It’s All Downhill From Here

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A week above 3000 meters, four days of hard walking, two days of rest in Lo Manthang, and we felt ready to tackle the return trip to Jomsom. It looked more primitive than the route out – no “road” to follow anywhere, just glorified goat paths, reaching a high point near 14,000’, with a scarcity of villages and tea houses. First stop: Yara, where we would stay two nights, with a day trip up the Pyung Khola gorge to view the Luri (cave) Gompa.

Already I was growing tired of the Gompas. “Don’t show me any more Gompas!” I whined to Chaim. He just gave his round Nepali grin, briefly sticking out his tongue to let me know he got the joke.

First, we had to get to Yara. It seemed simple enough…just follow the Chinese road south out of Lo, back the way we’d come, then turn left out of the Kali Gandaki into the Pyung gorge. But Chaim, who claimed to have been to Mustang “50 times” had other ideas. Before we hit the top of the windy La where Cheryl had placed her prayer flags four days ago, we headed left on one of those goat paths.

We chugged uphill a bit to the day’s high point at 4050 meters (13,300’), then cruised along a plateau for a mile or so, until we came to a small junction. Old stone foundations hugged the saddle between two sharply dropping valleys, prayer flags flying and flapping in all directions from a stake someone had secured to a corner. We had been dropping for a while, down a fairly steep slope, and were looking down an even steeper section. Waiting for us was a growing party of French-speakers, who were headed with their guide and porters up the way we’d just come.

They were aiming for Lo, and I wondered why they were taking this arduous route, so much more difficult then the gently rising road we’d followed into the walled city. My wonder turned to astonishment when a mother and crying toddler appeared over the crest. Several minutes behind them was a young woman who seemed to be taking one step every ten seconds. It didn’t seem possible she would make it to the top.

We’d had trouble enough just coming down the 25-30% slope on loose gravel. We didn’t want to fall, valuing the integrity of our hips, so each step was an exercise in stability, making sure of the purchase before taking the next, using both trekking poles for a minimum three-legged stance at all times. The toddler was continually whining and crying, ignoring her mother’s attempts at appeasement with granola and gatorade.

We skidded down further, reaching the top of a sheer wall of fluted spires. There seemed no way through. Coursing through the spaces between the sandy towers were chutes which resembled the start of a log flume ride. I was in the lead at this point, and had no idea where the trail went. Chaim pointed at one of the gullies, and down I went.

The wind, which was merely blowing at the top, was downright howling as I entered the slot canyon. The flutes funneled the air into the narrow space, accelerating the flow into a gale. I tightened the straps in my solar panel light cap, pulled my Buff up nearly to my eyelids, and braced myself for the dual challenge of the downhill into the wind. It was howling so, I was compelled to take a video of Cheryl and Chaim coming through the chasm.

Out the other side, things really got no better. The trail became steeper. At times, I felt like just giving up and sitting down, sliding to the bottom. The fear of (a) not being able to stop, (b) encountering a cliff, and (c) shredding my pants kept me standing and trying to walk. But it felt more like dry-land skiing than a stroll in the woods. Mostly, it was just rolling through the scree.

Looking down, we could see the oasis town of Surkhang, across the river from Dri. Up on the hillside, terraces abandoned when the irrigation stream dried up, revealed just how tenuous the hold on life is for Mustangis.

a-tree-1Down in Dhi (pronounced “Ghee”), narrow alleys led us to our lunch stop. Along the way, one massive cottonwood provided shade for a few pigs and a solitary yak dung hauler.

Just out of town, we crossed the Pyung Khola. Heavy treaded rock trucks simply drove right through the torrent, but trekkers used a crude bridge over the swiftly flowing freezing water. Piles of stone on each side supported two long planks, across which unevenly sized cross pieces had been nailed. No two were the same length, and the whole contraption teetered with every step.

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In this photo, you can trace our route down into Dhi. We crossed the saddle from Lo Manthang, in the far upper right. Then we headed down the broad smooth steeply tilted plain, heading down towards the center of the picture. There, we entered the slot canyon, emerging onto the trail aiming back to the right towards the red building on the right side of town. That is a monastery, with a large satellite dish plunked down in front of it. Then through the town, across the river on the rickety bridge, and up the hillside towards Yara. Here, the way became steeper still, necessitating a long set of stone steps to a small La, for the final descent of the day. In the very bottom right is an orange arrow. This marked the route the runners had taken two weeks earlier.

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Entering town, we saw our first real clouds in a week, a harbinger of that night’s light snowfall. Stacks of adobe bricks, a sign the town was growing and needed new homes, lined the way up to our teahouse, home for the next two nights. A polyglot crew of tourists joined us that afternoon – French, German, and some really rowdy Russians. They contracted with the local Honor Man to have town folk come in after dinner for an evening of local singing and dancing, featuring Russian foot-stomping and beer slamming.

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Lo Manthang: Sights and Sounds

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Our room looks out over the stone path which runs along Lo Manthang’s eastern wall. With daylight comes the shuffling, clacking sound of older Mustangis, twisting prayer beads, heading towards the mani walls outside the monastery. Their prayers are hummed, a mumbled sound like flies buzzing circles round my head. Wrinkled grandmothers brush dust away from shop entrances, using brooms made from bundles of thin stiff reeds tied together with multicolored fabric taken from the end of a hand woven apron. Young men dressed, unlike their elders, in blue jeans, athletic shoes and western winter Holofil jackets, urge goats and horses out from the city towards that day’s field. Their hooves clatter on the stone, and their breathing melds into a chorus of snorts and wheezes.

Across the Plain of Prayers, the sun angles weakly over distant hills, setting off ground fog rising from the nearly frozen earth. In the yards across the way, I notice piles of rock – free and plentiful – mixed with timbers (much more precious), ready to be assembled into houses where fields now bristle with last year’s crop of barley stalks. More young men, shoulders hunched against the chill, gather themselves into a construction crew. They are joking amongst themselves, I assume, as laughter ripples up.

