Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Texan Stuck in Texas - Not Looking Good, Folks

My, what interesting times these are!  It seems selfish for me to even be concerned about taking this trip in a time when so many are sweating their next paycheck and even their jobs.  But I am concerned.  I have pretty much written off any chance of going anywhere in May, much less Nepal. U.S. and international governments have (wisely) shut down international travel at least for the foreseeable future and even domestic travel has almost ground to a halt.

The government of Nepal has issued a multifaceted decree that all but shuts down immigration there.  The Visa on Arrival program has been stopped, meaning entry visas can no longer be obtained at the airport.  Visas are available through the usual process from Nepali Consulates in the States, but the application must include a Wuhan flu test with negative results and then upon arrival, travelers must provide another test with negative results that is less than seven days old.  As important as this trip is to me, I'm not so selfish that I would take up two tests that others with more imminent needs could use.  As of this typing, such a test isn't even available.  And even if all those obstacles were negotiated, the Nepali government has instituted a 14-day quarantine on all immigrants upon entry.  That, my friends, is the final nail in my trip coffin.

Also as of this typing, I have 44 days before my scheduled departure.  The optimist in me says that anything could happen and that travel restrictions could be relaxed.  The realist in me is siding with the pessimist in me who is expecting to be home throughout the month of May.

I have been in regular communication with my fixer in Nepal and have been advised that August and September might be months in which I might make the trip.  There are many variables to consider including air travel, lodging, and weather over there that time of year.  Indeed, some of the Nepali and Tibetan businesses on which I would be relying may not even exist in six months.  The Unites States' robust economy prior to the outbreak will see us through to an economic recovery.  Other countries are not so fortunate.  I also have doubts that China will open up the Everest region or if Nepal will open their Tibetan border crossings.

The largest obstacle I face is where the world will be in terms of dealing with the Wuhan flu.  The entire planet is singularly focused on beating this virus.  With such an unprecedented response, I am confident a treatment will be found.  The question is how long it will take to distribute and for its effects to become effective on a global scale.


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wuhan Flu & Media Hysteria

“Hysteria is impossible without an audience.”
- Chuck Palahniuk

I am sick.   Sick and tired of the Wuhan flu media frenzy and the knee-jerk panic that ensues from it.  Don't get me wrong.  I believe the Wuhan virus is serious and I understand that it's more contagious than other flu strains.  What I don't believe is the liberal media doom and gloom which is fueled by their perceived opportunity to blame President Trump.  Remember, these are the same hacks that welcomed an economic recession if it would take out the President.  It's as if people have never heard of the concept of washing their hands.  I was avoiding sneezes and coughs six months ago.  People are stupid.

Sadly, it's not just liberal wackos that are acting irrationally.  I have some new first-time parent neighbors who have made it clear (repeatedly) that anyone having traveled abroad must stay away from them for 30 days.  The irony is that one parent manages a large retail store and the other spends eight hours a day surrounded by germs in an elementary public school Petri dish.  To top that off, their baby is cared for while they're at work by a staunch anti-vaxxer with a houseful of her own unvaccinated children.  I'm thinking my neighbors present more of a contagion threat to me than most people exiting an airport.

It's no longer a matter of if; it's when.  People need to expect that they will be exposed and that some of them will experience symptoms.  People who are generally healthy with uncompromised immune systems will likely fare better from Covid-19 than from the common seasonal flu we experience in the U.S.  Over 60,000 people globally have successfully RECOVERED from the Wuhan virus.  That's almost double the number of 34,000 victims who died from the common seasonal flu in 2019.

Wash your hands, avoid touching your face, stay away from sneezes and coughs, and carry on.

A Nerd in Nepal - In Case Everest is Closed

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that’s the stuff life is made of.”
- Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1746)


IF my Everest route gets squashed and I get redirected, it could happen after I depart Texas for Kathmandu, after which and without sufficient forethought and planning, I could arrive in country facing a real crisis.  Unless there are dramatic changes with the Wuhan flu pandemic, I think I'll likely make the final decision after I arrive.  After all, access to the latest and most accurate news from the region will probably come from within Nepal itself.  With that in mind, I'll need to be prepared to change to plan B on the fly.  Rest assured I will be.  I'll admit the thought of having to figure things out on the fly adds a degree of adventure to it all...as if this trip wasn't adventurous enough already.  I enjoy the added sense of excitement, but I dislike the uneasiness I feel knowing that actually getting to experience this adventure is essentially out of my control.


