Monday, March 24, 2014

Great Himalaya Trail: What We Know and Our Goals

We are wrapping up our tour through Southeast Asia and about to embark on the next Chapter: Nepal and the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT). The GHT is a proposed trail that will stretch from one end of the Himalaya Mountains to the other.  So far only the Nepal and Bhutan sections have been walked, mapped, and documented.  The other sections are still being researched.  The Nepal section offers a High Trail version and a Low Trail version. The Low Trail crosses through villages and is called "The Cultural Route".  The High Trail traverses through the heart of the Himalaya range with an average altitude between 12,000' and 15,000'.  The Nepal section was first done over two seasons in 2008-09 by Robin Boustead and his team.

The GHT was first hiked in one season during 2010, involving a combination of the high and low routes.  Our focus is on the High Trail, which hasn't yet been completed in one season. A large part of this is weather and conditions permitting, however. Snow conditions will be the biggest factor on whether we attempt the biggest passes of the High Trail.  If conditions are too hazardous then we will detour around these areas on the Low Route.  When we arrive in Nepal in a week we are going to do a "shakedown" trek to asses conditions at Tillman Pass which is one of the most difficult passes we would cross on the trail.The amount of time it takes to cover the GHT is highly variable.  Some of the first expeditions took 120-150 days but in recent years the speed record was set at 49 days.  We have talked to some other people that we believe move at a similar pace and figure it should take 9 or 10 weeks. The wild thing about this trail is that it is a trek in and of itself to get to and from the trailhead.

We are fortunate to be joined in this endeavor by two great friends: Molly Eimers and Seth Wolpin. Molly will be joining us from Idaho and Seth from Washington. We know Molly and Seth through trail racing and our ultrarunning community; both have a zest for outdoor pursuits and lead lifestyles of adventure. Seth has most recently been spending a lot of time in Nepal helping lead treks and a stage race in the Everest and Annapurna circuit. He has a lot of contacts over there in relation to this trail and has been the driving force in gathering data on what we are about to attempt.  We can't thank him enough for the work he has put into this.To learn more about Molly and Seth, you may visit their blogs at and, respectively.

Once we get going communication will be mostly via GPS and SPOT. You may track our GPS coordinates through our team website ("Where Are We?" tab) that should show a map and our last GPS coordinates.  SPOT will be posted under "Current Location" on this blog. Bear in mind SPOT coverage is reported to not be that good in Nepal.We also have a satellite phone and an SOS function on our GPS trackers in case there's an emergency. For photos, updates and other ramblings we have created our team facebook page called  Great Himalaya Traverse which you are welcome to join.

Finally, as we trek we are raising funds for an organization called Wide Open Vistas which helps improve education and health outcomes for Sherpa children in Nepal. $10 will send a kid to school for a month. Our goal is to try to raise at least $5000.  See Wide Open Vistas or visit our team website  ("How to help") to learn more about our fundraising campaign and how you can help. Thanks for all your support everyone! We'll be in touch when we can.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Travels With Dan - Part 2

     Hoi An, Vietnam was the next stop in our travels with Dan and turned out to be a foodies paradise.  When we first met Dan in Cambodia he was dealing with some stomach issues but that turned around after eating a snake on a stick.  Really?  If you are feeling under the weather with GI issues why would you eat a snake on a stick?  But it seemed to do the trick.  Dan was back and ready to go big.  He went back the next night and got a bigger snake.  By the time we got to Hoi An he was in full gear.  It was there that we started to refer to ourselves as "fathletes" or "food athletes". 
Local fishing boat found on run in Hoi An

The entire town of Hoi An is a World Heritage Site and reminded us in some ways as a Vietnamese version of Luang Prabang.  The town was clean with tidy buildings, city wide Wifi access, a huge selection of tailors (200+), and the most variety in street food we saw the entire time in SE Asia.  At times the food selection and ingestion got completely out of hand.  Dan would walk down the street and every food vendor would have something different. If we hadn't had it yet then we would have to get a serving (or 3).  Banh Bao or "White Rose"- steamed dumplings with minced shrimp, Hoanh Thanh - wontons, Cau Lau - pork, greens, bean sprouts in broth, potato crust pizza, Ban Mi - a delicious pate (I was told not to ask) sandwich with several layers of vegetable and sauce in it, fresh fruits, grilled corn, plain and coconut filled donuts, custard apple shakes, rice pudding, sweet potato cakes, and another dozen delicious treats that all blurred together into a crazy food orgy.  Every time Dan said "I'm so full!" we would turn around and he was ordering something else.
Sweet potato and coconut vendor
Peanut pastry vendor

