Nepal

We spent four weeks in Nepal, visiting several areas. Nepal is a beautiful, hospitable and interesting country- and also trashy, polluted, and maddeningly inefficient. But let’s talk about the good stuff first!

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Chris and I arrived in Kathmandu during the Hindu festival of Dashain. We stayed in Thamel, the five-block tourist zone of the busy city, and I promptly got sick. I spent 12 hours throwing up, then felt much better and didn’t have any problems the rest of the time I was there. So at least I got that out of the way. We also got to meet up with our friend Ray, our most adventurous friend, who we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2014, so that was fun!

An offering for Dashain
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Fun to see friends around the world!

We got our trekking permits and got an eight hour bus to Besisahar. From there we started the Annapurna Circuit trek, a roughly 150 mile hike that goes up a river valley, over a Himalayan pass, and down another river valley, with views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains each day. For six days we trekked steadily upwards (although with plenty of maddening downhills too) through small villages, farm fields, mountain paths, and goat trails. We ate meals and stayed in small teahouses, so we didn’t have to carry tents or food. Some people take a guide or porters, but we did not (for a day-by-day blog post of our Annapurna Circuit hike, click here).

Following this river valley all the way up

The architecture, people, and religious customs in this area are more (Buddhist) Tibetan than (Hindu) Nepalese. For centuries, trade between India and Nepal, and China and Tibet, has centered on these passes through the Himalayas. The people greet us with ” Namaste”, and most are vegetarian. The locals along the route are poor by western standards, but feeding and housing tourists, as well as farming, makes these people more well-off than those in other parts of the country.

At the High Pass on the trek

Happily, we had excellent weather, and after six days up the Marsygandi River Valley, an acclimatization day at 3500 meters, and another two days up, we were at the high pass. Painstakingly, with one foot in front of the other, we made it over the high pass at 5400 meters, and started down the other side, along the Kali Gandaki river valley. Going down proved pretty much as hard as going up but without the fear of Acute Mountain Sickness or HAPE/HACE. After three or four days down, I decided I was done hiking and we hopped on a bus (for what was literally the most terrifying bus ride I’ve ever been on) to a pretty lakeside town, Pokhara.

Starting back down the mountains…

We spent a couple of days resting our aching feet in Pokhara, then decided to visit Chitwan National Park. We stayed at the lovely Chitwan Village Resort, and enjoyed various activities such as a canoe ride, a jungle walk, and a Jeep safari. We saw dozens of sub-tropical birds: herons, osprey, storks, and kingfishers, as well as crocodiles, monkeys, deer, rhinos, elephants, and boars. We even encountered a wild rhino foraging in the village, watching as an exasperated farmer chased it out of his farm field.

While we were in Chitwan, the Diwali festival began. Candles everywhere, and colored-sand or colored-rice rangolis in front of everyone’s front door made the area festive. We took a bus back to Kathmandu, and visited the UNESCO Durbar Square (largely destroyed by the 2015 earthquake, and with very few signs of being reconstructed anytime soon), and Swayambhunath Buddhist temple (the monkey temple) and enjoyed walking around the streets in and near Thamel. It’s a pleasant, fairly quiet area with lots of courtyard cafes, hotels of all budget levels, and shops selling trekking gear and Nepalese souvenirs. On our last day in town, we went to visit the Temple of Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.

Swayambhunath Temple
Monkeys greet us as we head up the steps

Unfortunately, Nepal has a serious trash and pollution problem. High on a hill in Kathmandu, one cannot see the other side of the city due to the smog. Nepalese think nothing of dropping trash on the ground when they are done with their candies, chips, or water bottles, even at their holiest sites. This trash accumulates in every stream and on every hillside leading in and out of Kathmandu- I watched as a dump truck full of trash pulled up next to a mountain side, reversed, and then emptied its load of brightly- bagged trash straight down the hillside. Trash is burned in the streets and the villages constantly, giving off an acrid smoke as the various plastics burn. It is no wonder that most Nepalese wear face-masks for their own respiratory protection. It is extremely common to see and hear the person walking or sitting next to you hawk up a huge loogie wherever they are- indoors or out- and spit it on the ground.

