Month: February 2015

Travel Books: Nepal

My eBook dependency ran out of room in Nepal – where WiFi is sparse, but also because I didn’t want to bring my Ipad on a 20 day trek (every lb on my back counted).

There’s plenty of bookstores in Kathmandu with used books, plus some along the Annapurna Circuit where you can trade in the latest one you finished. As a rule we each had one book at a time to keep the weight down, which got us through enough until we got to the next bookstore.

The funny thing, I thought, about a lot of the books available in Nepal are that they’re disaster based. Here most people are about to go on a trek, and as inspiration you can read about how people froze to death on Everest, died climbing up Annapurna massif or any other climbing calamity. Take your pick.

I chose more neutrally. Going with two pretty straightforward travelogues, another that had a poetic/spiritual dimension.

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Rose and I both met the author before travelling, but didn’t get our act together to buy his book from an accredited bookseller that, presumably, would pass him royalties from the sale. Instead we bought it in Kathmandu, where 80% of the books are photocopied reprints, meaning the money stays in the booksellers’ pocket. Not the author’s. Sorry, Andrew. In any case, it’s a good book, following the Circuit around, plus a sly, under-cover-of-darkness, trot into Upper Mustang – where, had he been caught, he’d risk a heavy fine at best. I read it as we walked on the Circuit and found it a really good primer on where we were next headed on the route. Definitely worth it if you’re trekking the Circuit.

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This follows the author on his trek through parts of the Annapurna Circuit, but primarily through Nepal on his way into Tibet, following his friend who is tracking snow leopards for research. He’d never done a trek of this magnitude, which I found immediately easy to relate to, as we were in the same boat on the Annapurna Circuit. I found his writing on how the trek unfolded, and the difficulties they faced in snow really interesting – especially his ranges into discussions on Buddhism. Another good one that offers some philosophical questions as you walk.

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Out of the Flying Circus into one for the BBC filming a series on the Himalayas. This is the companion book to the series that follows him through Nepal, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Bhutan tracking the mountains all along the way. I thought it was an easygoing read with plenty of time to empathize with his foibles along the way.

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The big come down (aka le End): Annapurna Day 20

COOLPIX S2800471We left for this in darkness.

1.5hrs later, 300 meters higher and hundreds more people, all was revealed: sunrise on parts of Nepal’s Himalayan range.

COOLPIX S2800437Poon Hill. This was the finishing touch to our trek: one last, closer view of the Himalayas before we got out of the mountains for good and laid down for a long rest. Needless to say, it was an incredible view in all directions:

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This included the view of all the people with us who were jostling for position to capture themselves at the best possible angle in front of the all the snowy peaks:

“Your head is in front of the mountain face. No! To the left. No, a bit more. Okay, good! That’s fine. Here we go”.

Poon Hill is a finishing point for other trekking routes as well as the Annapurna Circuit, which means there were a lot of ecstatic people, celebrating their own peak trekking moment that included pats on the back, some misty eyes, and a lot of smiling faces.

We spoke with some people who were fulfilling a lifelong wish to be in this spot, while others were no less excited as they agonized over their light meter readings and the condition of their telephoto lens to help them craft their definition of an award-winning photo.

Amazingly, the one thing I didn’t see was a hustler selling a balloon blowup of the Himalayan range, T-shirts with the same, or offering photos transferred onto mugs. In these circumstances in North America, it’s widely recognized as common courtesy to give people an outlet to transmute their emotions into a commercial transaction. And yet not even a single pin was for sale with sayings like: “I found my thrill on Poon Hill.”

Banksy would be duly impressed. Or he might have just sold T-shirts: “Poon Hill is not my shill” to impress us even more with his ironic commentary?

Despite the joyful atmosphere on the hill, now it was the “must come down” part of the trek. And, unfortunately, we had a long way to go. Much like our plunge from Thorung La to Muktinath, we’d be jumping a couple of thousand metres downwards. : 2123 in all, over the course of the afternoon.

We set off on the knee-punishing escapade, and after only an hour, started our heavy regimen of taking breaks, which would invariably coincide with Nepalese going uphill doing things like this:

COOLPIX S2800481I was standing comfortably on a cushiony insole and one inch of rubber below that. Now notice what they’re wearing on their feet.

It was amazing.

We carried on with our knee grind downhill by ourselves, as Thakur, worn down not by the walk so much as our slowness, walked ahead at a pace that he could bear. With all our stopping, it’s fair to say we didn’t even register a pace, but more a series of false starts. Go for five, stop for 10. Go for five, stop for 15.

Our rest time increased as the sun came out and we scrambled for shade wherever it was hiding. During one shade break, we noticed something even crazier than someone carrying chickens on their back uphill in the punishing sun with sandals on their feet: an American family walking uphill with a 6 year old and 4 year old.

Currently they were managing a meltdown with their youngest daughter who was sitting down, head in her hands saying:

“I’m hungry! I’m hungry! How much farther?!!”.

I couldn’t believe it: parents had the patience and stamina to do this with kids who, because of their small legs, were in their own predicament as they would not quite be able to make it up each step without jumping a little.

As we both sat there, not really believing our eyes the mother asked us: “Do you know how much farther it is to a restaurant up hill?”.

It was at least an hour, and maybe more depending on how slow they were going. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. Everyone looked so wasted and worn out, I said:

“Not too far. Maybe half an hour?”. A white lie, granted, but I thought it might offer some element of hope.

