Buddhism

Beasts, Burns and Turns : Annapurna Day 4-5

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Day 4: Timang – Chame

“TO THE LEFT!”, Thakur shakes his walking stick at us, urging us to move towards the stone wall and make way for the oncoming herd (one of which you can see above). Good news: we all quickly shove aside safely. Bad news: my hand now feels like it’s submerged in boiling water. In my surge to the left, I’d also grabbed a leaf on the wall, which, according to my luck, happened to be stinging nettle.

I never thought about this plant in my life, and hence never doubted its name. But I can vouch, in this instant, the botanist(s) who named it were really on the money.

My hand feels like it’s on fire.

And, in truth, it also feels like a scolding. I thought I was pretty agile getting out of the way, and briefly saw myself not doing too badly at the Running of the Bulls. Now with my fiery hand, it’s a burning reminder, that I’m probably (and really quite literally) overreaching.

Thakur, however, has a remedy. It’s the plant growing right next to the stinging nettle, which he explains is the antidote to the burning effects of its next door neighbour. Sure enough, after he rubs this second plant’s leaves all over my hand, it numbs the burning, allowing me to focus on other things apart from the pain like, when exactly is the Running of the Bulls?

Thankfully, that would be the only incident of the day. We didn’t have the same taxing time of the day before, as the route was flat for once, with nary a big incline in sight. So, we took our time, stopping on the way to have what the Annapurna Circuit is also known for – apples (straight ahead behind my bag):

image We later ran into someone else on the Circuit, who, after eating one piece of apple pie after another along the route, said that it was like “An apple-pie trek”, and got excited about his expression. The truth is many other clever minds had beaten him to it: and the Circuit has had the slogan for a while – funnily enough, we did see this trekker after we’d both completed the Circuit, and he explained that he laughed after getting online, seeing that his tagline had already been enjoying a long life.

Before we wound up our day, we ran into some more animaux, strutting along, on their way to a village farther down, maybe to carry more riders uphill?: image We rolled into Chame, our final stop for the day, at around noon. It was a built in rest day (half-day) for us, which didn’t work for others who we’d been trekking with and were on a tighter schedule. So they pushed on as they saw us drift off in to our guesthouse where we hung some laundry, then plopped down outside, unapologetically, for an afternoon nap.

Afterwards, Rose and I strolled the village, visiting a Gompa (Buddhist shrine) which had a single, massive prayer wheel inside: image On our way back, we passed more prayer wheels in the middle of the village, plus had a run-in with a young, but determined motorcycle gang: image We were now firmly in a Buddhist region and would see prayer wheels and flags everywhere, including in our next stop, Upper Pisang, where I also sat in on a Buddhist ritual, and Rose had a brush with the effects of high altitude.

 

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Day 5: Chame – Upper Pisang

By looking at the adjacent map, and from the name of the village to which we were headed, you can guess what general direction we were headed in today. It also marked a milestone of sorts: we’d be cracking 3,000meters (9,800feet) for the first time. While altitude sickness can hit at a lower altitude, with our highest altitude of the entire trek at 5416, after today it would mean we we’d be just passed halfway there.

To underline the point, and as inspiration for our day’s journey, we had an early morning view of Annapurna 2 mountain (I think), peeking over the ridge ahead of us, as we set out:

image We moved through forest for a little bit, until we emerged onto a new road that had recently been carved out of the side of the hills with the help of some well placed dynamite. This was a common gripe for trekkers on the Circuit, many feeling the road diminished the experience of walking through Nepal. While I would later agree: after walking on the road, eating dust from passing buses and jeeps, I didn’t find it a big deal on this particular stretch, where occassional motorbikes passed without much dust in their wake, and the views remained incredible: image On the mountain ahead, we also began to see the effects of altitude. The reduced oxygen at higher altitude created a horizontal border where you could see where the trees stopped growing, and alpine plants like lichen and moss, that could get by on less oxygen, took their place: image Unfortunately, Rose also began to FEEL the effects of altitude. She started getting a headache about halfway through our walk, which got progressively worse the higher up we went. I got nervous about it (no surprise), but I later learned in these situations, hitting the holy shit button was still pre-emptive. The effects of altitude have a sliding scale of severity – apparently, most people will experience a headache of one sort or another on their way up: what’s most important is to see whether the headache goes away or gets worse, leading to nausea. If it hangs around or gets worse, the general rule is to go down in altitude to readjust your body before going up again.

While Rose admitted her head felt like it was in a vice, it was still too early to make a call of what to do next. Thakur recommended she take a Tylenol, and see where things stood after that. We eventually made our destination for the day: Upper Pisang, which, to me, was one of the big highlights of the trip. It looked a bit like a medieval village: image something that you’d see in a Lord of the Rings film or Game of Thrones (I haven’t seen the show, though Makala and Saree suggested it worked): image As Rose got drugged and had a quick nap, I explored a Buddhist gompa at the top of the village. After a burning hand the day before, my luck now appeared to have changed, because the monks were conducting a ceremony and inviting guests in to watch. I had no idea what was happening, but watched the Lama recite Buddhist verses as other monks chanted, and a musical section blew through massive horns.

