Marpha

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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The sand blows and a toe goes: Annapurna Day 14

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The previous day’s walk was a saunter in comparison to Thorung La, and today was no different: the steady, even ground once again paired nicely with our sore legs.

This time around we joined up with Tal – a German trekker who we had previously synced up with on the trail – and had helped coin the group of weed smoking and weed seeking Australian guys we ran into a few days prior as “The Dudes”.

While he was managing his own bag fairly well, what may have been heavier baggage for Tal was his growing worry about germs and unhygienic food preparation. It was a fair point. The thought of being struck with food poisoning on top of an already physically demanding route was awful.

But apart from ensuring you dropped chlorine tablets in your water and wait the prescribed 30 minutes before drinking it, the rest was out of our hands. You could only hope your dhal bhat was boiled beyond bacteria, and even at that, it was something I preferred not to dwell on.

Unfortunately for Tal it colonized his thoughts – admitting this was the first time he’d traveled in a developing country, and that he was his own worst enemy, compiled with worry. He said he knew he had no control over it, yet there it sprang out at him everytime he sat down for food: “Is this the dish that’s gonna get me?”.

I’m afraid of flying, and empathize with anyone who has anxiety over anything – it can be frustrating as hell to grapple with, particularly knowing that you’re doing it to yourself, and hold both the lock and key to the problem.

On this morning as we were taking a break on the walk, Tal caught up to us with a worried look on his face:

“Did anybody eat the momos last night?”, he said.

I had eaten them and felt okay, which made me wonder if it was something else.

“Did you have tea? Maybe it was the tea”, I suggested, sympathizing with him, but also realizing it could equally have been his anxiety tying his stomach in knots.

As he turned over the possibility in his mind, I took a swig of water and it tasted exactly how I hoped: like a swimming pool, which with Tal sorting out his own woes, was a welcome assurance that, at least today, water wouldn’t be my assassin.

After swallowing down my early dose of chlorine, we all hiked on, passing this massive rock etching:

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which, I think is a Buddhist chant saying: “Om. Mani. Padme. Hum”, but tell me otherwise if not.

Soon after, we encountered a formidable foe – WIND.

Gusts. Gales. We were in an impromtu wind tunnel. And facing the wrong way.

To add to the fun, sand joined the ouragan, which if you wanted to remove a tattoo on your neck, face or hands would have been incredibly helpful. Without, however, the force of the sandblasting just stung all over. The only possible upside was that it provided some justification for why I was carrying a 500mL bottle of moisturizer on my back as part of our weight – which, after our sandstorm battering would also act as spackling, filling in the microscopic divots on our faces.

Eventually we trundled into Jomson for a break – a mid-size town with ATMs, bus terminals and one of these:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tk_iqurvDM0

As we watched planes take off and careen over our heads, twisting their flight path to head between mountains on either side, I surpassed Tal’s worry with my own, thinking how happy I was to be on the ground.

Nevermind I was busy spitting sand out of my mouth and exfoliating the inside of my nostrils as I blew my nose. At that moment looking at the planes wending their way through the hills, which I now thought resembled more paper airplanes as they shifted and dropped according to each gust, to truly cap off our shifting roles, Tal said:

“That looks fun!”.

And, I swallowed harder than normal, saying a bit shakily: “Yeah. Great”. Hello anxiety, my old friend.

It was also here that I sent an email to my sister and family, which I thought was innocuous at the time, but would become the last, fateful communication they’d get from me until I had Wifi reception in a few days to reassure them we were not close to the Nepal avalanche (arriving in two days).

It read:

Hey tout le monde, 

Just want to say we’re ok – we’re past the high altitude worries and are safe on the other side of the mountain, finishing the second half of the trek. 

Anyhow Wifi is a bit spotty, but will get in touch when we have something better. 
Hope everyone is well. 

Love Marc

In it I hadn’t specified where we were, which might have made things a little clearer, though ironically at the time (not knowing a deadly avalanche was en route) I thought too much detail just seemed extraneous – i.e. Is it really relevant that I say I’m in Jomson? Who cares?

Obviously a much different picture standing now in the future, but there you go.