Just one of the piles of trash in Kathmandu

So. Nepal. Beautiful country- fabulous trekking- but not the highest on my list to visit. There’s plenty of other places to vacation in Asia that have at least gotten their trash problem under control. I’m glad we came, and I’m glad we’re going. I think Nepal would be a difficult place to work and live in.

Total costs for Nepal:

Flight: $0 (we used airline points to get from DC to here)

Visas: $40 per person for the 30 day visa

Food, lodging, permits, activities, souvenirs: $1580

Days in country: 26

Cost per day: $60 for two people

Have you been to Nepal? What were your impressions?

Annapurna Circuit Trek (Nepal)

Here’s the run-down from our two weeks of trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (if you want to read about our trip to Nepal as a whole then click here).

After securing our TIMS (Trekker Information Management System- in case you disappear and they need to go look for you -2000 rupees/ $17) and our ACAP permits (Annapurna Conservation Area Project- 3000 rupees / $25) in Kathmandu, we stocked up on a bit of gear in Thamel, the tourist zone in Kathmandu. On every street corner are stalls selling both real and counterfeit North Face, Jack Wolfskin, Quechua, and Columbia, all at a fraction of the cost in the US. It’s all too easy to pick up an extra puffy coat or a sleeping bag here for perhaps $15-20 USD.

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Map, hiking poles, permits: ready to go!

After that, we took a bus to Besisahar (7 hours), the starting point of the trek (which can range anywhere from 100-200 miles, depending on how much actual trail one hikes and how much of the fairly-recently-built dirt road one walks). These are my daily updates from our hike:

Day One:

Besisahar to Bathundanda. We saw water buffalos, bamboo stands, and rhododendron forests today. Warm weather- almost hot but not quite. The villagers all greet us with “namaste” as they scythe their rice crop or transport it on mule caravans up the steep mountain paths. The ladies all wear brightly colored headscarfs and gold earrings and nose rings. Most people still have a mark on their forehead from last weeks Dashain celebration. My Fitbit says 36,000 steps and 15 miles. A really tough day- hoping day two is a little easier. Many people actually take a Jeep for part of today’s walk now that there is a (unfinished) road but we walked the mountain paths. We stayed the night at the Mountain View Teahouse in Bathundanda for 300 rupees for our double room, plus we had breakfast and dinner there. We enjoyed a chat with the owner, whose family had owned the property for four generations. He had to rebuild after the 2015 earthquake. His place used to be full every night, but now with more people taking jeeps and skipping this section, he only has a handful each night in high season (October/November- no rain, no snow).

Day Two:

Another seven hour hiking day, but only 28,000 steps over 13 miles. We went steeply down 200 meters to a river, crossed it, and then spent the rest of the day ascending 200 meters plus another 75. The trail crossed the dirt road three times. Some trekkers just took the road, as the grade is more gentle, but then there’s road dust and less things to see like the troop of 20 monkeys we saw and the field of butterflies we walked through!! We stayed the night at Chyamche, at a mid-sized teahouse named Lhasa Hotel. They had propane-heated water so I got to take a shower!

Day Three:

Today was some ups and some downs, but definitely more ups, ending the day with an 800 meter elevation gain. The prettiest part of today was the village of Tal, set in a flat broad river valley. I was ready to set down my bags and stay there forever. They had a small school- I could teach there! Beautifully colored teahouses all with gardens and soft grass. Lovely. We spent the night between Bagarchap and Danaqyu at the Royal Mountain Cottage. Free room, and about $20 for dinner and $12 for breakfast (for two). Some hot water there, but the (common) toilet was across the street from the hotel- not so convenient at 3 am in the cold night!

Day Four:

Fifteen miles today, with a total elevation gain of 680 meters. We saw villagers cleaning intestines at the village well, a woman winnowing wheat from chaff, and a man husking corn. Imagine the work that goes into preparing every meal. The people up here are really more Tibetan than Nepalese, in dress, custom, and physical features. Every lunch and dinner spot advertises WiFi but no one actually has it during most of the day. Tonight we slept in a dorm at the brand new hotel in Bratang but no one else was here so we got double blankets, which is good because it’s COLD!! This dorm was 800 rupees for each of us, which is an absolute fortune ($7 each) on the Annapurna, but it was the only place in town and too far to go to the next town. Probably should have stopped back in Chame with the rest of our hiking bubble but we weren’t tired yet so we pressed on a few more miles.

