Month: February 2015

Come again another day: Annapurna Day 17-18

laundry

Many days Rose and I were a clothes rack. We each had about three different wardrobe changes in all, one of which (and usually parts of another) would be drying on our backs during the day.

Since we’d be leaving a village everyday, it meant every afternoon that we arrived in a new village, our first task would be doing laundry – and our second task would be hoping there was enough sun left in the day or enough wind to dry things by morning.

On the whole, things would dry okay, but the weather didn’t always cooperate, which on those days meant we walked around looking like a costume shop. Still we had really good luck with our portable clothes racks: often having sun beam down on us all day so that our stuff would usually be dry by lunchtime or early afternoon.

Today, however, was not one of those days. The weather was humid and heavy, plus there was another difference. Since the big climb up to Thorung La, our treks had all been varying descents in altitude. Leaving Tatopani for the next leg meant we’d be going uphill, pretty much all day from 1190metres to 1700 or higher.

We’d booked a rest day in Tatopani to frolic in the hot springs some more, and relax. But after touring the town, Rose and I both wanted to keep going – largely because we didn’t want to prolong the trek any longer than we had to (we were both getting worn out and itchy for the finish), and, while the hot springs were neat – there wasn’t much else.

So, we changed plans after breakfast, and decided to set off, once again following that all too familiar direction- UP.

We came upon this group right at the start and were invited to get ahead of them, which I’m not sure was so much a kind gesture as it was setting us up as a case study to test the sturdiness of the bridge.
donkey
Much like the one we bounced across the previous day: this bridge wasn’t well reinforced, with big gaps in between the foot boards. Regardless, we got across okay – at which point I turned back to witness, what I was sure was going to be a donkey slaughter (need a band name? by all means take that one).

But I didn’t take into account that these asses were pros. They skittered across the floorboards as if playing hopscotch and made their way up the hill without a single: “Hee – Ha”. By this point I probably should have been used to donkeys doing what, again and again to me seemed extraordinary theatrics, but was obviously commonplace stage work.

Aside from my donkey fanclub, there was not a whole lot else pleasant about the hike. The views, of course, remained incredible:

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It was moreso the humidity coupled with a climb in altitude that made the day a complete slog – this is a rare shot of Rose looking back, as if to say: “Are you coming?”, when the reality was more a return to her pre-Thorong method of walking ten steps followed by a rest, then start again:

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With all the stop/starting it gave us a chance to appreciate the surroundings some more – when I realized we had once again entered what had to be voted one of High Times magazines favourite spots on earth:

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There was weed growing everywhere – and just in case it wasn’t obvious enough, we passed a man smoking weed from a pipe while wearing a tuque with a marijuana symbol on it. It was such a bludgeoned statement that I couldn’t sort out why he wanted to be so crystal clear about what he was doing – Thakur then said:

“He’s a mountain guru”.

I passed the guru and gave him a nod and smile, not sure if “guru” meant he’d help me get really, really, really high until I felt like it was a spiritual experience or he was a dealer, and didn’t want anyone to be confused by approaching somebody else who wasn’t wearing a marijuana tuque.

In any case, we left him to his pipe, and slogged on until we noticed rain starting to fall. Initially we’d planned to get to a village, 200 metres higher uphill, but reasoned we’d see it the next day.

Little did we know, the only thing we’d see the next day was a lot of rain, Nepalese dance, folk musicians, and a drunk host.

Day 18: It’s raining, it’s pouring – Ghara 1700 metres

We went to bed to heavy rain the previous night. This morning, the only difference was daylight. The rain was torrential: I’d never seen rain come down as heavy and as consistently as it did.

Hoping for the best, Thakur, Rose and I agreed if it stopped by noon we’d set out for our next stop. The hours passed. The rain stayed. We weren’t going anywhere. So, guesthouse bound, we alternated between naps, card games, and reading books.

Apart from not being able to go anywhere, the other major downside was that it got really cold. By mid afternoon Rose and I were in our sleeping bags wearing thermal underwear and the majority of all our cold weather gear, which we had suited up in at the highest altitude.

