Thorong La

High altitude waiting: Annapurna Day 6-9

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Day 6: Upper Pisang – Nawal

Rejuvenated and headache free, Rose and I set off en route to our next village stop, Nawal. This meant climbing once again, but not at the same steep rate we had the day before.

In fact things started off nice and easy. The terrain was flat as we wandered through a forest, with mountains on either side. It felt a little bit like hiking in Alberta. While it was peaceful, and easy going at first, my mind in its overactive imagination having made a link to Alberta, decided it should make things more exciting. Rather than keep the experience simple and leave it at enjoying mountain views in the tranquility of a forest, I thought about danger, calamity, what kinds of perils can you find in the forests of Alberta? Two seconds later, the answer was clear: grizzlies. Teeth, claws, the ability to snap our bones and eat us for breakfast, the entire malicious picture had formed in my mind.

Carefree walking had now taken a hike.

With this new image in mind, I became vigilant, remembering something from a previous village where I’d seen a poster of a bear as one of the animals that live in this area. They were out here, I was convinced.

Inevitably, I heard a sound. A rustling to our left behind a tree. It was loud enough that everyone looked, but I was the only one who loudly said: “Jesus Christ” and moved back as I pointed at the animal.

It was big and dark and was slowly snacking away on something hidden behind the tree. In the previous village we’d seen a poster for a missing hiker, and I was sure we’d just found him.

As I backed up on the trail pointing, I was pretty sure I knew what the animal was and before I prepared to run I confirmed: “A bear?”.

Thakur, looked around and laughed, and Makala and Saree did the same.

It was a cow.

Oh-kay, false alarm. We were safe.

However, any image of me as a rugged Canadian in the eyes of the Australian sisters died on site. Really it was only a matter of time. And, in truth, I’m not sure it had formed at all.

After bypassing the dangers of a rogue vegetarian beast, we came upon a mani wall (the image above) – which is a Buddhist prayer wall that contained a bunch of stones inscribed with various Buddhist chants/prayers:

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It was aptly placed, because above us was a 300 metre, steep climb – and we’d need all the help we could get.

It was a trudge uphill, which we carried on for 1hr30 as other hikers passed us in half the time. Hearty we were not. However, at the top, all was forgiven as the views were amazing and our grumpiness was soon overtaken by huge helpings of dal bhat.

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After lunch we ran into a little boy on the road, who sang the refrain of all little children we met on the trail: “SWEETS! CHOCOLATE! SCHOOL PEN!”.

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Of that combination, a lot of well-meaning trekkers opt for giving kids a school pen, thinking in their minds that they’re contributing to the educational development of an impoverished nation. While a noble thought, the reality was much different, as we learned that many of the kids would take the pens to sell back to trekkers after which they’d likely spend the money on sweets or would take the pen and barter it for sweets between friends. So, really – all paths led to candy – and since we didn’t have any, we met a fair chunk of pouty kids who were happy to see us go.

And yet, reading blogs and hearing other trekkers suggesting to give kids toothbrushes and toothpaste when asked for candy, I felt we were better off dealing with kids’ disappointment from us not having anything rather than kids’ anger from being patronized by an adult. I remember despising adults on Halloween who handed out apples, in what I took to be a self-satisfied way – “I will not contribute to the degradation of bad teeth”. So, pouty faces it was.

Nawal lay around this corner:

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Once we passed, we came across another animal I’d been waiting to see, while not as vicious as a grizzly, it could do definitely do damage if bothered:

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Yaks!

As we saw these two milling about, Thakur, made yak noises at them. I followed his lead and did my best impression. Right after I did it, a much crisper version bellowed out from above us on the trail. We ran.

After turning around, we saw that a yak had been sitting above us on the trail, and based on the strangled sounds I made, we may have narrowly avoided a mating charge. Travellers are always hearkening for an authentic experience, so at very least I could bring that to the table with fellow travellers:

“We just trekked the Annapurna Circuit, stayed in local guesthouses, ate and drank local food, and sat on squat toilets in the middle of frigid nights”, fellow trekker.

“Yeah, I did that. Plus was sexually assaulted by a Nepalese yak”,

“Oh?!”, fellow trekker.

“Given its size, it was an amazingly tender experience”.