Days Five and Six:

An elevation gain of 700 meters. As we hiked up to the village of Manang, we passed through a blue pine forest with prayer flags wrapped everywhere. We passed a huge monolithic slab called Paungda Danda which rises straight up 1500 meters, unbroken. Later we saw a 3 sided snow bowl, higher up in the Himalayas. It’s all very beautiful. But cold. Okay for a hoodie during the sunny day but at night we sleep with all our clothes on plus a puffy jacket and heavy yak-hair blankets in unheated rooms- last night it got down below 30 and our water froze.
Today we take a rest day to acclimatize to our elevation at 3450 meters. This village has a bakery and even a “cinema” (basically a TV with a DVD player) playing “Into Thin Air”, “Everest”, and “Seven Years in Tibet”. And we need to do some laundry once the water thaws! We stayed one night here at the Ghala Guest House, which was okay but a bit basic (we arrived into town rather late so Manang was largely full) and then the second night we switched to the Royal Manang Hotel (500 rupees for a double room, plus eating breakfast and dinner there). We also attended a Himalayan Rescue Association free talk on Acute Mountain Sickness, HAPE, and HACE (high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema) so we can be alert for signs of any illness as we finish our ascent the next few days.

Day Seven:

Today we gained 700 meters up to Letdar. I had my blood-oxygen level checked yesterday and it was 89%, so I’ve started taking Diamox for altitude acclimatization. It makes you breathe faster, which increases your oxygen in your bloodstream, and it gets your kidneys going, separating your waste fluid out and making your blood more concentrated with red blood cells. And so now I have to pee every hour. Which is really fun when hiking or when the squat toilet is outside and it’s 15 degrees at night. Last night the bucket of water by the toilet froze over! Tomorrow we will hike the final 600 meters to high camp, sleep there till 5 am, and then head over the pass. Hopefully. All the places in Letdar were full so we wound up staying at a very small teahouse with a super nice family just outside of town. They prepared delicious dhal baht for us and we chatted with the nephew, Karma, who spoke some English. We had a yak-dung fire and the blankets smelled like yaks but we were cold so you do what you have to do!

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Day Eight:

Today we woke up at six am to ascend the extremely steep 650 meters to high camp. They only have 150 beds there and I am a slow hiker so we had to get moving to beat the crowd. Yesterday we were above the tree line, with juniper bushes and flocks of blue sheep. Today there’s not even scrub brush, just Himalayan griffins and lammergeyers circling in the air around us. It was a tough push to get here, but we have 18 hours to acclimate to our 4850 meters (15,852 feet) before we go over the high pass tomorrow and start back down. The daytime temp is 25 degrees, it will be 10 degrees when we start in the morning. My pack weighs next to nothing because I’m wearing all my clothes (yes we carried our own packs- no porters for us!). We’re staying at a dorm in high camp because all the private rooms were full (people with guides have them call up to reserve ahead of them). The dorm is 100 rupees each. There’s water all around the common toilet, which is frozen over, or else it’s frozen urine- I don’t want to know which. Mainly I’m just happy that I don’t have a headache or nausea like I did when I reached this height on Kilimanjaro.

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Day Nine:

Up and Over: we woke at 4 am to start the final ascent over the high pass, called Thorong La. We slept in all our clothes plus jackets (suuuuuuuper cold) so we just had to put on our shoes and packs. Most of the other people in our 16-bed dorm were getting ready too.
The first two hours were cold but not windy, just the light of the super brilliant stars and the moon to guide us up the steep path. An hour in we stopped for a hot sugary black tea at a cold and lonely teahouse, and at 6 am the stars winked out and the sun started to rise.
After dozens of false summits, suddenly at 7 am we rounded a hill and there was the high pass, covered with prayer flags. Packs were dropped, cameras retrieved, a few tears (from me), someone fainted (not me). It didn’t feel real that we had
hiked 650 meters up in 3 hours and we were now standing at 5,416 meters (17,769 feet- over 3.3 miles above sea level).
It took another five hours to get down 1600 meters to the next town (with a lot of rest breaks and a lunch stop). Hopefully the rest of the way down won’t be so steep
– it’s hell on the knees. We stopped for the day around noon in Muktinath at the Path of Dreams Hotel, which thankfully had hot water and I was abe to take a shower- my first in a week.
An amazing day- one I certainly wasn’t sure I’d be able to achieve, but together we did it!

