Head in the clouds: Annapurna Day 3

image Day 3: Tal – Timang

image “About 10 days to get used to the trail”, Thakur tells us over breakfast. Feeling a muscle pulsing just to the right of my kneecap, something I’ve never felt before, I suggest a lower number, as a bid to make myself feel better: “Maybe three days?”, I say mock confidently. Thakur laughs, and in his straight to the jugular fashion replies: “10 days”.

I was hoping for a better compromise. Today we’re ascending 1000 meters (3,200 feet) to finish at 2,750 meters in the village of Timang. The definition of high altitude differs. Some consider it above 3,000 meters, others 3,500 meters, while still others say it can start as early as 2,400 metres.

For us this means, according to one group, we’ll pass the threshold of easy-going, little consequence hiking into the possibility of getting sick.

Of course, this is only a possibility. It can be hard to predict who might suffer from altitude sickness, though there are some tests, like an oxygen saturation monitor that measures how much oxygen your body is absorbing (a test we’d take in Manang coming up) – but otherwise, you are on your own – no amount of general fitness is a proven safeguard.

I think about this, as I’m puffing away, climbing one stair after another through a forest, and then look down at the village of Tal, where we came from that morning (the image above) – and realize, had I really let this sink in beforehand, that all bodies are equal (minus a smoker’s habit), I would have ordered pancakes for breakfasts.

As it stands, if we had any fitness to show off, right now it’s in hiding. We’re moving in slow motion repeating the following manoeuvres: walking stick down, leg up, foot down, 2nd leg up, 2nd foot down – STOP – wipe sweat of face. START all over again.

The rate of evolution is a runaway train in comparison to us. We’re moving about as quickly as a sleeping mime.

Eventually we crack the stairs, and find a plateau for a rest. Gazing upwards we see we’re headed towards a zig-zagging route through more forest. Getting on with it, we reach the top to see Timang lying just ahead of us, now level with cloud cover swirling around us as Makala and Saree inch up hill: image Also hundreds of black mountain crows fly overhead, between the clouds that are now dropping bits of rain. It feels like Halloween as the mist passes in front of us, and we listen to crows cawing above. As a diversion to the Edgar Allen Poe setting, I spotted a familiar looking plant off to our right: image At that second, a hiker pulled up beside me, who struck me as a weed aficionado – and I pointed out the find. “It’s amazing”, he laughs. “We’ve already got a stash we’ve dried out and have been enjoying along the way”. He points out his travelling crew behind him, all big smiles with barely open eyes.

Rose, Makala, Saree, another guy we met en route – Til – and myself, chatted with them all inside our guesthouse. Altitude sickness was a footnote: they were worried where they’d find the next batch.

We listened to their stories about the weed they’d picked off the trail, smoked along the way, and how their goal was to smoke a bowl at the top of Thorong La pass, the highest point on the journey. “You should get in touch with High Times magazine.”, I suggested. “Call the article, “Higher Ground”. They laughed, and thought it was a great idea – though I’m pretty sure they didn’t take it up.

I thought they were hilarious, especially after the early morning, sobering news about altitude sickness – it was nice to hear a different approach. As they left into the rain, still with 3.5hrs walking ahead of them, our group labelled them “The Dudes”.

We’d run into them again on the trail, and they’d remain a constant source of hope and storytelling between us: ex “Do ya think they made it up there?”.

However, that day, we were far less ambitious than them, and called it a night at some ridiculous early hour: 730, I think, which would become the norm for bedtime. Of course, this also meant we’d invariably be up at dawn. On this particular morning, the clouds had pushed off, leaving views of what we couldn’t see the night before: image image And a little further to the right, the big highlight: image Next stop, a walk to Chame for a day’s rest. Talk soon

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.


Groundhog Day was settling in. Talk soon