Our narrow miss brought us into the village of Nawal where we stayed for the night:

We did a quick tour, and found the now obligatory gompa, prayer wheels, and this massive tree growing around a cement stupa, adjacent to the gompa:

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I think we were in bed at 730 again – next stop Manang for a two day rest to get used to even higher altitude.

Day 7- 9: Nawal – Manang

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This was one of the easiest days we had. Looking back at Nawal (picture above), we headed to Manang, across more or less flat trail, with more mountain views:

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And, a lot more yaks (I left the yak calls to Thakur. I trusted he knew how not to send mixed messages.)

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We rolled in around midday after an apple pie in the village beforehand, and came upon Manang, which we quickly saw was a massive waiting room. All trekkers spend two days here to acclimatize to high altitude, which means down time, and a lot of people. There were makeshift movie houses showing Himalayan related films like: Seven years in Tibet and Kundun plus more cafes, where even at 3500metres, deprived Western travellers could enjoy “freshly” ground espresso.

There was also a medical clinic that offered a free lecture on altitude sickness, and the symptoms one could expect. We sat in and took an oxygen saturation test, which measures how much oxygen your body is currently absorbing. Apparently a rate of 85% was average. Rose went first at 88%, and I came up with the same. While it felt a bit reassuring, we were also told the results weren’t proven measures against getting sick – only guidelines. In other words, not to worry, we could still get sick.

Wonderful.

We spent two days here catching up on laundry, did a bit of climbing around the place, including passing a glacial lake (the colour of the river next to yaks above), which again, I found reminiscent of Alberta (Banff).

And, I even wrote postcards to my family (any sign, anyone?).

Now the trek had entered the big point which we’d, in many ways, been training for in that we’d been ascending at a slow pace to acclimatize. The next stretch would take us to Thorung High Camp, the highest altitude at which we’d sleep, followed by the big trek over the mountain at the highest altitude we’d experience – 5416metres – through Thorung La Pass. Now, tragically, the site of where the avalanche struck five days after we passed.

Next stop the BIG climb.

Talk soon

PS. We’re having issues transferring photos of a camera and there may be a slight lag in getting to the next instalment. Instead, I may jump to Thailand, and then jump back. On va voir.

Annapurna: The Beginning

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Many people rate it as the best long-distance trek in the world for a number of reasons, namely: you pass through several ¬†districts of the country and get to see the different cultures along the way (particularly the shift from Hinduism in lower altitude to Buddhism in higher), you can stay overnight at teahouses/guesthouses which means you don’t have to carry food and tents, it doesn’t require any special training or extraordinary gear like oxygen, you can see clear views of massive mountain ranges including the Himalayas.

But the clincher for Rose and I were reading the following words in big bold letters during our research: SUITABLE FOR BEGINNERS.

In that phrasing of course, it doesn’t say it’s best for beginners, made for beginners or beginners only, but merely it “could work” for beginners. Regardless, it was more than enough to convince us. Having come off our dalliance with a volcano in New Zealand – we assumed that made us, at the very least, intermediate by now. I mean we didn’t fall into the volcano, twist an ankle, or become paralyzed with fear (jelly legs in parts, it’s true, but paralyzed? Phah)

However, our hubris wasn’t fully formed until we’d chatted with a pair of trekkers who we met in New Zealand. They had just come from Nepal, completed the Annapurna Circuit and were singing its praises. Nevermind that both were fit, and we were chatting with them in a state of euphoria after having just crossed the same volcano, and were vulnerable to suggestion.

The decision was made.

We then bought our hiking boots in New Zealand, which helped me feel a little more settled about the whole thing, not necessarily because the boots were good (they were), but because the store was called Kathmandu, along with the brand of boots. Thought it was a good sign, not only of how advertising plays expertly on anxiety (i.e. I’m going to Nepal, I buy a shoe with Nepal’s capital written on it = I’ll be fine), but of how intimidating the prospect was back then that I was latching on to anything for comfort.

The other decision we made was to forego the Circuit in June, which we’d initially considered. But after reading that rains were higher then, which meant Rose’s sworn enemy – leeches – might also have higher numbers, we opted to go during the drier season at the end of September, early October. Of course, all of this seems ridiculous to write about knowing of the huge storm that hit Nepal, leading to the avalanche while we were there – but even though these storms can happen during this season, on the whole, it still remains the best time to go.

