Thursday, November 21:
Himalayan Sunrise at Nargakot; Overtaken by illness

3:30am. Somehow, we managed to get up. Our taxi to Nargakot was to pick us up around 4am. I wanted to leave at 4:30 or even later, but the travel agency that booked the ride for us said that taxis will leave only on the hour, and that 5am would be too late to catch the sunrise. Our driver actually arrived 15 minutes early, but we didn't head down until the appointed time.

It was cold and dark in Kathmandu as we drove east. Nargakot was well known for having the best views of the Himalaya's Langtang Range, even though it was a mere 30km east of Kathmandu. Overall, the ride was fairly dull; Susanne commented that it was so dark and nondescript outside that the streets of Kathmandu could have easily passed for a suburb in the U.S. "I think we're in Downer's Grove," she said. I disagreed and said, "Skokie." Yet as we began the ascent up the small mountain that lead to Nargakot, the ride turned into a series of treacherous hairpin turns which made me feel like I was dangling over the precipice each time we steered left or right. Around and around, higher and higher we went. And the drop down was getting steeper and steeper. I was actually glad it was so dark out - otherwise I would have been scared to death if I could have seen over the edge of the cliffs. Over and over, our driver would pass a truck or a bus on this single lane road, spinning around 300-degree curves, and with a 600 foot drop down at any given moment. Yes, darkness was my friend this morning.

By around 5am we arrived at the top of Nargakot - 8,000 feet above the valley floor. While Susanne hunted for a bathroom with our driver, I climbed up to a large grass and dirt plateau next to a hotel. It was clearly the best viewing point - high in the air, a broad view of the Himalayan horizon, and not much man-made lighting. Thousands upon thousands of starts were in the sky. I hadn't seen this many stars in years, probably since the last time I spent a weekend in the mountains of northern New Hampshire at my Uncle Jerry's house. All of Orion was visible to the south. I could also count all of the seven major stars of the Plaeides. And due east, a planet shone brightly, marking the precise spot where the sun would soon appear.

The only problem was the temperature - it was freezing, probably no warmer than 40 degrees. We hadn't brought our warmest jackets since we planned to trek back to Changu Narayan and then to Bodnath - a six hour walk that would have us hiking through the warmest part of the day. So there I was, on this large hill in the Himalayas, freezing my butt off in a Yale sweatshirt and not much else. I grimly reminisced about our climb to the top of Masada a year ago in the West Bank. It was just as cold that morning, just as windy, and we had no food or water on our pre-dawn ascent. We climbed 1000 feet straight up just to get a view of the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Susanne got really sick afterwards and it nearly wrecked our last week in Israel. Would this sunrise adventure do the same?

I assumed not. There was no wind to speak of on the hill, so it could have been far less comfortable there. Also, we were smart enough to bring an ample supply of bagels, croissants and mango juice, which would provide much needed energy. I was sure I'd be just fine. But then there was Susanne. She appeared to be getting sick again. The rough ride up the hill had made her carsick, so was very fortunate to have found an open restroom at 5am in the hotel across from our hilltop plateau. She was back up on the hill with me now, though I'm sure the cold and the lack of sleep wasn't going to make her any better. We now had 90 more minutes to kill before that damn sunrise.

Susanne sat rather quietly, wrapped in a tight bundle. A group of dogs, five of them black and one of them yellow, joined us as well. The black ones appeared to be cold and pissed off at the world, so our driver kept shooing them away with shepherd's calls every time they got a little too close. The yellow dog, with its long fluffy tail permanently curled over and around its back, looked like some kind of scrawny Siberian mix. It was very friendly, though, and stuck close by us, avoiding the pack of black dogs.

I spent much of the spare time talking with our driver, whose name, unfortunately, I can't recall. He was a Newari man, about 30, medium height and build, with strong Mongoloid features. I could picture him on horseback riding the Central Asian steppe northwest of Tibet. His English was limited, but he possessed a strong enough vocabulary for us to carry on a conversation. He asked me about where I lived and what the weather was like in different parts of the US. He apparently had a friend in Atlanta, so we talked about the south, Coca Cola, the Olympics, and CNN. I also asked him about Newari culture. He said that they were the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and that very few of them could be found outside this area. Since the Valley had become a crossroads for several major empires, Newaris intermingled with other ethnic groups, which eventually led to a variety of facial features. He, for example, looked Mongol, but many other Newaris look Chinese or Indian, yet they all still consider themselves Newari.

Newaris, he explained, believe very strongly in community life. They build houses around a shrine or a stupa, thus forming a neighborhood courtyard. This explained the abundance of small squares in the residential neighborhoods of Kathmandu. Other local ethnic groups, like the Tamang and Langtang peoples of Kathmandu's hill country, tend to live in isolated houses or farms. They also prefer to carry large loads on or around their heads, supported by a think cloth strap, while Newaris transport things by balancing them on two sides of a pole, carried over a shoulder. We had seen both methods quite often in and around the city.

He then asked me if Americans really ate cow meat. I felt guilty saying yes, even though I personally don't eat red meat. I told him that America was a beef and pork culture, though chicken and fish were also popular. I asked him what other food Newaris wouldn't eat. Dogs and monkeys were both off limits. Monkeys are the agents of the god Hanuman, while dogs were more of a practical issue - they make good pets and house guards. Cats, interestingly enough, are the 'dirty' animals of Newari culture. Nothing is worse than a cat, he said. When I told him that casts were almost as common as dogs as pets in America, he appeared shocked and puzzled as to why on earth we would do such a thing.

