Eating our way through Penang; Malaysia’s Culinary Epicenter

We have been back in the USA almost 4 weeks now, but it took us a little time to get this last blog post out.  Currently, we are enjoying the fall colors in Upstate New York as we prepare to be in America while we snowboard and ski Hunter Mountain for the winter.  Who knows what the spring and summer will hold, but the word “India” is being thrown around a lot 🙂

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Lacy: The flight to Penang was short and sweet as we flew from Perhentian Island’s sparkling beaches on the West coast to Malaysia’s foodie central on the East coast.  When we mentioned our upcoming travels to Penang to anyone while staying on Perhentian Kecil, locals and tourists alike all agreed that this city is one of the best places to visit in the country & has a reputation for serving up some of the best Indian, Chinese and traditional food due to the blending of cultures.  By 10am we were stepping out of a cab in Little India.  Standing with our our backpacks in front of accommodation we took in nostrils full of spicy and sweet aromas drifting down the street spice being accompanied by local music played loudly on speakers that stood on the sidewalk.  Oh, Asia how I love thee.  Being in this region is a constant playground for your senses no matter where you are.  For $12 we had a great private room with shared bath on the top floor of a simple hotel in the middle of all the Little India action.  Fresh samosas, fried onion balls, mango lassis, roti canai, fresh hot butter naan & paneer are now all things we can procure within a couple block radius.  Dropping our bags off quickly, we immediately sat down to our first of many outstanding meals for the next week.  Even though Chinatown is a couple blocks from us and local Malaysian food abounds, Indian food had to be first!

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The first Penang feast of veg Thali, butter naan and Saag Paneer (paneer in a spinach curry)

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Rob loves the Hokkien Mee

 

Often times when we first arrive to a new city we like to walk out the front door, turn down different streets and get a little lost as we explore our new surroundings.  That is exactly how we began our week long stay in Penang.  We spent the first afternoon wandering through Little India, Chinatown, down to the jetties where each is specific to a particular Chinese clan that adopted it when they first arrived to the area and finally to a much needed haircut.  Rob hadn’t trimmed his hair since beginning to grow it out before we hiked the Pacific Crest Trail – 18 months ago! At my gentle insistence, he had an inch trimmed off and is looking better than ever.

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Giz enjoys the beach, random street art and the self proclaimed most “unorganized book collection ever” (but I did find something I liked)

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As usual, the surrounding religious architecture and influence is always pleasing to the eye

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Rob: Penang was a feast. Yes, the city of Georgetown has beautiful Colonial period architecture and public street art set on a coastal island and is made for walking and taking pictures, but the food is what we will always remember. Penang is an island of immigrants. Malaysians, Europeans, Indians and Chinese have kept their individual cultures alive and well by sharing their traditions and food side-by-side-by-side-by-side here. It was refreshing to see Local and Foreign tourists from any group in an ethic area other than their own, eating, shopping, visiting the temples and enjoying eating some more. We did our very best to try so many of the specialties from every group. There were a few favorites that we will bring back home with us. Hokkien Mee is rice noodles in a thick broth made from dried shrimp and pork bones. Nasi Kandar is a chicken curry with rice that is all about the thickest, heaviest, darkest and richest sauce ever. Roti Canai is a fresh flat bread served steaming with a few sides of dipping sauce typically made that morning. These are 3 of about a dozen new favorites destined to be our new comfort foods.

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Enjoying the sunset at one of Penang’s many beaches

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We took a funicular up to the highest point in the city, Penang Hill, where we were able to watch the lights come on in Georgetown below…

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…and the local selfie culture surrounding us while tourists snapped away in a “selfie park.”

Once again we rented a 125cc motorcycle for a few days to explore and enjoy more of the island than we could reach on foot. A waterfall and a beach later, we had a great ride around Penang, but much like our travels in total, the journey itself was the best part of the ride.

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We had fun at the butterfly museum where we saw a couple cute lizards as well

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This was a hidden bar in Georgetown that I struggled to find the entry to, but once we were inside it had a very unique vibe.

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Our favorite watering hole in Georgetown was Junk.  The space used to be an antique store and the owner decided to display much of the goods that came with the store purchase.  Great cheap cocktails in a funky space.

We made the big decision to head home from here. We would finish our 6 months of adventures with a lifetime of memories. The only souvenirs we would be bringing home were knit hats and gloves from trekking in Nepal, a bracelet and ring for Lacy from Bali and spices from Little India in Penang, Malaysia to go along with so many new friends made along the way. Lots of photos, this blog and 100+ stories couldn’t describe our experiences fully. The best part was doing all of this with my beautiful wife, partner and friend.

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We rode past a Durian farm and thought that it was the perfect time to finally try this smelly fruit departing from Asia.  Unfortunately, it’s not durian season, but there were some lovely orchids to be seen.

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Bringing home a lot of Indian spices was a MUST.

Relaxing by the Emerald Clear South China Sea of the Perehentian Islands

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This island is taking my breath away!

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The water is this clear!