Today, we’re going to Choser/Garphu. Chaim and the Honor Man have arranged horses, so we can “rest” after five days of walking. I manage a couple of miles stuffed onto the wooden saddle, but find walking a bit easier on my nether parts and knees. As we roll into the morning tea stop at 10 AM, a clutch of pre-teen girls, talking and giggling, walk up behind us. Cheryl smiles and asks, partly in sign language, if she can take their picture. Surprisingly, the tallest answers in English.

“Where are you going?” Cheryl queries.

“School.”

“What are you learning there?”

“We learn English, Tibetan, Nepali. We study maths. We learn about history of our country.”

The school is right next door to the tea house, and even though there is no bell, and none of them has a watch, they know classes are starting, so the photo shoot is cut short while they skip ahead. Apparently, school starts at 10 AM and runs to 4 PM, allowing time for morning and evening chores, as well as the 1/2 hour walk to and from their homes.

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Back on the horses, we head up a side canyon, towards one of the the local attractions, a cave only recently abandoned. After a climb up newly built concrete stairs, we enter a maze of rooms, carved mostly by the wind, but some further hollowed out by human hands. None are large enough for me to stand in, but Chaim, 10 centimeters shorter, manages just fine. There is a lot of climbing up and down ladders, squatting through rock windows, and wondering how and why anyone would be living here. But there is room for an entire clan in the warren of cool, dry cavelets.

Back outside, the noon sun highlights red rock flutes and hoodoos lining the river bed we follow to the next stop, a cave gompa. Centuries ago, monks began using a hollow space in the cliff for their monastery, and built a fourth wall to protect it from the elements. Inside, the chapel follows the standard gompa pattern. But the paintings are done directly on the rock walls, curves and striations of the sandstone.

monks-quarters-1The Key Man tells us all the monks are today en route from Jomson to Choser via Mahindra jeep, coming back to work on building their new quarters, plant the summer crops, and re-commence religious training. The new quarters are a one-story dormitory, sitting just in front of more traditional two- and three-story homes. Yet even the older buildings have tin roofing lying on top, ready for installation, as well as solar panels and fresh water storage tanks. They are off the grid, but not without power. Soon, we’re assured, a cell tower will appear.

As we head down valley for our three hour ride back, we pass through a sudden splurge of green, grassy shoots fed by a stream tumbling from the mountains sourrounding us on three sides. We are at nearly 4000 meters (13,200’), yet the snow-capped peaks all around rise to a high point of 6235 m (20,450’), with the ridge mostly 1000 meters below (17,000’) On the other side of the ridge line is China/Tibet. The low point, Kora La, represents the easiest crossing from Nepal to Tibet. The rutted gravel double track road recently completed by Chinese engineers tops out at at 15,288’.

For centuries, this route was a foot-and-horse path, the “Salt Road” across which traders brought that essential mineral from the Taklamakan desert in what is now northwest China, down to India, in exchange for spices and seashells. Now, the Chinese are hoping to influence Nepali affairs by re-commencing trade. But the road appears deserted, and the only sign we see of that influence is a profusion of Chinese toilet paper in the local shops. Indian and Nepali goods otherwise predominate.

We follow the Nyichung Khola river valley back to Lo. We cross a side stream on a suspect wooden bridge. Local travelers must feel equally uneasy, as they have suspended a goat’s head beneath the timbers to appease any evil spirits who might have designs on the structure.

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Lo Manthang: The Dzi Stone

 

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In 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began a campaign to “protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage”, through the designation of World Heritage Sites. About 1,000 such sites exist now. In my part of the world, the western US, these include: Olympic, Redwood, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks; and Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Taos Pueblo indigenous sites.

The 175 signatories to the Convention establishing this program also list 1750 sites suggested for inclusion. In Nepal, there are 15; one of these is the medieval earthen walled city of Lo Manthang. Reasons for inclusion are the collection of chortens, mani walls, stone and earth dwellings, and the continuing language, culture, and religion of western and central Tibet. A close analogy would be the Taos Pueblo complex, where people have lived continuously for over 1000 years in the multi-storied adobe village.

Tuesday morning, we were set to tour the several monasteries within the walls of Lo. We met our guide by the mani wall in the plaza outside the largest monastery. He introduced himself in hesitant, accented, but perfect English. Like most of the locals, he was dressed for the cool weather in blue jeans, a western plaid shirt, and a puffy fake down jacket. His dark hair was a bit unkempt, and he had a scraggly beard of uncertain age. Just below his welcoming smile, around his neck, he word a small stone threaded lengthwise through some braided nylon string, with a short red tail at the bottom.

“What’s that around your neck?” Cheryl asked. “It looks like a Dzi.”

He nodded. “Yes.” He smiled sheepishly. “I find it outside, in the fields, last year during planting. I don’t know how long it was there. I don’t know if it’s real, but I like it, so I wear it for its power.”

Dzi stones are small decorative agates, usually mixing dark brown and white segments. They feature one or more (up to 9) “eyes”, which are the shape made by the white part of the agate. They have been ground, rounded, and polished, and are almost always cylindrical or ovoid (like an American football) in shape, maybe two centimeters or so in length, less than one in diameter. There is a central hole for the thread.

“Real” Dzi stones are often hundreds of years old, passed down through generations. Venerated for their power unique to the shape and character of the eye, they bestow fortune and promise to the wearer by interacting with his own aura, providing hope in various areas of the human travail: marriage, agriculture, children, spirit – all are enhanced by the proper stone.

