Aches and Pains

Note: I am writing this in the evening of March 8, but have no internet connection, so I will post it when I do.

True to form, what looked like a relatively easy day on the map, turned out to be grueling. We began at Junbesi at about 2600 meters and climbed up and around one of the north-south ridges. Net gain was only about 300-400 m, but all the little ups and downs probably doubled that. Then it was down down down to another river-crossing via a long steel suspension bridge, then up for 1 hour to a small village for lunch, then up up up to Taksindu La (la = pass), a low spot in the next north-south ridge. Then came the grueling part. A 900 m plunge. While easing my way down the steep trail, I found out that the smallest appendage on my body can cause the greatest pain. No not that one… right pinky toe. That little bugger started jamming on the morning downhill section. A boot lace readjustment seemed to help my toe a little, but then my left achilles heal started to get stabbing pains – not fun, a snapped tendon would end the trek on the spot and require evacuation. The pain seemed to lessen on the way down, so hopefully a couple of NSAIDs will solve it.

In spite of the gray weather, portions of the hike were through very pleasant forests.

To make a miserable day even worse, the afternoon clouds came again and the rain began. By the time we reached the hillside village of Nuntala, it was a steady downpour. I stood in the rain while Bhakda ran from lodge to lodge looking for rooms. The one he finally chose was distinctly NOT luxurious. The room had a 2 inch-thick mattress about half the size of a standard twin, and room enough beside it to turn around. The down-the-hall toilet was standard squat. No sink, no trash can, no shower, no warm wood stove. I think the night before must have put him over budget and this is a make-up.

The highlight of the day cake just before sunset, when the clouds parted and gave us a glimpse of snow covered 6000 m peaks.

A sunset treat.

After a baby-wipe bath, and donning some warm, dry clothes, I felt much better. Down in the cold dining room, along with my usual pre-dinner hot tea, I was also offered a tasty plate of spicy buffalo meat.

Tomorrow, we finish the downhill plunge to the low point in the trek at 1500 m, so I have a 700 m downhill to negotiate with my bum feet in the morning. But my guide promises that tomorrow is any easy day; I would like to believe him….

Some scenes from the day’s hike.  Flowers were every where, terraced hillsides, and cute Sherpa kids.

Climb to Sete

Note: I am writing this on March 7, but I am now well off the grid, so I will be posting this at some future date).

I awoke this morning at 3:20 am, partly because I went to sleep at 9 pm the night before. I was quite knackered from the long previous day going over two passes. Of course, I had to pee. Which brings me to the subject of tea houses.

The tea house at Sete

Many are also known as lodges. They are generally stone building, one to two stories, that double as a family’s (or two or three) home. This section of trail is sparsely populated by trekkers, therefore the lodge business is distinctly secondary to other means of income and subsistence, mainly farming. They provide the most basic of accommodations, generally a very small room with 1-3 beds crammed in. The floor is bare wood, the mattresses are an inch or two thick, and if they have the luxury of electricity, there will be a dim light hanging from the ceiling. Toilet facilities (basic Asian squat) are down the hall, or in the present case, down the steep wooden stairs.

So back to peeing, by the time I was done getting out of my warm sleeping bag, finding my shoes in the dark, clambering down the stairs and back up, I was wide awake. After all I had already had 6+ hours of sleep, in most cases sufficient for me. So I spent the rest of the wee hours reading the news (at the time I still had a cell connection), trying to sleep again, and completing yesterday’s blog post.

Today we climbed a mountain, in reverse. We started by following a small stream downhill to the east, eventually emerging high on the north canyon wall of the Likhu Khola. Just across the side valley from us was a flurry of road building, with tight switchbacks being built on a nearly vertical wall. It turns out that this will be the service road for a Chinese-financed dam and hydroelectric power plant on the Likhu Khola. Given the narrow canyon at this point, it seems like an ideal site. Before you yell environmental foul, think about what life would be without power. This power plant will be a godsend for the people of this area that lived without power or roads when the earthquake hit.

The new road across the valley wind Ying it’s way down to the Power Plant site

The trail gradually descended to the east finally getting down to the river at the village of Kinja. This was the final destination of the road. After a brief rest and a check-in at the Khumbu district office, the trail southeast and straight up. We were now in Sherpa territory. We regained all the elevation we lost in the morning, and then some, finally arriving at Sete, perched high above the valley, at 3:00 pm. Sete, as far as I could see, consists of a couple of tea houses, nothing more. Our station for the night is the Sherpa Guide Lodge, owned by a school teacher. The school is apparently located a 20 minute walk away, so we had to await his arrival at 4 pm to check-in.

Enter a captionNew bridge being constructed across the Likhu Khola

Now, I am sitting in the owner’s kitchen, together with my crew, and various undefined members of the extended family, mostly because it’s warm in here, if a bit smokey. They are all speaking animatedly in Nepali, which always sounds to me like they are fighting. I mentioned this to my guide, and he said it’s because they are all drinking their home-made brew. Oh yea, I had to try it! They poured me a small milky looking glass out of what looked like a tea kettle. The taste wasn’t unpleasant. Of course they drink it warm and uncarbonated. Apparently they make it from wheat, although it didn’t taste anything like a wizen. It also had small round floaters in it that looked like small bugs, apparently some kind of spice they add to it. I would gladly drink more, but I didn’t given that I am trying to acclimate to the altitude – which here is 2500 m, or roughly 8200 ft.

