerland, the home of my fictional heroine, chemistry prodigy Peppa Mueller. Though Peppa is apolitical, she’s proud of her homeland, especially after further misadventures land her in the political chaos of Ireland and Northern Ireland during the height of the 1950s IRA campaign.
Switzerland officially began with a written agreement, a pact, between representatives of rural communities in 1291. Their names are recorded: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, and Arnold Von Melchtal. The country of Switzerland is called Schweiz in the native Swiss-German dialect, and the state that Werner Stauffacher came from was called Schwyz, so plainly, the country is named after that first kernel. Schwyz and the states from which the other men came were collectively known as “forest communities.” Each of the leaders brought ten men. We’re not talking a huge, well-equipped army here. I imagine a mostly illiterate group of clannish men, with pitchforks and scythes as weapons. Then, as now, the Swiss just wanted to be left alone to tend to their cows and fortunes.
Schwyz and the other two states, Uri, and Nidwalden, are tiny, even for Switzerland, which is itself the size of New Hampshire. They’re known as the inner part of Switzerland. Though the landscape is mountainous, the mountains pale in comparison to the western and southern parts of the country. “Big” Mythen, which I climbed, is 1811 meters, (almost 6000 feet), but in the western state of Graubünden many peaks are over 3000 meters. Mythen is composed of a big peak and a smaller one; the big one rises starkly out of the still wooded landscape, a tower of reddish rock. The ascent, built by a local man in 1864 for the sum of 3000 francs, consists of steps hewn into the rock. Since a few accidents took place, the ascent has been additionally secured with chain railings. It’s steep, but safe, though I wouldn’t recommend it in rain. The Swiss Alpine Club designates it as T3.
Once at the top, there is, as always, food and libation to be had. The hospitality is not as warm as in a family-run establishment, but it’s cozy enough, and has the usual wine, local cheeses, and homemade fruit pie (Kuchen). The lowlands lie spread beneath, dotted over with the crystalline sapphire blue of various lakes.
A brief rain squall drives us all inside, where I notice the heraldic emblems on each chair. Apparently, all the donors of the association that manages the restaurant have their own family crests. The surly little man running the place tells me that everyone has a family crest. His own family has been in the area since the sixteenth century.
I get ready to descend, noting that the bathrooms cost exactly one franc. Since I don’t have a coin of that denomination, I’m looking forward to reaching the thick old forest that surrounds the peak. After a lovely wander through pines and thickly mossed rocks, I head down to the town of Schwyz (in the state of Schwyz). A few examples of lovely architecture grace the old town.
Who shall carry the burden of the buildings? Cool nymphets, graceful thin androgynous men, buxom belles with their curly tresses curving around their breasts, groaning older men with broad chests and fierce beards.
They are stone, but their faces speak: seduction, indifference, a poised pride. They are everywhere, buttresses, doors, windows. Perhaps once they were the only ones who could dare express emotions. After suffering through Word War 2, and losing an estimated 77,000 Jews, the Czechs were liberated by the Russians.
I’m a tourist passing through, so I’m making inferences here. The men and women in their fifties sometimes have a muted air about them. They avert their eyes, make no attempt to communicate. There’s not even the indication that I’d have to try a different language, a shrug, a smile of bewilderment. Just nothing. As if it’s dangerous to be a witness to anything, to make any kind of acknowledgement.
What was life was like under the Communist state? We seek out the dusty Museum of Communism, inexplicably marooned inside the belly of a building dedicated to one of the mainstays of capitalism, gambling. The sign outside tells us we’re entering a Casino, giving the impression that the museum itself is somehow a Casino exhibit. The apathetic cashier, just doing her job, transports one back to the that era, even before one sees the posters.
It’s already occurred to me that the reason most people over thirty don’t speak English, is because English was the language of subversion. In retrospect, it’s amazing it took me so long to arrive at that conclusion. The Czech Republic didn’t achieve its freedom from the USSR until 1989, when it became the country of Czechoslovakia, which split again into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The hidden museum, with the printed signs that predate the advent of laser printer, and its hodgepodge of items, has a wealth of information about life in Communist times. Posters were a means of disseminating propaganda. The first one here creates a link between Nazi collaborators, implying they are the current critics of the Communist regime. Athletes and labourers were feted; they were the anonymous heroes of the workers’ revolution.