The stars had vanished and the sky was a dark blue, which lightened to softer tones as you looked towards the point in the east where the sun would soon rise. The dogs had left the hilltop, but they were soon replaced by a large group of tourists from India. Then came the Germans, the Australians, the French, and then a few Americans. Before long, a group of at least 100 tourists had gathered and were crowding up our once peaceful mountain top. It was like an outdoor cocktail party without the cocktails.

We could now begin to see much of the Himalayas across the northern and eastern horizons. To our left, facing west, the Annapurna Range could just be made out. Much closer to us we could see the Langtang Range, including Gauri Shanker, Ganesh Himal, and Manaslu, which at around 25,000 feet is one of the ten highest mountains in the world. Further to the right, facing almost east, we could barely see the Everest Range. And somewhere, hidden amongst those snow covered peaks was Mount Everest itself, but at this distance, we were unable to tell which was which. Hopefully, our flight to Calcutta would give us a nice view of it. The blue sky lightened even further and then turned almost white, then orange. The sun was still a few minutes away, but the indirect light created marvelous shadowing effects on the eastern face of Ganesh Himal and Gauri Shanker. I took a couple of pictures but decided to hold off on any more shots until sunrise. It was now 6:30am, and still no sun. Rise, dammit! Rise!

Finally, close to 6:55, the sun finally came up a brilliant orange, in what was probably only a matter of seconds. And just as I started to point my camera eastward, everything through my EOS Rebel's lens went out of focus. This brand new camera had a great autofocus - what was going on? I took the camera away from my face and looked at it. A huge fog bank had spontaneously materialized on top of us! Previously, only the valley below was blanked in pea soup. Now it was on top of us too, and my poor camera (as well as my glasses) were completely soaked with dew. I was really ticked off.

Meanwhile, poor Susanne looked awful. Apparently 24 hours of good health ended abruptly here at Nargakot. We agreed that she was in no condition to walk anywhere from here, so we informed our driver that we'd be joining him on the way back to Thamel. No problem, he said, since we were paying for the round trip just to get there in the first place. We briefly stopped at that tea house Susanne had visited early for a bathroom. The tea was expensive, but hot and delicious. I even broke my no milk rule and enjoyed some hot cream with it, for the tea was so dark if tasted thicker than black coffee. The fog had diminished by this point, so we took a few more pictures outside before beginning the 50-minute drive back to town. I hadn't expected driving down those hairpin turns again, but after the yummy tea, I was calm and relaxed. We drove through Bhaktapur before reaching the hotel around 8am.

Susanne wisely went to be while I visited the restaurant for a hot bowl of porridge and more tea. When I returned upstairs, the phone rang. Who on earth could that be? No one knows where we're staying. It was the tour agent who arranged our ride to Nargakot. He said, "There is a problem, please come to my office." I asked him to tell me what the problem is over the phone. He refused. I figured he was trying to take advantage of the fact that we had gotten our money's worth out of the return fare by going both ways instead of one - less commission for him. Since he probably figured I'd give him money if he could confront me behind closed doors, I told him that if he couldn't explain the problem over the phone, then clearly there was no serious problem, was there? Once again, he refused to explain it. Have a nice day, I said, and hung up. What a jerk.

Susanne continued to sleep, so I headed out for a couple of hours to shop in Thamel. Didn't find anything too exciting. I returned to the room around noon to see how Susanne was doing. She wasn't getting sick or anything, but looked very tired. I suggested that we go for a walk to sit in a garden and eat some tea and toast. We went to Le Bistro in Thamel again, but by the time we got there, I realize that it had been a terrible idea. Susanne looked white and sweaty, walking almost in a daze. "I'm having headspins," she said. I knew immediately that the headspins were being caused by dehydration, just as if she had a serious hangover. Unfortunately, it was because she had thrown up so much she wasn't retaining any fluids. I'd have to get her to a doctor if I didn't do something quickly. I got her back to the hotel, where she got very upset, saying that she thought she had ruined the whole trip by being so ill. I assured her that this was crazy, and I'd stay with her as long as it took to get her back on track so she'd be able to enjoy the rest of our stay. But first, I needed to find rehydrating salts, so I went on a hunt for a health clinic.

I discovered a clinic just behind the hotel, as it happened. After I described the symptoms, the nurse there agreed with me that Susanne needed to be rehydrated, and that this was probably her principal problem. I bought several packets of electrolyte solution, enough to make five liters of the stuff, and returned to the hotel. I gave Susanne a liter of the solution and told her if she didn't drink it, she'd just have to be sick for the rest of the trip. I didn't like giving her the tough love treatment, but she was tired and being stubborn about drinking. The only way she'd get better was if she would drink two to three liters of the solution a day, so I laid down the law and described what would happen if she didn't rehydrate herself.

We spent the afternoon and early evening at the hotel, resting, talking, and drinking plenty of fluids. The mineral solution was having profound effects - Susanne was no longer disoriented, she could keep food down, was relaxed, and could sleep without sweating through her sheets. She also started a three day regimen of Cyproflaxin, an antibiotic her doctor had given her for emergencies. This, we decided, was an emergency. The combination of therapies seemed to do the trick, and by 8pm, she was ready to eat some rice - which I had brought up to the room, of course. The Tibetan woman who ran the restaurant was only happy to bring food and other supplies up for Susanne. Every time I saw her downstairs, she'd ask how my 'wife' was doing. I assured her she was better, and that her kindness was most appreciated.

We ate our rice and went to bed early. It wasn't exactly the way I wanted to spend my last full day in Kathmandu, but all things considered, we had to count our blessings. The city had been very good to us, and even though Susanne got very sick, Kathmandu was a great place to recuperate. Hopefully she'd be feeling well enough to walk around the next morning before our flight to Calcutta.

Next Entry: Off to Calcutta

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