It was very affordable.  Pretty much all the food was 20,000 dong ($1) per serving and draft beer in the neighborhood of our hotel was 3000 dong (15 cents) to wash it all down.  We found one little stand/restaurant in the market that we would go back to several times a day.  The lady who ran it started to love us so much that she would run over whenever she would spot us, shake our hands, and push people out of the way to make room on the bench in front of her stall.  She would then encourage us to sing her praises every time a Westerner walked by.  Between what we spent there over 3 days and the business we recruited for her she and her husband probably were able to take the rest of the month off. 
Our favorite chef in Hoi An

If you want easy living and great food then schedule a big chunk of time for Hoi An if you visit Vietnam. 
Hoi An riverside                

     From Hoi An we went to Hong Doi to visit some of the biggest caves in the world.  We visited Paradise Cave which was so large that it was hard to get perspective within some of the caverns and Phong Nha Cave which you take a boat up a river and then into the cave. 
Entering Phong Nha Cave                        
Looking out entrance to Phong Nha Cave

I have been in a number of caves over the years spelunking and these were some of the most impressive I have ever seen, especially when it comes to the size of the caverns.  Paradise Cave goes another 30km (18.5 miles) deeper into the mountain then we were allowed to go.  The town of Hong Doi blew.  Of any place in the world I have been there is a gross disproportion of hotel rooms to restaurants.  Every other building was a musty dilapidated hotel (often run by the government) but there were almost no restaurants and the few that existed were not set up for tourists.  None of the menus were in English so this was the one place the entire trip that I would randomly pick something on the menu and hope to hell that I wasn't getting dog, bat, some sort of head floating in broth, or animal entrails.  Kathleen and I seemed to get lucky though we didn't always finish everything on our plates.  Dan didn't eat much.  It was a weird town and we were happy to leave and don't think we picked up any bedbugs while we were there.

     Our next stop was Hanoi.   Kathleen and I ended up not liking it that much and found Saigon to be the better of the two "big cities".  Many travelers though say the opposite since Hanoi has so much history but at least the time of year that we were there it was constantly grey, wet, and drizzly.  The weather was way too reminiscent of Seattle but without the ocean or mountains to make it worthwhile.  It was just a large dreary city.  We did see some of the museums there and were subjected to some pretty outrageous propaganda like a militia woman taking out 5 American tanks with her knife and how the militia would shoot B-52s down with their rifles (B-52s fly almost 10x as high as an AK-47 can shoot).  It was still interesting though to see the Vietnamese perspective of the war.
Army Museum, Hanoi

     From Hanoi we went to Halong Bay which is a natural World Heritage Site.  It is an area of 3000+ limestone islets that just up out of the Gulf of Tonkin.  The rock kharsts are draped with thick vegetation and this is probably one of the most photographed landscapes in Vietnam.  We ended up booking a tour that had us sleep on a boat in the bay for 2 nights.  In hindsight I would have done it how I had initially thought and traveled to Cat Ba Island and then toured Lan Ha Bay instead.  This has similar topography but is less visited.  Halong Bay is a bit overrun and the tour didn't provide the amount of kayaking that I had hoped.  We toured a scenic but commercial cave on one of the islands, spent a little time kayaking (but nowhere near enough),
Kayaking the kharsts                                          

hiked up to a very rusty unstable lookout that had a great view over Cat Ba island,
Lookout tower on verge of collapse
View from top of Ngu Lam            

and spent some time exploring Cat Ba town.  We did meet nice people on the boat.  2 Argentines (Ezekial and Thomas), another American (Bill), an older German man and his daughter who teaches in Vietnam, 3 Brits, 2 German girls from Frankfurt, a Frenchmen who seemed like a gypsy and kept us entertained with magic tricks, and a party of Israelis.  It was an entertaining group to hang out and drink with.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam

     Right after getting back to Hanoi Dan got really sick.  We suspect a Ban Mi sandwich (like I said before we were told not to ask about the "pate").  We had all been eating the same meals except for that.  When Dan got to Hanoi that first night he was losing fluids from both ends and became very dehydrated to the point that we took him to the hospital.  Turns out that the Hanoi ER was only 2 blocks from our hospital.  It appeared to be a teaching hospital because the "doctors" that came and talked to him looked to be about 12 years old but there was always one older guy standing in the background watching and listening to what was going on.  They wrote him a prescription for an oral electrolyte solution and told him that he needed to go to the "foreigner hospital".  This was a French run hospital (L'hospital Francais de Hanoi) that involved a cab ride to get there.  They recommended that he be admitted overnight for fluid resuscitation but he declined that and only elected to get a quick bolus of IV fluids over a 2 hour period.  We hung out for an extra day to see if Dan would recover but he felt so spent and drained from being sick that he elected to fly home instead of going to Sapa with us.  After a fun 5 weeks of traveling together we said our good byes.  We had enough fun and Dan has a big enough travel bug that we feel pretty strongly that we have not seen the last of him on our world tour.

