Trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal
12/11/2008 -1 °C
I think it began as one of those ideas that doesn't even qualify as an idea at the time. During the year I lived in New Zealand, I had moved into a flat with two Kiwi chicks who I actually spent very little time talking to. On the wall of the flat hung a poster of one of the most amazing mountain landscapes I'd ever seen. The caption read The Annapurna Circuit: Nepal. In one of the few conversations I had with either of the girls, one of them told me about how they were trying to raise money through various fundraisers in order to fund thier trip to Nepal and a trek on the Annapurna Circuit. To this day, I have no idea if they ever made it. Probably not, as their means of "fundraising" involved asking people to "sponsor" them. What sponsors would receive in return was anybody's guess.
I hope they did make it, but regardless, the vision from that poster has somehow stuck with me over the years. At the time, moving to New Zealand was my first solo-trip and was meant to be the last. Whatever happened to me over the next four years may require an entire team of psychotherapists to sort out, but to put it mildly, travelling has become a bit of an "obsession" for me of late.
So as I found myself struggling through some of my more troublesome classes as a teacher this past year in Korea, visions of that poster kept popping into my brain. The idea that wasn't even an idea, suddenly began to formulate into a plan as I stood daydreaming in my own classroom. There's nothing like asking students to write English words and then draw pictures of them to buy time for teacher to enter his "happy place" for 15 minutes or so.
Fast-forward to reality, and I found myself walking the streets of Kathmandu (a city I earlier described as the Biff Tannin-run "evil 1984" from Back to the Future II) in early November of 2008. It's not that Kathmandu was that bad, it's just that it was very far away from the scene that has lived in my mind as a vision from that poster and I wanted to get to that place as soon as possible.
My original plan was to head to Pokhara (where I sit today) to hire a guide, but walking through the touristy neighborhood of Thamel in Kathmandu is like running a gaunlet of tourism touts, souvenir salespeople and hash peddlers. Sooner or later I caved in, not to the hash, but to hiring a guide in Kathmandu. I just wanted out and that seemed like the quickest way.
Upon meeting my guide, Prakash, I thought this was really going to work out great. He was a young kid, but seemed very friendly and eager to impress. Those qualities stuck with him throughout the trek, but what he didn't turn out to be was much of a guide (more on that later).
To leave Kathmandu, we had to leave from the bus station. I suppose there are agencies that splash out the cash and put you on one of the fancy "tourist" buses that you can take here in Nepal, but I don't think I really went with the Cadillac of trekking agencies, so we set out on a local bus. And brash as it may sound, anytime you do anything "local" in Nepal, you're usually doing it the hard way. So off we went in something that kind of looked like a small school bus; but only if you were to take a school bus, then drop a bunch of acid, subsequently paint it and add decorations as the visions in your head dictated and then put it to use for 25 years without maintenance before turning it into a "local bus".
A blessing from a Saddhu at the bus station before leaving on a local bus is proably a good thing
As we motored away from Kathmandu, I asked Prakash if these things ever crashed. Probably being too young to realize that death is not something most tourists want to think is impending, he told me about a crash several months ago that killed 14 people. Super Prakash, just super! But as long as we were sputtering away from Kathmandu, albeit with my long Western legs jabbing into the metal seat frame in front of me, I was a happy camper. Only seven hours to go to Besi Sahar!
Arriving in Besi Sahar after a long and perilous bus ride was only the first step in what would be a nearly 20-day trekking adventure on the Annapurna Circuit, or Around Annapurna, as it is more aptly called by the locals. As I sit here looking at a map trying to recall my exact route, it is clear to see that trekkers on this route, do indeed, walk completely around the Annapurna Himalayan Range. I can't tell you exactly what a circuit is (thank you very much expensive education), but I can now say for damn sure that I walked completely "around Annapurna"; so from here on out I'm siding with the local name - romantic poster from New Zealand be damned.
For those of you out there who have very little idea about what the Around Annapurna trek entails (trust me, I was in that camp until I actually found myself in too deep to turn back), here's the gist: The Annapurna Himalayas are a big damn set of mountains located near the center of Nepal. Without walking you through the names of each mountain and the day that we passed by them, I'll just name-drop a few of the mountains that were our constant, but ever-changing companions throughout the trek, literally, as we walked around them: Annapurna I (8091 meters), Annapurna II (7937 m), Annapurna III (7555 m) Annapurna IV (7525 m), Gangapurna (7454 m), Dhaulagiri (8172 m) and Machhapuchhre (6997 m). So, you have this big group of monsterous mountains that people actually climb, and then you have a trail that completely circles them at a much more reasonable alititude for people like me who don't possess the drive to conquer the world, but who'll work hard to see the view of what's possible and then settle in to a nice tall beer at the end of the day.