Dinner with the fam.

Tomorrow we climb over the highest point this side of Namche Bazar, a high pass of 3500 m (11000+ ft). I’ll likely be in bed by 9 again tonight, hopefully for a longer sleep than last night.

The Great Cultural Divide

There is no better way to experience the chasm that exists between Thai and American culture than to witness some of the rituals surrounding a visit to a Thai temple.  Recently, I visited Wat Chai Mongkhon with my SO on the occasion of her birthday.  Wat Chai Mongkhon lies on the banks of Chiang Mai’s main river, the Mae Ping.  To my pagan eyes, it seems like a fairly ordinary temple, although its riverside setting is lovely.  That same setting, though does allow for a peculiar ritual that I observed there for the first time.

ping river
The Mae Ping River from Wat Chai Mongkhon

On this propitious day, our first stop was a small shop tucked back in a corner of the temple grounds that sells all manner of live fish ranging from guppy-sized up to small-trout-sized.  The same shop also sells various birds in tiny wooden cages – most of these seemed to be some kind of dove.  They also sold live snails, by the bucketful.  This was no pet store though.  The express purpose of this shop is to sell the animals to merit makers, who then make merit by releasing them.  Hmmmm, more on this in a minute….

From the shop we proceeded directly to the temple’s interior where a quick prayer was said accompanied by a few bows and wais to buddha.  This part of the ritual I am quite familiar with and lasted only a few minutes.  From the temple we proceeded to the river bank, where amidst a few more bows and the recitation of a long prayer read from one of the laminated sheets picked from a basket on the pier, both the snails and fish were released.  Their release was followed by a nearly instant eruption from the river – a vicious feeding frenzy of huge carp-like river fish.  As far as I could tell, the newly freed snails and small fish experienced a few nanoseconds of freedom before becoming dinner to these exceedingly well-fed riverine scavengers.

Ok.  To the American mind, this seems very strange indeed.  So let me get this straight, someone goes out and catches some wild critters, keeps them in tanks, buckets and cages, and then someone else comes along, buys these unfortunate critters, and makes merit by releasing them to the freedom of the river, only for them to become instant dinner to some lucky fish.  One would guess that the freed birds might have a better chance to enjoy their freedom – at least you could enjoy watching them fly away to meet their fate, but alas, their cost is quite a bit more.  The American mind cannot help wondering if the merit made by the purchaser sufficiently cancels the merit lost by the animals’ capturers, keepers and sellers.

Now. Here is how the Thai mind sees it……

Sorry, but I have no clue how the Thai mind thinks about this ritual, in spite of numerous conversations with Thais about this very subject. I do know that each kind of fish/bird/invertebrate has a particular kind of merit that is gained by their release.  Some impart good health, others will bring good luck with finances, still others will impart a long life.  You get the idea.

When I asked who decides which animal imparts which kind of merit, my SO replied that that is like asking who decided the meaning of a word.  Wow, that was a very revealing answer! Apparently this ritual goes far back into antiquity, and involves deep beliefs that have been passed down through so many generations that their origins have been lost.  These beliefs run gut-deep and no manner of western logic will unseat them.  My guess is that if you brought a Thai into the Catholic Church of my youth, they would be equally mystified.

The third and last stop in our merit-making was a ritual that I have experienced on numerous occasions – one of my favorites.  The merit-maker grabs an open-ended cylinder containing about 30-40 joss sticks with each stick bearing a number.  While kneeling in front of a particularly plump and happy buddha, the merit maker gently shakes the container until a single stick falls out.  The number on the stick is then matched to a set of fortunes posted on a nearby bulletin board.  Here’s the fortune we got:fortune

I don’t think you can do much better than that!  All in all it was a very educational visit to the Wat Chai Mongkhon.  Please if any of my Thai friends read this, please leave a comment with your explanation of this interesting and (to a western mind) contradictory ritual.

November 16, 2017 – Cycling Tour of Northern Thailand – Down the Basin and Range – Chiang Khong to Thoeng

Nevada and it’s neighbors lie in North America’s Basin and Range Province, made

A google-eyed view of the Northern Thailand Basin and Range

famous in John McPhee Pulitzer Prize nominated book of the same name. Have a look at any map of this region and the mountain ranges on the map look like a swarm of worms fleeing Mexico for Canada. A look at a map of Northern Thailand shows a similar pattern of twisted worms headed for Myanmar and Laos, albeit at a smaller scale. Like in Nevada, the Thai Basin and Range formed by stretching of the earths crust resulting in down-dropped basins, and up-thrown ranges. Today I rode along the edge of one of these worms, southward along the eastern edge of the Chiang Khong Basin. Mostly 4 lanes, but with very little traffic, the road gently rolled along the edge of the mountains. Today was supposed to be an easy day, only about 77 km, but after yesterday’s 119 km marathon, and with bright sun, a hot headwind, and gently rolling hills, It did not feel so easy.