Over the centuries, a real Dzi stone will develop distinct but subtle signs of age and wear. The thread hole will become worn at one spot, where the string has rubbed. The agate surface will develop cracks from microscopic particles of water freezing and thawing over time in the harsh climate. Tiny red to dark brown spots of literal rust from the iron within the stone may appear. If all these are present, there are many eyes, and the pattern is especially propitious, Dzi stones can fetch enormous sums – $100,000 or more – from collectors. We had seen a few Dzi in the “Uriah Heep” store the previous day, going for $250. But we knew nothing of how to tell their value.

art-gallery-1Before we entered the first monastery, our guide gave us a bit of his background. Second-born, he entered this very monastery as a young monk at age 9. By the time he was 19, he was traveling all over Nepal and even to Tibet, visiting other gompas. Finally, at 26, he realised he wanted to be in the world. In Kathmandu, taking a nine month course in mural restoration to help repair the old wall drawings in his home gompa, he met another student, a girl, and fell in love. Knowing that wouldn’t sit well with the lamas back home, he quit the order, started work on cleaning and repainting the walls he had stared at while trying to read the ancient religious texts. He began giving tours of Lo, and eventually opened his own shop where he sold exquisite reproductions of the intricate paintings found on so many Buddhist chapel walls.

Following us into each of the sites were a threesome, about our age. Two ladies and an older man, all Himalayan in appearance. One of the women seemed to be the leader, or at least the most assertive. Eye-catching in her bright red outfit, she was speaking English in a pastiche of accents: Canadian, English (Southeast/London) and Nepali/Indian.

Since we seemed on the same path, we started a small conversation. Cheryl asked what they were doing.

“We are here with my brother, so he can see these places before he goes.”

“Where are you from – I hear Canada, India, and England in your voice,” I ventured.

She smiled. “Yes it is funny, where I’m from. I was born in Tibet, but in 1959, fled with he Dalai Lama to Dharamsala. From there, I went to college in London, then got a doctorate in Asian studies at Oxford. I finally moved to Toronto, where we live now.”

“You are here on a pilgrimage of sorts …?”

“Yes. It is important to see these places, and it is so hard for someone like me to get to them in China now. And why are you here?”

I told her my story of reading Heinrich Harrar, longing to see the Tibet he traveled through in 1942/3, drink rancid yak-butter tea and eat Tsampa, and hear monks chanting and gongs clanging with the single note long-horns.t-c-i-woman-1

“Now that Tibet is gone, I learn. Tibetan Buddhism, and its view of the world and how people should live together, is a treasure for us all. I think it is important for the world that it not just be allowed to disappear. So I am here, I’ve discovered, to honor that, and do my part to keep these people here, in their ways, and then take that story back out into the world.”

“Yes, I can understand that. Our hearts were broken, of course, when we had to leave. And it has only gotten worse since. Mustang is a place where the Tibet that was, still is, and I do hope the modern world coming in, the electric wires and cell phones and internet, do not change the things that are underneath.”

“I’m worried about what could happen when the current Dalai Lama dies. It is scary what the Chinese might do.”

“Yes, we worry about that, too.” She smile wanly, with downturned eyes, no humor there.

cement-lady-1Outside the gompa, in the courtyard where the monks lived, the contrasts persisted. A traditionally dressed local woman sat in front of a churning cement mixer. Instead of wet mud, they were now using modern building materials along with the river stones for the growing dormitories. Around the corner, teen-age monks in red robes were practicing for the dance they would perform at the Tiji festival next week. Some had red Nike sneakers on, others had red sweatshirts with random English words emblazoned. One daring boy wore a red ball cap which had “Oh, Shit” across the top. They all smiled and tried to keep in time with the choreographer.

As we moved towards the gompa housing the giant Buddha, I asked the Canadian/Tibetan pilgrim about our guide’s Dzi stone, which he had given us to appraise. She looked at it very carefully, turning it over multiple times.

“I am not an expert. I can’t tell you if this is a true Dzi stone or not. It does have some characteristics of an original, but others are not in keeping. But what is more important is how it makes you feel. If you feel a connection with it, that is what is more important than the age or depth of its water marks. Especially if there is a story you have with this one, like the guide has told you.”

I thought of our conversation, about the need to keep Lo Manthang vivid as a living place where the Tibetan ways and thought were active and evolving, out of reach of the Chinese thumb. If giving $200 could help a man struggling to make a family and a life here, restoring the monastery, that was one way I could support the real purpose of my Tibetan pilgrimage.

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MiamiMan, 2016

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Two years ago, the ITU announced that its 2017 long course (4k swim/120 km bike/30 km run) world championships would be in Penticton, BC,  just over the border from Washington. Not only close, but a a race distance which seems on the sane side of effort, while still an endurance challenge – 9 hours or so at my speeds. To get there, I needed to qualify for the USATriathlon national team at its 2016 long course (half iron, in this case) national championships in Miami, Nov 13, 2016.

So thats why I’m flying back and forth across the country, 6+ hours each way non-stop from one corner to another, over a four day weekend. Then racing on a perfectly flat bike course in South Florida farmland and running 13.1 miles through the Miami Zoo, past alligators and giraffes in 84F heat. In the six months before, I’d covered 3640 miles on 100 bike rides, swam 150,000 meters, and run 120 times for 620 miles, so I was certainly ready to race.

I figured I could do 37:30 in the small inland freshwater lake (76F, wetsuit legal), and that’s exactly when I came out of the water. On the bike, I was gunning for a 20.6 mph average speed,; again, my precise outcome. I’d been planning on 56 miles, of course, or 2:45. But the ride was 2 miles short, so I ended up just a shade under 2:38. Transitions, I;d had no idea how big the field would be – nearly 2000 participants in the half iron, long course duathlon, USAT NC Aquabike, and Olympic distance race made for a long transition area – but I’d planned on 7 minutes, and got 5:40.

So by the time I hit the run, I was feeling pretty good.  I was 5th (out of 20) after the swim.  I passed one guy on the bike. In the first two miles of the run, I passed another who was struggling (he’d end up walking a 3:08). The heat, as usual, was slowing me down a lot. The best I could muster were 10 minute miles with my heart rate at about 138 bpm (my max is near 160), and I felt, if I didn’t want to blow up, I’d have to keep it there. A lot of water on my head, ice down my shorts, and switching between water and Heed every mile, and I kept a pretty steady pace. In the last mile, another guy in my AG roars past me. I tried keeping pace, but saw my HR quickly rise past 147 towards 151. I may have been able to sustain it for the last mile, but visions of Jonathan Brownlee in Rio at the Olympics this summer, when he collapsed a couple hundred meters from the finish, and had to be carried across the line by his brother. As I said, I didn’t want to blow up, so I backed off to my personal redline for that day, on that course.

