What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Meet Tony Monaco, 48, co-owner of Himalayan Glacier Trekking (www.himalayanglacier.com ), a Charlotte, N.C.-based outfitter and program operator that offers trips to central Asia and elsewhere. The longest-running programs have been to Nepal and Tibet. In the past three years, Monaco has been there five or six times. He is currently expanding operations as co-owner of its subsidiary, HGT Adventures ( hgtadventures.com ).
The first time you climbed the Himalayas — do you think now you were prepared?
Yes and no. Physically? Definitely; my best shape, maybe. But there was the unknown: the sheer process of going halfway around the world, being in a new country, mentally dealing with the length of some treks. ... There were a lot of things to think about and prepare for, other than just working out.
What to specifically to pack. Or preparing to go to a "developing country." The visa and passport process.
Or testing yourself. Get out and see how you feel on an all-day or overnight hike or for two or three days. There are often 10 or 12 days of trekking in these places.
Most of our U.S. clients don't have a lot of time: You have 17 days on the ground there, and 11 or 12 of those days are trekking. You can't go too high too fast without getting sick. I'm talking about going 15,000 to 17,000 feet and then sleeping overnight. You need to make sure you're acclimatized.
What was the craziest or most difficult time you had in the Himalayas?
I've taken a local bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara that was literally jam-packed with 40 people. A flight would be 30 minutes; the drive was about 8 1/2 hours over mountains on a high and narrow pass. It's the only road between the cities, so there's all kinds of vehicles and traffic - including horses. It was a very long ride and very scary.
Going up, you also have go to down into valleys, correct?
A lot of valleys, especially in the lower elevations. You may have a day that says you'll gain 1,500 meters, but you may have to go down 500 and up another 2,500 to get there. It's a big misconception that you only walk up when you start, and walk down when you're done.
Who goes on these trips?
They range from teenagers getting out of school to professionals in their 20s or 40s. And there are many retirees. It's a melting pot of people.
How is crossing international borders these days?
Tourism is very important to Nepal. You're a coveted and protected person. You'll be through the entry process by the time your bags are ready to leave the airport.
There are a lot of different rules for China and Tibet, and the rules are ever-changing. It's definitely complex if you want to enter from Nepal. You actually have to get a Chinese visa in Kathmandu, and there are different levels of rules for travel permits — climbing, trekking, etc.
Getting into China costs more for U.S. folks — $175; it's $85 for other international travelers.
The best thing to buy there to bring home?
Many buy prayer flags or Nepalese flags, which they take to their peak or base camp. Another item may be a reminder of some musical experience they had, or something our guides played - a flute or a drum or even a singing bowl.
A singing bowl?
It's a metal bowl where you can make sounds by running a wooden stick around the outside of the rim. You see them used in meditation ceremonies, etc. When you get it going right, it's makes a high-pitched hum, instantly and consistently. The bowl can be fairly heavy and thick. It can be small or larger. They probably start at $25.