“A socialist man should be satisfied with a modest income while conscientiously fulfilling his work tasks, improving his knowledge of communist doctrines, co-operating with state bodies, and being observant as to whether someone in his environment does not disturb the state order.”
Ah, yes, the interrogation room. If one heard too much, said too much, one might end up there. The Nationals Safety Corporation, formed in 1947, included the non-uniformed State Security, the secret police. Lest the population question the need for constant vigilance, civil defense drills were held. These drills were an opportunity for instructors to declaim the mercilessness of the West, which was willing to use any weapon, including poison gas, against the Communists.
Posters showed that America oppressed its own population, especially the blacks.(ok, that last part was true). Uncle Sam should be flicked off the globe. Villagers could work with the secret police to uncover evidence of any traitors, spies, and collaborators.
The stone of the buildings had become the state, the men and women like mute statues, straining beneath the weight of its portals, of its authority, of its power.
The figures in stone are still in place in the Art Nouveau buildings; the former Socialist workers of Czechoslovakia live in a democratic society today, but some walk with petrified faces, mummified souls. The wages of living in a police state are high. Perhaps some will never fee free again.
My first clue that I’ve returned to the Canton of Graubünden (Grisons) is the friendliness. People are open and chatty. I’m visiting the Eastern part of the canton, the Surselva, literally “above the woods” in Rhomansch.
Rhomansch? That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, left over from the Roman Empire. To further confuse you, the inhabitants of Surselva speak their own variation of the dialect. Luckily for me, they also speak Swiss-German, which I speak as well.
A generous friend is allowing me to use his vacation apartment, so I’m exploring the Val Lumnezia. This week in late May, the valley is living up to its name. The sky shimmers with sunshine. Unlike some other valleys, this long broad valley is relatively dry, and the mountains aren’t as high. It’s accessed through a bus that starts in the town of Ilanz, which is located by a green turbulent river that bolts its way through a canyon. Rafting is popular, but I’m not in Ilanz for rafting. I’m here to get supplies for me and my hiking buddy, as the next day is a holiday. Unfortunately, I’ve underestimated the Swiss holiday fervor. All the stores closed at five instead of six-thirty, which means I have nothing for tomorrow’s meals except walnut pesto and a bundle of pasta. Okaay.
On the way to the old part of Ilanz
I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. Find a nice restaurant, relax, order off the menu, and then beg for whatever is transportable. I head towards the old section of town and find the restaurant Obertor, which turns out to be as nice as I hoped. As I enjoy a glass of the local Pinot Noir, which comes from Maienfeld, I discuss my victual challenge with the apple-cheeked waitress. Would I like them to heat up half a kilogram of frozen bread to take with me? Sure. How about some cheeses? Ditto that. A sausage? Now I’m in heaven. They’ve saved my bacon.
It’s still a tight community in the Val Lumnezia. My bus driver introduces himself by his first name, and gives me hiking tips. (If this doesn’t seem abnormal, you don’t know the Swiss-Germans). A woman picks me and my friend up during a steep up-hill climb with luggage. The passenger on one of my bus rides carries seedlings in a big woven basket. On another bus ride, the driver pulls up by a restaurant to everyone’s puzzlement. A minute later, newspaper handoff accomplished, he drives away again, leaving behind a satisfied co-worker who now has something to read with his coffee.
At the end of the Val Lumnezia, where the high mountain plateau Greina begins, I visit the village of Vrin. An old man is cleaning his scythe in the communal fountain. Laundry decorate the wooden buildings, which look like they’re blackened from centuries of smoke. I head towards the one place to eat in the village, a bakery, where I’m greeted by a voluble woman who praises the nut cake her husband makes. After she serves me on the terrace, her husband comes up himself to make sure it was all to my taste. Their cheerfulness aside, it’s hard to make a living in these little villages. The income from the months when the tourists come must make up for the long winter months of darkness and few customers.