     Sapa was our last stop in Vietnam and it turned out to be one of our favorite spots we found in SE Asia.  As is typical we usually find the best guesthouse, restaurant, trail, or town just at the end of our time in that area.  Sapa is a old French hill station in Northwest Vietnam.  It is only 9 km as a crow flies to the summit of Fansipan which is the highest mountain in Indochina but many people take 2 nights to trek it.  The area is surrounded by Hmong hill tribe villages and is laced with trails.  We spent 5 days here exploring the lower trails of Fansipan, going a little further into the mountains each time as we figured out the trail network.  I had a rough map but there are no trail signs.  The paths have been used by the hill tribes for centuries and are a maze.  Some go to the next village but some just go to fields or fade out in the jungle. 
Cat Cat Waterfall, Sapa
Below Sapa                  

We also rented a motorcycle one day to venture further out into the scenic and rugged mountains in the area. 
Perfect road for biking 

Being high up in the mountains it was frequently socked in by fog.  This was some of the thickest fog I have been in.  The only other time like that was when I was sailing to Greenland with my Dad and the fog off Nova Scotia was so thick that I could barely see the front of the boat 36 feet away.  This was like that where seeing across the street was difficult at times.  Watching the hill tribe women fading in and out of the mist was like being in another world. 
Hmong tribeswomen

It also made crossing the street dangerous as motorcycles popped out of nowhere.  If we ever go back to Vietnam for a month the plan would be to do one week in Halong Bay (or actually Lan Ha Bay south of it) and then 3 weeks in Sapa.  The only reason we left Sapa when we did was that our visa expired so we had to leave Vietnam.

     We are now back in Thailand on the island of Ko Chang.  Our accommodation is bungalow built into the trees (treehouse) on a steep hillside with the ocean surf breaking below our porch.  We plan on spending 2 weeks here just resting up and soaking in the sun and sea before heading to Nepal and the Great Himalaya Trail. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Steinbeck had "Travels With Charlie", we have "Travels With Dan"

After our volunteer time at Care For Dogs Foundation we went and spent a week relaxing in Pai, Thailand with the plan on meeting Dan Sears in Phnom Penh on 3 Feb. A combination of late planning on buying a bus ticket and the Thai elections made us end up doing the trip between the two towns in one long push instead of two. It was a 42 hour marathon consisting of mini bus-bus-tuktuk-taxi-bus-walk (across the border)-short bus-bus-bus. It was the one time since we had left Koh Samui we had reservations at a hotel and we didn't arrive until 7am. The reservation was non-refundable so we checked into our room for the last 5 hours in order to take a shower and nap. I hope we don't repeat such a journey any time soon. It takes days to recover from something like that. The good planning with poor execution continued when we discovered that the Vietnamese embassy was closed for the week due to the Tet New Year. Instead of spending a few days in Phnom Penh and then going to Siem Reap and Angor Wat we decided to flip flop the plan. This meant getting back on a bus and back tracking 7 hours to where we had just been. 

Angkor had been on our hit list of sights to see for a long time. It is one of the archaeological wonders of the world. Because of this Siem Reap is a bit of a zoo. Over 2 million visitors come here each year and the temples can be quite crowded at times. Luckily we had been given the insiders guide to seeing Angkor by Trevor Ranges who wrote the National Geographic guide to Cambodia. I knew his sister in high school so she facilitated the connection. Trevor gave us an itinerary of when and where to be in the huge complex of temples to best avoid the crowds and his plan worked perfectly. We spent 3 days exploring and got some great shots without crowds of people. We were able to take pictures with no one in them but then going by the temple an hour later there would be several hundred people milling around. It very much enriched our experience there. 
Sunrise Angkor Wat                  
Sunrise Bayon Temple, Angkor
Angkor Wat                               
Inner courtyard, Angkor Wat    
Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor                           
Victory Gate, Angkor Thom                         
Pre Rup Temple, Angkor           
It was here that we became friends with Fanny who was traveling by herself. She joined us for one of the days at Angkor and also went with us to Phare, the Cambodian Circus which was a Cirque du Soleil type experience. The circus provides a means of education for disadvantaged youth in both traditional education and the arts. It has helped many a young Cambodian over the years be able to learn skills to better their lives and to travel the world. It was a very entertaining show that supported a good cause.
The strangest part of the exploring Angkor Wat was when we had just made an incense offering to a Buddha.  We stepped outside and seconds later we hear a loud thunk.  We look up to see a pigeon rolling down the temple stairs making loud thwacks every step that it hits.  We looked at each other like WTF!!!  We make an offering and now birds are dropping dead out of the sky.  A security guard watched this all occur also and went to examine the bird.  Looking at the carcass is was obvious that the bird had been dead for some time and must have been dropped by another bird.  Freaked us out for a couple of minutes until we realized this.    
Dead bird omen
Then it was back to Phnom Penh. If we never travel this road in a bus again that would be fine by us. In Phnom Penh we were worried that getting our Vietnam visas from a communist embassy was going to be an exercise in patience with visions of a nightmare DMV in our heads. We expected a crowded lobby, long lines, and crabby workers. Turns out the DMV could learn some lessons from the communists. The process was super quick and efficient. We dropped our paperwork off and were done within 10 minutes and told to come back the next morning to pick them up. Pick up the next day took all of 2 minutes. That gave us the rest of the day to explore the Toul Sleng S21 prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. Two places where some of the worst crimes of the Kymer Rouge genocide occurred. It was a sobering and depressing place to visit and contemplate how horrible humans can be to each other. In the 3 1/2 years that the Khmer Rouge ruled almost 1 in 4 Cambodians died from disease, starvation, overwork, or outright execution ending only when the Vietnamese invaded and occupied the country. 
View from inside Toul Sleng prison
After that kind of day we needed some alcohol so we met up with Fanny again and went out and celebrated Dan's birthday (which had officially been the day before). We found a rooftop bar and had multiple rounds of brightly colored fruity cocktails. It was good to end the day on a lighter note.
Celebrating with the birthday boy