For many, the Everest Base Camp trek holds more sex appeal, as who wouldn't want to see the world's highest mountain (8848 m). But there is also a drawback to this trek, as you walk up and walk right back down the way you came. With the Around Annapurna trek, you never backtrack (unless altitude sickness causes you to do the "walk of shame" back the other way) and everyday provides a different backdrop, different villages to pass through and different people to encounter along the way. This ultimately swayed my decision to go with Annapurna over Everest. Plus, completing the Around Annapurna trek takes you over a 5,416 meter pass (nearly 18,000 feet), whereas Everest Base Camp sits at a measely 5,360 meters, so I feel like I'm well within my rights to snub my nose at the weenies who choose to take the easy way out and head to Everest.
Trekking, it is worth noting, is not neccessarily the same as camping. The beauty of the Around Annpurna trek (as well as many other treks in Nepal) is that the trails are essentially the local Nepalese "highways", carrying foot traffic between small and remote villages. Located in almost all of these villages are what are known as teahouses, a term that sounds pretty exotic, but I can tell you that they're just really basic guesthouses. This works out to be really convenient on a popular route such as Around Annapurna, as it gives trekkers the freedom to trek as far or as little as they choose in a given day. And at the end of each day, the teahouses all have a nice menu (that is pretty much the same as every other menu along the trek varying only depending on local ingredients available in each village) to order food from and relax with a cup of tea or coffee. Facilities are quite basic (I have become an expert at, and quite a fan of, the squat toilet), though generally cozy enough for a night. The other nice aspect of this form of trekking is that you begin to see the same people over and over again at each stop and soon you begin to form a bond with many of these people. Before long, you start discussing how long it's been since you've taken a crap with a nice old lady from England and it doesn't even seem wierd when she offers you some medication to get things moving again.
My primary companions for the entire trek were a father and son from Perth, Australia named Ron (dad) and Matt (son). Though we were led to believe that it was just a happy coincidence that we were all headed off on the same day from the same trekking agency, by the middle of the trek we all began to suspect that the Aussie's guide Anjun, was essentially serving as a sort of mentor for my man Prakash.
Though Prakash really truly meant well, he proved to be a bigger pain in my ass throughout the trek than he was an asset. Before we had even stepped foot outside of Kathmandu, he repeatedly professed that we were now "brothers" and that our hearts were now one. Perhaps I'm just a cynical bastard, or maybe I just haven't spent enough time sitting around hash parties listening to Cat Stevens, but I eventually had to stifle a laugh every time he would go into one of these diatribes about our fated meeting. To me, I was just a guy paying another guy to get me through a 20 day trek alive.
And maybe I would have thought of him as more of a "brother" if he'd actually acted like one. For one, he seemed much more at ease serving as a man-servant to me than as a guide. Though I may be 30+ years old, he doted on me like I was a small child or perhaps a person who had narrowly, and not so succesfully, survived brain surgery. Every time I would set my pack down, he would rush to my side to help it down. If my feet slipped a little on the trail, he would grasp my arm and brace me like I might do to help my mother if she slipped on ice. Every time we would enter a new village he would give me the same precautionary speech about locking my door, minding my head, drinking enough water, etc. All very much appreciated, until after a few days when my nerves began to fray. I finally put a stop to most of the pampering one afternoon when I went to put my pack down and fumed as he rushed to help it off my shoulders and then as he began assisting in unbuckling the straps.
"Prakash, God damn it, if you think you're my brother you should really meet my real brother! Trust me, he would never help my bag off my shoulders. He'd probably push me over as I tried to take it off. If he were here right now he'd laugh his ass off watching you prance around trying to help me out like I was an idiot. If I set my bag down, it doesn't mean I have a problem, it means I'm doing something. If I need your help with ANYTHING, I'll ask for it!"
Okay, so I probably set American/Nepali relations back a few generations, but it had to be done and from there on out he reserved his nursemaid chores to filling up my water bottle and ordering my food; tasks that I was begrudingly willing to accept if it made him feel he was doing his job.