Turns out the winner went 5:05, and 2/3/4 were bunched around 5:31, +/- 50 seconds. The speedy guy ended up 2nd, I was gaining on 3rd, but ended up 30 seconds short. I had the 3rd best run on the day. But I felt great about my result: I had conquered the heat by running through most aid stations, not blowing up or slowing down, and nearly hit my top end goal of 5:30 in temps which slowed me by 12 minutes on the run over my speed when its in the 60s. Afterwards, I spoke with the guy who ran by me. He’s from Wisconsin, so certainly not coming from warm training weather. He’d done IM FL the week before. And his open half marathon time this year was actually a minute slower than mine. So hats off to him for his sub 2 hour performance on that run. It always cheers me to see someone who executes to that level, and I told him he had a lot to be proud of.

What I didn’t say, was, I intend to not let that happen again, in Penticton next August.

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High Hamstring Tendonopathy

On the EN forum, the issue of high hamstring tendon injury was raised. I’ve had this on both sides over the past year, so I contributed:

I’m going to share my own experience with this over the past 14 months, not to tell anyone what to do, but to document what worked for me, and maybe provide some ideas.

Last year, starting back into training for Kona after Lake Placid, after my first set of TP run intervals, I developed pain on the right side, lower part of my butt, worst when I pressed in under the glute max muscle near the greater trochanter of the femur. Besides the pain, the other key symptom to me was pain when I would “paw” at the ground with the ball of my foot – that became important, as I used that sign (the disappearance of it) to help guide me back to running again. Since I wasn’t going to skip Kona unless I literally fell apart, I looked for ways to train through it. On the training side, I stopped doing speed/interval/high intensity work, and long runs, for a month. All of my running began to be at a faster cadence than previous, with shorter stride length. During August, I was running 5 days a week, 4-6 miles mostly, with a 9 mile and 10 mile run, all @ TRP. In September, I tried two attempt at “TP Intervals”, but ended up managing more like a half marathon pace for 2 x 1 mile. I dropped to 3 x/ week, with two runs of two hours. While my pain never went away – it hurt every step I ran – it also was not getting worse, so I trudged on.

The exercise program I developed during this time was focused on improving lower core strength and flexibility, with an eye towards long-term prevention as well as short term recovery. I played with several different exercise programs, but this is where I ended up, based on what I felt comfortable doings and what I felt was working. Stretching included the Yoga “good morning” pose, standard hamstring stretches, and holding my knee up to my chest while standing. Core work included crunches with my knees up, arms crossed on chest; front plank x 90 seconds; pelvic bridge static x 90 seconds; and pelvic thrusts (slow, emphasizing gluteal contraction) x 30. I did 30 side leg lifts, 30 clam shells, and 30 “reverse clams” (lying on the side, lower leg with knee bent, upper knee stationary close to lower knee, and rotating the upper leg so the foot went up and down). All of these were focused on feeling effort and strength in the hip flexors and small and large muscles of the gluteal area. In addition, I did side leg thrusts, front leg thrusts, and single leg knee bends, aimed at patellar stability. I tried to do these every day, usually managed 5 per week. One thing I should note is that for some stupid reason I had stopped doing most weight room and core work for about a year. Since I’d never really gotten any significant training injuries, I thought I must be immune, and stopped following my own advice to OFs to not give up on weight work, ever. So I decided maybe a part of the recovery should be a return to better strength, emphasis on helping the poor hamstring do its work.

While I was able to finish Kona, I only ran about 13 miles total, due to the pain. Since I had hernia surgery scheduled three weeks later, I shut down my running from that point forward, continuing with weight lifting (leg presses, seated quad lifts, no hamstring work) and the above stretching and core work. I had the surgery, & thus enforced rest from running. I started back up running after two months after Kona. In Dec, I ran 15 times/45 mi; Jan, 15 x/65 miles; Feb 11x/55 miles, working up to max 7 miles. Then, Feb 27, I broke my R great toe, and stopped running until May 10th, By the time I started back up, I was totally pain free, but very slow.

I did a standard IM build up from May 10-Oct 1 of 20 weeks, and while I got no faster (like 30 seconds per mile slower than before the injury), I remained pain free, which was my major goal. i did IM MD (at a very slow, but persistent 10-11 min/mile), 10 days later, I tried an interval treadmill set which went OK, and two days later tried an 80 minute treadmill progressive run. (It literally rained non-stop for seven days, which is why I was on the treadmill.) That was Sunday; on Monday, my left hamstring hurt worse than the right ever did the year before – the injury before Kona had been on the right. That scared me almost out of my mind, since I had my A race for the year coming up on Nov 13th. Like Kona, I was going to do that event unless I was in the hospital or a cast. So I took two days totally off from running, but kept up with my stretching and core work. then gingerly tried to go back to running. It hurt, but I persisted. Within a week, I was able to do some interval work, and managed three “long” (for HIM training) runs at reasonable pace. By race day, pain was not on the radar screen.

I had a respectable run in terms of HR, but my pace was a minute/mile slower than I anticipated. Probably a combination of the temps being 85F (this was Miami), and my training being inadequate. Two days after the race, I remain pain free.

So my personal conclusions:

  • Risk factors include: aging elite athlete; rapid return to intense training after an IM marathon; abandonment of weight training. If you’re over 50-55, stay in the weight room, and be very careful with building back into intense running soon after a marathon (either stand alone or IM)
  • In addition to the benefits of regular weight training & flexibility (stretching), specific exercises for the lower core (mid-thigh up to top of pelvic bone) are helpful for both prevention and return to pain-free function.
  • A period of rest can be helpful, but returning to running within a week is also feasible if the pain is improving while running. If it stays the same or gets worse, shut it down for several months in the off season.
  • Hamstring injuries are scary. I’m going to be doing my exercise program for the rest of my walking life.
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Lo Manthang: The Honor Man

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In late April, the trees surrounding Lo Manthang were still leafless. Tourists were not expected for another week, for the Tiji festival. Chaim led us into the check point, just outside the sturdy, whitewashed stone and stucco city wall. While he had our papers reviewed and stamped, and caught up on local news, I perused the bulletin board, titled “Annapurna Conservation Area Project [ACAP]”.

