« Photos From Venice | Main | Photos From Florence »

Trekking Around Annapurna

We have just finished our trek in the Annapurna region, and believe me, it was spectacular. I would say that it will turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip, and a great memory for years to come.

Let me start back on the 17th, our last full day in Kathmandu. There wasn't much to say about the day, we mostly spent it exploring around Thamel and trying to get outside of that backpacker's district into the real city a bit. It wasn't hard to get out of bed, our room didn't have any heating, so it got down to about 45F during the night. Even better was the morning waking service the hotel offered, in the form of the ice cold shower I took. You might have heard a shrill scream echoing through the high atmosphere, maybe a bit like a schoolgirl. That was just me.

Exploring Kathmandu is interesting, but a bit on the intense side, as in right in your face. Walking through narrow passageways and down stairs didn't mean that we could avoid the crazy motorbikes, nor that they might slow down a bit. Watching your step anywhere in the city is crucial, if clean soles are important to you, and like many other cities in the developing world, the various aromas (or perhaps the combination of many of them) is less than fragrant. Still, once we left Thamel, the city was fascinating. We wandered through long, winding streets, clouds of incense and cooking smoke puffing the air around us. We ducked through a Nepali-height (i.e. short) doorway and found a quieter courtyard of an apartment complex, kids and moms sitting around in the sun, brightly-dyed fabrics hanging to dry, scruffy dogs chasing each other. Small temples and pavilions, both Buddhist and Hindu, popped out from many unexpected corners. We managed to follow the walking tour in our Lonely Planet guide, more or less, and found the main square in the city, a place of many temples and palaces, but the $10 per person admission fee just to walk around the square was a little too steep, and the temples not interesting enough after seeing dozens of free ones, so we instead opted to go to the so-called Monkey Temple. It goes by a real name, of course, but by calling it the Monkey Temple, we quickly had a taxi driver understand where we wanted to go; my Nepali is actually nonexistent. My bargaining for the taxi price didn't go well for me, as the driver was more than happy to stick around after dropping us off to take us back to Thamel. Still, the ride was great, taking us along the crowded, busy streets of Kathmandu, up hills that offered views down into the various valleys leading from the higher hills. Once we arrived at the Monkey Temple, we were faced with a daunting hill climb to the top, where a number of temples and stupas sit, looking out over the city. We made it to the top, considering the brisk walk a warm-up to our upcoming trek, and looked around the temple grounds. There certainly are monkeys there, scabby, nappy yellow ones that leap around and terrify tourists by threatening infectious scratchings. I wasn't too impressed by the monkeys, they are much more interesting from a distance, not when you look up and find yourself face to face with a scowling monkey scratching a festering sore and getting ready to claw your eyes, but the view from the grounds was great. Kathmandu is a sprawling city, and the noise, the bustle, and the general sensory abundance of the city reach the summit of the hill. For our slap of reality on the way down from the temple grounds, a young boy sat on the steps, begging from people passing by, holding what appeared to be a dead infant in what might have been attempts to get more money. Wealthier Nepali or Indian people stopped to give him a hard time about the tactic, which he ignored; I was less worried about their shock and wondered more about the mind of a child finding himself sitting on steps begging with a dead baby.

Back in Thamel, we spent the rest of the day browsing outdoor stores for a few supplies for our trek. On our way to our hotel room, a man had stopped me by pointing out the the sole on my show was separating from the rest of the shoe. He did have a valid point, and of course he happened to be a shoe repairman, pulling a tube of glue and a thick needle and string from his knapsack. My shoes were once Gore-Tex, back two years ago when I bought them, and they still sometimes keep out water, so I was hesitant to let him go at my shoes with the big needle, but despite my request he simply glue the sole, the next thing I knew he was sewing along. I figured he couldn't ruin my shoes anymore than they were, already being deteriorated and all, so when he assured me that water wouldn't leak through the puncture holes, I let him continue. He told me about his family, his number of kids, and eventually told me about his house, which apparently is a canvas or fabric tent somewhere in the city (not very big, he told me, which could have gone without saying). I believed him, as he invited me to tour his neighborhood and to have tea with his family, and I didn't argue with the $10 he wanted for a bit of glue and some sewing; he needed the money more than I did. Plus, he did a fine job sewing my shoes; they didn't leak once during our six days of hiking in the mountains.