Some good news:  I've determined that I can still secure the same bike for whichever route I take.  The challenge I'll face if I'm forced into the Mustang option is getting up there and back within the confines of my current flight itineraries.  I'm hesitant to make any flight changes because I have such prime seats.  My travel insurance will allow for changes, but the availability of business class seats could force me into flying coach for twenty hours and I would lose access to the posh business class lounges during my layovers.  I'm delicate and I need my posh.

The Mustang Alternative
I've sketched out a potential route from Kathmandu to the Mustang region (and back) from online maps.  I also found some old-school paper maps on Amazon commonly used by trekkers that I will bring along in case of GPS failure.

Route for Riding Days 1 through 4




Riding Day 1 -   Kathmandu to Bandipur
Riding Day 2 -   Bandipur to Pokhara
Riding Day 3 -   Pokhara to Tatopani
Riding Day 4 -   Tatopani to Muktinath
(This is where identified "roads" appear to end.)








Possible Route for Riding Days 5 through 9



Riding Day 5 -   Muktinath to Geling
Riding Day 6 -   Geling to Lo-Manthang
           Day 7 -   Respite from Riding
                         Explore Lo-Manthang
Riding Day 8 -   Lo-Manthang to Kagbeni
Riding Day 9 -   Kagbeni to Kalapani via Marpha
 
No fancy Google Earth blue route line here.  The mighty Google says it can't locate a route for this portion of the trip.  Honestly, this portion of the trip will likely be a seat-of-the-pants navigation experience based on weather, road conditions, delays, and my condition.  If trekkers can do it. So can I.








Route for Riding Days 10 through 13




Riding Day 10 - Kalapani to Pokhara
(This is where identified "roads" begin again.)
           Day 11 - Respite from Riding
                             Explore Pokhara

Riding Day 12 - Pokhara to Nuwakot
Riding Day 13 - Nuwakot to Kathmandu






Should global events beyond my control dictate that I take this route instead of Everest, I will likely make it back into Kathmandu with only enough time to return the motorcycle, repack my gear for my flights home, and then head to the airport.  That's a small price to pay when I consider that the alternative is canceling the trip altogether.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Texan in ??? - Itinerary Alternatives

"Only the really young are fearless, have the optimism, the romanticism to take unimaginable risks."
- Olivia Wilde

What If???

I'm far from young, fearless, and very far from romantic, but I am optimistic about this trip.


I wrote in a previous entry that Everest may be out of reach because of the possibility that the entire country of China will be locked down from (or by) the outside world.  This sucks, but it's not the end of the world...at least where my trip is concerned.  According to some, it could be really the end of the world. But I digress.

When I first started researching a riding trip in the region way back in June of 2019, there were a few locations on a short list that I knew I wanted to explore.  First and foremost was obviously Everest.  

Another is Khardung La Pass in India; known as the world's highest motorable road at nearly 18,400 feet. If there's a commemorative sign there, a pic of my bike in front of it would be awesome and the altitude conditioning I've been doing would still be beneficial.  Getting to and from the pass would be great because India has some of the most challenging and breathtaking riding in the world and the people are said to be gracious and welcoming to Americans.  The primary obstacle for the Khardung La Pass option is that it would likely be a one-way route and returning a rental motorcycle would be a logistical and financial challenge.


One if By Air. Two if By Motorcycle.
The third route/destination on my list was the Mustang region in Nepal.  Formerly known as Kingdom of Lo, Mustang is a remote and isolated region of the Nepalese Himalayas with few real roads in or out.  To get there, I could ride "roads" northeast out of Kathmandu for about 300 km, but then I would be following yak trails and ancient military supply routes that meander over and between mountain ranges and grassy plateaus for the remainder of the journey.  Most tourists get to Mustang via aircraft, arriving at a small airport there.  Where there's an airport, there's fuel, food, and lodging, so those logistical challenges are checked off.