ACAP, a development program of the Nepalese government, is responsible for improving the lives of those who live in Mustang and the adjacent valleys. Roads, schools, local health clinics, adult training programs, building projects – the impact is everywhere. These people, who as recently as fifty years ago lived in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world, now have solar panels on their roofs, children who are learning Nepalese, Tibetan, and English, central clean water stations, and sporadic indoor plumbing. While the old lifestyle of herding and farming, in primitive stone villages, may seem romantic to us, I’m sure the newer ways are welcomed.

honor-man-1Among the program descriptions on the bulletin board was a table listing all the foreign visitors to Upper Mustang since it opened to travel in 1992. Month-by-month, and country by country, I could trace the growth of tourism. Before the turn of the century, visitors annually numbered in the hundreds, almost all between May and October. Leading up to 2015, the numbers rose to 3500, then 4500, with winter becoming an attraction. Then, the earthquake. Visits plummeted to 1500 after that April day, 2015. No wonder the people at the tea houses were so glad to see us – it seemed every village had a new one, and they proudly displayed their recent graduation certificate from “Basic Cooking” school.

France, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, in order, have the greatest number of travelers. I estimated that no more than 3500-5000 Americans had been to Mustang – a bit less than 10% of the total. I felt a rare privilege in gaining access, lucky to have both the time and money to visit, to make the pilgrimage.

Our tea house seemed almost palatial. Entrances led off in three directions around a small inner courtyard. On one side was the dining area, on the other, lodging. Porters occupied the small rooms on the ground floor, which also housed a common shower. Up narrow, off-kilter wooden stairs, through a low-bridge beam, were a ring of private suites opening onto an overhanging balcony. Suites, as we had not only a room with two cot-like beds, but also an attached toilet and sink. The third side housed the kitchen and living quarters.

After changing out of hiking boots, always the first event when coming off the trail, Cheryl and I went down to the dining area. A middle aged French couple with their guide were going over a map for their next day’s journey. A Tibetan woman approached our table, and asked us about tea. She seemed to speak some English. Cheryl noted an infant sleeping soundly on one of the benches.

“Is that yours?” she asked.

“Yes, my baby.”

“How old?”

“Four months.”

After our tea came, the baby start crying a bit. The mother picked her up, rocked in a blanket, and calmed her down. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“America. Seattle.”

“Why you come here?”

“It was our dream for a long time. We wanted to see the people here, and eat their food,  the tsampa, drink their butter tea.”

Haltingly, but with great feeling, she said, “My dream is to go to Kailas…”

“To make the circle around the mountain?” I ventured.

“Yes, that is my dream. I hope to do that.” Mt. Kailas is the holy mountain for Tibetan Buddhists. I don’t know the cosmology involved, but it is spoken about with the reverence Muslims use for Mecca.

Chaim came in, his usual smile and chuckle lighting our space. “How you like your room? All moved in.”

We assured him all was fine. Then he said, “Tomorrow, we go to Chosar. See cave Gompa.”

“How much of a walk, how far is it. We’ve been hoping for a rest.”

“Oh, not far – 2, maybe 3 hours.”

“There and back?.”

“Three hours to get there, maybe 2. Then we see the monks, then we come back, OK? I can see about horses for you. I will ask honor man if he can rent us horses.”

“That’s good, we’d like that…but, who, uh, what is the ‘honor man’?”

“Honor man .. he is the man who on this place, the husband of this lady” – he pointed to the mother rocking her baby – “he can get us horses.”

I pondered this description…”on” this place? “honor” man? and a light bulb went off – the OWNer man! Honor man – I liked that appellation more.

“Chaim, can we go into the town? We want to walk around a bit. Maybe see the wall.”

“Yeah, sure, you go for walk.” He laughed. “Wall is right next to you.” He pointed toward the kitchen. “People starting to build houses against wall.”

We walked outside, and faced the entrance. A narrow alley between buildings ended at a white stone blank, maybe 5 meters high, with red paint along the top.

“That is wall. It is back of honor man’s tea house.”

“So how do we get into Lo? Where is the entrance?” We knew from our research, Lo has only one public opening through the wall – a holdover from 700 years ago, when Ame Pal constructed the place as a fortress city.

It took us less than five minutes to get there, and once in, the buildings crowded in everywhere. Clearly not designed even for cart, much less car traffic, many of the alleys were only wide enough for two goats to travel side-by-side. But turn a corner, and a broad plaza would open up. Then, the way closed in again. Meandering blindly, it took us less than ten minutes to get from one end of the city to the other. In a couple of the plazas, small shops with hand-painted wooden signs announced in English and Nepalese what wares could be had inside.

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Cheryl wanted to do a little shopping. The stores in Lo proper all seemed to be closed, but on the way back home, we found a small store which reminded me of Uriah Heep’s, a now defunct emporium in Aspen. There, the owner made his living traveling the world and picking up locally made artifacts for the delectation of those from all over the world who came to Aspen. It had always seemed a bit round-about to me, and, maybe deservedly so, it only lasted for a few years.

But I did buy some of my most prized possessions there. First, a three-legged milking stool, representing the “consumer-owners, doctors, and management” who made up the leadership of the cooperative where I worked for 35 years. Next, a hand-held Tibetan prayer wheel, which spun smoothly whenever I felt a need to connect with the earth and its sentient beings. It was fun to wander through Uriah’s and dream about visiting the lands from which its wares had come.