Stoked on sugar, protein from the nuts, and caffeine, I head off to look at the Hotel Péz Terri. I want climb through Greina over the pass over into the adjoining canton in 2018, and am looking for a departure point. I like what I see in Vrin. The Péz Terri probably hasn’t changed in fifty years. No corporate slick brochures and spa amenities. The young man who seems to be running the entire hotel talks with me about the best times to do the two to three-day mountain pass hike. He probably inherited the place from relatives; he’s cheerful and helpful, and I bet he’s a good cook too.
Everyone needs a nice place to stay—even bugs.
Insect refuge seen on hike
About five minutes out of Vrin I see the hiking path to Lumbrein on my right. I gladly leave the road, though there aren’t many cars. The two-hour hike from Vrin to Lumbrein is a pleasant walk through woods and glades; not too strenuous. The meadows are filled with dandelions, buttercups, clary-sage, and some yarrow. I rest above Lumbrein before continuing, crossing a brook with a newly constructed wooden bridge. As the end of the valley recedes into the distance, trees grow sparser, giving way to huge areas for grazing. With nothing to block my view, I can see the deep rift of the river valleys opposite me, branching off the Lumnezia. The sky isn’t mottled by a single cloud; the sun beats down; one of the first true days of summer.
Next year I’ll be back to Vrin, and I’ll continue to the high mountain pass.
On my way back to my hometown, I decide to stop off in Graubünden’s capital, Chur, perhaps best known internationally as the home of H.R. Giger, who designed the monster and the spooky sets for Sigourney Weaver’s break-out movie in 1979, Alien. However, I’m looking for a more heart-warming experience, one that celebrates community and local character. Luckily, I happen to have arrived on a Saturday, when Chur’s local market is in full swing.
Ochsenplatz and Market
As tempted as I am by all the bread, cheeses, fruits, and other delicacies around, I have more than an hour’s trip back to St. Gallen, and my own kitchen table. I start scouting for a restaurant, and with luck, stumble upon Emma’s, a communal enterprise located near the Ochsenplatz, which translates ox place. The Ochsenplatz, part of the market that winds through several pedestrian streets, abuts the old city wall and a guard tower. According to my doe-eyed waiter, the old city wall still persists inside the surrounding apartments as well, visible in some of the kitchen walls. Emma’s itself looks like an old cellar on the inside, repainted in soothing pastels. Outside there are tables nudging up against the cheese-seller, who has her market stall right next to me. One of the owners, a young woman in a retro skirt, sits on the steps of the restaurant and chats with a table full of friends while her mother brings out drinks. Every day Emma offers one salty snack, and one sweet. I enjoy homemade smoked salmon rolls enhanced with crunchy beets, along with a glass of a local white wine, a Lauber Riesling Sylvaner. While Emma’s has great wines, don’t expect any bottled water. Since privatization of water creates an increasing threat to the well-being of the world, Emma’s serves fresh clean water from the Ochsenplatz. The 4 francs paid for the local water is donated to a project to improve water quality in Asia. (They didn’t actually charge me for the water, but I paid anyway). Clearly, the people who run Emma have their hearts in the right place.
Emma’s snack of the day
And I got a great cup of Fair Trade coffee.
My last discovery of a rare treasure in Chur:
Because while the scene below, in the village of Vrin, is picturesque, it’s not convenient for backpackers or hikers.
The outdoor laundromat, for those with extra time
Writing a novel is hard, tedious, lonely, and occasionally inspiring work. Day after day the sentences accrue, the pages grow longer. But who truly writes for themselves, now that Emily Dickinson has been dead those many years.
When will the pay-off come for those weeks of desolate doldrums, those hours spent shut up with a host of imaginary friends to the detriment of real people waiting for attention?
That is when having the support of a writer’s group makes a difference. Just having the chance to air a small slice of the novel reanimates it; the viewing through different eyes, the chance to connect with an audience, however small and skeptical, keeps the hope alive that one day your book will reach many, move some, anger some, make some see things a new way.
It’s like running a marathon and having someone with a bottle of fresh water along the way, having your neighbor down the street wave at you, having a child proffer you a bevy of balloon.