There was a tiny restaurant area at the front side of the guesthouse which also had a wood furnace. As the owners began to realize the rain wasn’t slowing down, they lit the furnace for guests to warm up. Hearing this rumour, we emerged from our tomb, and made our way into the main part to hopefully warm up.

It was then we met a pair of traveling, Nepalese musicians: who we chatted with for a bit, as best we could, until they decided they’d play a number for us called “Resham Fillili”.

It was a catchy tune, which we’d picked up from Thakur and another guide previously on the Circuit – and sang along.
Unfortunately, we had few common words between us: so our conversations were essentially miming back and forth. Whether or not it came out of our mimed conversation or not, the musicians decided to play “Resham Fillili”” for the remainder of the night, occasionally changing the tempo and varying the arrangement, but the chorus stayed the same.
Quickly, a recognizable, innocuous little ditty turned into a torture instrument, as they restarted it again and again, leaving Rose and I singing through our teeth. As the rainy day progressed, a few wet trekkers stopped in: one group was a pair of Germans, and another was four Polish guys. We all chatted around the furnace, as they all hung their wet clothes on the metal, and commented on the unrelenting rain.

Of course this rain, unbeknownst to us at the time, was at the same moment, a snowstorm on Thorung La pass. Now with the electricity out with no access to local news on the guesthouse’s TV set, we were now literally in the dark.

Our host, seeing the crowd forming, cracked open some local booze and became MC and songsmith, taking on “Resham Fillili”” with a drunken vengeance. Then, singing didn’t prove to be enough, and he started dancing in the middle of the hut, eventually prodding Thakur to come up and show off his dance moves. Of which, Thakur has plenty. He was a slick dancer who started a domino effect by then inviting a German woman to dance followed by her German son: who was about 6’5 and 250lbs.

It was a hilarious site. But I wouldn’t stay a bystander for long. The drunken MC was reaching at people’s arms to get up and dance with him, Thakur or really anyone willing to “Resham Fillili”” (which for a drunk song, couldn’t get much better. The words already sound a bit slurred, and can roll off the tongue quite easily. Maybe that’s why it’s popular?). So, rather than lay victim to the punishing sounds of a Nepali folk song on repeat, I danced to it.
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You’d be forgiven for thinking I was learning Nepalese mime or the art of the Nepalese ninja, given my black ensemble. But, lo and behold, that is my flailing version of Nepalese dance purely inspired by trying to imitate whatever the hell Thakur was doing.

And what of Rose you may ask?

She was a Sword in the Stone, who wouldn’t budge for anything, not least of which was for my intricately choreographed dance routine, that I’d so carefully rehearsed on instinct and ignorance.

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Sadly, Thakur didn’t have many dance partners to join him apart from the drunken MC who kept pulling him up to dance. This may explain his glum face above. Though when he hit the floor, his expression quickly changed:

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The dancing went on for a while until we noticed a break in the rain. After going out to have a look, it felt like a trap, because an instant later the rain carried on at full bore once again.

Eventually, the party finished, which was a bit disappointing since we didn’t get to battle raps or breakdancing. Nevertheless, we endured a ‘Resham Fillili” assault that would transition into my dreams that night.

Waking up the next morning, I thought I was still dreaming. Not so much from the echoing, though receding, sounds of “Resham”, but because of another key development: no rain.

26hrs later. It was time to move on.

Next stop Ghorepani and our next to last night before the finish.
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Hot water: Annapurna Day 16

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I watched this happen with the same anxiety that I imagine a nervous parent might watch his child bike for the first time.
My primary thought with gritted teeth was:
“Argghhhh”
plus a little:
“Easy buddy.” and when the jeep lurched towards the edge: “EASY BUDDY! (as if saying it louder in my mind would help them)

We were an hour into our hike from Ghasa and had stumbled upon a spectacle. People on foot had formed a crowd watching what would become of the next jeep to cross the waterfall. Even passengers waiting their turn to get wet in their car got out to see how people were doing up ahead, which admittedly may have been less about entertainment, and more assessing techniques to improve their odds at success.