Okay, so here’s how the trail works. The Circuit is easiest to do counterclockwise, according to the main image you see above. The reason for that is that this is what the terrain looks like:

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Counterclockwise helps you adjust to the altitude more gradually – though a few people do it the other way ¬†(people, in my estimation, who are such high achievers and so desperate for a new challenge that somehow limited oxygen supply is too gradual the other way, and would rather cut off their oxygen more drastically. This only makes me think they’re probably also frequent practitioners of auto-erotic asphyxiation.)

While all maps to the trek start from the village of Besisahar, the majority of trekkers now begin from the next village Bhulbhule, after a road was built, making that first stretch not as much fun to walk. That’s where our story begins:

Day 1 – Bulbhule – Ghermu Phant

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Rose and I piled off the bus, which we’d been on for seven hours and were itching to get going. We’d been in Kathmandu for three days prior, buying clothes from such esteemed outdoor brands as “Mammut and The SouthFace” – okay, I didn’t actually see the “South Face”, but though the name is the same “North Face” the quality is 1/3 as good, and the prices reflect that. We also decided to hire a guide/porter who could direct us along the way with some tidbits about the villages and sites, negotiate prices with guesthouse owners, plus help us carry some of our stuff.

In retrospect we could have carried it all ourselves, but would have been a lot more tired than we already were, and when it came to the steepest parts of the Circuit, I think it was a good decision.

Thakur (TA-KOOR) is his name, who became like a surrogate father, pointing out things to see, and avoid, plus made sure we were always eating enough:

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I was hoping we’d have a little bit of a walk ahead of us after we got off the bus, but it was all over within five minutes, after we crossed a bridge:

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we arrived in the village at our guesthouse, ordered dinner and met some of the fellow trekkers who were from all over the place: Spain, Ireland, U.S., Australia, and Germany. Unfortunately, at one point, we got stuck in conversation with a blunt-headed, arrogant guy who had the sensitivity of a crocodile from his quips to an Australian girl (who we’d later do all our trekking with) who after commenting on how steep the stairs of the guesthouse were, our charming man said: “Well, then why are you here on the Annapurna Circuit!”.

This was soon followed by a conversation about language and how he said that Canadian French from everything he’s heard from his European French friends was a mangled bastardization that no other French speakers around his world recognized as French. As Rose and my temper flared, I backed up French-Canada as best I could, while he then carried on with his guide saying he wanted to walk twice as many kms as planned – all of which he pronounced while wearing his trekking gear of choice, jeans.

He would be a regular topic on the trek between Rose and I and the two Australian sisters. Sometimes asking other trekkers if they’d seen or heard news of him. Amazingly, in a vote for karma, we learned from another trekker that he turned back early because of altitude sickness – which of course, seeing his overenthusiastic approach to wanting to cover twice as much ground, we’d all predicted (and, secretly hoped for, as long as it wasn’t life threatening). We all laughed out loud when we heard the news, which must have given the impression to the person telling us that we were complete monsters.

In any case, our real first steps on the Circuit would be the following morning. That night we fell asleep to the rushing water of the Marsyangdi river:

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which we’d follow for the first half of the trek, until it trickled out just before we hiked up to high altitude at Thorong La.

Morning time, we set off and started our gradual climb:

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getting curious looks from some ladies enjoying their morning coffee:

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The views were remarkable, especially for all of the water, and waterfalls, which stood in stark contrast to snow-capped mountains we’d soon see:

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After climbing up a big stretch, we experienced our first of many thuds of humility, when a young girl, maybe 6, walked past us on her way to school, carrying a backpack that was heavier than each of our daypacks. Not only that, but we also learned it’s a 1.5 hour walk, one-way – which she does everyday. We took in this information blinking out the sweat from our eyes, trying to appear unsurprised, as if we too knew such hardship.

Along the way, we also met some other trekking partners parrying for position on the trail:

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Or, stopping for a bite at a guesthouse:

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After 7 hours of walking, we eventually made it to our stop for that night; the village – Ghermu Phant:

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We enjoyed the luxury of a Western toilet in our room, which would be the last one until we went over the pass, and stretched out our legs in our room, groaning, both worried it wasn’t going to get easier. (It wasn’t).

Next stop, the village Tal and Timang, and the first introduction to some of the HIGH altitude vegetation.