From there it was on to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). This may be one of the most chaotic places I have ever visited. Bangkok was bumper to bumper cars with tuktuks and motorcycles in between. Saigon is a massive river like flow of motorcycles all cutting in between each other in all directions. We were glad that we had been practicing crossing the street in SE Asia for the last few months because you literally risked your life every time you stepped off the sidewalk. Even on the sidewalk you were at risk as they used that as path to go the wrong way down one way streets. I got to where I would raise my hands and shout "I'm alive!" every time we successfully made it across a major road. 
Rivers of motorcycles
 Saigon is one of those cities where you either embrace it or hate it. We all chose to embrace it and ended up enjoying it much more then we had initially expected. On one of the days Kathleen and I went out to the Chu Chi Tunnel complex where the Vietcong lived underground in tiny tunnels during the war just outside the city. Huge battles and heavy bombing occurred here to try to control this area. Our tour guide at the complex turned out to be a former Viet Cong who still has a defect in his upper arm where an M60 machine gun bullet hit him from a helicopter. Listening to his stories you could tell he was very proud of his service and what the Vietnamese had done to repel the "colonial invader" to gain their independence. Yet at the same time he very much felt that bygones should be bygones and that "Vietnam should have more friends. When you have more friends then you have less enemies". I have met many American Vietnam vets but this was the first person I had ever met that saw things from the other perspective. 
Crawling through one of the Chu Chi Tunnels
Former Vietcong tour guide Doung                   
We also toured the War Remnants Museum which used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes. Once the US had reestablished diplomatic contact with Vietnam they toned down the name but it is still full of a lot of anti-American propaganda. No matter what your thoughts are about the Vietnam conflict it is worth a visit here to see the Vietnamese perspective. To this day there is still unexploded ordinance causing problems and the effects of Agent Orange and the dioxin we sprayed here continue to cause neurological disease and birth defects.

Dan has to eventually get back to the states for work so had more limited time. Because of this we skipped going to the Mekong Delta south of Saigon and hopped a plane up to Hue which is near the old DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that marks the separation of South from North Vietnam. It is the old Imperial capital and has a large citadel where the emperor used to live. This was the site of a large month long battle during the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War which damaged much of the ruins. The Vietnamese are currently rebuilding some of these structures.

Citadel outer wall and moat, Hue               
Citadel flag tower                                        
It was in Hue that we heard the tragic news that our friend Chad Kellogg had lost his life on Valentine's Day in a climbing accident in Argentina while rappelling down a mountain called Fitz Roy. We had last seen Chad at our wedding in November and had been invited to go live with him for the winter in El Chalten, Argenitina but plane tickets had been cost prohibitive. Chad was also one of the few people that we had seen during the trying days of summer when Kathleen's Dad was sick. We are very thankful that we were able to spend a week with him and his girlfriend Mandy in Thailand – sea kayaking out to small islands, chilling on the beach, eating good food, dancing at the wedding, and just enjoying each others company. Chad was an inspiration and dear friend to many. It is a loss that will never be replaced in our lives and one that we are still coming to grips with. He will be missed, but the memories live on.
Sending a candle down the river for Chad and Mandy         
     Kathleen and I kayaking with Chad, Mandy, and Krissy before the wedding
Part 2 of travels with Dan will cover the food orgy in Hoi An, exploring caves in the central highlands, Hanoi, and kayaking Halong Bay.  Stay tuned.