Day Ten:

Still pretty muscle-sore from the high pass and descent yesterday, we got a late start. We started in Muktinath, a sacred pilgrimage sight to both Hindus and Buddhists. There is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu with 108 waterspouts, from which holy water pours. There is also a fire gumpa, where a natural gas eternal flame is considered a sacred site.We decided to hike the trail from Muktinath to Jomsom, rather than take the road via Kagbeni. The trail took us up another 200 meters to a fantastic viewpoint, and a flock of blue sheep with their tinkling little bells. Then we descended over 1,000 meters down a very steep path, past some wild horses, to a small village named Lupra. We had lunch, then followed the river bed to Jomsom. We had to cross the river three times and in the third crossing, I fell in the water. That sucked- it was really cold.
But now we’re at Jomsom, trying some local apple brandy and apple pie for my birthday, and our elevation is only 2720 meters (8704 feet) so while it’s still cold at night, it’s not bitterly freezing. Yay!!

Day Eleven:

Jomsom to Kalopani. What I thought was going to be an easy downhill day turned into a 19.3 mile slog up and down various hills, trying to avoid the dusty road with its incessant honking of mopeds, jeeps, and busses.
We ate lunch at the old village of Marpha, famous for its apple brandy. Then we hiked through five out-of-the-way villages that are slowly dying, as the road has bypassed them and the Tibetan salt trade that was once their lifeblood has been replaced by cheaper salt from India (which adds iodine to their salt, solving several health problems of the people who have lived here for centuries). This area, the Kali Gandaki river valley, holds four of the 12 passes to Tibet, and was once the crossroads of goods coming from India and Nepal trading with goods from Tibet and China.

We stayed the night in Kalopani, at the nicest place we’ve stayed in so far- the Kalopani Guesthouse- a beautiful double room for 1000 rupees, ($8.50) with a private toilet, hot water and wonderfully comfortable beds, plus delicous food and coffee next door. I wanted to stay there forever.

Day Twelve:

Landslides on the trail forced to take the road today. Which sucked. In the end, we said to hell with this and took the bus 15 miles down the road (which took two hours so you can imagine the state of the ‘road’) to the town of Tatopani, home of Nepalese hot springs and giant lemon trees. We stayed in the Old Kamala Hotel, again for 1000 rupees, but not as nice as last night. The hot springs had a dead, skinned goat lying next to it, which wasn’t so nice to look at- but I suppose that’s how we get our food! We are undecided on whether to hike tomorrow or take a bus (you can probably guess which one I want and which one Chris wants).

Day Thirteen:

A decision to make today. Continue down the trail- which at this point goes back up to 3000 meters and climbs Poon Hill (which is supposed to be lovely views), or take the bus to the finishing point. My feet hurt and I feel like I’m done with this hike so I’m calling it done and Chris doesn’t argue. We take the bus. It is literally the scariest bus ride I’ve ever taken, as we careen down the steepest and narrowest part of the Kali Gandeki River valley in a microbus loaded to the gills. It’s only 100 kilometers to the lakeside village of Pokhara,  but it takes a full 8 hours to travel. In the end, this one day of bus riding saves us three days of hiking and so our Annapurna Circuit trek is done. We arrive in Pokhara and look forward to relaxing a bit.