While this was happening another monk walked around with a bowl of popcorn and other treats, offering visitors a snack. The whole thing struck me as a great, informal approach to worship/devotion: much different than some of the more pious, somber rituals I’d cringed through in Anglican Church.

Nevertheless, I didn’t go quite as far in my exaltation as some other Western tourists, whom were sitting, cross-legged in what I suppose was a meditation pose, and after the monks had finished a particular chant, opened their eyes, looked over to Makala and said: “Wow. Can you feel the energy?”.

Though, I didn’t hear it first hand, I’d thought if someone had said it to me, I would have liked to reply: “Oh, didn’t mean to disturb. That’s the lentils I just had for lunch. Sorry about that”

In any case, thankfully their were no more disturbances on our side, as Rose’s headache cleared up by morning, coinciding with another peek at Annapurna 2 peak (again, I think) looking over at us, as we got ready for our next push to the village of Nawal, on the other side of the mountain. image Talk soon

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On the Up & Up: Annapurna Day 2

image Day 2 – Ghermu Phant – Tal

image Early the next morning we set out for the next village – Tal – in one basic, ongoing direction – up. Thakur, our guide, seeing us labouring uphills as we went, kept insisting it was okay we took a slow pace. “BISTARI BISTARI JAM”, was his ongoing refrain. Nepalese for “We go slow”. (It was only after we’d completed the trek when we asked him if we were the slowest people he’d had. “YES!”, he said, without wasting a breath).

After lunch the previous day, we started trekking with two Australian sisters. At the time, they had been going the same pace as the blunt-headed arrogant guy from Day 1, and I think were looking for a way out. They weren’t the only one. The guy had hired a guide to help him along the way with the route, and as he kept up his extraordinary demands to cover more ground, we’d watch his guide roll his eyes and purse his lips, before explaining a more moderate course.

Regardless of what course they chose, the blunt-headed guy wanted to get moving quickly – and so seeing an opportunity, the four of us stayed behind at lunch to allow them to conquer the trail at warp speed.

The sisters, whose names Thakur would pronounce as Makala (Michaela) and Saree (Shari) (which Rose and I would also occasionally address them as for fun) were first-time, never trekked in their life, let’s take this slow, kind of people – which, I think made a good fit with our “what-the-hell-did-we-get-ourselves-into” approach.

It was a match.

We ambled into our lunch spot, legs burning, exhausted, and watched some more goats click by: image As we gorged on the Nepalese staple – Momos – similar to a Chinese dumpling, we then stared at the gorge that awaited us after lunch: image It became a running joke: we’d frequently ask Thakur during a break on the trail or before we left off after a meal: “So, is it more up today. Or flat? Maybe down?” and every time, when it was bad news, he’d say it emphatically, with not a grain of sugar coating: “UP”. (which, of course is the general direction of the entire trek until about the tenth day when things come down the other side of the mountain. But we’d ask for what lay ahead of us in the next two hours – as the trail did go up and down).

Despite knowing what lay ahead, Rose put on a good face and we headed off: image One thing that kept me motivated to keep going was that I’d noticed : “Fields of Marijuana” (see the map above) was specified on the route on our way there. Fields? As in Cheech and Chong fields? While they weren’t the prairie fields that I’d imagined, there they were, dotting our route: image “Ganja is Nepali word”, Thakur tells us. Immediately I hear the Peter Tosh lyric in my head: “Sum a dem call it ganja!” Until 1973 it was legal to sell in Nepal. I can’t help think this was a big attraction for hippies who came here in the 60s, and helped add to Nepal’s image as a “peaceful” place where one can reflect on life, without having to take the Buddhist path (also an option in Nepal), which could mean sitting in a cold room, on a stone floor repeating a mantra in your head. Instead, people could smoke a joint and stare at a waterfall and let ideas flow.