Blooming India hemp.  These used to be classified as weeds but are now finding many uses such as a soil decontaminant and even as a source of biofuel.

I had my first accident today. I was riding slowly up one of the hills, with my feet firmly clipped into the pedals, when I spotted a view suitable for a photo. I swerved off the road into a small driveway, but as I rolled to a stop, my toe clips picked a bad time not to release. With both toes locked to the pedals I did an inevitable, slow-motion fall onto my hip and elbow. Fortunately, I suffered no injuries save a badly bruised ego. Could have been far worse – there could have been an audience.

The Chiang Khong Basin is agricultural heartland. Rice silos lined the road, and it seemed every flat spot was taken up by harvested rice drying in the sun. Rice in Thailand is still mostly harvested by hand, threshed by small portable machines, then laid out to dry on any available surface. The drying reduces the moisture in the rice grains, making them much less susceptible to mold or insect infestation while being stored.

A classic wooden Thai house with the rice crop drying in front.

You also know you’re in true farmland when the i-taens (pictured above)  outnumber pick-up trucks. These Thai-made, colorfully decorated, all-purpose vehicles are used to haul just about anything from pigs to people to rice at a chug-chug-chug 20 km per hour. They are powered by a 9 hp diesel engine that can easily be removed to power a water pump or field plow. Today I had to dodge a few of these chug-a-lugging up the wrong side of the road.

I rode into Thoeng about 2:30 pm. It took me about 1 minute to ride out of Thoeng. Not much here (but it does have two seven-11s about 300 m apart). I had a 2 km ride out of town to find my hotel, a newish concrete block structure. Cheap and clean though. For dinner I had to ride back into Thoeng where I completed a complete tour in about 5 minutes. Outside of push carts, I only found one restaurant-cum-bar, easily spotted by the large Chang beer sign. The food was pretty awful, and I rarely say that about Thai food, but the beer was icy cold, served in a very frosty mug. I ordered a Singha beer much to the disapproval of the waitress wearing the Chang beer dress. She probably missed out on a small commission. I made up for it with a tip which was greeted by braces-filled smile.

Tomorrow I head southeast to Phayao, a lakeside provincial capital that promises to be more interesting than Thoeng. I will try to get there early tomorrow, talk to you then.

November 8, 2017 – Bike Tour of Northern Thailand – Preface

I am beginning this blog on the day before leaving on a 2 week, 1000 km cycling tour of around Northern Thailand. Here is my planned route.  Yes, I am going it alone.  I have always said that if you wait for someone to go with, you will never go and this is particularly true for a cockamamie trip such as this.  My friends’ usual response is “you are crazy riding a motorcycle so far on the dangerous roads of Thailand”.  When I tell them that no, I will be riding a bicycle, mostly they can only shake their heads before their eyes glaze over and they change the subject to their latest ache and pain, surgery or ailment.  A few will ask “WHY?”.  That is a legitimate question.  I am not sure that I now the answer really.  I’ve toured by car around Thailand, so the scenery and towns are already familiar.  I’m not running (cycling) away from anything, at least not consciously.  Most likely it is for the physical challenge and the fact that while on a physically demanding extended trip like this, I can eat as much and whatever I want without worrying about getting fat.  It is also because it will feel oh so good when I am finished.

This will not be a wilderness experience.  No camping for me. I will stay in modest resorts, guest houses, and hotels along the way.  I will live off the land – meaning I will eat at whatever local restaurants I can find along the way.  I will try and smell the roses and resist the urge to make this a race to the finish – although I know that eventually (probably sooner than later) it will become just that.  I won’t be off the grid – but I won’t be glued to my computer/ipad/iphone like I am while at home.  I am taking only some cloths and such miscellaneous toiletries that are necessary for a man of the modern age.

My home for the next 2 weeks, a Marin Gestalt 2

I am well prepared for this trip.  My bike is a Marin Gestalt 2 bike purchased a year ago at Mong Cycles right here in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  The owners Mong and her husband Stuart have gone above and beyond to make sure my bike is as well equipped and maintained as possible.  I thank them both for instructing me on basic maintenance and repair, and for putting up with all my ignorant questions.  I also thank them for not laughing at me when I insisted on installing a kick stand (which had to be special ordered from the USA).

The Gestalt 2 is a kind of hybrid bike – built like a road bike with drop handlebars, but with larger tires and disc breaks like a mount bike. It is equipped with locally made panniers and handlebar bag, a wireless cats eye speedometer/odometer, and a mount for my phone.  I have all the tools recommended by  Stuart and Mong (but do I know how to use them?) and all the recommended spare parts.  My worse fear on this expedition is not being run over by a crazed can driver, but rather that I will return to Chiang Mai with me and my bike ignominiously loaded in the back of a songtaew  because I couldn’t make some simple repair.

First stop – somewhere south of Phrao – talk to you from there!