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Rob knows he can find me, day or night, in one of the many hammocks on the beach if I’m not in the water

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Lounging in the hammock

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It took us nearly a full day to travel by bus and boat from the Cameron Highlands to Perhentian Kecil, the smaller of the 2 Perhentian Islands on the east coast of Malaysia’s mainland, but oh, was it worth it!  This place is absolutely beautiful with it’s crsytal clear emerald waters that you can see through as you stand on the shore or ride a water taxi between isolated beaches.  Sheltered from the sun by a palm tree as I lay in the hammock and listen to the waves lapping against the shore I can only think, “Ah, it feels so good to do nothing on the beach.”  We have had a great mix of doing just that – nothing – and snorkeling nearly every day, taking jungle walks across the island, sampling the beach bars, watching sunsets over the water and laying in the hammock.  The beauty of this island is reminding me so much of Kenawa and I find myself reminiscing about that special month where we enjoyed the unique once in a lifetime opportunity of living on a near private island.  Snorkeling out our front door, cooking on the front porch and watching the sunrise from bed. Man, we had it good.  And it’s not too shabby now either, I must admit.

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The beach in front of D’Lagoon

We arrived on the island Friday, Malaysia’s Independence Day, and were really fortunate that a place we wanted to stay ad a last minute cancellation because everything else was booked.  Our plan was to just show up on the island and go to the backpacker hotels and hope to find a room, but thankfully, with our booking secured the night before, the boat  from the ferry on the mainland dropped us right off at the beautiful beachfront of our accommodation.  By 5pm we were sitting in the shallow water of the warm sea with a cold beer in our hands and marveling at our surroundings.  We chose this hotel specifically because it has great snorkeling directly off the beach.  No need to take a boat anywhere.  Already we have seen schools of black tipped sharks, half a dozen stingray, the largest parrotfish we have ever laid eyes on and big beautiful clams with iridescent colors. With the bright sun, clear water and lively underwater world here we are very content.  Before we leave we will take a boat trip to nearby islands for more snorkeling and I hope we can see a turtle. Some friends of ours, that we met in Ipoh and again here on the island, were able to see a turtle on an excursion they did over the weekend.  Fingers crossed!

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Wild orchids 

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This monitor – all 6 feet of him – visited the beach one afternoon. Look at that tongue!

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Turtle beach is a ten minute walk through the jungle and puts you on the west of the island where you can catch a great sunset on a deserted beach 

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Our accommodation at D’Lagoon is simple, basic, very quiet (other than the loud group of 16 young, drunk European travelers returning from the party area of Long Beach at 3am one evening) and cheap.  Just the way we like it.  With our own room with a fan (more than adequate in the evenings) and a shared bathroom we paid the peak season rate of $80RM over the weekend and $70RM every night after.  Very affordable at $20 or less a night for a slice of heaven.  Most of the accommodations on the smaller of the 2 islands are pretty basic, catering to backpackers and people more interested in partying and laying low.  The larger island is known to have more resorts, families and higher prices.  The 2 islands are a 5 minutes water taxi ride from one another and very easy to go between.  It’s very common to stay on one island and travel to the other or even between different area of the same island by water taxi.  We never traveled anywhere where you take a quick $10RM ($2.50 USD) boat ride down the island to have dinner and return later.  One evening though, when enjoying dinner and drinks with our UK friends, Dan & Hanna, we lost track of time.  Between it being late – past midnight – and some rain we weren’t able to get back to our hotel by taxi and it is an hour walk through the jungle which was not an option at the hour.  But, it’s the island, and life is easy.  We took a bed in a room above the bar that “helped” us lose track of time and when we woke up at 8:30 the next morning we got on a taxi and were back in our bed by 8:45.  These are the worst of problems here – having to stay on another beach because we were having too much fun!

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Enjoying a few beers at a great beach bar on Long Beach, a 5 minute water taxi ride from D’Lagoon.  Long Beach is the busiest area of the island with more hotels, dive shops, restaurants and bars than anywhere else…and a pretty thriving night life…

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…Complete with fire shows.  As Rob says, “it’s all in the name of selling more booze.”

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On the fast boat to Perhentian Kecil from the harbor

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Giz likes his Thai beer, Chang

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Sunset from Coral Bay

We did get some disappointing news from the  captain of the boat we were expecting to sail to Indonesia this month.  Due to some maintenance issues he is having with the boat we are not going to be able to sail with him this year.  It’s a real bummer because we had been planning this for months and possibly may have even gone home earlier had we not been waiting to sail.  Not to say we didn’t have great experiences hiking the Annapurna Circuit and exploring Malaysia along the way. I wouldn’t change a thing because I loved all of those adventures. It all worked out for a reason.  And since we bought our airline tickets with frequent flyer miles we have the luxury of changing our return flight home without any fees.  We have taken full advantage of this perk multiple times already.  As we finish up this blog post we are eating calamari while lounging in our respective hammocks and deciding whether to keep traveling Asia since we are already halfway around the world and have no idea when we will be back…or come back to the States.  Even if we come back we will still travel a bit.  Definitely not the worst decision we have ever had to make…and we still have 3 more days on this island!

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From coffee…

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…To cocktails we are loving the Perhentian islands

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Late night fun with Dan and Hannah, new friends from Malaysia. We had a great night out and all we have is this crummy photo and good memories!

Malaysia: Cameron Highlands

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It’s beautiful here!

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Mainland Malaysia on the left.  The right shows our journey from Kuala Lumpur in north to Ipoh (A) and east to Cameron Highlands (B)

The Cameron Highlands are a short 2-3 hour bus ride east from Ipoh and into very welcome cooler temperatures.  So cool in fact, that the feeling of the cool breeze while hiking in the area made me long for my unbelievably comfortable sleeping bag and tent. One of my favorite things in the world is to sleep outside and feel the wind. Sometimes in Hunter, with a perfectly good bed inside, I’ll sleep on the porch. I used to try to convince Rob to sleep with me on the porch of our 19th floors high rise in Dallas so we could feel the wind, but I never quite succeeded on that one. 

