Around Annapurna – Part 1
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‘You want ganja?’ was the first question that I was asked by a group of young Nepalese milling around in the bright sunshine beside Lake Pokhara.
Then the usual set of questions posed by curious locals to the outsider. What’s your name, where are you from, how long are you here?
I explained that I was in Nepal to tackle an iconic hiking trail and intended to begin the very next day.
‘You didn’t hear about the accident?’ one of them asked.
‘No I haven’t heard’ I said with genuine concern.
Apparently many people were missing during a big storm close to Thorung La Pass, the highest point of the 200km Annapurna Circuit in central Nepal.
During the previous days in Kathmandu we had been drenched with continuous rain, the after effects of a cyclone that had passed over the East Coast of India and these rains translated into heavy snowfalls high up in the mountains here in Nepal.
Feelings of confusion and disbelief conflicted with the serenity of colourful boats gliding across the lake. A natural disaster such as this would mean financial hardship for many of the accommodation providers who rely heavily on tourist numbers during the two short seasonal windows. October-November & April – May.
We decided to explore Pokhara for the next day or two and keep an eye on developments. We had already obtained our permits for the trek and gotten a visa extension.
Discussing our options we decided to begin the trek and assess the situation as we went. We would take our time and were prepared for any eventuality but had little hope of completing the entire circuit. If after a certain number of days we had to turn back, then that’s what we would do.
To be honest I was a little relieved because it meant we could walk at a leisurely pace and the prospect of hiking to altitudes of 5000m+ was actually a little daunting. Many tourists choose to, but it is not essential, to hire a guide or a porter. The trail is fairly well marked with little red and white flags painted on rocks by the side of the road/trail. We used notes and an itinerary downloaded from the Internet that advised us that by arriving at a village at any reasonable hour that it was possible to get dinner and a bed in guesthouses all the way.
We pared down our outfit to the bare essentials, leaving what we wouldn’t need at our hotel in Pokhara. Luggage on the roof, overtaking into blind corners, our horn honking, Indian music blasting bus miraculously arrived 5hrs after leaving Pokhara to the starting point of Besisahar. (Elevation 820 meters above sea level.)
A terrible disaster
The next morning at the breakfast table I overheard a brash American guy telling everyone how he had raced back down the trail in less than three days. It’s normally a 7 to 10 day walk with rest days and he relayed some of the chaos that was happening further up the trail. Power was down in nearly all the villages and because no one was going over the pass, everyone was looking to return as quickly as possible.
This became evident as we walked on our first day with the constant stream of jeeps passing us in the opposite direction and groups of walkers with vacant looks in their eyes.
Stories were circulating about guides who had pushed their company onwards in the worsening conditions only to be caught in a blizzard and killed by avalanches or exposure. Other parties had been led to safety in complete white out conditions. Over the coming days we would pass scores of people who had made it so far and then had to turn around and come back.
Most everyone seemed solemn and despondent.
Words of wisdom
Our first day’s walk ended at a small roadside guesthouse where a few people sat sunning themselves in the garden. One of these people was a Canadian woman who asked us which direction we were traveling in. When we said ‘up’ she dramatically blasted us with a tirade, informing us that it was pointless due to the devastation that had occurred. They had gone one day further than us and were now returning to Pokhara. The other people in her party agreed and told us not to continue.
I tried to explain that we had plenty of time and we would be doing side treks and having rest days and that the villagers on the trail still needed customers. Perhaps in her grief and disappointment the Canadian drama queen left us with her final words of wisdom as she hastily piled her belongings into a taxi jeep-
‘You’ll be stepping over dead bodies!’ she yelled.
From Ngadi (890m) we walked in glorious sunshine. We traversed plains of rice paddies, over trickling streams and around waterfalls surrounded by sub tropical plants. The valleys were green and lush as we climbed to an altitude of 1310m at Bahundanda before following the ridge of the valley down to Ghermu at 1130m. Precarious rope bridges decorated with prayer flags carried us high above the creamy blue glacier fed Marshyandi River.
After crossing one such bridge a goat herder looked at the stick I had picked up beside the trail earlier in the day. He took it from me and with his scythe skilfully stripped away all the protruding parts and sharpened and flattened one end for me to give it more purchase. He handed it to me with a huge grin and I smiled back and nodded in silent appreciation.
As we entered the town of Tal (1700m) on the third day, large threatening storm clouds obscured the white-capped peaks of the mountains that had began to appear. Women and children beckon us outside every guesthouse promising ‘Cheap room, hot shower, free Wi-Fi. Some places advertise ‘Flash toilet’. I think it’s a misspelling but I reckon if you can sit on it and you don’t have to fetch water for it from outside then it probably is pretty flash.
