Month: October 2014

On the Up & Up: Annapurna Day 2

image Day 2 – Ghermu Phant – Tal

image Early the next morning we set out for the next village – Tal – in one basic, ongoing direction – up. Thakur, our guide, seeing us labouring uphills as we went, kept insisting it was okay we took a slow pace. “BISTARI BISTARI JAM”, was his ongoing refrain. Nepalese for “We go slow”. (It was only after we’d completed the trek when we asked him if we were the slowest people he’d had. “YES!”, he said, without wasting a breath).

After lunch the previous day, we started trekking with two Australian sisters. At the time, they had been going the same pace as the blunt-headed arrogant guy from Day 1, and I think were looking for a way out. They weren’t the only one. The guy had hired a guide to help him along the way with the route, and as he kept up his extraordinary demands to cover more ground, we’d watch his guide roll his eyes and purse his lips, before explaining a more moderate course.

Regardless of what course they chose, the blunt-headed guy wanted to get moving quickly – and so seeing an opportunity, the four of us stayed behind at lunch to allow them to conquer the trail at warp speed.

The sisters, whose names Thakur would pronounce as Makala (Michaela) and Saree (Shari) (which Rose and I would also occasionally address them as for fun) were first-time, never trekked in their life, let’s take this slow, kind of people – which, I think made a good fit with our “what-the-hell-did-we-get-ourselves-into” approach.

It was a match.

We ambled into our lunch spot, legs burning, exhausted, and watched some more goats click by: image As we gorged on the Nepalese staple – Momos – similar to a Chinese dumpling, we then stared at the gorge that awaited us after lunch: image It became a running joke: we’d frequently ask Thakur during a break on the trail or before we left off after a meal: “So, is it more up today. Or flat? Maybe down?” and every time, when it was bad news, he’d say it emphatically, with not a grain of sugar coating: “UP”. (which, of course is the general direction of the entire trek until about the tenth day when things come down the other side of the mountain. But we’d ask for what lay ahead of us in the next two hours – as the trail did go up and down).

Despite knowing what lay ahead, Rose put on a good face and we headed off: image One thing that kept me motivated to keep going was that I’d noticed : “Fields of Marijuana” (see the map above) was specified on the route on our way there. Fields? As in Cheech and Chong fields? While they weren’t the prairie fields that I’d imagined, there they were, dotting our route: image “Ganja is Nepali word”, Thakur tells us. Immediately I hear the Peter Tosh lyric in my head: “Sum a dem call it ganja!” Until 1973 it was legal to sell in Nepal. I can’t help think this was a big attraction for hippies who came here in the 60s, and helped add to Nepal’s image as a “peaceful” place where one can reflect on life, without having to take the Buddhist path (also an option in Nepal), which could mean sitting in a cold room, on a stone floor repeating a mantra in your head. Instead, people could smoke a joint and stare at a waterfall and let ideas flow.

Today, there is an illegal trade, mainly with Northern India – though, we had seen bags and clothes made from hemp, so it seems it might not all be used for personal prescriptions. Though we’d meet a group on the following day who were fully committed to that path. After the marijuana patch, the next big highlight on the map was something called “A Long Hot Climb”. An attraction no one was quite as excited about. We passed it by Thakur: “So, this long hot climb. How long? How hot?” “No. Different path. Ours is another one”. We each breathed a sigh of relief, but it was only a single breath. Quickly we realized we were heading upwards on our own version of a climb. image While unfortunately it wasn’t enough to warrant its own call out on a map, something like: “Hot and pretty friggin steep climb”, or “Seemingly neverending toil uphill”, it was enough that after we reached the welcome gates of the new village, Tal, we each celebrated in our own way: Makala and Saree calmly but with a twinge of exhaustion: “Is that it then? That’s the village?” and Rose, upon seeing the village, just slightly, every so slightly, more directly: “THANK FUCKING GOD!”. image The village was one of the first Buddhist villages we visited, showcased by a set of prayer wheels that lay in the middle of it. According to Buddhist tradition, you are meant to walk on the left side of the wheels so you can spin each one clockwise (to symbolize time as being circular). This one had 108 wheels, which is also the number of beads that the Buddhists in Nepal carry with them – a sacred number that I couldn’t get a clear answer on while we were there. Why not 107 or 109? image From what I’ve read it could be related to 108 statements that Buddha promulgated or 108 questions asked to Buddha – basically, I’m not entirely clear. But there they were, and we witnessed a woman who was walking around both sides of the wheels, making sure to spin each one as she also counted the beads in her hands.

As we’d walk by, Thakur, who is Hindu, would spin them and hum a Buddhist mantra: OM MANI PADME HUM, as he went. When we hit hard uphills after this, I thought if Thakur was willing to share in some Buddhist rituals as a Hindu, I was willing to take it on as an honourary member and would chant the mantra in my head to distract focus from my burning muscles.