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When the bus approached the area, Rob and I both thought that the town seemed larger and more touristy than we expected.  Fortunately, we booked a place a street back from the main thoroughfare in Tanah Rata.  The French family that rafted with us a couple of days before recommended a hotel they stayed in and we were glad they did!  It was very reasonably priced, clean, quiet and comfortable.  Trying to keep our accommodation expenses low, we opted for a room with a shared bathroom. Before traveling this summer, taking a hotel room with a common bathroom was a foreign idea to me, but it’s a common option in Asia and if the facilities are well kept it’s an excellent way to minimize your costs.  Traveling in Nepal, nearly all the teahouses have common bathrooms so almost any bathroom after that seems clean!  I took a hike up to the summit of one the mountains that evening to try and see the sunset, but it was too cloudy to get much color.  We were rewarded with great views the following day when we rented a 125cc scooter and explored the area, having a fun touristy day.  We both love having the freedom of a bike and it’s an almost instant recipe for a fantastic day.  Helmets on, Gizmo in the pack and a beautiful sun shining day we were ready to experience the beauty of the Cameron Highlands.

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Clouds hanging low in the morning at Mossy Forest

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Beginning the day with fresh strawberries, waffles and strawberry white coffee

After stopping for fresh strawberry waffles at one of many local Strawberry Farms we went to the Mossy Forest. Here, you are guided through the beautiful mossy, lichen jungle landscape on a boardwalk so as to preserve the natural surroundings. After climbing a lookout tower for 360 views we continued the journey by hiking a path that was technically closed. It’s being closed seemed more like a suggestion to us so we climbed over roots and stepped in mud for an hour to further be saturated in the beauty of the area.  The entrance to the forest is near a tea plantation and seemed to be the next natural stop for us. The surrounding plantations are absolutely gorgeous. Very different from the rice paddies we have been accustomed to viewing this summer.  We enjoyed a nice little break after hiking over a pot of BOH Gold Tea and a slice of strawberry tea cheesecake.

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Taking the boardwalk through the Mossy Forest to the jungle trail at the end

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In the Mossy Forest

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This hike was the first time either of us saw a pitcher plant. Very cool!

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A bit a workout with all the roots taking over the trail

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View from the tower

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BOH Tea Plantation

Since I can never get enough fresh flowers in my life Rose Valley was our next destination.  It’s not so much a valley as a massive ongoing greenhouse with more flowers than I imagined. Certainly exceeded expectations with an abundance of orchids, roses, lilies, bleeding hearts, giant hibiscus and other flowers we had never seen before! We covered every inch of this massive flower heaven and left smiling. I was talking about how great the experience was all day!

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Stingray flower – new to us

As we sat down to Indian food for dinner, I looked across the tables sitting along the sidewalk and there was Christoph, the Frenchman we hiked with towards the end of the Annapurna Circuit.  Small world!  He joined us and we all recounted what we have been up to since we last saw one another.

The following day we relaxed, played cards and didn’t do a whole lot of anything except laundry, pack to leave the next morning for the Perhentian Islands and eat more Indian food.  I am obsessed with it lately and can’t get enough naan, paneer, roti canai, curry…you name it. There will certainly be Indian aromas emanating from our kitchen when we return home.

 

Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur & Ipoh

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Celebrating our 3 year wedding anniversary on 8/23/18.  We have now been traveling together almost half of our marriage ❤️

Lacy: In our typical style, we purchased our flights to Malaysia a couple days prior to leaving Nepal. We need to be in Pangkor, a tiny island on the west coast, to set sail to Indonesia on the 10th. We didn’t do much research on our next destination or even book a flight for the night we arrived before boarding our 5 hour, 80% empty flight from Kathmandu.  It felt like a private plane there were so few passengers. We have traveled through Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport for long layovers twice this summer, but never left the airport so imagine our excitement when we grabbed a taxi and realized that KL is a rather large and modern city! Highways that are paved and don’t have potholes! Speed limits?! High rises and skyscrapers, no cow shit on the street to avoid while walking, real laundromats! We are officially NOT in a third world country anymore after five months of traveling through Indonesia, Cambodia and Nepal.  Admittedly, we both experienced a bit of culture shock for the first 24 hours.  Rob will tell you that I am drawn to the lack of polish and rawness that are inherent in the other countries we have visited, but it’s still nice to experience what Malaysia has to offer us!

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Arriving at the airport in Malaysia…excited for our 4th country this summer!

At the last minute, (meaning in the airport before getting into a cab) we booked 3 nights in the Bukit Bintang district of KL near the night market area. This was intentional since we didn’t check in until midnight and having not eaten a real meal since breakfast in Nepal, we were starving!  Throwing our backpacks down in our teensy tiny room we set out to explore what late night delicacies Malaysia could serve up for us. The best bites, by far, were the spicy chicken wings. So good, in fact, we had them again the next evening. Overall, we found the night market to be disappointing with bland food and massages being hawked as you walk down the street until the wee hours of the morning. All we wanted was some good spicy authentic Malaysian grub.  We went to sleep near 3am which we later realized set the tone for our first week in this country. Late nights! We are no longer rising and setting with the sun as on the Annapurna Circuit.  An entirely different scene emerges in the city as the sun sets. Tables and chairs are set up on the street as food stalls open, doors along the sidewalk that your didn’t even realize were closed before now reveal either a speakeasy or local bar. Sure, there has been a very prevalent street food scene at night throughout the countries we have traveled, but in Malaysia it seems to be working on a higher level here.  The food here has many similarities to Indonesia – rice, sambal, chicken, fried noodles.  We can lean on some of our comfort foods and explore new ones.  It’s easy to read the local signs because Malaysian and Indonesian are very very similar languages.  We have that prior knowledge of the language working to our advantage, but almost everyone speaks English so you don’t even need to speak the local language.  Honestly, that’s a bit of a bummer for me because the new languages are one of the things I enjoy most when traveling. You can feel the lingering British colonial influence here from the prevalence of English spoken, the architecture and existence of traditional high tea throughout the country.