We hung about in Jomson for a bit, the girls getting information on their bus tickets, while I admired all of the Indian tourists arriving who were headed to Muktinath for a pilgrimage. As they got off their planes and loaded up in jeeps, I lacked any compassion or understanding, thinking instead – “Whatta bunch of wimps! Fairweather travelers. We walked that. And you just fly in, la-dee-da “.

Ignore the fact that many of the travelers were elderly, not everybody had the luxury to take 12 days to get to a place, and I had elected to walk in Nepal as sport.

Go on. Ignore those clearly winning arguments. I did for a whole five minutes, until reality won out.

The remaining walk was also straightforward with nothing exciting until we arrived in Marpha and were settled into our guesthouses.

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Here’s what happened. We kept crisscrossing this guy on our walks who reminded me of some guys I would see on a ski hill in Canada: guys who show up with no proper outdoor ski gear nor real skill, but get on the toughest mountain anyway carrying only enthusiasm and a big smile.

This particular guy was a guide who had the same carefree, who-gives-a-shit spirit, and had worn a variation of the same outfit for the past two weeks: a tye-dyed tank top and shorts all the way through below freezing temperatures.

Whenever I saw him he always had a big grin, or if he didn’t it was right under the surface.

Okay – so here we are, now in Marpha, walking the streets, and guess who shows up in front of us. Once again his tye-dyed tank top and shorts are on display and his slightly pudgy face and body made him seem like a Nepalese doppleganger for Sammy Hagar. I half expected him to be holding a bottle of tequila.

As I spot him, I get excited and turn around to tell the girls about this guy who I’ve seen along the route, observing him, but had never, until this point talked about. It was like spotting Santa Claus: I was so happy. But in my jubilation I took my eyes off where I was walking: so when the girls asked: “Which guy?”, and I spun around to show them:

CRACK.

My toe connected with a raised stone on the path.

I howled.

It hurt, and I knew it was bad. I looked at my sock, and saw the blood stains forming on my toe. As it happened we were on our way for an afternoon tea and apple pie (a Marpha specialty of which we’d see the real thing the following day), and I didn’t want to look at it until afterwards.

So, after having a cup of tea and a bite, I peel off my sock and there it isn’t: a portion of my big toenail is gone, now replaced with blood. Great. But the consolation was that, at that moment, I looked up and look who’s walking in:

The tye-dyed guy!

I look at him smiling, while holding my toe. I couldn’t believe it. He smiles back not really knowing how happy I was to see him at that point. While I wouldn’t do it over for the sake of seeing him at that exact moment, it did, in some way, make it a little easier to manage.

My real concern now was how was I going to walk in my boots, which no matter how much I try to temper my steps, I will hit them against rock, and in turn my toe will hit the inside of the boot, not making it an easy stroll.

Eventually I figured out that a Band-aid and a lot of duct tape would work, and became my go-to cushion for the remaining few days.

As we sat that night in the restaurant of our guesthouse, playing cards, a group of bikers came in, which from the sounds of it were – American, Australian and I think German. Not cyclists. These were guys who were taking motorbikes across Nepal and maybe as feeling pumped up about themselves as I was seeing tourists come off planes in Jomson – seemed to feel pretty proud of themselves, and wanted to celebrate their awesomeness.

They ended up drinking and getting louder, and louder, all answering each other in a tone that suggested they had all the answers, and really, life was just a mere distraction to use up before they died.

Now beer bottles littering their table, they ordered hard booze to match the hard rock on their portable stereo: and while I can’t remember the specifics, they kept coming up with outlandish claims about things like:

(this isn’t what they said. only examples of the craziness)

“I know a guy who can time travel, Bud.!”

“It’s weird. Somehow I can drive much easier drunk here!”.

“My cousin knew Michael Jackson!”

It was hilarious. And became the soundtrack to our night and, sadly, the Australian sisters last night, who were heading off via bus the following day.

Off we went to bed, as I heard the American guy say to someone else: “Nonesuch Records! As in, none such bullshit, man!”.

Aah, the sweet lullaby.

Next stop off roading – as we manage to walk way off course – and hitch a ride to make up for the time.

