Pioneers for a morning: Annapurna Day 15

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It’s morning. Rose, Tal and I are eating breakfast while picking sand and sleep from our eyes.

“You guys want to take the alternate trail?”, Tal suggests.

A few years ago, Nepal finished construction on a road that cut through the original trekking trail. It was part of a larger infrastructure project to connect Nepalese to each other more easily, rather than having someone hike hours to trade or see a friend or relative.

Makes sense. But for trekkers, who intentionally want to take their time walking through the countryside, it means having to contend with traffic and clouds of dust that gets into everything.

Mouths especially.

As I hear Tal’s proposal, I also hear the distinctive grind of sand on my molar – a leftover from the previous day’s sandblast storm. Rose is already on board with the idea, and now scraping my tongue against the sand to get it out, it’s an easy decision:

“Let’s do it”, I reply.

Thakur was unenthusiastic. “I spoke to other guides, and there’s rockslides on the trail. Not easy.”

The alternative was this: dress up as bandits by tying scarves around our nose and mouth with sunglasses to protect our eyes against the swirls of dust on the road, walk in silence for hours to avoid inhaling anything, and dodge buses, jeeps and motorbikes hurtling along who announce their presence with horns that sound like an angry version of an air raid siren.

“We’ll be okay. Let’s give it a shot”, – which in movie terms was the equivalent of the main characters saying: “C’mon. What could possibly go wrong?”.

The alternative trail started off promising. Very promising. In comparison to the dust choking road – it was Eden, with apple orchards to match:

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Thakur even seemed happy about it as he shook off some apples for us and stowed some for himself in his own pack. Things were fine, Rose and I thought: Thakur had just never taken this route, and was suspicious of the unknown.

As we hiked, our hunch became written in stone as we passed through pine forests with nice views of the Kali Gandaki (photo at the very top)
We were pioneers!, I thought. We’d discovered something entirely new, and couldn’t understand why more people didn’t take this way. On our right we saw a bridge across the river that led to a nearby town, which we could see farther down the road.

If we played our cards right, we’d keep the town on our right as we followed the river all the way along to a further village.

But here’s the thing: Rose and I are pretty shitty card players.

As we walked onto the dry river bed looking for an entrance to the next portion of the alternative trail, I don’t know who spotted it first, but I did see Thakur’s smile disappear. There it was: a rock slide.

For most trekkers, this would be a problem. For us? This wasn’t a rock slide. It was a group of rocks piled close together. While we applied our best PR language to it: Tal was busy consulting his trail guide, which included a written piece on each section of the alternate trail.

In the glossary section for “rockslide” it said this: “a pile of rocks to bypass and pick up the trail from somewhere else.” – or at least, that’s how we paraphrased it to fit nicely into what we did next.

Tal’s guide started combing the edge of the forest that met the river bed, looking for an opening to climb up and forge our alternative to the alternative trail. He spotted an opening and climbed up eventually reaching the next patch of trail. We soon joined him, and resumed our walk in the woods.

While it stayed reasonable for a while, the level of difficulty skyrocketed as we came upon a cliff ledge two feet wide, and a drop to the river below of, probably, one hundred feet.

Shit.

Rose and I stared at the rock face on the left and shuffled past: my legs only regaining their full strength as we turned the corner and saw the trail widen to a normal, safer width. While the proximity to the edge was pretty freaky: it did give us a nice view of the town across the way:

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We trekked another five minutes until each of us admitted we’d rather cut our losses than keep going and risk the chance of having the trail named after one of us who had fallen off the edge.

“Ahh, you’re taking Voyer’s pass. It’s a tough walk, but the views are great!” – a guide’s conversation with trekkers in 15 years.

Thakur was ecstatic at our realization that we weren’t pioneers, and from his smile, looked like he was ready to skip back.

Unfortunately, we had a long way to go. That bridge we passed on the trail was way off in the distance, (right in the middle of the photo where the forest meets the water):

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We made it to the road an hour and a bit later – which put us about 2 hours behind. Dressed up looking like we were now train robbers, we eventually gave up and flagged a bus down to help make up time, but moreso to get out of the dust.

What followed was one of the most uncomfortable, jangly, turbulent bus rides I’ve ever taken. Rose managed to find a seat at the back, which worked out nicely for a while, until she realized the woman directly behind her was vomiting.

I stood because the bus was already full, which I thought wasn’t such a bad thing because it might help reduce the chance of being sick. However, the side-to-side rocking of the bus had another unfortunate side effect: I was repeatedly banging my head against the bag rack on my right followed by a shot to the temple from the rack on the left.
The good news was that I did reduce the chance of puking from motion sickness, the bad news was that I may have only put it off a few hours when, after all my head banging, the effects of a massive concussion might set in.

Thankfully I got rid of the head beatings by being offered a spot behind the driver, facing the passengers. Here’s how comfortable that was:

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There was no more chance of concussion, but now with no great spot to hang on, I was being thrown around like a tether ball – while having a front row seat to the high wire act of what driving in Nepal can be like.

Out the bus door I could see, what looked like a foot or two to the edge of the road, which dropped straight down over the edge – much like we experienced on the trail earlier. I told myself at least if we went over, this time we’d have a cage around us (the bus chassis) – that had to be better, I thought.

Every twist and turn I gritted my teeth as the bus leaned towards the edge as if it was ready to jump, only to sway back to the right towards the rock wall. After an hour of seesawing between fates, we got off the bus pick up the trail to Ghasa.

It took us a minute or two to walk in a straight line, as if we were getting off a ship that had just passed through a storm. Thankfully the trail was a nice stroll from green fields on the right:

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To greener pastures on the left, middle, and up and down:
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Weed was also everywhere and enormous:
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Tempting as it was to soften the blows from the rest of the day, we were all exhausted, and would have likely fallen asleep on the trail if we chose to smoke- so we pushed on, eventually getting to our stop for the night: Ghasa.

And it was there, mercifully, we put this entire day to rest.
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