But Tal would be the ultimate distraction for our sore muscles as it would be our stop for tonight, giving us time to do it all again tomorrow.

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Groundhog Day was settling in. Talk soon

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Annapurna: The Beginning

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Many people rate it as the best long-distance trek in the world for a number of reasons, namely: you pass through several ¬†districts of the country and get to see the different cultures along the way (particularly the shift from Hinduism in lower altitude to Buddhism in higher), you can stay overnight at teahouses/guesthouses which means you don’t have to carry food and tents, it doesn’t require any special training or extraordinary gear like oxygen, you can see clear views of massive mountain ranges including the Himalayas.

But the clincher for Rose and I were reading the following words in big bold letters during our research: SUITABLE FOR BEGINNERS.

In that phrasing of course, it doesn’t say it’s best for beginners, made for beginners or beginners only, but merely it “could work” for beginners. Regardless, it was more than enough to convince us. Having come off our dalliance with a volcano in New Zealand – we assumed that made us, at the very least, intermediate by now. I mean we didn’t fall into the volcano, twist an ankle, or become paralyzed with fear (jelly legs in parts, it’s true, but paralyzed? Phah)

However, our hubris wasn’t fully formed until we’d chatted with a pair of trekkers who we met in New Zealand. They had just come from Nepal, completed the Annapurna Circuit and were singing its praises. Nevermind that both were fit, and we were chatting with them in a state of euphoria after having just crossed the same volcano, and were vulnerable to suggestion.

The decision was made.

We then bought our hiking boots in New Zealand, which helped me feel a little more settled about the whole thing, not necessarily because the boots were good (they were), but because the store was called Kathmandu, along with the brand of boots. Thought it was a good sign, not only of how advertising plays expertly on anxiety (i.e. I’m going to Nepal, I buy a shoe with Nepal’s capital written on it = I’ll be fine), but of how intimidating the prospect was back then that I was latching on to anything for comfort.

The other decision we made was to forego the Circuit in June, which we’d initially considered. But after reading that rains were higher then, which meant Rose’s sworn enemy – leeches – might also have higher numbers, we opted to go during the drier season at the end of September, early October. Of course, all of this seems ridiculous to write about knowing of the huge storm that hit Nepal, leading to the avalanche while we were there – but even though these storms can happen during this season, on the whole, it still remains the best time to go.

Okay, so here’s how the trail works. The Circuit is easiest to do counterclockwise, according to the main image you see above. The reason for that is that this is what the terrain looks like:

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Counterclockwise helps you adjust to the altitude more gradually – though a few people do it the other way ¬†(people, in my estimation, who are such high achievers and so desperate for a new challenge that somehow limited oxygen supply is too gradual the other way, and would rather cut off their oxygen more drastically. This only makes me think they’re probably also frequent practitioners of auto-erotic asphyxiation.)

While all maps to the trek start from the village of Besisahar, the majority of trekkers now begin from the next village Bhulbhule, after a road was built, making that first stretch not as much fun to walk. That’s where our story begins:

Day 1 – Bulbhule – Ghermu Phant

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Rose and I piled off the bus, which we’d been on for seven hours and were itching to get going. We’d been in Kathmandu for three days prior, buying clothes from such esteemed outdoor brands as “Mammut and The SouthFace” – okay, I didn’t actually see the “South Face”, but though the name is the same “North Face” the quality is 1/3 as good, and the prices reflect that. We also decided to hire a guide/porter who could direct us along the way with some tidbits about the villages and sites, negotiate prices with guesthouse owners, plus help us carry some of our stuff.

In retrospect we could have carried it all ourselves, but would have been a lot more tired than we already were, and when it came to the steepest parts of the Circuit, I think it was a good decision.

Thakur (TA-KOOR) is his name, who became like a surrogate father, pointing out things to see, and avoid, plus made sure we were always eating enough:

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I was hoping we’d have a little bit of a walk ahead of us after we got off the bus, but it was all over within five minutes, after we crossed a bridge:

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we arrived in the village at our guesthouse, ordered dinner and met some of the fellow trekkers who were from all over the place: Spain, Ireland, U.S., Australia, and Germany. Unfortunately, at one point, we got stuck in conversation with a blunt-headed, arrogant guy who had the sensitivity of a crocodile from his quips to an Australian girl (who we’d later do all our trekking with) who after commenting on how steep the stairs of the guesthouse were, our charming man said: “Well, then why are you here on the Annapurna Circuit!”.

This was soon followed by a conversation about language and how he said that Canadian French from everything he’s heard from his European French friends was a mangled bastardization that no other French speakers around his world recognized as French. As Rose and my temper flared, I backed up French-Canada as best I could, while he then carried on with his guide saying he wanted to walk twice as many kms as planned – all of which he pronounced while wearing his trekking gear of choice, jeans.