We found the supplies that we thought we might use, a liner jacket for myself, a pair of shoes to replace Jess's, both of which had entirely split soles, a walking stick, iodine tabs. We met our tour guide, a young, shy man named Mannish, and discussed our itinerary, then went back to organize our packs, leaving about half of our belongings with the hotel. Since we had been advised to avoid any meat products on the trail due to issues with hygiene, we went to a steakhouse to stock up on protein, then called it a day. The next morning we were outside waiting at 6:30 for our guide, who walked us out of Thamel and to the nearby bus depot, where we boarded a "tourist" bus. It is called this to differentiate it from the smaller, more crowded regional buses, not just because it was packed with tourists. There were a few of us on the bus, but mostly there were Nepalis on board; the good thing about the bus was that it didn't stop to pick up other passengers, instead going directly to Pokhara. The ride itself took about eight hours, partly because more than a hour was required just to get out of the smoggy, crowded roads of Kathmandu itself. It was a beautiful drive, though, along a surprisingly well-maintained road, passing along the contours of hills, past villages and terraces barren for the winter. We both stayed awake almost the entire time, to see as much of the route as we could. We did stop several times, including for lunch, and after seeing the chicken they offered with the buffet dinner, I decided to start my meatless diet a little early. Eventually, we arrived in Pokhara, a much smaller city that, as the primary city to leave for the Annapurna mountain range, is pretty much a cleaner, quieter version of Thamel. We checked into our hotel and spent the rest of the day strolling around the city and along its lakefront, which boasts great views of snowcapped mountains in the distance.

We were up the next morning early, the belongings we would take on the trek weaned even more and packed into a single bag. We had a porter for our trek, which is something of an unfamiliar concept for me, especially as we weren't going to be doing anything more arduous than hike in the hills, with bags that had half of their usual weights. I wasn't sure how the porter would carry the bag, but we made sure everything we needed was in a single bag; Jess carried a small daypack for the things we might need along the trail during each day. We had a little breakfast, and a car was waiting for us by 8:30 to take us into the hills. (To clarify, the definitions of Nepali topography is considerably different than US standards. For example, anything under 3000 meters (9842 ft) is considered small foothills, anything under 4000m (about 13,000 ft) is foothills, anything up to 6000m (19,700 ft) are mountains, and to 8000m (more than 26,000 ft) are considered peaks. To be considered a summit, a mountain must be greater than 8000m, such as Annapurna I and Everest. This means that we only crossed the line into regular foothills at the end of our trek, for about an hour; the rest of the time we were under 3000m.)

So, we drove out of Pokhara, for about 45 minutes through wide expanses of dry rice paddies, to a little spot in the road called Phedi. This area, including Pokhara, is almost subtropical, with lots of vegetation and greenery, and a temperature of probably better than 60F. We set off from Phedi, straight up a long series of stairs that took us a little more than an hour to finish; we'd been warned about this incline, and I wrongly assumed it would be the most serious set of stairs we would have to climb. In reality, this incline was simply the introduction to the rest of the stairs, and was actually dwarfed by later stair climbs. At this time, we got to see our porter Dep in action; he carried our bag, which was probably a good 30 or more pounds, on his back, and carried his own in front. Although his pack was much smaller and lighter, he still had a lot of weight to carry, and we felt very bad for him, especially on this initial stair climb. He sort of huffed and puffed his way up, leading us to think he perhaps was ill. I felt so bad I bought him a Snickers at the top; as it turns out, Dep was more than capable for the job, and compared to many of the other loads we saw, especially those destined to the Annapurna Base Camp, he probably was glad to only have our bag.

So, with that incline, our trek was off and going. Hiking in the Himalayas certainly means that there will be many ups and downs; as the Nepali say, a little up and a little down. For people who have walked along the hillsides their whole lives, it must seem so ordinary; for me, it was like the Stairmaster from hell. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of times we had a nice even grade; sometimes we had even five minutes at a time of flat surface to walk along, and those times were heaven, walking along like a true hike through the woods. The rest of the time, we found ourselves tromping up and down stairs, which were frequently unevenly placed stones. Our first couple of days we mostly went up, but the third day we started at the top of the hill in a valley, walked down a seemingly never-ending set of stairs to a suspension bridge at the river below, and then climbed to the same elevation on the opposite side; it could not have been less than a 2500 foot elevation change. This is the recipe for very sore legs, which we both had from the first day on.