Everyone else in town is coming down the trail and everyone is saying the pass is closed and the authorities are turning everyone back. We stay an extra night in Tal with its pretty little waterfalls huge stonewalls to help deflect the flow of the river away from its little streets.
The next couple of days we walked between 10- 15kms per day, sometimes on steeply rising trails. Up to Danaqyu at 2200m, Chame -2710m and Upper Pisang -3310m where sitting on the rooftop of a Tibetan guesthouse, rugged up against the cold wind and enjoying a beer I was simply blown away by the views.
As you are walking, the scenery just kind of creeps up on you, because in the distance you can see the monstrous peaks of the Himalayas and then you round a bend and off to one side is an 8000m high peak, wind blowing the snow off the top like a giant triangular chimney stack.
Between each village we would encounter locals, sometimes with goods, sometimes seemingly wandering without purpose. Through the regular series of questions they will inform you –
‘Oh my brother/cousin has a hotel in that Village. I will call him and tell him you are coming. I’ll make sure he takes care of you.’
With tourists thin on the ground since the accident, many of the hotels we agreed to stay with were happy to waive the 300 -500 Rupee room charge if we agreed to eat our meals there.
A straw mat covered the dirt floor of the kitchen of my guest house and at night I would sit there eating Dal Bhat, warming my feet by the clay furnace, beneath hanging bunches of fragrant herbs, dried mushrooms and coils of cured meat.
Walking as a spiritual practice.
It is an extraordinary way to live, waking up everyday and putting on your boots and everything else you need on your back and heading off into the unknown. I mean, you have a destination on the map you’d like to get to but essentially you have no idea what you will encounter, what beauty awaits you.
It became an almost spiritual practice, a reflection on how life should be lived. Our mind often tells us that life is a series of tasks or events that must be completed in order to feel satisfied or happy. But this is a misconception. The satisfaction is in the doing and as I walked for hours, often in silence, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for the immensity of Mother Nature’s resplendence.
Just happy to be exactly where I was without wanting anything.
I stopped at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to chat about the Impermanence of life and admire richly decorated ancient Sanskrit texts.
Atop every hill, stupas in varying degrees of decay stood with the painted eyes of a deity observing the valley below. Locals either habitually or superstitiously turn every prayer wheel they pass and I adopt the custom running my palm across the raised copper ribs of Sanskrit letters at every opportunity.
Take out what you bring in
To combat the enormous amount of rubbish that people leave behind, a number of clean water stations are set up along the trail. For a small fee you can refill your water bottles or dromedary bag with fresh sterilized water, which frees you from having to chlorinate your own water as well as not contributing to the single use plastic epidemic. There are no garbage trucks in the Himalayas and all rubbish left behind ends up being buried there or burnt.
Also at various points along the trail are ACAP stations that check your trekking permit and stamp your TIMS permit so that you are free to continue on your journey. Each station would give us different degrees of advise. The pass is closed. The pass is open. It is closed now but should be clear by the time you get there.
In Upper Pisang (3,310m) Our Tibetan guesthouse still had no power due to the previous weeks storm and we encountered patches of snow as we made the steep ascent towards a medieval looking village called Ghyaru (3730m). Its cold stone buildings, many uninhabited were perched in a lonely and desolate part of the mountains. Above 3000m the air was noticeably colder and thinner. The landscape became rockier with less vegetation and as we approached our destination of Ngwal (3680m) that afternoon snow flurries surrounded us.
I hung out in the kitchen of our guesthouse while the host cooked dinner by his headlamp and chatted to a local goat herder who had taken refuge from the inclement weather.
The next morning the ground was covered in a thin white dusting of snow sparkling beneath a brilliant blue sky.
The end of the road
Manang at 3540m was in my mind our final destination. The road finishes here but the trail continues through a high mountain pass and the only way to transport goods from here to the other side is by helicopter or by Yak.
It’s a quaint little one street town where most trekkers stop to acclimatize and do side treks before attempting to cross the pass. There’s a couple of bakeries and a medical clinic as well as a yak fur bench seat picture theatre showing such inspiring films as ‘Into Thin Air’ – A film about an ill fated attempt on Everest
Whilst getting our permits checked though we were informed that barring any wild weather we were indeed free to cross the pass. The military were still looking for missing trekkers but it was unlikely they would find their bodies until the snow melted next spring.
More than 350 people had been caught in the blizzard and the eventual death toll would be 43, 175 injured. It’s widely regarded as Nepal’s worst-ever trekking disaster.
We were advised to stay in Menang for a couple of days, go to the free talk at the medical clinic about altitude sickness and keep our eye on the weather.
Unlike most of the people we had encountered coming down the trail, time was not a concern for us. We had opted for 45 day visas and could afford to have rest days and do side treks until we felt it was safe to continue. And now, apparently, it was safe to continue.
Well I guess I’ve come this far……..
To Be Continued……..