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Meat, seafood, vegetables and just about anything that fits on a stick is available for your choice at the night market.  Make your selection and they will cook it up for you on the spot (photo bottom right).

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This is the best 😳photo we have from the late night food scene the evening we arrived – me stuffing my face with a delicious spicy chicken wing.  Well, it tells the story like it was 🙂  During the day all these tables and chairs on the sidewalk are gone, the small grill on the sidewalk closed up and you would never know this place existed in the evening if you hadn’t seen it before.

We enjoyed walking many many miles the next 2 days throughout the city exploring the various parts from Little India to Chinatown and viewing the Petronas towers.  It’s very hot in KL right now and I wished I had brought my bathing suit in my bag when we stopped for a drink at The W pool overlooking the Petronas towers. Management was very kind to help us celebrate our 3 year wedding anniversary that day with free chili and kefir leaf infused tequila shots.  Yum!

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Petronas Towers behind us as we celebrate our anniversary…

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….Into the wee hours of the night

KL, and Malaysia in general, may be a good soft transition from traveling in poorer countries to heading back home after sailing. While it is a big modern island it still has a lot of decent inexpensive options for food and accommodation that you wouldn’t find back home. There, you can hardly get a campsite for less than $20/night much less a hotel room.  Granted, $20 doesn’t go near as far as it did in Indonesia, which still remains my favorite country this summer. I haven’t been the biggest fan of traveling to larger cities on this 5 month adventure, but I quite like what Malaysia has to offer. It offers a lot of diversity for food, is clean, easy to get around and the people have been kind.

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View from rooftop in Ipoh

The third largest city in Malaysia is Ipoh and where we spent the following 4 nights.   After an easy 2 1/2 hour train ride we checked into a really cute hotel in Old Town Ipoh, The Happy 8. The town is split between “old and “new” by the river.  It’s also very hot in Ipoh, but we were excited to have our white coffee where it originated so we took a short hot walk to a local coffee shop right away. White coffee are beans that have been ground with palm butter and palm sugar giving it a nutty taste.  This began due to the lesser quality beans that the locals were using and they masked the strong flavor by adding condensed milk – hence, the “white”. Now, however, when you order a white coffee here it means you get a black coffee mixed with the condensed milk and sugar. Personally, it’s too heavy and sweet for me this way, but Rob loves it.  This is not a surprise since he eats cake for breakfast. Ipoh is known to have a great food scene. Locals travel here just to eat. Our first meal was so good and set the tone for a few days filled with good eating.  My veg curry was layered with flavor and spice and probably the best I have ever had.  Walking off our heavy bellies, we checked out Ipoh’s many murals and famous Concubine Lane.

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The best veg curry I have ever had (top right) and Giz gets into some Chilly Mee

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This mural is called, “Old man drinking coffee”, but Rob thinks it looks like a Malaysian version President

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The 3D murals make me smile

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Rob intrudes on a private moment on Concubine Lane 🤣

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This area is known for Buddhist cave temples that were discovered in the last 100 years.  Having visited so many temples this summer and enjoying seeing the differences between various parts of Buddhism and countries, we visited a few more.  It was a hot day, but we continued on to what we thought was a local village. When we arrived we realized that we were at a village replica!  It is set around a tiny body of water and looks like a movie set.  Most likely, you would take your kids to a place like this to show them what a typical Malaysian village would look like.  This wasn’t at all what we had in mind, but they had 2 seater bicycles and traditional hats and we thought, what the heck?! We are here, let’s be silly!  So we rode around the “village” a couple times laughing and taking photos before deciding we needed more food!  We had a great meal at the local food stalls the night before and there had been a fruit and ice cream dish I hadn’t had the space in my stomach for then, but after a hot day walking around I could think of nothing better!

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Inside a cave temple

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Sam Poh Temple

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Goofing off at the mock village

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A fantastic bowl of fresh mango, lychee, melons and more topped with ice cream is a great way to end a hot day running around; we stumbled upon a Malaysian speakeasy with great drinks; a truly delicious half of a roasted duck for $7.50.  Ipoh definitely delivered on food!

Rob: While in Ipoh, Lacy found a White Water Rafting outing we could do to take a break from the heat that wasn’t very far away. We could actually take a Grab (Uber here) all the way there, 40 minutes, for just 29MR (about $7). I’ve actually never been and neither had she. The water was a bit low and calm that day so we can both still say that we still haven’t been White Water Rafting, but we had a nice ride in a raft on a lazy river that had a few spots where we picked up a little speed and got a little wet. It was also up in the low mountains on a clear day, clean clear water and we were with a nice group of people.  Lunch at a local Warung was also great so overall it was a very nice outing in the Malaysian countryside.  The 1/2 day trip turned into a 2/3 day trip and threatened to have us miss our 3:30 Museum reservation.  We caught a ride back into town from one of the guys from the Rafting place just in time.  The little Museum in Ipoh told the story of how the Hakka people from China came to build and grow the town. It is a young town as far as Asia is concerned – really just a few hundred years old and only coming to worldwide prominence when Tin was discovered in large quantities right at the beginning of WWI and the need for packing and shipping canned food became a necessity. The Museum was fun and intriguing because even though it was Tin and not Gold & Asia, not the American West, the story of a mining boomtown with opium dens instead of saloons, prostitution and gambling was exactly the same.  It was also housed in the same building that had been the actual Hakka Miners Club with original interior and furniture which made the stories, excellently described by our guide, come to life.  A little Tin Mining Museum really is one of the “must do” things in Ipoh.