But I do have to hand it to he guy, he was doing his best under what I would imagine were uncomfortable circumstances for him. Traveling with the Australians meant that I was also privy to some of the guiding that their very experienced and personable guide, Anjun was offering them. Whenever Anjun was providing a description, giving directions or answering a question, Prakash would interject a split second behind him with a parroted response.
Anjun: "That mountain is Dhal" Prakash: "Dhaulagiri, yes yes, Dhaulagiri" Anjun: ". . .giri. The fifth tallest moun" Prakash:"Yes, yes, the fifth tallest mountain in the world".
If it wasn't so infuriating it would have been downright comical. The problem was that, in the end, it made it difficult to understand either one of them. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why Anjun wouldn't have pulled him aside at some point to tell him to shut the hell up. But he didn't, and it became a silent joke as I would frequently catch Ron's eye after one of these "guiding sessions" and we both chuckle.
Whatever my issues with Prakash, the guy was at his most likeable when there was money on the line. If Kenny Rogers weren't so old and Prakash so young, I'd be pretty certain that "The Gambler" was written one night by candlelight while trekking with Prakash. Like most Nepali men I've met, the guy just loved to gamble. Considering how little money most of these guys have, its a sight to see the rupees start flying when a card game or other game of chance gets broken out.
Early on in the trip, Ron and Matt introduced a very simple card game called "Pass the Ace". It requires just a little skill and a bit of a poker face and the Nepali guides and porters instantly loved it. We started out playing just for fun, but soon the Nepali's started demanding that we make it more interesting. There's an interesting moral dillema that gets tangled up while gambling with people who you know don't make as much in a year as you see in a month. But then again, gambling is gambling, and they never gambled with more than they could afford to lose. Even so, we all gave out hearty applause when the Aussie's porter Naryn finally won a game. The poor guy (literally probably the poorest of the bunch) just had the worst luck.
Naryn was our silent rock. The man had a piercing silent air to him and the quiet demeanor of a man who had "seen some shit" and just didn't want to talk about it. He was an ex-army soldier, having fought the Maoist Rebellion that just ended over the last year or so (with the Maoists winning out). He rarely spoke, even in Nepali, but was always there lugging the Australians stuff with ease and keeping a watchful eye on us. Perhaps he hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary at all, and was just a quiet man. I don't know. We didn't have many conversations.
Whatever the case, my favorite Naryn moment came when we were moving at high altitude (about 17,000 feet). I was ahead of the pack and it was just Naryn and I. For some reason the thin air made him giddy and he was bouncing around like a gazelle. At one point I caught up to him, gave him a happy nod and then watched as he let out a bellowing series of yelps and literally sprinted up the steepest section of hill. He wasn't under my employment, but as I bonded with the Australians and we all became a group, Naryn became a presence that I came to rely upon.
Though I set off on this trek as a solo traveller (well, I suppose I had Prakash), I ended it as the member of a family; though perhaps as the bastard son that is never seen from again. The two Australians were an absolute pleasure to trek with and were quite kind to let me share in the unique father/son journey that they had embarked on.
Ron, in his late 50's, was an absolute machine (I suppose at everything he does in life). He was always personable, quick with a smile and ever-determined. Though I played it off to the fact that I was carrying my own stuff, I'm quite sure that had I had a porter, Ron would still have out-walked me day-in/day-out. Back in Perth, he is a meteorolgist who works predicting hurricanes and other weather-related occurances. So as we walked, I learned more about such topics than I ever thought I would and he was just a great guy to talk to as we plodded along day after day.
As for Matt, to be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to like the guy from the start. He was a big guy, an Aussie Rules Football player (or footy as he called it) and didn't speak nearly as much as his old man. When he did speak, he frequently referred to Americans as "Sepo's" (or Septics, for those unfamiliar with the Aussie term), a term that for some reason has always gotten to me, even though I've heard worse. Whatever our first impressions were (I suspect he had his reservations about me from the start as well), by the time we both decided to crack and have a beer after 7days dry respectively, we began to forge a friendship.
We had arrived in a town called Manang, which is the only place we were to spend two nights in the same place for the purposes of altitude acclimatization. The two of us had been sitting out in the sun watching the snow blow off of Gangapurna discussing how this would be the perfect time for a beer. Our guides had put us on orders not to drink until we made it over Thorong La Pass, but as two tall American girls checked into the hotel and promptly sat outside and ordered a beer, we both knew resistance was futile. I know it doesn't send a good message to the kiddies to admit that alcohol brings people together, but I feel like from that point on, Matt and I were much better friends (Not to mention those two American girls would continue to pop up in my travels throughout the remainder of my time in Nepal - here's to beer!).