It doesn’t help you win the race, but it makes the going easier.
The sixth day of our trek starts in Dovan, where my friend Jan and I had a lovely meditation at the river the night before. We spend a few hours in the gloomy forest, but get enticing peeks at the snowy Annapurna range and nearby Macchupuchre, known as Fishtail
At Deurhali, the trees start to thin. We’re now at 2900 meters, about a 1000 meters higher than the tree-line in the Swiss alps. (almost 10,000 feet.) By the time we’re close to Macchupuchre Base Camp, the usual thick fog has settled in. I make a tactical mistake not following our porters closely, and find myself wandering along the lodges in search of our party. Here’s where I find out that the tea houses are not all the same. We have been staying in the nicer ones.
Our party arrives, including my sick spouse, who is now running a fever and coughing so hard he sounds like a barking seal. This is a clear case for the antibiotics I brought, and we start them at once. Fuel is hard to get up this high. Porters seem to carry in everything on their backs. The main room of the teahouse is kept heated, and after all the tourists are served and have returned to their rooms, the porters and guides sleep on the cushioned benches that line the periphery of the dining area. At least that way they can keep warm, because after carrying all our belongings, they don’t have room to pack extra warm clothing for themselves.
The next morning makes the cares of the night before seem far away. Our destination, Annapurna Base Camp, is less than two hours away for the motivated hiker. Confident that I won’t get lost on this short stretch, I’m off and away. I can definitely tell I’m at 4000 meters, but other than slight shortness of breath and a mild headache, my body seems to rise to the challenge. Once I reach ABC, at ten in the morning, I position myself at a table at the edge of the terrace. As I climbed, the snowy peak of Annapurna South faced me directly. Off to the right, the other mountains in the Annapurna range unfolded. Now I let myself open to the peaks and their energy, before turning back and contemplating Macchupuchare again. I feel suspended and cleansed by the energies between the mountains, which I visualize as a sea of moving blue waves moving through me. It’s a transcendent moment and the highlight of the trip.
Only later do I find out from my friend Jan that much of the nearby glacier has melted, exposing nearly half a mile of moraine, just out of sight.
The return is hard on me, and by the end of the trek, I’ve picked up an annoying cough. Our second to the last day I walk in a dissociative trance, putting one foot in front of another, my mind a depressive blank. Bliss has evaporated, replaced by exhaustion and gratitude for the company of my friends and our supportive guide. Eleven days on foot. It’s not so much that my body rebels. My mind can’t cope. I want working lights and washing machines and fresh fruit and internet access.
Now I have them again.
But I can’t forget that I have access to those luxuries just because I was lucky enough to be born in the West, to a middle class family.
Makes you think.
We start our trek to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Pokhara. A private car takes us to Nayapul, where we pile out, anxious to be on our way. Our cheerful porters Anik and Teka hoist up their packs and start off ahead. Nayapul seems to go on for a while. Rows of tiny shops crowd the dirt street: jumbles of modern clothing, alternating with shops with wooden display shelves of chips, bottled water, and soft drinks. The absence of pavement means we’re kept alert by oncoming traffic, often the bleating trucks from India known as Tatas. Dogs lie in dispirited heaps in front of stores or snuffle among the garbage. There’s some buying going on, but mostly people line the streets, chatting, smoking, or looking at cell phones. Unlike some other impoverished areas of the world, the Nepalese do not try to frenetically engage with the tourists, although some call out as we pass.
The hot sun, humidity, and traffic combine to make us long for a more natural setting. After an hour we’ve walked through fields and crossed a river. On the other side of the modern bridge, our guide Madan takes care of our trekking paperwork while we take a long lunch break. A young woman is painting a second-story ledge there; finally she climbs off it by exiting through an open window. We’ve noticed a lot of paint ads. Nepalis are serious about painting their lodges, especially after the monsoon’s come through, and a new influx of tourists are expected. Blue corrugated roofs crown the buildings, mostly white with decorative elements. Unlike Bavaria, people here don’t have the leisure to plant many flowers, so we see them mostly sprouting up in unattended wasteland. Thickets of blue morning glory wave tendrils in the air; cleome, the spider flower, pops up here and there.