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“Coming down the mountains!” Completing our Annapurna Circuit trek

Lacy: Being as we have been off the Circuit several weeks now and are currently in Malaysia, this post is a bit overdue.  Apologies for the delay, but this post, while a little long, will tell the tale of how we ended our trek.  I LOVED hiking the Circuit.  It was so different from anything else we have done.  Yes, we hiked 800 miles of the PCT last year, but this is literally and figuratively worlds apart.  Passing through Himalayan villages, staying in tea houses, waking up early to catch a view of the magnificent tall mountains, being immersed in a completely different culture and having hot food all day while hiking that we didn’t have to cook are all new to us.  I could hike every single day for years on end.  It is one of my favorite past times, but even Daddie Gizmo has had enough sometimes and so we ended our hike and spent 4 days in Pokhara before returning to Kathmandu and flying to Malaysia.  💜

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Hiking into Kagbeni, a stunning oasis north of the Annapurna Circuit, housing a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been in use for nearly 600 years

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A rare photo of the two of us hiking together that Cristoph took

Rob: After spending a few days decompressing in Muktinath we departed for Kagbeni, a Tibetan village in northern Nepal. Over hundreds of years, redrawn boarders, boarders redrawn again and even again, it was never under the rule of China. Nepali and other cultural influence have also been minimal because of the remoteness of the village and the presence of a 585+ year old Tibetan Buddhist Temple & Monastery that is still in full use today. So… it’s said that it is as close to a purely Tibetan village as it can be, even inside of Tibet. If you purely view the oldest part of the village and Temple, I can definitely understand why. It is, however, attached to a typical mountain Nepali village that caters to trekkers from near and far.  The authentic and amazing old village has doorways that are all wooden, about 5 feet tall at most, and connect a warren of stone tiny alleys that connect multiple layers of homes and barns as one contiguous structure. Windows have tiny intricately carved wooden shutters used like vents. Rain cleans the pathways downhill to the river and fills the rice paddies, local gardens and apple orchards that are all woven together in a lush oasis tucked in a tiny river valley high up on a very, very barren mountainside.  I’ve used the word charming once in my life before at some point, I’m certain, but it’s also very descriptive of Kagbeni. We enjoyed a full day’s rest, Yak Mo-Mos (dumplings), the local Raksi and sitting in on afternoon Prayer time with the young Monks of the Monastery.  Lacy says Kagbeni is probably her favorite Nepali village of the entire circuit.

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Stone alleys in Kagbeni

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Lovely views in then Tibetan village

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Very old stupa at the entrance to Kagbeni…

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With beautifully painted interior

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Leaving after 2 nights in Kagbeni, we hiked 5 hours turning south for the first time on the trek. Marpha was another one of the little mountain towns with similar charm (said it again). Trekking “down” this side of the Annapurna Circuit hasn’t been the same as our previous 2 weeks of challenging ascent nor does it have the same vistas.  It’s been rocky, dry, downhill and dusty. Figure 8 didn’t hesitate to duck us under one of those 5 foot doorways the very moment we reached Marpha to have us sit down to a little reward for our efforts of the day. Thongba is a warm millet based beer found in just a few places in Nepal that she enjoyed when she was in Nepal five years ago.  A generous amount of fermented millet is scooped into a big pewter schooner that has a lid and pierced pewter straw. Boiling water is poured over the millet and you begin a slow stirring and mouth watering process as your beer  “brews”. It takes 10 minutes for the water to become cloudy and cool enough to drink. It was a fantastic reward for the day and the last 10 minutes of patient stirring. It has a slightly sweet, grain like taste with the tang of fresh alcoholic beverage. After you drain your schooner, you start over with more boiling water. It was a little weaker tasting the second round but still really great. I hope YouTube can teach me how to make this when I get home. I can’t wait to try it out on so many of our friends!
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Thongba!

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Entering Marpha

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Visiting the local monastery

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Prayer wheels up the stairs

Our 3rd day down was from Marpha to Kalopani. We knew it would be a long day to start but we were aiming to make Tatopani in 2 long days versus 3 short ones. There was a lot of construction along the old trail, which is becoming a new road, so we crossed a suspension bridge to the other side of the river; thereby, hugging the opposite side of the valley on the newer trekking route. It wasn’t long before we picked up a local dog to join us on our route. Soon after we were also joined by a young French guy named Christoph and 5 cows!  These cows had also decided that today would be the day they moved a village or 3 downriver and were with us at least 2/3 of the way until they apparently reached their destination and were herded away by a little old local woman.  The rain had been very intense along this section of the trail / road / river for the last few weeks. The road on the other side of the river had several landslides that made the road completely impassable. Busses would have to pull to both sides of the avalanche so passengers could climb over to continue their journeys. On our side of the river, we followed the trail up and down the hillside taking several small detours where the trail had been washed out or where the swollen river had simply re-carved the fields and riverside.  We (Lacy, myself, the dog, French guy & all the cows) reached a small village that had become completely flooded by the widening river. With the help of several local men, they guided us along a flooded former path and across several stream areas. We thought we were all set to rejoin the trail with just wet shoes until we reached the far side of town where the muddy water was about 3 ft deep for a 100 foot span. Once again, with their guidance to stay centered where the path or road would have normally been, we crossed carefully, but easily, to the other side. With waves of “Thanks” and “Danyabads” we set off for the remaining 3-4 hours of trail with mud filled shoes, socks and gaiters that smelled of muddy trail, river silt and manure. It was a relief to stroll into Tatopani, rinse our legs and sit down right at dinner time to a cold Gorkha beer and generous plates of Dal Bhat.
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Trail washed away in monsoon season