He would be a regular topic on the trek between Rose and I and the two Australian sisters. Sometimes asking other trekkers if they’d seen or heard news of him. Amazingly, in a vote for karma, we learned from another trekker that he turned back early because of altitude sickness – which of course, seeing his overenthusiastic approach to wanting to cover twice as much ground, we’d all predicted (and, secretly hoped for, as long as it wasn’t life threatening). We all laughed out loud when we heard the news, which must have given the impression to the person telling us that we were complete monsters.

In any case, our real first steps on the Circuit would be the following morning. That night we fell asleep to the rushing water of the Marsyangdi river:

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which we’d follow for the first half of the trek, until it trickled out just before we hiked up to high altitude at Thorong La.

Morning time, we set off and started our gradual climb:

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getting curious looks from some ladies enjoying their morning coffee:

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The views were remarkable, especially for all of the water, and waterfalls, which stood in stark contrast to snow-capped mountains we’d soon see:

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After climbing up a big stretch, we experienced our first of many thuds of humility, when a young girl, maybe 6, walked past us on her way to school, carrying a backpack that was heavier than each of our daypacks. Not only that, but we also learned it’s a 1.5 hour walk, one-way – which she does everyday. We took in this information blinking out the sweat from our eyes, trying to appear unsurprised, as if we too knew such hardship.

Along the way, we also met some other trekking partners parrying for position on the trail:

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Or, stopping for a bite at a guesthouse:

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After 7 hours of walking, we eventually made it to our stop for that night; the village – Ghermu Phant:

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We enjoyed the luxury of a Western toilet in our room, which would be the last one until we went over the pass, and stretched out our legs in our room, groaning, both worried it wasn’t going to get easier. (It wasn’t).

Next stop, the village Tal and Timang, and the first introduction to some of the HIGH altitude vegetation.

20 days trekking in Nepal; 2 days of infamy in Canada

image “WE SURVIVED!”, Rose says, sitting next to me in a taxi. We’ve finished our 20-day trek around the Annapurna circuit and are on our way farther South to the laid-back, quiet town of Pokhara. Our plan is to stay there for two or three days holding an open audition to find the richest, fattiest foods we can gorge on, and sadists moonlighting as masseuses who have the skill to push their iron fingertips deep enough into our muscles to convince them, once and for all, there’s nothing more to worry about.

I look at Rose, and it still hasn’t sunk in. “20 days of 5-8 hour walks, cold sleeps, an altitude headache from reaching 17,500 feet, potatoes – potatoes -potatoes, a bloody toenail, a fiery hand from stinging nettle, foot blisters, balancing over crouch toilets on sore legs, watching rain fall for 27 hours straight huddled around a fire, lentils – lentils – lentils, gasping for breath at night because the air’s so thin, two knees absorbing seven hours of straight downhill, daily identity crises: “WTF am I doing here?, body stink – stink – stink, stepping in goat – yak – buffalo – cow – dog and sheep shit, showering from a bucket, and producing methane levels in sleeping bags that I’m sure could harm small animals.

I turn to her in disbelief: “Yeah, we survived.”. However, at that moment outside of our taxi, little did we know people weren’t quite so sure: image Our guide told us that same morning there was an avalanche at Thorong La pass – the highest spot on the Annapurna circuit at 17,500 feet. It was a gravel trail when we’d passed it five days earlier.

With electricity out, we spoke to everyone we could to find out anything we could – “20 dead and 150 missing?” “How many did you hear – 15 dead, 200 missing?”. Details were sketchy, but the significance was clear – there was a major tragedy, and even though Rose and I had emailed family back home after we’d safely passed the highest altitude, we both thought we had to reassure everyone, just in case they were worried.

And, as it turned out, they REALLY were:   image

Finally, after getting into Pokhara, finding a Wifi connection that wasn’t on an electrical fault line, we proved we were alive to family and seeing our faces across Canadian news sites thought also to pass it along to them:

image Reading about my possible death is as close as I’ve ever come to having an out of body experience. Rose and I have both talked back and forth about it, and the best I can explain it is that reading about us being lost was going from feeling sad that someone you cared about was lost then to panic that it couldn’t possibly be true, then followed by disbelief that “what if it was true?”, only to crash the whole party with logic after realizing I’m the story, and alive to read it.

Very strange. En tout cas, we are alive and well – and only hope Nepal’s trekking industry can continue to say the same. Right now from news reports there’s calls to tighten restrictions, get early weather warnings, and install other safeguards to help prevent what happened. I hope they do, because the truth is, while the trek was difficult in parts (i.e. let’s walk uphill for 4hrs straight!), there’s other sections where you can literally turn around and see this: image So, in the next few posts, I’ll get into our trek (once I’ve figured out how to get photos off a separate camera) including how the hell we even took part. Talk soon