Goats and Glory: Annapurna Day 13

COOLPIX S2800336“I’m going to Disneyland!”.
What North American athletes say in the moments after they’ve won their sports’ coveted trophy, was my first waking thought this morning.
Our Circuit was over in my mind. We’d achieved what we were here for: walked to the highest altitude we’d likely ever reach in our lifetime. From here on out, the rest kind of seemed anticlimactic.

Of course we were nowhere near done. We had another seven days. While we might not experience the same altitude again, to paraphrase Yoda: ahead much hardship we would see.

But that can wait. For now, we kicked off our first post-Thorung La day with an easy, four hour stroll into the Mustang district of Nepal that followed a flat road, safe enough for any car to pass. Thankfully we didn’t see any, or much of anything else.

Only after we reached the town of Jharkot did we spot a Gompa on top of a hill as well as these mud buildings:

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Back on the trail, the barrenness bothered Rose who found the flat moonscape a bit dull and, with Thakur, cranked her steps double time to pass through as quickly as possible, eventually disappearing beyond hills and turns ahead of us in the horizon.

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I didn’t mind the flatness as much, not least of which was for the rest it gave my legs. Coming off the previous day of repeated impact, again and again on each knee, walking on straight even ground was a treat. The other aspect that kept me focused was the possibility of seeing fossilized molluscs.
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We’d seen examples at vendors’ tables on the way in: impressions of prehistoric animals in varying chunks of rock. We searched, and even threw a few rocks to break them open, hoping to reveal a prize inside, but sadly didn’t spot anything as extraordinary as what the vendors had.

Probably not all that surprising, considering they could comb the area whenever they wanted, ensuring anything interesting was scooped and slapped with a price. After about an hour of panning for prehistory, we caught up with Rose thanks to a river of these guys:

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We hung around and watched a couple of shepherds steer what looked like hundreds of goats across a lone patch of grass. While the sight itself was surreal – hundreds of goats in the middle of a dustbowl – the sound was even more odd. In the valley, there’s really no sound at all, except the occasional gust of wind. From this quiet, still atmosphere erupted: BLEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHH!
Hundreds of goats bleating: all together, off key at their own speed, sorting out whatever was on their minds, which I think could be any or all of the following:
“Don’t get any ideas. That’s our grass up ahead! The Smiths’ family. We won it fair and square back at the pen”
“Have you seen Marion anyone? She was here a second ago. MARION!”. 

“This guy with the stick is hitting a little too hard. Hey, someone back me up on this!”
“Really? Grass again?”
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After staring at the herd for longer than Thakur could tolerate: “Goats. Okay we go now?”, we kept walking, passing once again back into the repetitive landscape:
COOLPIX S2800355Eventually it was broken up by a descent, farther down into the valley where, as if transported by crane, sat Kagbeni: a square patch of mud houses on top of ripe green grass, and rice fields. We wandered into town:
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It wasn’t to a sex shop: we learned similar upright sculptures are found in other Buddhist cultures in the area, particularly in Bhutan where they don’t even feel the need to include a man with a member and often have disembodied penis’ graffitied all over houses and shops.

It would be a just world if the Bhutanese had a football team named the “Flying Cocks”. Google tells me otherwise unfortunately, so you’ll just have to create the logo for it in your mind.

The short of it is (okay. really, anything I say from here will sound tongue in cheek) the symbol of the penis in certain Buddhist spots is meant to symbolize virility and good luck, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read. Considering that, if Bhutan ever opens up to more Western trade, I won’t be surprised if Viagra is one of the first companies there.

So we passed Le cock, and sauntered into a Buddhist monastery where young monks were just starting up a game of soccer, which we joined in for a while

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before heading around back to see this massive structure which included a ton of prayer wheels:
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Stretching out a bit farther we walked to the end of the lookout, stared on to the river: the Kali Gandaki, which we’d follow the next day – and packed it in for the night.
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All told it was an easy restart to the Circuit. Next stop Jomson then one of the tastiest burritos I’ve ever had anywhere, care of Marpha, followed by goodbye to our two Australian cohorts: Shari and Michaela who were hitching a bus ride to catch up with their Mum in Kathmandu, leaving us a trio on our way further down the mountain.
Talk soon