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This is the main road that is completely turned to a river. I later saw a man using the running water to clean clothes in what is normally the road!

The following morning we began early in the rain and mist. The previous day’s dusty roads were now just big mud puddles and rock. We had to follow the road for a few klicks due to rockslides taking the trail that ran above the road down into the road itself. We could hear rockslides on the other side of the canyon as we climbed through the rubble on our own side of the river. After a long suspension bridge to cross over, we were in dense vegetation river valley jungle and back on a safe and beautiful trail for several hours. Our tummies were grumbling after 5 straight hours of and 11 miles of climbing down through rain forest and along a raging river below. Our French tag-along trekker may have gotten more miles in during our morning than he expected and was ready to stop for lunch when we crossed back over the river to the little village of Dana. I needed fried rice and a large beer as well as a break for my tender knees. Several straight days of big downhill were taking their toll. Before we reached Tatopani, we passed an area of road totally blocked by mud and rock slide that had a big jam of people, jeeps, trucks and busses waiting for one lone bulldozer to help rebuild the road to at least passable conditions.  It looked like there was going to be a very long wait for everyone.  We simply excused ourselves through the crowd, crossed a narrow row of freshly plowed mud and continued on down the hill. I did have a sly little smile cross my face as we did so too.  Even though it was another long day on trail and road, I’m certain we reached Tatopani hours before anyone did by the main road alone.  Entering the village, we caught up to our friends, Ryan & Meg, and agreed to  all take a Jeep to Beni the next morning and eventually back to Pokhara. I gave myself a cold water “village” shower before a quick dip in a scalding hot spring just below our Tea House Cabin. Lacy showered and now that we were both refreshed, we ate and turned in early so we would be ready for the 6:30 am Jeep.

The recent week, climbing up and down Tilicho Lake and then further up and though Thorung La Pass, were a natural wind down from so much physical and mental work to accomplish the first 3/4 of our trek. Even so, I still felt the abruptness of the end of our trek as I put on sandals in the morning versus our routine of sock liners, socks, gaiters and hiking boots. It was a strange feeling as we had only decided the night before to end our circuit trek . I could also feel even more of the same coming from Figure 8 who would now go back to being Lacy by name as we were finishing the trail. After 22 days, our boots could dry and our bodies could rest but our emotions were still not ready to end our experience.

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Me and Ryan while we wait for the road to be rebuilt so we can pass. The four of us enjoyed milk teas to pass the time

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The Tata truck being pushed out of its mud hole while we all look on. Note how close we are to the river edge. All this crazy driving has been going on mere feet from rolling into the river.

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A glimpse of the insanely muddy road we bumped along on down the mountain

The Jeep ride to Pokhara with Ryan, Meg and 4 other passengers and driver would also be a memorable experience & E Ticket Ride. The first 4 hours were spent slogging through muddy roads rutted by tractors and huge 4 or 6 wheel drive Tata Trucks especially designed to travel just about anywhere. The Jeep, with all 9 of us crammed inside, negotiated these 3 foot deep ruts, big rocks and flooded roads better than you would believe if you were challenged with the same obstacle course yourself.  Important to note is that we are doing all this insane Jeep driving while on the side of a mountain overlooking the river we have been hiking along. Lacy had some serious nerves as the Jeep approached the edge of the road that naturally has no guardrails. We forded several deep streams with water splashing into the open windows and over the hood. That really seemed easy compared to the continual rock and mud crawl that we swerved along in the totally destroyed road for hours on end. We had to stop twice for bulldozers to create a path through the rubble and mud. Once we topped a small hill only to see the front end of one of the tank-like Tata trucks on the opposite side that was hopelessly buried in mud and had lodged itself into a spot between piles of rubble a foot or so too small for its wide body and huge tires. I watched a bulldozer approach from behind the truck to see how it might go about pulling it back, digging around it or what the plan might be? First, I was curious and second, I was selfishly trying to gauge how long this extraction might take. To my surprise (or maybe not) the dozer never slowed down and instead hit the back of the Tata with enough force that they both pushed through the thick mud and rubble and right across to our side of the road. The Tata sped on. The dozer dragged a little mud to the side. We all hopped back in the Jeep and we were off on our crazy ride again. We only had to climb out of the Jeep and all push us through the mud (that was a cross between wet cement and peanut butter consistency) one time. I was truly impressed with our driver. When we finally reached Pokhara some 8 hours later I resisted the urge to give him a hug and just shook his hand. We were safe and sound. Back on terra firma, we had completed a full circle of the Annapurna Circuit.