Dwellings give way to pasture land, clumps of grass with thickets. There’s no large-scale grazing. Animals are encountered singly, humped buffalo or a rangy goat. Amazingly, chickens roam without molestation by the mournful skinny mutts.
We spend the night in a lodge in Tikedhunga, balanced on a hill-top above a rushing waterfall. All night long the sound of rushing water fills our ears.
The next day our friend and trekking companion Ted sees a mushroom harvest in progress and buys mushrooms. We inveigh on our wonderful and accommodating guide, Madan, to have the lodge prepare them as part of our lunch. As we continue on, Madan shows us the ripening millet heads in nearby gardens. Fields of emerald rice are spread out below us as we climb.
Lodges and tea houses seem to be the only businesses about; if it weren’t for the tourists, like us, the area would have almost no income. Harvests are not adequate for generating cash. Some lodge owners have put an effort into making their places attractive; plastic buckets filled with marigolds and dahlias add brightness and cheer. The Nepalis we pass greet us without great cheerfulness, but I also don’t see any looks of hostility. Our porter, Anik, brightens up as we get to know him, and reveals a fondness for singing and dancing. The porters, Anik and Teka, and our guide, Madan are from a Tamang village. The Tamang people are known for business acumen. Anik explains that he and the other tribesman have Mongolian origins, unlike the people of Nepal who have an Indian origin. Indian people are of Aryan descent, and lack the sharp cheekbones and slanted eyes of the Tamang, and numerous other tribal people.
The trail for Annapurna continues in the Himalayan foothills. The morning after Tikedhunga we cross a river and are confronted by a challenging series of stone steps cut in the hillside. We’re on our way to the village at the top, Ulleri, 1960 meters. I climb ahead of our group, happy I invested extra time in training. Every time I start to curse the never-ending stairs, I notice another group of school children climbing next to me. They have to make the trip all week long. School starts at ten. The children are wearing uniforms, and also have to pause and rest, like we all do. Occasionally we all have to step to the side for mule trains or ponies descending. It’s a long way to the top. So long.
After a tea break and an impromptu fight between a Tibetan mastiff and a skulking stray, which stops when a couple of tourists lure the stray away from the teahouse with kind words, we descend into a river gorge. The high cliffs provide welcome shade. Ferns that could be maidenhair and staghorn cascade down the stone sides of the mountains. Lunch at Banthanti is enhanced by the cilantro from the nearby garden.
We spend the night in Tadapani, a big settlement, where once again Madan takes care of paperwork for us. Morning call is for 4am for a visit to Poon Hill and views. After finding out that we’ll have similar views further along the trek, I decide to sleep in.
We hike down to another river, the Kimrong Khola. A noisy Chinese party interrupts my quiet meditation. They prance back and forth across the bridge, yelling exhortations to each other and taking photographs.
Soon after crossing the river, the real forest starts. I’m comfortable in the gloom and the shade, as the sweat of climbing has drenched my T-shirt. Though many other people are underway, during the day our groups spread apart. It’s easy and fun to imagine myself as a solitary explorer in the days of the East India Tea Company, mapping a route to Annapurna. The thick forest crowds right up to the edge of the path. The trees are mostly rhododendrons. Though they’ve already bloomed in spring, I still find their reddish twisted trunks and dark green leathery leaves attractive. Delicate plans with azure blue dainty blossoms dot the stone pathway. The dappled shade gives ways to vistas of steep rice terraces shrouded with mists, and then the forest comes again. I notice other flowers, orange flowered ginger and what could be a type of trailing snapdragon, or asarina. The rest of journey, several days more is mostly through this terrain, until we pass Dohvan and the tree-line. Then we’re close to Annapurna. Check in on the next post…
To research the third book in the Falcon Series, I decided to travel to Nepal. In The Falcon Soars, Peppa Mueller journeys to a Western province: the Humla region, which would have involved several weeks of traveling and camping. Instead, though the climate and terrain would be different, my friends, husband, and I chose a trip to Annapurna Base Camp (4100 meters, 13,451 feet), for a taste of the trekking experience.