Aussie/American relations being conducted at 18,000 feet
Though the trek encapsulated about 20-days, it was really broken down into two parts: Before the Pass (BP) and After the Pass (AP).
BP was filled with anticipation, stunning scenery, camaraderie and cold cold nights. AP was filled with long walks, pretty good scenery and more long walks. Both were amazing in their own aspects, but BP was a much better experience.
The reason for this was the looming and ever-present goal of getting over Thorong La Pass (5,416 meters - nearly 18,000 feet). As we got closer, the hours of walking got shorter as the air got thinner and the conditions got rougher. Nights were cold, meals got repetitive and things like brushing your teeth and changing your underwear became things that only seemed important to take care of every couple days.
For the couple of nights leading up to and following the pass, I began sharing a room with a French/Israeli named Ron (the nice thing about this trip is that it was easy to remember names as many repeated themselves). Ron had clearly grown up accoustomed to some of the finer things in life and when we first met, I began to think that trekking wasn't his thing. He also had the love of his life waiting for him back in Paris, so most of our early conversations revolved around him wondering what the hell he was doing sleeping in shitty Nepali teahouses, crapping in holes and walking all day/everyday when he could be back in Paris with the lovely Emily.
But Ron was no softy. He had been an officer in the Israeli army. And he was no dumby. He was returning to France to commence interviews with some of the top banks in Europe after finishing his masters of Finance. And though he had his quirks, he was managed to pull all of the best traits of being French and being Israeli into one while leaving out some of the not-so-nice sterotypes (Hey, as a Sepo, I'm allowed to be a little judgemental!). He was unique as they come and I now consider him a very good friend. I think my favorite "Ron moment" may be the fact that he took diomox (altitude sickness pills) the day of the ascent on Thorong La, even though he felt no symptoms prior. Every time I turned around the poor bastard was peeing like a mule (one of the side effects of the drug). He must have gone 50 times on his way up alone.
Since this is already getting way to long, I'll save you the suspense and tell you that we all made it over the pass just fine. We left at 4 am and were up on top by 7 am. Though I had experienced some AMS symptoms the night before (major blow to my Colorado bred lungs), I woke feeling strong and led the way to the top. At the top, we drank tea, tied some Tibetan prayer flags to the mass already stewn about and Ron led a Nepali dance party in celebration.
King of the Mountain
(Video to come when I get out of Nepal and find a really good Internet speed).
Upon arriving in the village of Muktinath on the other side of the pass, it was clearly party time. Our guides no longer had any credible threat to temper our behaviour, and it seems they were ready to tear it up as well. Gathered in our hotel that night we had our group (myself, Ron Aussie, Matt Aussie, Ron Frenchie, two American girls Liz and Sunnie, and two other Australians we had met along the way; conveniently also Matt and John). The night got a little out of hand with singing and dancing with our Nepali guides, followed by a trip to the Bob Marley Bar and then a return to our hotel for a few more beers (in the morning, Anjun counted 54 empty 1L bottles of Everest Beer).
Topping the night off, I got into a drunken competition with Liz where I promised I could drink more Nepali chili sauce straight from the bottle than she could. I'll never know who won the bet, because when it was her turn I was in throwing the stuff up into a dirty squat toilet. The next day was one of our longest and least scenic of the entire trip and the chronic heartburn made for a grumpy John that day. But as we continued our trek, I soon learned that the legend was growing as people would run into me and tell me they'd heard the story of the chili-man!
After the pass, we all kind of went our separate ways (barring myself and the Australian family). A lot of people flew out of Jomson, or took a Jeep out without continuing the trek. The hype was really about the Pass and the rest was a nice walk with some stunning scenery.
As I sit here in the chaos of Kathmandu with smog-clogged lungs and struggling with a bout of food poisoning (I haven't even eaten any meat since I began the trek!) preparing to leave tomorrow, I know I'll be back one day; probably sooner rather than later. The image of that poster that was burned in my brain for so long has now been pushed aside and has been replaced with actual images and memories that beckon me to return.
The country of Nepal was blessed with such natural beauty that God had to make it a perfect match by adding a quirky sense of humour as well, because there is much that is just plain goofy as well. And that, my friends, will be the topic of my next blog.
There were many bridges on the trek; this is one.
Muktinath Dance Party after Thorong La
The ever present squat toilet. You gotta watch your step at high altitude temperatures