Many years ago all that made the Circuit were trails used daily by villagers to cross from one village to another. The Circuit literally drew a circle around the Annapurna Mountains I though IV. It used 2 main river valleys and 1 seriously high mountain pass to make the loop.  Modern progress has taken away some of the original pathways and replaced them with plowed rock roads. Often the trails were preserved or just moved to the opposite side of the river valleys. Villagers, cows, goats and a few motorcycles still prefer these trails to the now perpetually reconstructed and dusty roads. So did we, only taking the dirt or rock roads when there wasn’t any other option. The Circuit is also not a complete circle anymore. It looks more like an upside down U.  It’s not safe or practical to try and trek the lowest portion of the circuit since it is all road today and has been for many years.  What many trekkers do (as we did) is add in side trails and side trips off the circuit to build a 3 week itinerary that is actually much more challenging than the original circuit alone.
 It was these extra experiences that made the trip an amazing trek.  The Himalayas and the Annapurnas overall are all about the journey versus the destination. The experience will never be forgotten and it will be difficult to impossible to explain the full depth of our feelings, emotions and experience to anyone other than each other. I do hope we have helped carry you along for part of our journey and thank everyone so very much for all of your love, support and comments along the way. They get us both through the long days, sore muscles, the rain, the heat, the snow, freezing nights and make us smile for days and days.
Next up: Malaysia and prep for our sailing adventure!

Annapurna Circuit Days 14-15: High Base Camp to Muktinath… Crossing Thorung La Pass!

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Day 14 Stats: 

Miles: 8.3

Starting elevation: 16,252  @ High Base Camp

Ending elevation:  12,400 @ Muktinath

**These numbers include going to The Pass at 17,700 and back down to Muktinath 

Total hiking ascent: 1,704

Total hiking descent: 5,560

Dal Bhat meals: 0. We stayed at the Bob Marley hotel in town and they had pretty good continental food so we passed on the Dal Bhat for 2 days. Yak steak, yak schnitzel, carbonara and shockingly well done gnocchi with pesto and yak cheese filled our tummies after crossing The Pass. 

Cost for teahouse for 2 nights (board, dinner and breakfast x 2): 4,850Nrs ~$44.  The Bob Marley was more expensive than most places we have stayed, but the food was good, the shower was hot, it had a sink for washing clothes, western toilet and WIFI!  Plus, anyone who knows us well can rest assured that we spent more than what is noted on celebratory drinks 🙂

8BAD7167-BADA-492B-A34A-F08BDE7371DA.jpegLacy: Today was the day!  Over the past 2 weeks we climbed approximately 15,000 ft as we wound up and down the Marsyangdi River.  We began hiking through lush rice paddies and waterfalls, surpassed the tree line and finally crossed the Thorung La Pass in snow this morning. All the time we spent slowly ascending and making sure we properly acclimatized our bodies paid off in dividends. Rob and I were so strong the past 3 days as we continued to climb towards our goal of 17,700ft and this morning was no exception. It was chilly when we woke up even with the extra blanket we requested at the teahouse.  After fueling our bodies with more pancakes we began our hike in hats and gloves we had purchased weeks earlier in Kathmandu. The closer we got to the pass the cooler it became until snow flurries began to surround us! It was so beautiful to be hiking in the snow dusted mountains and looking up at the even whiter peaks.

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We hike into the snow for the final climb

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Prayer flags alert us to the summit…

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Rob and Giz make it!

We pushed forward and as we approached the summit the prayer flags alerted us to our victory. We made it! I instantly hollered and jumped from the excitement of having accomplished this feat together. We were both oozing adrenaline and glee. It just so happened, completely by chance, that we climbed the pass on an exceptionally clear day. We were rewarded with views from The Pass that have been hidden in clouds most other days recently. Visible to us were the snow covered Himalayas. Below, the view of the valley that we would now descend more than 5,000 ft into before reaching lunch! Huge smiles were plastered onto our faces all day long. It took 90 minutes to reach Thorung La Pass from High Base Camp and another 3 1/2 to descend towards a comfortable place to rest our feet and cheers over a cool beer. It feels so good to use your body like a tool while hiking and accomplish goals with your partner. Definitely one of our best days!

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Great snowy views at The Pass

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Icicles hanging from the prayer flags

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Rob: We left High Base Camp at 7:15am which meant that we were the last to leave for the Pass. The climb was tough and into the misty clouds so each time you saw what might be a high point of the trail, it was really just a junction to another stretch up along the trail and into the mist again. The mist became snow as we got closer and closer to the top. We could just barely see a few peaks above us in between the fine blowing snow. Finally we saw the prayer flags flying from the top of the Pass and the trail marker!  We had crushed the final 1700ft to reach 17,770ft in just 90 minutes and with perfect timing to see the peaks as we made it.

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The view down into the valley that we were descending 5,000+ ft into from The Pass

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Hiking down!

We hugged and hugged and then suddenly were very cold and had to add on some warm layers now that we weren’t exerting ourselves.  My new Nepali wool hat and gloves were perfectly nice and warm at the height of our elevation. We took a few pictures and waited for our new friends, Ryan and Meg, to join us so we could take a few more pictures and celebrate together. Giovanni and Jon had already crossed over the Pass just before the rest of us.

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We were so fortunate to be hiking on a clear day and were rewarded with STUNNING views of  Dhaulagiri over Muktinath – 26,795 ft tall. Yes, you read that correctly – Unbelievable!

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Dhaulagiri  towering over Muktinath

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We have spoken with lots of hikers who crossed The Pass both a few days before and after us and they all said that they didn’t have any good views. One guy in Muktinath who went the opposite direction as us waited FIVE days there to have a clear view and just so happened to go the same day that we crossed it. We didn’t plan it that way, but were SO fortunate!