Today, there is an illegal trade, mainly with Northern India – though, we had seen bags and clothes made from hemp, so it seems it might not all be used for personal prescriptions. Though we’d meet a group on the following day who were fully committed to that path. After the marijuana patch, the next big highlight on the map was something called “A Long Hot Climb”. An attraction no one was quite as excited about. We passed it by Thakur: “So, this long hot climb. How long? How hot?” “No. Different path. Ours is another one”. We each breathed a sigh of relief, but it was only a single breath. Quickly we realized we were heading upwards on our own version of a climb. image While unfortunately it wasn’t enough to warrant its own call out on a map, something like: “Hot and pretty friggin steep climb”, or “Seemingly neverending toil uphill”, it was enough that after we reached the welcome gates of the new village, Tal, we each celebrated in our own way: Makala and Saree calmly but with a twinge of exhaustion: “Is that it then? That’s the village?” and Rose, upon seeing the village, just slightly, every so slightly, more directly: “THANK FUCKING GOD!”. image The village was one of the first Buddhist villages we visited, showcased by a set of prayer wheels that lay in the middle of it. According to Buddhist tradition, you are meant to walk on the left side of the wheels so you can spin each one clockwise (to symbolize time as being circular). This one had 108 wheels, which is also the number of beads that the Buddhists in Nepal carry with them – a sacred number that I couldn’t get a clear answer on while we were there. Why not 107 or 109? image From what I’ve read it could be related to 108 statements that Buddha promulgated or 108 questions asked to Buddha – basically, I’m not entirely clear. But there they were, and we witnessed a woman who was walking around both sides of the wheels, making sure to spin each one as she also counted the beads in her hands.

As we’d walk by, Thakur, who is Hindu, would spin them and hum a Buddhist mantra: OM MANI PADME HUM, as he went. When we hit hard uphills after this, I thought if Thakur was willing to share in some Buddhist rituals as a Hindu, I was willing to take it on as an honourary member and would chant the mantra in my head to distract focus from my burning muscles.

But Tal would be the ultimate distraction for our sore muscles as it would be our stop for tonight, giving us time to do it all again tomorrow.

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Groundhog Day was settling in. Talk soon

Angkor Angelina

 

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Ta-Da. Here it is.

The temple I’ve been talking about, and hope haven’t made anti-climactic, because for me, it was definitely one of the most memorable.

First, I’ll start with a little unpopular culture, before steering you back into the shiny, Angelina Jolie, pop cultural spotlight.

So this temple, named Ta Prohm, was built by the second Khmer king, who was big on Buddha over Hinduism. As part of his reign, he embarked on a huge public works campaign to build temple sculptures and any other kind of building that could show how amazing he was.

Ta Prohm was built in this more Buddhist style, and the main image – a goddess of wisdom, was done in his mother’s likeness.

Upon first glance at the temple’s disrepair, you might think he didn’t like his Mum very much:

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And it’s true – the place is falling apart. But way back in the 1200s, it was tikateeboo and right now, there are efforts being made to restore the place to what it once was. Have a look at this before and after:

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I thought it was pretty impressive. However, after the Khmer empire fell in the 1400s, the temple was left to the jungle – which is why, on walking through it, trees have begun to form around it, sometimes looking like animals (an octopus):

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Or, in this case a skeleton:

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Interestingly, the overgrowth, disrepair and negligence was intentional. A team of French explorers “found” it again, in the late 1890s, and after hemming and hawing about it, decided that it would remain as it looks, with a tree in the living room, and the ceiling caving in, all for art’s sake, or to quote the French group: “as a concession to the general taste of the picturesque”.

While that sounds as lovely as a phyllo pastry tastes, I can’t help but think they had a look at what it would take to fix ($$$$) the temple and retrofitted the “elegantly wasted philosophy”, or en Francais to make it sound much better – l’elegance de l’atrophie.

Regardless of the reason, it stands as it stands, and was hands down my favourite temple visit so far. This, I think was partly that our Team Canada toured the grounds at the end of the day – when there were maybe four other people. We basically had the place to ourselves, and with the sun going down while looking up at the jungle crowding around it, with trees and loud bird calls, it had a very eerie and mystical feeling as we wandered through:

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Now, it can’t be avoided. A lot of this has to do with you know who:

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Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider here, and also in other parts of Cambodia, including Bayon temple in Angkor Thom. And walking through the place, it’s hard to separate out the film where she finds a magical piece of some sort to save the world, all with a look of foreboding:

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Our guide said that the film has quite a big impact on tours and that as a result, the temple is one of the most popular.

Truthfully, I don’t remember the film that well – except that it wasn’t that great. So, for the course of my tour through Ta Prohm, I went with my old standby for touring mysterious temples, who I think is well established by this point:

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Whether Angelina or Indy, our Team Canada wandered through the crumbling place, imagining ourselves explorers, looking for some lost gem to save the world or to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis. Okay, maybe it was just me doing that, though with Rose’s shorts and trekking boots, she definitely looked the part:

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After a last look at the place:

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our Team Canada headed home and the next day, we officially disbanded. Matt, flew back to Toronto. Juliana followed next,  heading back to Regina.

Reduced to two, Rose and I honestly didn’t know what to do with ourselves. After a solid, itemized itinerary for the past two weeks, we realized that we had to start making decisions again, and the holiday from a holiday was over.

I know. It’s a sad tale – I can feel your concern.

So, after a day of tossing ideas back and forth we decided to head South from Siem Reap to an island off the Cambodian Coast called Koh Rong. But first, we’d pass through Phnom Penh, and a trip to the dark side.

Talk soon

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