And now here we were. I asked the owner about many of the objects, and where they came from. He said during the winter time – the off-season, I presumed – he traveled via the new road into Tibet, and visited the remaining monasteries, and smaller towns, looking for objects people might want to sell. He had mani wheels meant to be nailed beside a door. He had Tibetan medicine books – those books with no spine, and grandly decorated covers, with hand written illustrated loose leafs inside. He had hand woven rugs and thick wool aprons, and paintings modeled after monastery walls. He had Dzi stones and drinking mugs.

Cheryl wanted an apron, and I wanted a book, and maybe a mani wheel. But we were worried about getting them back home. While the proprietor promised that shipping would work out just fine, we were leery, having seen the sporadic nature of motorized travel in these parts. It just didn’t seem safe to spend hundreds of dollars on the hope that DHL would eventually deliver the package to our door. The only other option was to have Pasang, our porter, who was already carrying not only his own pack, but each of our 15 kg (33 pounds) loads, to add these surprisingly heavy items to his burden. We promised to come back in the next day or two after discussing that option with Chaim.

That evening, instead of eating in the formal dining room, we all sat around the honor man’s stove. Porters fed small sticks into the cast iron fireplace, and we warmed up nicely, though I still needed my down coat and Marshawn Lynch-approved Seattle Seahawks watch  cap.

I wondered if the social structure Michel Peissel had described still held sway. The honor man seemed not only self-confident, but also eager to talk, so I started peppering him with questions.

“I’ve heard that the land in families here is never divided, that the first born son gets all, and the second must go to monastery.”?

“Yes, it always get handed down. I was not first, I was third. So my brother has all the field and goat. My other brother went to monastery when we was eight.”

“Is he a monk now?”

“No. After ten year, he left, and went to Pokhara. I had nothing, so I start my own work. When Nepali government open up Mustang, I start working in tea house, and after some year, started it for me.”

He had done very well for himself. Not only did he own one of the biggest “hotels” in Lo Manthang, he also had jumped at the opportunity when ACAP decided to put medical clinics in each town. He went to Kathmandu for 18 months – while his wife ran the tea house – and learned basic medicine, becoming what we might call a medic or PA. He set up shop just outside the city walls, worked to train other towns-women to help, and now runs the health center, his tea house/restaurant, and acts as a broker for tourist activities.

honor-man-2One day just before lunch, at Cheryl’s urging, he took us to the clinic, just to look around and learn about how it operated. Cheryl was particularly interested in pre-natal care and deliveries. We learned that babies were not born in Lo. Once women felt movement, they began to plan their move to Kathmandu for the duration, delivering there in hospital.

Just as he finished this explanation, an anxious woman hesitantly stuck her face into the room. The honor man looked up questioningly as she was followed by a young girl, about six or seven, who was clearly trying to hold back tears while she clutched one hand in the other. Blood dripped onto the dirt floor.

The grandmother’s story poured out, and he translated as he speedily went into the store room for gauze, saline, basin, and some instruments. Knowing we were a doctor and nurse, he let us watch as he explained, “She was crawling around outside her house, looking for something to play with. She found a torn piece of roof” – a jagged metal strip – “and tried to pull it loose. She cut her hand.”

We saw a two-inch long gash running the length of one of her fingers. He was busy cleaning it and putting in several stitches, tying gauze tightly around the digit.

Through it all, the young girl did not cry or complain, just sniffled a bit and looked stoically at her grandmother for reassurance. When Cheryl noted how strong she was, the honor man said, “She mostly ashamed she is causing problem for her family.”

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This Magic Moment (Mustang VIII)

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Cheryl was having trouble getting one end of the prayer flags attached to the pole centered in the rock pile atop Lo La. The wind was as strong and persistent as we had yet seen. Chaim, no taller than Cheryl, nonetheless had the stability of one who’s summited Everest several times. While Pasang secured the far end to a large rock, Chaim looped the whipping flag rope over the top of the metal pole rising out of the concrete geo marker which formed the nexus of the pilgrim’s rock pile.

Lo La seemed the end of the world. We had been walking for four hours, and seen not one person or vehicle along the jeep track between Tsarang and Lo Manthang. Half way along the route, a giant lonely chorten stood athwart the road. Surrounded by a short chain link fence to protect against unlikely vandals, it seemed a sentinel marking the half way point between Mustang’s two largest settlements. We stopped for tea, which in this case meant sipping from the gatorade bottle and downing a few handfuls of my nut/chocolate/raisin mix.

Leaving Tsarang mid-morning, we had passed a similar, smaller chorten on the way out of town, standing guard over the town’s rock brigade, gathering that day’s quota of building stones from the river bed. rock-trucks-1-1Then, nothing until the giant stupa. After the tea break, we kept walking through a landscape progressively more arid and devoid of life. As we crested a small defile, hoping we had reached the top, we entered a high rolling valley. To our right, the white sandy cliffside was pocked with caves scoured by the wind. In front, a small patch of green, seemingly filled with bushes which swayed a bit.

Drawing closer, the bushes materialized into … goats. Gnawing away at the patch of green, it was hard to see how they had gotten here, or even how they could survive, given that the grass they ate was only millimeters high, scraggly at best, and limited to a small football sized splotch which seemed merely moist, certainly not a true stream.

 

goats-1Yet here they were, and in the midst of some ruined buildings, probably shepherds’ huts from sometime past. But they were a promise of the community ahead, harbingers of Lo Manthang.

Just one year ago, an earthquake had trembled through Nepal, with loss of life for some, and homes for others. Locally, there was little nostalgia for the event, but Cheryl was determined to hang a string of prayer flags at the highest point we reached that day, as her way of feeling communion with the people and their land.

I had a different set of feelings. I didn’t realise until I lifted my eyes from the flags, down into the vista spread below and beyond, that I had been seeking this moment for decades. I’d longed for a romanticized version of the Lost Horizon, a land and people cut off from the rest of us, where daily life was the only worry, lamas preached peace and respect for all sentient beings, and mountains ringed a verdant plateau, the Plain of Prayers. Over the past year, my dreams had crystallized around Lo Manthang, the walled city I could see below. I was on a pilgrimage, and my journey neared its end.