Royal Palace Lo-Manthang - Built circa 1400
Forbidden Kingdom
The Mustang area was a tightly restricted demilitarized zone until 1992 and as a result, remains one of the most pristine regions in Nepal, if not the world. Mustang kept its "kingdom" status until 2008 and is said to have been preserved from most outside worldly influences by its isolation and lack of access by most four-wheeled vehicles.  Some of the locals like to say "The land is so barren and the passes so high that only our fiercest enemies or our best friends would want to visit us."  I may be fiercely motivated and driven, but I like to think I am no one's enemy.  Maybe I'll make a friend instead.


Rest assured, riding to Everest remains number one on my list. But me not being one to leave anything important to chance, I'll probably spend countless hours plotting out alternative routes, places to sleep, locating fuel, and many other ancillary details - all the while losing sleep over it.  Even after all that thought, hope, and stress, I could still find myself grounded and canceled.

I Can Envision Myself Riding Across This Bridge
If Mustang becomes my only option, that obviously still beats canceling altogether.  Despite my careful planning and efforts to be self-reliant, I will likely have to depend on my in-country fixer to help me sort out the logistics.  I loathe depending on others for important personal matters, but compromises will have to be made.

My cursory review of locations and potential routes to the Mustang region indicates that the highest pass I'll have to negotiate would only be about 12,000 feet.  My oxygen saturation conditioning has been going swimmingly and it would be a shame to waste all that preparation.  The good news is that training with the mask provides an anaerobic workout that yields better weight loss results than training without it.  I'll continue training with the mask irrespective of my final chosen itinerary.

Whichever route becomes the route, I will remain cautiously optimistic that there will be a route..

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A Texan in Tibet - In-Country Customs & Travel Tips

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." 
- Mark Twain

Let me preface this entry with the fact that I'm continuing to train, eat, hope, dream, and prepare for this trip as if the Coronavirus pandemic didn't exist, but I'm very aware that my dream (along with my soul) could be crushed anytime between now and my scheduled departure date. Acting on positive thoughts, I've been researching the details that any competent traveler needs to be aware of in order to get the most out of traveling abroad in Nepal and Tibet.

First and foremost: There's money!
The Nepalese Rupee (NPR) is Nepal’s currency and as of this typing, 1 US Dollar = about 113 NPR. With that in mind, here's what some common things cost in Nepal:

Cup of Chiya - 70 NPR / .60 cents
Cold Beer - 200 - 300 NPR / $1.50A

Simple Meal - 300 - 400 NPR / $3.50
Hotel Room - $8 to $150

Shopping & Haggling
Nepal is said to be very inexpensive, with prices fluctuating during the height of tourism season. This year’s season is on track to be decimated by the Coronavirus pandemic, so I suspect prices could be at their lowest since the SARS outbreak in 2003.  I suppose that's good for people like me, but I feel for the locals who rely on tourism to support their families.  I also wonder about the quality and/or hygiene shortcuts that might be taken in order to meet minimal margin needs.  The cruise industry is notorious for it, which is just one of many reasons I'll likely never sail on a cruse ship again.  I've read that many Everest climbers and trekkers buy their weather gear from the local bazaars because the locals can tailor whatever you want on the spot at a fraction of the cost, and then sew in whatever brand label you like.  If I were climbing Everest, I seriously doubt I would risk my lifesaving warmth over saving a few dollars.  I still have riding gear from my Outback crossing, but I may spring for some cold weather riding gloves at a local bazaar because mine were literally worn through during my 18-day crossing.  Piloting a motorcycle over 17,000 foot high mountain passes with frozen fingers and numb hands sounds about as appealing as it does safe. I'm not a patient shopper and I'm an even worse haggler. Haggling is apparently an expected part of life in Nepal markets as long as it's done with respect. I don't expect to buy much in country because I'll be on a tight budget and I'll have limited capacity to carry anything with me beyond necessities.

Tipping
Apparently, there isn't a strong tipping culture in Nepal. Rounding payments up for taxi and rickshaw drivers is common and I've read that sometimes a 10% service charge is included on restaurant bills. I tend to be a generous tipper, so I might be taken for another sucker tourist over there. I just feel like that extra dollar will have more impact on the life of the person working in the service economy than on me.