After that moment, as we passed this Swiss Family Robinson on our way down, I’d never felt better about our prospects of being able to finish. But first we broke for lunch: eating massive amounts of dhal bhat, which Rose and I realized would probably be the last lentil we’d see for a while: as we’d both been having steady dreams of devouring ribs, steaks, chickens, and all manner of other beast.

Donkeys, however, were not on the list. While we neared the end of the trek, we saw a pack of them coming downstairs:

COOLPIX S2800482As they trotted past, we both noticed one donkey with an open wound on its belly where the strap was attached (not the one above). The rubbing of the strap had broken the donkey’s skin, which was awful to see, and worse was imagining the donkey having to carry on in pain. While it was nice to think the donkey would be relieved of duty, it was unlikely given their value to traders: so was probably more realistic to hope the trader would patch him up enough to make his walk a little easier.

It was not the first or last injured animal we saw in Nepal or elsewhere in other countries in Southeast Asia. Where many people are living hand-to-mouth, and are themselves in bad health, it’s understandable that animal welfare is obviously going to be much lower down the list of concerns. However, it was still hard to see animals limping or nursing another injury.

And yet there are NGOs devoted entirely to street animals in Southeast Asian countries. While it’s a nice thought, I also find it pretty baffling. I love animals, but here’s a developing country where humans have shortened life expectancy, and you want to improve the quality of life for a street dog?

This was made even stranger by sights in Indonesia and India where, as a show of wealth and status, some residents wandered around with dogs on a leash as pets while, on the same sidewalk, street dogs scurried past them.

Okay, enough of that there eh. We have a trek to finish.

And it did in stages. First it started with a sign Rose and I passed on the route:

COOLPIX S2800484Then the final stage, two hours later. Here was the finish line, festooned with prayer flags.

COOLPIX S2800485Once across, we got in a taxi waiting for us, and sat stunned from the realization that we didn’t have to walk anymore.

20 days, 1000s of calories burned, and one patchy beard that looks like it belongs on a 15year old:

IMG_3512We were done. Ca suffit.

Au revoir.

The day before last: Annapurna Day 19

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This had been completely invisible. Hidden behind a wall of rain and cloud the day before.

It was as if a window blind had been lifted. The extra heat was also welcome, not least to warm up from the last 26hrs of cold, but to dry the path, much of which had turned to mud.

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On this morning we first heard rumours about an avalanche. Thakur had been in touch with his sister in another part of Nepal who had explained there were hundreds of people missing at the top of the Circuit. Rose and I were both shocked: we’d been there five days earlier, and the conditions were amazing. Now we worried someone we knew might be among the missing. (Little did we know.)

It hung over our walk for the day, and many of the trekkers we passed or ran into would ask:

“Did you hear about the avalanche”,  followed by questions about whether we knew any more details.

Hearing of the avalanche higher up, I began to worry about landslides for us. It was known to happen from time to time in this area: two days before, Thakur had pointed out a scar on a big hill where a massive chunk of land had separated from a mountain and slid down hill.

We soon walked past evidence of the storm with branches broken all over the path plus mudslides, of which this was probably the biggest:

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The walk was also difficult for its own reasons: namely, heading 700meters higher in altitude to a village, Ghorepani, that was at 2860metres. After a day’s rest of dancing, popcorn and what felt like bottomless bowls of dhal bhat, we expected to be primed for a climb.

In reality, we had more in common with this dog:

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As before on past climbs, we entered into a shuffle step approach where we rested 2 minutes for every 20 steps we took. Unfortunately, as the day endured the sun didn’t – making it an overcast slog that alternated between humid and cold.

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Regardless, it was a pretty walk, strolling through forests before eventually making it up the last climb that took us into Ghorepani, where, incredibly we seemed to be some of the first trekkers who’d arrived.

It was really not that amazing, since we had left from a village that was only four hours away, but it felt like an enormous victory, given that we were walking uphill as gingerly as if we’d had hip replacements.

Having first dibs on accomodation, Rose and I hustled around the various guesthouses until landing on one that was hard to believe: en suite bathroom (which – though that’s what it was – seems weird to refer a place where plywood acts as both wall and insulation and a thin, dank mattress rests on top of a two-by four bedframe as a suite) but it did the trick, because all was forgiven for the big benefit: ladies and gentlemen, please welcome hot, scalding mother’fukin water!

Yes, I know I previously said the best shower of my life was after the Pass. And that’s true. I won’t go back on that. But this thing lost by a blackhead on a nose tip.

For the next seven minutes, 2 minutes longer than is normally recommended for conservation, I tossed my head around in the water with the rapture of a long haired woman in a shampoo commercial.

Dear the Environment,

I’m very sorry for those extra two minutes – despite going overtime, I feel like I used them as wisely as I could, restoring myself back to a positive mindset that was able to refrain from repeatedly asking the question: What the fuck am I doing here?    

Sincerely,

Marc

PS.  I’ve since cut a shower short in Canada by two minutes to make up for it. I hope you understand.

After we dipped back into sanity, Rose and I went to the restaurant where we chatted with other trekkers who soon began to look at us with wide eyes, after we explained how long we’d been going. Most were just starting a trek, one or two days in of maybe a 6 day total trek, so inadvertently, Rose and I held court as wizened veterans: speaking with people who from our standpoint, still had energy.

Knowing the end was nigh, I went to bed that night feeling a bit wistful, reviewing how far we’d come, and all the difficulties we’d faced.

I drifted off to sleep, feeling pretty proud of ourselves – temporarily forgetting about the next day.

A day that would start early, and feel like it would never end.

Next: the finale.