Our research on treks and our subsequent experience have both practical and journalistic components. It’s my intention to deal with each separately. In this entry, I’d like to discuss the logistics of trek planning, and give my honest opinion as to the best way of traveling.
I started off my preparations by reading Trekking Nepal, by Stephen Bezruchka and Alonzo Lyons. This is a hard-core trekking book, which relies heavily on Dr. Bezruchka’s early experiences in Nepal, before trekking became popular. Bezruchka suggests a simple approach, like many of our friends did. According to them, it’s possible to travel to Nepal and once there, engage porters and a guide oneself, although Bezruchka does stress that those doing so are responsible for the safety and well-being of the porters.
In addition to lots of travel in Europe I traveled off the beaten path in Mexico a few times, and consider myself a seasoned traveler. But let me tell you, working through a trekking company in advance helped make this challenging journey endurable.
The landscape is grand and beautiful, but after you’re done walking at the end of the day, you’ll want a place to relax and sleep. After the initial novelty of a new culture wore off, I found the lodge environment a challenge. The owners do their best, but they’re doing business in a country with no sewage system or trash pick-up. Laundry is done by hand under running water, and the smell of used cooking oil permeates the large dining rooms where people settle in. The villages on the Annapurna Base Camp trek have between four to fifteen lodges, of varying quality. (I know this because I looked at a couple of different ones once, when I got ahead of our porters and arrived early).
Stephan Kocher of Swiss Family Treks (http://www.trekking-in-nepal.net/index.php) organized a wonderful guide for us, Madan. Madan brought two porters from his village, the vivacious and friendly Anik and a young, quiet fellow, Teka. It took some close observation to learn what Madan did for us, because he’s very humble. He chose the best lodges, and confirmed reservations, some several times. On the descent, we stopped at a lodge in the middle of the afternoon, and some of us wondered why we didn’t keep going. Shortly after we got there, it poured. Could be a coincidence, but it was consistent with Madan’s level of service.
As soon as we arrived at each lodging, while we collapsed, he and the porters made sure our food would be prepared in a timely fashion by taking our orders, and then Madan prepared our purified drinking water for the next day. (You can buy bottled water, but the plastic containers pile up in the garbage heaps.) In his unobtrusive, quiet way, Madan wrangled the best rooms, and made everything look effortless.
While the Swiss connection and its implicit focus on competence and good service was a factor in choosing Swiss Family Trekking, I have no personal reason for recommending Kocher’s company other than the experience we had. I just saw what happened with some other trekkers.
One group did not have reserved rooms because of some rescheduling, and had to walk down from Annapurna Base Camp for ten hours, part of it in the dark. A young Chinese girl actually got separated from her party and ended up in a tiny village by a river, bawling her eyes out. It’s definitely worth it to go with a reputable company.
Annapurna Base Camp is one of the most popular destinations, right behind Everest Base Camp. The physical exertion involved in climbing up to ABC is definitely challenging, but does not require alpine skills, and there is no tricky footwork involved. It just takes stamina. I was unprepared for the immersive experience in constant humidity, except at the end of the ascent. You will never feel completely dry. Avoid cotton shirts, which will hang on you like a shroud. Do not be a fool like I was, and bring cotton bras, because you will feel self-conscious trying to find some place to dry them.
The sun is shining. Quick, hang up some clothes
Wash a pair or two of socks any time you see the sun peeking out, and make sure your back pack has a place to hang something, so it can dry while you walk. Oh, and bring toilet paper.
One more item of note: my friends wanted to hire a private driver through SNFT to bring us to Pokhara, the gateway to many treks and our trailhead. Before I actually experienced the highway, I thought this was an extravagance. Now I regard it as one of the best decisions we made. The road is harrowing, and the buses are packed full. I got nauseated even in a private vehicle with AC; a bus ride would have been a disaster.
With a good guide, friendly porters, and some enthusiastic traveling companions, you’ll have a memorable experience. You’ll see things you never would elsewhere; both beautiful and depressing in a Third World country. And you can say, as I do, that you’ve met the Annapurna challenge.