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A few stats: my fitbit says we hiked 170 miles, the official Annapurna road map says we hiked 120 miles. We did some alternative treks on a few days so that figures in some of the difference (plus you get some mileage even on rest days, etc). We spent an average of $40 each day (rough approximate) for a place to stay and food for two people. The trail is well marked with red and white blazes- we didn’t feel like we needed a guide. We often hiked alone, but we also ran in to the same people again and again. On one day when we signed in at a TIMS/ACAP checkpoint, we were the 231st and 232nd people to check in that day. Now that there is a road that almost (not the top four days) reaches the whole Annapurna route, some people like the route more (as it is more accessible) while others like it less (because the road is yuck and it takes a lot of side trekking to avoid it). Villagers who live along the road like it, as it reduces costs for food and supplies for them, but they also lament the loss of trekkers who have gone in search of other hikes that are more rural.

Questions about the Annapurna Circuit? Drop them here and I’ll give you an answer as best as I can!

Road Trip 2018 Wrap Up

Four months ago, Chris and I turned over the keys to the new owner of our house, and left on a road trip across the US and Canada. We drove 16,000 miles, and visited 18 states, four Canadian provinces, and 22 national parks. Plus a one week cruise, two flights, and two ferries! We made it to Burning Man festival in Nevada, and we got to stay with several friends along the way (always the best part of travel). We also spent ten days in Texas visiting family and friends, and then returned to Virginia for another ten days to visit family and friends, and pack for our next trip.

In case you missed any of the posts from the past few months, here they are:

Road Trip: Michigan to Minnesota 

Road Trip: South Dakota to Montana

Road Trip: Canada Northbound to Alaska

Road Trip: Alaska

Road Trip: Pacific Northwest

Burning Man 2018

Road Trip: Utah, Idaho, Yellowstone, Colorado, New Mexico

Tomorrow we leave for Nepal. There, we  plan to go trekking in the Annapurna Mountains, and we hope to do a side trip to visit Bhutan. We’d like to see Bangladesh, Maldives, and then spend the winter in India. If weather and international relations permit, we will try to visit the various ‘Stans in the spring. Click on the “Follow” button below if you want my blog post to come to your email each time I write one (about every 3 weeks).

Road Trip: Utah, Idaho, Yellowstone, Colorado, New Mexico

bison in front of steam geysers Yellowstone national park Wyoming

After a couple of days in Reno getting all the playa dust off of ourselves and our stuff, and generally recovering from Burning Man (does anyone ever really recover from Burning Man?), we headed to Utah. We went to Salt Lake City and their awesome Visitor Center (seriously, they gave us espressos, biscotti, popcorn, and great brochures), visited Temple Square, and also spent some time out at Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, where you can float in the salty water, drive amongst bison and sheep, and hike.

Salt Lake City Temple
Chris Floating in Salt Lake
Antelope Island Bison

Heading into Idaho, we decided to stop and see Shoshone Falls, and were glad we did. It’s a beautiful park and not to be missed if you have the time for a quick stop.

Shoshone Falls

Driving east, we stopped next at Craters of the Moon National Park. We camped for a night there, and visited each of the stopping points on the seven mile park loop. What a strange and fantastic landscape! The 750,000 acres of volcanic debris are the perfect setting for NASA’s Mars experiments, and gives the visitor a glimpse into what our world looked like in the time of the volcanoes.

Craters Of The Moon National Park
Craters of the Moon National Park

And then we were in Yellowstone National Park! We were able to get three nights’ at a campground, and we spent the first day going to see Old Faithful and the lower geyser basin.  On our second day, we drove to Lake Yellowstsone (it’s huge!) and also checked out the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. On the third day, we went to Mammoth Falls and some of the other mudpots, geysers, and hot springs. And everywhere we went we saw animals, from pronghorn deer, to elk, to bison. Even though it was after Labor Day, the park was still really crowded- and the nights got down to 34 degrees! After three nights I had had enough and was ready to head south.

Chris Capturing the Beauty of Yellowstone
An Elk at Yellowstone
Mammoth Falls

We drove south through Grand Teton National Park, where we saw a huge grizzly bear! Seriously huge, probably 600 pounds. That, coupled with the extreme beauty of the Tetons, made it an awesome day. A park not to be missed.

The Tetons
Wildlife at Grand Teton National Park
A grizzly bear!

We drove through Cheyenne, WY next, and stopped for some excellent barbecue at Tasty Bones, and visited a really great- and free!- museum on Wyoming’s history.  Some surprisingly interesting stuff in there!