On the other hand, it was easy to be very distracted by the ups and downs of the scenery that was unfolding in front of us. The landscape changed frequently, from valley to valley, from one elevation to the next. We might start the morning in a broad valley with hills lined with terraces that followed the contours of the hills, some brown with the winter break, others vibrantly green with winter wheat and other vegetables. Later that same day we might cross through a lush forest of rhododendrons covered in moss and orchids, or through narrow valleys along streams crashing from rock to rock. We passed through many small villages, some of which were obviously very active in the tourist trade that had customers streaming by in high season, while others were seemingly as unaffected as possible except for the ubiquitous windows that held the most cherished backpacker necessities: candy bars, soda, Pringles, and bottles of water; Nepalis are nothing if not inventive in their ways to supply passing tourists with opportunities to part with their money. Buildings in the villages ranged from plywood shacks set up as stores for hikers to ancient buildings styled in a simple but effective fashion for the harsh environment of the hills. In the lower elevations, we passed through many areas of habitation, terraces and villages covering the hills, and as we climbed higher these areas lessened and natural forests replaced them. Still, even at the highest points we reached, we still frequently passed many Nepali people, lugging huge loads along the hillside paths, most with the packs hung from straps across their foreheads. Firewood, pipes and rebar, bags of grain and corn: the people themselves are frequently the only means of transporting goods among the high villages. We even saw a village ambulance, which was a man carrying another injured man on his back, staggering up a hill towards a village with a health center. It is a rough life these people live, for sure.

Each day we had a goal set in mind, which were the guesthouses that the Nepalis refer to as teahouses. These teahouses are hotels that offer meals and a basic bed; they range from extremely rustic to just plain spartan. Still, it is more comfortable than sleeping in a tent on the frozen ground. Our first teahouse, in Pothana, was one of the more rustic ones we stayed in; while the windows that faced the front of the hotel on the wall with our room's door had glass windows, the back window was closed with nothing but a couple of wood shutters. During the night, a storm blew in, bringing with it the only rain we had on our trek. The draft came straight in through the gap between the boards, and while I was able to diminish the wind using the raincover for our backpack, our room still was about 36F that night. For the next couple of nights, our rooms were a bit warmer, in the mid-40s, but by the time that we reached the highest town that we would stay in, Ghorepani, which sits at just under 3000m, room temperatures in the mid-30s were expected. We just piled on the blankets and wore our thermals to bed, it was actually not bad. I guess if we'd been staying in hotels with heating, it would have just diminished the whole feeling of the trip. After all, we were hiking in the Nepali Himalayas, and as I told a Aussie couple who were telling us their water bottles had frozen in their room, you don't come here to be warm and comfortable. I read the book Into Thin Air, about the ill-fated Everest season in 1996 during which 12 people died, during the trek, and the descriptions of the conditions that people endure on mountains that we were literally hiking around made our hotel rooms seem downright balmy.

Probably my favorite day was our hike between Tadapani and Ghorepani, the fourth day. It was a bit of a challenging day, because much of the day was spent hiking in snow, though because we were heading uphill, it was easier. People going the other direction had to deal with very slippery trails for their whole day's hike, while we didn't have any downhills until we nearly reached Ghorepani. I loved the day for two reasons: first, much of the day we spent in isolation, with not another traveler in sight, in silent little gorges and canyons that were a frozen wonderland of powder snow and some tough subtropical plants such as ferns and the rhododendrons. The scenery was just fantastic, and though it was cold, being in that forest was so refreshing for our minds and spirits. The other reason was that it was fun: by then, we'd gotten to know our guide Mannish very well, and found that he is a very funny guy. I'm sure with more mature tourists, he has to act more professional, but we made it clear from the beginning that we are very easygoing, and soon he'd let his guard down, showing us that although he is very professional, proficient, and an excellent guide, he was also a fun guy to be walking through the woods with. By the time we reached the downhill towards Ghorepani, he and I were skiing in our boots down the steep, icy sections, and we even got off trail for a bit of sledding, using a trash bag as a sled. We had loads of fun playing in the snow, which was only made better by the brilliant weather we had that day.

Despite the single rainy, muddy morning we experienced, the primitive squat toilets, and the one icy shower that I took before swearing off the concept of cleanliness for the rest of the trek, and most probably because of these things, our trek had tons of experiences and memories. Mannish figured out quickly that Jess likes birdwatching and that I take a lot of pictures, so he spent more time than necessary finding new birds for us to see, and he purposely would choose the villages that we spent nights for the views that we'd have in the evenings or the mornings (hence that icy night in Pothana, which had an awesome view of several peaks). It was a bit strange having someone cater to us so much, but because we had a total of seven days to talk with Mannish, we learned so much about Nepali culture and people that we couldn't possibly have otherwise. He even encouraged us to go up Poon Hill from Ghorepani, a climb of over 450m in the predawn dark, to witness the sunrise over a panorama view of Himalayan peaks and summits (three of the mountains were over 8000m), despite our misgivings over the subfreezing temperatures and the icy path, knowing that we be thrilled by that early morning experience. He was right, we were thrilled.

Our last day was quite somber, each of walking quietly, Jess and I sad that the trek was over for sure, and perhaps Mannish was as well, for it seemed as though he really did like us. Jess and I were dirty, our legs hurt, and we hadn't been warm since leaving Pokhara, but we were so happy on the trek, and it was over far too quickly.

Until next time, be safe.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Hosting by Yahoo!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)