Of the vehicles crossing, amazingly this jeep above was on the small side. We saw a bus go across with a full load of passengers, and watched it bounce from side-to-side across the rocks while uncoincidentally, at the same moment, my testicles bounced: but straight upwards, at the thought of being one of its passengers.
I’d had enough of Nepal buses, and the idea of getting on one now masquerading as an amphibious all-terrain vehicle was nauseating. Had I been on one, I think my only hope would have been to get knocked unconscious from all the side to side rocking, and far from being upsetting, blacking out would have been just right for the situation.
Regardless of my gloomy thoughts, the jeep and its brave passengers in this story, thankfully moved on to a happy ending:
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After sticking around to watch other drivers dip their front tires delicately into the water, then bump up and down across the water, hoping for the best, I’d occasionally spy someone in the back seat of one of the jeeps with eyes wide staring down at the edge on their left – or completely covering their eyes to pretend it wasn’t there.

In other words, I was looking for myself. And after playing out enough vivid scenarios where each car pitched over the edge, I really didn’t like what I saw.

It was time to move on. While not quite as death defying as the jeeps we watched, our bridge had its own perils thanks to uneven blocks of wood that bowed as we put our weight on them – making it feel more like a trampoline than gangway:

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We bounced across without a problem, and kept our sights on our next stop Tatopani – which in Nepalese means “Hot water” so named for its hot springs. Its billed as the spa portion of the trek where hikers can loll about in a natural hot tub and rest up for a couple of days before the last push to the finish.

Last night after falling into Ghasa completely wiped out from an extra 2hours walking: I’d have paid twice the going rate to soak in a hot tub, which I’m sure, based on how exhausted I felt, would have also meant falling asleep in it.

Today, however, the sun was out and hot:

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While I was happy at the thought of sitting and relaxing for a time: hot water wasn’t necessarily in mind.

Ironically, everyone’s temperature would rise long before water had anything to do with it. First, an explanation.

Thakur, as our guide/porter, also brokered deals with the guesthouses where we stayed. This meant ensuring we had a good room, seconds and thirds of dhal bhat, access to hot water showers (when they existed), and generally doing everything in his power to cover all our needs.

I thought he was amazing. He was constantly on top of everything even suggesting food to eat: “Momos aren’t enough. Eat Dal Bhat too: you’ll need the power today”. Plus when you reached hour 5 of an 8 hour day and wanted to sit down for the rest, he’d be encouraging with a positive outlook, making it much easier to keep moving.

The first thing we saw of Tatopani was a guesthouse that marked the beginning of town. As Thakur wandered in to speak with the owner, Rose and I were both unsure, thinking we’d rather find a spot farther into town. Tal, who was also still with us, felt the same.

We saw the rooms, and they were nice: but the place felt isolated from the rest of the town and there didn’t appear to be any fellow trekkers there. Considering the deal with guesthouses was that you had to eat dinner and breakfast at them, it meant we’d have to stay here, and forego the chance, in our minds, of running into more trekkers.

There were times when guesthouses were filled with trekkers and it was too much, while other times it was much less packed, and sometimes hardly anyone. I think all of us felt we wouldn’t have minded some company.

As we explained this to Thakur, he got upset. Not because we wanted to look at a different guesthouse so much – but that he felt Tal was the mastermind behind it who was undermining our connection with him:

“Fine. You do whatever he says. You go where you want.”

Of course, Rose and I were now equally upset that we’d given Thakur the impression that he was redundant, and had been ousted in importance – which was obviously not the case.

Only now, with some distance, can I see it more as a telenovella. But at the time, I was really upset by it: and Rose too – eventually we sorted things out, after a long chat with Thakur – and smoothed things over.

After all the upset, we decided to clear the air and explore Tatopani a bit, just Thakur, Rose and I. And the main show in town, of course was its namesake: the hot springs.

And it was there, after a nice relaxing soak that followed a big blow up and a long conversation ironing out misunderstandings and hurt feelings that Thakur, unexpectedly put his arm around me and I unwittingly brought the day full circle, reacting as calmly as if I were watching a busload of passengers cross a waterfall:

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Nothing says friendship like anxiety. Clearly my nerves were still on edge.

Next stop 26hours of straight rain in a tiny village, which was a snowstorm at the highest part of the Circuit – Thorung La pass – where we came from five days earlier, and would later become Nepal’s biggest trekking tragedy to date.

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.