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On the 5700ft decent the sky cleared of the snowy mist and several peaks of the Himalayas came into clear view. After about 3 more hours of careful climbing down we reached the village of Muktinath and celebrated with a few good cold large Gorkha beers with everyone who crossed the pass that morning.

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Hiking down from The Pass we crossed paths with the supplies coming up for the lodges we had just slept at

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Prayer wheels greets us in Muktinath

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We finally found the best momos in Nepal in Muktinath.  We went 2 days in a row

Our little trail family group has been amazing and supporting of each other from when we all met on the way to Tilicho Tal, traversing the high valleys and our ultimate ascent up and over Thorung La Pass together. The Annapurna Circuit has many options now that we are in Muktinath. It is likely that we go in different directions from here, but we will always share our memories of the last 5-6 days together.  Many, many thanks to all of you from the bottom of my heart.

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A couples more gratuitous photos from the summit 🙂

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Annapurna Circuit Days 12-13: Tilicho Base Camp to High Base Camp

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Enjoying the afternoon in Ledar with our fellow hikers before going over the pass tomorrow (I look like such a dork in this photo!)

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Another beautiful day hiking

Day 12 Stats

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Miles: 12.3 miles

Starting elevation: 13,565 @ Tilicho Base 

Ending elevation: 13,823 @ Ledar

Net elevation gain: 258

Total hiking ascent: 2,664

Total hiking descent: 2,406

Dal Bhat meals: 1 each

Cost for teahouse for 1 night (board, dinner and breakfast x 2): 1,860Nrs ~$16.86 USD

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Giz loves a good hike

Day 13 Stats

Miles: 4.3

Starting elevation: 13,823 @ Ledar

Ending elevation: 16,252 @ High Base Camp

Net elevation gain: 2,429

Total hiking ascent: 2,490

Total hiking descent: 61

Dal Bhat meals: 0  We each a had cheesy pasta with vegetables and then split a chappati pizza – hiker hunger!

Cost for teahouse for 1 night (board, dinner and breakfast x 2): 3,200 Nrs ~$29 USD  We had to pay a little less than $3 for the room in addition to the food which we expected at the top by the pass.  Totally reasonable.  The food was pricey, but very good, and given the fact that everything is hauled up on mules – a steal!

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Ledar is the village all the way in the distance.  We had to lose all the elevation we had gained to the cross over the suspension bridge and then climb up all over again!

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Rob: The traverse between the high valley that holds Tilicho Tal (Lake) and the next even higher valley over was shaped like a “Y” where two mountain rivers met. It would take us two days to cross this span and to reach Ledar and then Upper Thorung La Base Camp.

Our day to Ledar was a long one. After just ascending and descending 3000ft each way from the high lake I felt it in every leg muscle as we started. We began, like most mornings, by heading out into the mist and clouds that would clear as the sun came up further through the mountains. The dew on some of the wildflowers created little droplets on every petal that made them look like they were made of glass. All of the mountain micro flowers that make me smile became the first real color you see of the day when you set out early as we do here. Passing over a short ridge we suddenly came upon the same Momma Bharal and her fawns that we had seen the previous day. Once again, we were within just 20 feet as they all slowly grazed their way next to the trail.

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We walked through a pasture full of mountain goats.

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After crossing through the pasture, we looked back on the goats and horses…so many!

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We knew we would start and finish the day at roughly the same elevation but what I didn’t realize was that we would lose and then gain back 2700ft of elevation in the process. I certainly added to the difficulty, climb and length of the trek by missing a small trail junction about an hour into our morning. It took us on a cow trail and too low below a suspension bridge we needed to use to cross a strong mountain stream. Another hiker made the same mistake and we all had to climb up a nearly vertical mess of twisting goat trails through brush and loose rocks to rejoin the main trail. When we reached the little village of Shree Kharka again on our way, we stopped for a breakfast of Black Tea and Pancakes having only accomplished 2 of our hiking hours of the day in the last 3 hours. The pancakes were thick, hearty and tasted great with a bit of the local honey. They have now become my new favorite mountain breakfast food over porridge by far. The balance of the day wound us through wildflower fields and a stand of ancient Birch trees.

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Just one of the super old and gnarly looking birch trees

In the high desert mountains we are accustomed to seeing Cedar, Juniper or Piñon trees that have been stunted, tortured and twisted into shape over hundreds of years by the wind, snow and harsh climate seasons. It was a wonder for us both to see the same treatment survived by normally tall majestic Birchs that had survived by growing huge roots into to steep rock mountainside and in between crevices out of the worst of the wind and weather. When we finally reached Thorung Pedi, our village target late in the afternoon, Lacy had ordered us a couple of glasses of raksi to complete the difficult day’s events.

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Rob enjoys a chocolate pancake for breakfast…

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…and a milk tea stop along the way as we hike to Ledar

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Our next segment began the following morning after lots of Dal Bhat for dinner and a good night’s rest. Pancakes again with apple jam and honey were eaten a bit more leisurely today because we knew we only had a 4 hour hiking day. Although it would be short, we were also climbing past 16,000ft to reach Thorung La Base Camp and our last segment would be straight up vertical gain. We cruised up through the high river valley and well above the tree line again. It was a really picturesque day and we criss crossed along the trail with our new trail family as well as a couple other hikers and their guides / porters. We hit the last vertical climb hard and strong. After an hour and a half we came to an opening in the rock ahead. We walked straight up a slow running rocky mountain waterfall to reach Base Camp.  Last night before the morning!