Currency Exchange
Locations for exchanging money in Nepal are said to be plentiful, so I suppose the trick is to find the best rate.  The pain is accurately forecasting what local currency I'll need; how much in NPR versus Chinese Renminbi (RMB, the currency in Tibet).  I always feel like I get screwed on the exchange back to USD.  Whatever amounts in whatever currencies, I have read that I will have to exchange any NPR back to USD before leaving Nepal because it’s actually illegal to take their currency out of the country.  Also NPRs aren’t accepted or exchanged anywhere else. This fact makes me wonder how Pat Healy got hold of the coins he flashed in "Something About Mary".

Right-Handed Culture
In Nepal, the left hand is literally viewed as the poop hand and its purpose is solely reserved for wiping one's butt!  Apparently, the right hand should be dedicated to writing, eating, hand-shaking, and other polite, social functions.
Also, gifts and payments are to be handed-over with the right hand.  I’m ambidextrous, but I write and eat with my poop hand.  It will be a challenge to eat right-handed.  As if the Coronavirus weren't enough cause to keep an eye on people near me, now I'll be eagle-eyeing anyone serving my food to see which hand they use.

Toilets
I'm used to taking my time sitting until my buns are numb on a nice western porcelain throne while reading a magazine or surfing the Internet and being stared at by three boxer dogs.  As such, squatting awkwardly over an unsavory hole in the ground with flies buzzing around it to take a dump might be a little a bit off-putting the first few times. But the reality is that squat toilets are common throughout that part of the world, and when in Rome... Besides, I've used a Squatty Potty and squatting really does make for a much nicer dump.  I can't imagine the expressions on my dogs' faces if they witnessed me executing a wide-legged standing dump.


Temple/Monastery Etiquette
Nepal is a deeply spiritual and religious country with centuries-old temples scattering the landscape and monks wandering everywhere. I find some of the customs related to temple respect interesting. For instance, temples are always navigated clockwise. That means I would have to walk around the temple again to get to something I might have left behind me. Shoes are considered the most degrading form of clothing (to me, that would be bras) and must be removed when entering temples or a local’s home. I've also read most temples don't allow photography. Walk to the right, lose the shoes, and keep the camera tucked away. Got it.
Water
Despite the clear and crisp glacial streams flowing in the nearby mountains, the overall water quality in Nepal and particularly in Kathmandu isn’t the greatest. In fact, it sucks.  I suppose I can use it to shower, but the tap water there is said to be a funny color and it often stinks. I'm taking a Camelbak and a refillable water bottle and have read that clean bottled water is available everywhere. I would like to have one of those Grayle GeoPress bottles that can purify 24 ounces of water anywhere in the world in a few seconds, but I'm on a budget and the $90 cost of a GeoPress will buy a lot of bottled water.




Bring AC Power Adapters
I've researched this one closely and have learned that there are a variety of AC plugs used in Nepal and Tibet.  I've planned for the worst and picked up an adapter for any outlet I might encounter and I have a multi-outlet power strip that takes 220VAC power and has USB ports to share.




Don't Let Bacteria Die! 
This one sounds odd, but makes sense when fully understood.  Stomach bacteria that are important to human digestion quickly die at high altitude because of lack of oxygen.  Even acclimatizing three to five days ahead doesn't help because the bacteria will be dead by then.  These microflora can be restored by taking probiotics.

Carry Accommodation Information
Don't leave a hotel without its business card listing its phone number and address. 

Don't touch anyone on the head and don't show anyone the bottoms of the feet.  With the Coronavirus, this won't be a difficult rule to follow.

Avoid Yaks - No explanation needed.

Bring extra Passport Photos 
They are required to acquire a Visa at the airport, for trekking permits, and to purchase cell phone SIM cards.

Avoid Shady Dance Bars 
I avoid sunny dance bars.  In fact, I dance like a white guy and generally avoid bars altogether.

I'm sure there is much more to look out for, but encountering challenges and discovering ways to overcome them is all part of the adventure.  I'm not terribly bright, but I consider myself clever enough to get by and deal with adversity.  I just hope I'm actually allowed to take this trip and experience those challenges. 

Got tips?  Email me!

Monday, March 2, 2020

TEXAS!

Independence Day!


A Texan in Tibet? - Encouragement & A Mustang Alternative

"Chance is the providence of adventurers."

