Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Trekking in the Himalayas – It’s not Soft and Easy Anymore!

Annapurna South and "Fishtail" Mountains

On the morning of our trek into the Himalayas, we woke to a lovely sunny, blue sky and had breakfast on the patio outside our room. The majestic white peaks of the Annapurna Range were calling to us in the distance.

We were excited after five days of rain, haze and low-lying clouds to see the sun and the mountains for the first time.

A Belgian couple had just returned from a four-day trek up to Ghandruk and was extremely disappointed that they had never seen the mountains at all. Imagine coming all the way to Nepal and not seeing the majestic Himalayan Mountains. We felt very fortunate that the weather had finally cleared and were impatient to finally start our trekking.

Our young guide/porter was called Tilak. He was quiet and shy and spoke only  broken English, but was recommended by our hotel. He said he was 30, but looked about 19. He slept most of the way to Nayapul.

We were supposed to leave at 8:15, but got a late start because Tilak had forgotten our trail hiking permits for which we had paid 200 rupees each and had to surrender another of our precious passport photos. So we had to drive back to the hotel and start over.

We didn’t know it at the time, but this small delay would become a big factor later on.

Trail to Ghandruk
Our goal on the first day was the village of Ghandruk, leaving from Nayapul. Nayapul is the main starting point for the famous 23-day trek of the Annapurna Circuit. Our meager attempt at trekking was to be 3 days – Nayapul to Ghandruk, Ghandruk to Tokla, Tokla to Damphus.

To reach the start of the trail, you drive one and a half hours from Pokhara to Nayapul, weaving around the mountains through the valleys that follow the river. Along the way we stopped by the river where we had a fabulous view of the Annapurna Range – a full frontal of Annapurna South and “Fishtail” mountain or Machhapuchhre. It’s called “Fishtail” because of its split, two-pronged tail-like peak, but this feature can only be viewed from the side during the hike.

The sun had now risen further in the blue sky highlighting the mountains and promising a great day for our trek.

After a two-hour drive over incredibly bad roads (a half hour longer than estimated), we stepped out of the car surrounded by a swarm of tour buses and taxis, and a mob serious trekkers with tons of equipment, hiking poles, camping gear, and heavy-duty winter clothing.

Nayapul (New Bridge)
Nayapul was a rickety, wooden façade of a town – like in a Western movie. We had wanted rustic and we were about to get it. It was like we had taken a trip in a time machine and had stepped into another world. On either side of a dirt lane were decrepit wooden shacks filled with vendors selling water, supplies, chips, pop and wooden hiking sticks. Running about were yapping dogs, chickens, and bare-bottomed babies, all enjoying the warm morning sunshine.

Waiting for their next load, a team of pack mules was tethered to a wood railing in front of a supply store. The mules were gingerly picking up golden kernels of spilled corn from the ground with their lips. They wore odd-looking coloured headgear and ropes, and had large bells around their necks. Later we saw them laden with all manner of heavy packs – large bags of rice, wood, and propane tanks. These pack animals were the only means of transporting the heavy goods that porters couldn’t carry up into the villages in the high Himalayas.

After a 20-minute walk through this maze of a mediaeval village we came to a steep mud slope strewn with large uneven boulder steps. This broken path led to an old swaying suspension bridge and I started to get a feeling this hike wasn’t going to be easy. We thought hiking in Bhutan had prepared us for trekking, but we were about to be surprised.

Naypul means “New Bridge” in Nepalese and, in fact, there was a new bridge made of concrete and steel a little further on. Trekkers and mules had their own older narrow bridges on either side. But the new two-lane bridge in the middle led straight into a stone face and a jumble of boulders and dirt over which we had to scramble. It went nowhere and even four-wheelers couldn’t use it.

At this point the trail split into two – left to the 23-day circuit and right for the shorter trek to Ghandruk and beyond. We went right.

The beginning of the trail is along the raging Modi Khola river, a steely blue torrent of glacial runoff smashing into huge boulders the size of houses and inexorably grinding them into smaller stones.

"Fishtail" Mtn. from the Side
We followed the trail for a half hour or so to the tiny bazaar village of Birethanti where we caught our first fleeting glimpse of ‘Fishtail’ Mountain through the trees. It looked close but was still far, far away.

We started out wearing our Gore-Tex jackets, but quickly removed them and hiked only in our t-shirts as the temperature climbed to 25C in the sun. After an hour we were sweating as we started climbing in earnest.

The trail opened up as we entered a pastoral area with golden rice fields ready for harvesting.

A young boy sat by the side of the trail selling oranges. He kept pointing to his swollen toe imploring us with his eyes to buy an orange, so we did.

Other kids ran up to us saying “Namaste” (the ubiquitous greeting in Nepal meaning both “Hello” and “How are you?”) and putting their hands together in greeting then asking in Nepalese for “chocolate” or money. Not something we want to encourage! In fact, in Bhutan, guides caution tourists not to start this bad practice. Bhutan seems so unspoiled in comparison.

Rice Ready for Harvesting
Other than the western trekkers, most of whom had split off for the longer, much more serious, 23-day Annapurna Circuit, the only people we saw on the trail were school children in their sparkling clean uniforms, old men and women, porters, and people working the rice fields.

The porters were carrying heavy packs, camping gear, backpacks and traditional dokos (wicker baskets) filled with food or firewood. The packs seemed larger than the porters, some only 17 years old. They carried them with a strap wrapped around their forehead, bent over almost in two.

Our other companions on the trail included goats, massive water buffalo with menacing sharp horns, and the aforementioned mules.

Occasionally we would heard the sound of jangling bells and quickly learned that this meant get out of the way – quickly. A mule train was coming around the corner with their funny ribbons, coloured headgear, and heavy packs twice as wide as they were.