Cheyenne, Wyoming

Instead of taking the boring ol’ highway south, we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park on the way from Cheyenne to Colorado Springs. We timed our drive around sunset, and saw tons of elk and deer, as well as some beautiful fall colors. We spent the night in Winter Park, a very cute ski town.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Next we spent a couple of days at Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy. Mike took each of us up flying in a Cessna, so we got to see Colorado Springs from above. We also visited Garden of the Gods and drove to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Garden of the Gods, seen from above
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Chris and Deah at Pike’s Peak

Leaving Colorado Springs, we headed west a little bit and passed through Great Sand Dunes National Park. Huuuuge sand dunes! There was no way I was making it even to the top of the first one. Check out how tiny the people look in this photo below:

Chris at Great Sand Dunes National Park

We arrived in Durango and spent two nights with two old friends of mine, Paul and Julie. We got to catch up with everything that’s happening in their lives, and we also got to drive out to see Mesa Verde National Park. These mesa-top alcove pueblos date back to the 13th century and give tons of clues about life in those times, while still leaving us with basic questions about the cliff dwellers.

Mesa Verde National Park
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A Kiva at Mesa Verde

From Durango we headed to New Mexico, where my friend Karen had invited us for an evening with her family. We spent the day wandering around Manhattan Project National Historic Park, which I really enjoyed. I had no idea there was a boys’ Ranch School on the site previously, and that it was appropriated by the War Department. We got to wander through some homes on Bathtub Row, and then we visited the Bradbury Science Museum– a super hands-on and informative museum about the Los Alamos Research Laboratory.

Los Alamos Ranch School

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Oppenheimer’s house at Los Alamos

Between Los Alamos and Santa Fe, we had time to make a very quick stop in at Bandelier National Park- home to multi-storied alcove cliff homes dating back to the 1400s, as well as the remnants of a larger circular village named Tyuonyi, with over 500 rooms.

Deah at Bandelier National Park
Tyuioni village

We walked around historic Santa Fe, including their beautiful church dating back to 1610, and of course ate tons of New Mexican food. On the way out of town, we spent the afternoon at Meow Wolf, a very interesting and strange immersive art experience. At $25, it’s pretty expensive, but it is such a unique experience that I’d recommend checking it out- there’s one coming to Denver and to Las Vegas soon. It’s too hard to describe in words so here’s a few pictures.

Santa Fe Cathedral
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Red or Green?
Meow Wolf

We took the Turquoise Trail from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, and then stayed with two of our friends from Burning Man, Alex and Debbie, at their home near Sandia Peak. A rainstorm rolled in and we watched it through the massive windows of their house, overlooking the city. We had a great evening with them as we talked about our Burning Man experiences and thoughts on the festival and travel in general.

Watching the rain pass over Albuquerque

In Albuquerque the next day, we strolled through historic old town. Our favorite part was the Albuquerque Museum, which has seven galleries, of which the New Mexico Jewelry exhibit was our favorite. Amazing craftsmanship of both old and new jewelry, ranging from silver and turquoise to feathers and other found materials. Worth going to, and a very inexpensive museum at $6.

Albuquerque Museum

That was our furthest point west for this leg of the trip- we turned east and passed into Texas (my home state). We stayed the night in Amarillo, where we visited Carhenge (also known as Cadillac Ranch), a series of 10 Cadillacs that were buried in a farm field back in the 60’s. From there we went through Lubbock, keeping an eye out for fun street murals and Buddy Holly memorabilia (he was from there). And then finally we arrived in Arlington, Texas, my hometown, where some catching up with family and friends will now occur!

Carhenge

We fly to Nepal on October 15, so click the “Follow” button down below to get a post about our trekking there!

Have you been to any of these states? What was your favorite things to see there? What part of vacations do you like best- wild animals, beautiful scenery, or catching up with friends and family?

Oman, an Oasis in the Desert

oman fortress model with arabic calligraphy in background

From Qatar, it was just a short 90 minute flight to Oman. The main city of Muscat is a long narrow strip along the coast, running 40 miles east to west. It was once four towns but they’ve g Continue reading “Oman, an Oasis in the Desert”