- Napoleon Bonaparte

I don't leave things that are important to me to chance.  If it affects me and it can be influenced by planning and preparation, then rest assured it will be planned and I will be prepared.  The collective response from those reading this who know me is probably "no shit". As I stated in my elephant entry, I am closely watching the science, economics, and the politics of the Coronavirus pandemic. In my head, I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will likely not get to take this trip.  In my heart, I'm holding out hope that I will.  In my day-to-day life, I'm training, eating, and planning as if my head is wrong and heart is right.

If information is knowledge and knowledge is power, then I am empowered at best and encouraged at least by the details I've learned over the last 24 hours.  I have reached out to a few tour operators in Nepal and India from whom I've read comments on blog sites and who have been gracious enough to respond to me directly, even though I'm not using their services.  I am not unaware of the fact that a rosy outlook could just be a self-serving position for them as their livelihoods depend on tourism from abroad.  That said, I have avoided asking them questions about the virus itself and its spread in their region.  I prefer to rely on objective sources for those details.

My queries to the local experts have been focused on travel policies irrespective of the current health situation and with particular interest in border crossings from Nepal into Tibet and back.  I'm painfully aware that if I show up at US Customs and present a passport with a visa stamp from mainland China, I will be rewarded with a 14-day guest pass to what I'm sure will be a lovely CDC quarantine facility.  This is very likely despite Tibet being 5,000 kilometers from Wuhan.  Remember, to the Chinese, Tibet IS China and the visa stamp does not delineate Tibet from mainland China.  I reached out to my in-country fixer - the guy over whom (in a previous blog entry) I expressed reservations about giving my passport in order to secure my Chinese visa to enter Tibet.  I'll explain his encouraging response.

One of the reasons he collects passports from travelers like me with similarly-aligned itineraries is to process them all at once for a group visa.  This is also why we have to cross the border as a group.  Think of it like taking a cruise.  You can pass into and out of the various ports of call without the formal Customs screening you experience at an airport, but every passenger has a finite time frame to do so under the terms of the group visa agreement.  Your citizenship and travel plans have been pre-validated by the Cruise line, who is an acknowledged and government-trusted agency.  In my case, the group visa obtained by my fixer will cover the entire group of riders whose itineraries are aligned to match the prearranged entrance and exit dates that the group visa covers.  Two copies are issued. One with a list of travelers is for entrance into Tibet that is handed over to Tibetan Customs upon entry.  The other is handed over upon exit from Tibet back into Nepal with the same list of travelers.  The two copies are reconciled and away we go.  Under this process, neither my individual passport, nor those of whomever might be in my group will be stamped with a Chinese visa!  While I'm encouraged by this news, I will continue to investigate.  The online resources I've found seem to corroborate this process.  Thus, I am slightly encouraged that I might indeed see Mount Everest.

That bit of (potential) good news covers me as long as the Nepali/Tibetan border remains open, allowing me the chance to actually ride to Everest.  But what if the border is closed and Everest is out of the picture?  I have an alternative riding route in mind that stays entirely in Nepal and offers breathtaking views along the Himalayas and the local culture.  Riding only in Nepal, I expect the terrain to be far rougher than in Tibet and this excites me.  I can ride on pavement here without flying thirty hours to get to it.  Tougher terrain demands a tougher motorcycle.  Thus, I have tentatively secured a Honda CRF-250 dirt bike to better navigate the paths to the places I want to see.  Leaving nothing to chance, I will start researching potential day-by-day routes that best align with my flight schedules and will try to post them here with maps, similar to those I posted for the original Everest itinerary.  If this becomes the case, I suppose I'll need a new name for these blog entries.  "A Nerd in Nepal"?  I'm open to suggestions.

Of course, this is all fine and dandy as long as Nepal itself avoids a significant Wuhan flu outbreak.  I'm well aware that Nepal could find itself on the CDC Warning Level 3 List any day now, or in the two months between this writing and my planned departure date.  I'm also aware that Qatar could restrict travel through its borders with little to no notice.  The planets which were once neatly aligned in my favor through my thorough diligence and planning are now in an epidemic-induced disarray and spinning out of orbit.  Realigning these planets depends on great deal of luck and on decisions over which I have no influence going my way.

I loathe depending on luck.  I'd rather eat organ meat sauteed with mushrooms and fish.