I found Cheryl at the top. I squeezed her close, pulled her to my side, and showed her Lo. “We’re here,” I said. “We made it.”

“Yes, we did.”

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Maximum Aerobic Function Training

An EN member posted about “Maximum Aerobic Function Training”: …What is MAF Training:  For me, it was doing ALL TRAINING at aerobic threshold – swim, bike and run, with no high intensity strength training to send my body any other signals.  To find my MAF, I used the “180 minus my age” formula, which was 135bpm, then added 5 points as I have been consistently fit for at least 6 months. The good thing is that when running and biking (and swimming very easy) at MAF, my body needed almost no recovery, leading to healing and consistency (at my age, this is probably the key and what led to my gains)…

My reply to the forum:

1. Whenever this comes up, I reflect on what I heard Mark Allen say at an IM medical conference I attended once during Kona Week. He spoke of his frustration at not being able to perform well, or even finish, @ Kona for years, and then adopting the advice of Maffetone. He explained it in what could be described as periodization terms. He noted his initial skepticism, but was willing to try anything. Here’s what he said he did… for about three months, he did all his running at the aerobic heart rate, and noticed his per mile times progressively dropping. After about 3 months, they plateaued, and, on his own, he switched to a more intensive training effort. Again, that seemed to reach a plateau after 2-3 months, so he switched back to aerobic. He felt this switching back and forth gave him both the strength and endurance he needed to eventually get over the hump in 1989 vs Dave Scott.

Doing one thing all the time will eventually lead to stasis, and we’ll need to switch up our routine to start making more improvements. Same thing applies, to say, weight lifting routines. I switch mine every 3 months or so, as much out of boredom as wisdom, but it seems to at least keep me in the game (which is all I expect at this age).

2. I read the “180-age + 5” concept mentioned here, and discovered that I had indeed been doing this over the years as my “go-to” pace. This year, when I got back to running after a broken toe, I started slogging along at 118, which felt like a sweet spot to me. Turns out that’s 180-67+5! By August, I was ready to start throwing in a bit of intervals, and did a few shorter races. After IM MD, I started back into doing most of my runs @ 120-130, thinking that was the right range for the half iron I have coming up. And my times per mile over the past 6 weeks have indeed dropped, to where I’m down to 8:30/mile, from the 9-9:15 I was at earlier in the year.

3. I think this is a reason why the OS is so effective. Most of us have been doing lot of aerobic work naturally at the end of our season, aiming towards an A race IM or HIM. Then a bit of a break, and its time to throw in some hard stuff, Three months of that, and swing the pendulum back to “far” more than “fast”. IMO, this sort of an approach should not be an “either/or”, but more “a lot(MAF)/a little(intense intervals)” then switch to “a little/a lot”, which the proviso that “a lot” of intense intervals is a relative term, say going from 3% to 10-20% of time/distance.

4. The longer it’s been since one has done real athletic training (meaning: incorporating speed & intensity plus substantial endurance volume) – ranging from never to years to months to weeks – then the longer it will be both necessary (to avoid injury) and helpful (to build up the size and function of the heart) to stay in the MAF zone almost full time. Someone like Allen in the example above who had been training for years as a serious world beating triathlete only needs 2-3 months of MAF before being ready to switch to the other side of the pendulum swing. So this is not a one size fits all plan; it must be tailored to where you are in your athletic career.

 

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A Tree Is A Tree…

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In 1966, while running for the California governorship, Ronald Reagan allegedly said, when discussing the proposed national park to preserve the tall trees of Del Norte and Humboldt counties, “You’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” What he actually said was a little more prosaic: “I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres or so of trees — you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”

That’s how I came to feel about the Buddhist monasteries of Mustang – or the Catholic cathedrals of Europe and South America, for that matter. Yes, they all have their own unique history, their individual creation stories, their intertwinings into local lore. But in the end, they do all seem to look alike, with similar floor plans, decorations, and purpose.

But it took me a few tours of the gompas to figure this out. My first lesson involved the monks themselves. Most of them are boys and young men, aged 9-26. Prior to the late 20th century, schools as we know them in the west were non-existent on the Tibetan plateau and contiguous regions. Second-born males in many families were shipped off to the monasteries, where most of them were temporary residents, gaining an education and safety from the usual travails of male adolescence. Only a small number choose (and it is entirely voluntary) to become full-time adult monks.

All these guys need a place to live, and their quarters make up the outer perimeters of a monastery. Simple rooms with a small wooden cot, maybe a table for a book and a lamp, and a door to keep out the cold wind. Their classrooms and dining hall are nearby, all within the perimeters of a protective wall. Sometimes, agricultural plots for staples are within the compound, or nearby along the outer edges. Throughout the day, boys and young men, heads nearly shaved, roam smiling and red-robed over the grounds, heading between religious rites and daily chores. In many ways, it might be a boarding school but without the athletic fields.

Within each monastery is the chapel building, standing separate in the compound. Squat, square, nearly windowless, it is painted deep red with little external decoration. Outside the single door is often a series of prayer wheels. Steps lead up to a vestibule, where there may be a single large, possibly man-sized or bigger prayer wheel, and paintings foreshadowing the murals which cover the walls of the inner sanctuary. Depending on the age and upkeep of the gompa, these murals may be blazing bright with wildly colored pigments, or covered with the grime from centuries of tallow candles. Vaguely human creatures with scary demon faces, heads lit by dancing yellow flame, dominate the scene. Battles between the forces of light and darkness juxtapose with pastoral scenes from the life of the Buddha.

A few steps lead up to wooden doors, locked, guarding the inner sanctum of the chapel. Invariably, visitors must wait for the Key Man – usually a smiling teen-aged monk, proud to show off the local treasures.

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The only light falls from above, a central opening (nowadays covered with translucent plastic) over a set of wooden benches. The room looks practical, not ornamental, with books strewn across the seats, maybe a paint bucket on the floor for trash, and prayer scarves draped over random Buddha statues. The far wall is a glassed-in showcase for the local statuary – gold (or, more likely, bronze) Buddhas of many shapes and sizes – and other treasures. Often, a smiling portrait of the Dalai Lama beams out his message of peace and happiness. Books rest in cupboards below, and to the left.

A word about these “books”. They consist of loose sheets, filled with handwriting, and kept together by a combination of a top and bottom stiff covers, often secured with twine or sash. The covers may be plain wood, or inlaid with metal scroll work and semi-precious stone. Monks will sit for hours, reading aloud or memorizing passages from religious texts. At other times, the books are consulted for medical diagnosis and treatment, or help with agriculture.

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The older monks, the ones who’ve stayed into adulthood, adopt vows of poverty and in most cases celibacy. They live in the world, visiting with family, or traveling to other monasteries near and far. They are viewed as a combination of religious sage, medical shaman, and moral talisman. But they always have quarters in their home gompa, even during the winter when most will travel to lower, warmer climes.

The monastery grounds are always open. A common sight is an elder walking by the mani wall, spinning the wheels on the way to or from the day’s errands – an convenient way to pray and be blessed.

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In Tsrarang, the local lore revolved around the architect of the winter palace and the central monastery. He was so revered that, after he died, his right hand was preserved, and now hangs within a musty relic room, next to swords and shields from some forgotten battle centuries ago.

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Outside, the monks had gathered in an assembly hall for their mid-morning prayers. The morning stillness and cloudless sky fell on us with the counterpoint of faint drumming, deep bass chants, occasional ringing bells and one note Tibetan long horns. While I listened, I noticed laundry hanging from a second story balcony in the older monks’ quarters. The entry door was covered by a tattered brown sheet swiss-cheesed with holes. The dusty ground reflected the unfiltered sun, blinding at this altitude. Without a doubt, I was in a foreign land.

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Second City (Mustang VI)

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From 1380 to 2008, the upper Mustang valley was ruled by a single dynastic line. Six hundred twenty eight years is a long time for political stability; what led to this continuous succession within one family over 24 generations?

In the mid 14th century, the villages of Mustang were much the same as now, but each was a separate fiefdom. They were widely separated, a half-day’s walk apart at best, and the efforts at daily sustenance left little time or energy for warring between neighbors.

Missionaries from the north brought new forms of Buddhism to the isolated valleys between the Himalayas and Tibet. There is little to no written history from that era, but a book discovered in the monastery at Tsarang by Michel Peissel provided a list of the Mustang monarchs, starting with Ame Pal, who lived at the end of the 1300s. His descendants then ruled as kings until the government of Nepal abolished the local monarch in 2008.

So how did life remain so stable here for so long? Of course, the geography plays an outsized role. Mustang is about 50 miles wide in most directions, rimmed by a mountain crest no lower than 15,000 feet in its entirety, except for the small area through which the Kali Gandaki flows south to India. Mustang was lucky to be so isolated, and in addition almost surrounded by unaggressive sparsely populated Tibet.

Little rain falls here; total annual precipitation is about 10 inches of water equivalent, mostly as snow in the winter. So the area can only support about 10,000 people at most, and even some of them leave during the winter months for warmer parts lower down. The populace can only survive by a combination of crops irrigated from the meagre mountain snowmelt, and animals who must be shepherded miles every day to forage the sparse grass.

Despite these restrictions, families might still outgrow their agricultural plots. The Mustangi followed a strict inheritance protocol to prevent farms from being divided. First born sons got all the land; second born were sent to monasteries at age 9, and subsequent boys became shopkeepers or shepherds. This provided a micro level of stability preventing squabbles over land within and between families.

The dominant religion, an older form of Tibetan Buddhism, emphasizes peace and harmony amongst all living creatures. The tight connection most families have with the keepers of that faith, the monks, has allowed that sensibility to permeate the population.

Finally, and maybe most important, the royal family did not engage in succession squabbles. Kings, starting with Ame Pal, routinely stepped down before they became decrepit in mind or body, having early on appointed a successor son or nephew. The younger generation assumed their time would come while they were still robust enough to enjoy it.

On our fourth day, we trekked 11.4 miles, 4275’ of elevation gain, 6 hours from Gheling to Tsarang. Reminders of the stable past are still very much present in Mustang. It’s only been in the last 20-30 years that modern change has filtered in. When I first got with the idea of traveling here, reading Heinrich Harrar’s Seven Years in Tibet, I became enamored with his description of the meagre diet, consisted mainly of the barley-based Tsampa, and “rancid yak butter tea.” For thirty years, I’d longed to try these primitive delicacies. I quickly became disabused with that romantic ideal. In Gheling, I tried both for breakfast, and quickly switched back to the more modern pancakes and lemon/ginger teabags on offer.

Leaving Gheling, our first hour took us 1400’ up to 13,100 to Nyi La, across the by now familiar terrain of rock, dirt and occasional grassy clumps. On a bluff overlooking town, a cluster of red-walled monastery buildings stood silent guard; all the monks were still down in Pokhara or Kathmandu, waiting another week or so to return for the summer. From the top of the pass, the trail we had followed through the snow the evening before into town looked impossibly steep.

For lunch, we almost literally rolled down into Ghemi. The trail dropped at a precipitous 25-30% grade, filled with small round stones which had not yet reached their angle of repose.

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Outside of town, the longest mani wall in Mustang, now abandoned, stood empty of prayer wheels.

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Maybe that’s why, before leaving, Chaim and our porter, Pasang, had methodically spun every one set within the smaller wall near the tiny monastery.

On our way to the second major pass of the day, Chinggel La (12,850’), the route forked off to Dhakmar. Flanked between a large wind cave and fluted red rock spires, a weathering cluster of Chortens stood guard, beckoning us that way.

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Our route led the other direction, towards Tsarang, the second city of Mustang. 1000’ lower than the capital of Lo, it had served as the cold season headquarters of the royal family. The winter palace, damaged by last year’s earth quake, had split a major sustaining wall, and we would not be entering.

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But the local monastery was welcoming, and we looked forward to a tour in the morning.

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