Our guide didn’t have to warn us about the dangers of the mule trains, but he cautioned us anyway to stand on the uphill side. Apparently, trekkers have been knocked off the hill more than once by the bulky packs on the mules’ backs. I was nailed once on the arm by a solid wooden frame and from then on held out my camera monopod/walking stick to ward off the beasts.

Get out of the Way!
The worst was when they broke into a gallop if the herder at the back slapped one of the laggards. It didn’t matter then where you were standing, you had to climb up out of the way as Carolann did several times, hoisting herself up onto a stone wall.

Even worse, however, was the pervasive stench of donkey piss and shit. It wasn’t so bad on the rare flat stretch, but the pungent odour was suffocating on the steep stairs when you’re straining to suck enough oxygen in your lungs.

But unlike Bhutan, it wasn’t the altitude or even the steep uphill climb that took its toll on us. In fact, the vertical climb was the same at roughly 900 metres. No, it was the length of the trek that was the problem. We were told it would take about 5 hours on the first day, which we thought was fine. Little did we know that the distance we had to climb was 15 kms UPHILL. At least, that is what Tilak told us in his broken English. It may have been less, but it felt longer. To be honest, we’re casual walkers, not “trekkers,” and by no means would we call ourselves experienced trekkers. Even on flat ground, at sea level, 15 kms would be a lot for me. Up a steep incline at altitude it was a killer. Maybe you should just call us naïve.

I was carrying my camera backpack and my walking stick/camera tripod, the guide carried our small pack with clothes, sleeping bags, toothbrushes, and Carolann carried a light day pack with her small camera, some snacks, and a water bottle.

My camera pack holds my camera, extra battery, filters, extra flash cards, binoculars, Carolann’s Polaroid camera for taking gift photos, and my water bottle. Empty it weighs 5 lbs. 4 oz. (2390g); full it comes in at over 15 lbs. (7kg). As the day wore on, I was thinking maybe we should have hired a second porter!

After two hours of trekking, we were already tired. At bends in the trail, the mountains would appear and then disappear again, winking at us, taunting us, daring us to come closer. It was like they knew we were hurting and they were teasing us. But at least they gave us the motivation we needed to carry on as we panted and sucked air one steep hill after another.

Thankfully there are numerous teahouses and small open-air eateries along the trail where you can stop for lunch, take an “outhouse” break, or buy water. With the thundering Modi Khola river and tall mountains as a backdrop, it was quite pleasant to rest up in these places. They had wooden tables and benches with basic fare, like sandwiches, beer, stirred fried noodles, eggs and rice, and "dal baht" the Nepalese national dish of rice and lentils, all served outdoors in the fresh clean air.
"Carrom Board" Game for Porters

Some of the porters would stop to rest themselves and play a board game called “Carim board.” It was similar to our Crokinole, but without pegs in the centre.

We passed through Syauli Bazaar, a small settlement of Gurungs and Magars with its shanty houses and small inns. Here the trail winds through steep terraced rice fields that flank you on either side right down to the river. Harvesting had begun and it was interesting to stop and watch the women cutting the rice stalks with their scythes then stack them to dry in the sun.

Others were knocking the rice from the stalks by beating them against cloth sheets. Still others were tossing the rice into the air or fanning the piles of grain to separate the chaff from the kernels.

As a final stage, the stalks were piled on the ground, and water buffalo, lashed to a centre pole, were led around in a circle to soften up the stalks so they could be used as winter feed for the animals.

On other steep terraces, red millet was growing. After harvesting, these red seeds were laid out to dry in the sun on mats in front of the stone houses. Harvested beans stalks, leaves and all, were placed on top of the slate roofs of the houses to dry and to keep them away from rodents.

Red Millet
Soon the trail became even steeper and the stone steps more uneven and difficult to navigate. The trails and steps were made by the Gurung people and are paved with large, sometimes flat, sometimes rounded-top stones that make climbing difficult because of their large size and slippery, polished round surfaces.

After the rain of the previous five days we were afraid the entire trail might be slippery, but the sun had dried most of it. In some places, however, the smooth stones were wet with stream water or donkey droppings and we had to watch our step to avoid slipping or stepping into a smelly mess.

All the while, the entrancing view of the mountains was distracting. But I was reminded of a sign we saw on Hua Shan, the holy mountain we climbed in China, that read in English “Look, don’t walk! Walk, don’t look!” And so we watched each step, carefully picking our way around the messy piles and choosing the most secure stone to step on; the one that looked the steadiest, the one that didn’t have any loose stones or sand on it.

Several of the bridges that crossed over the steams that cut across the trail were made from single slabs of stone, 10 to 12 feet long. Others were made of logs and covered with packed earth or crossing wood planks. We treated all of them with caution because of their age and condition. The wooden ones, in particular, had taken quite a beating from the constant pounding of the mule trains.

A little later on we encountered a jumble of rocks and boulders, the aftermath of a huge landslide in 1995 and another last September caused by an earthquake, according to our guide. These were fairly easy to traverse, and the trail was much wider than the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. But Carolann kept looking up at the hillside, wary of another slide that would push us off into the river below.

As if to reassure us, our guide said that he was always listening for the telltale rumblings that would warn us of a landslide. That actually had the opposite effect on Carolann.

Initially we moved along at a good pace – at least for us – and stopped regularly for photos or to buy water. As the afternoon wore on, however, our pace slowed dramatically, our legs hurt and our lungs were burning. The frequent sightings of the snow-capped mountains kept us motivated in spite of the guide’s warning that we still had three hours to go.

And then, despair hit us. At a point roughly two-thirds of the way to Ghandruk, someone had painted the following sign on a rock: “Nayapul 8,848 steps/Ghandruk 4252 steps.” This was truly a killer. We had been trekking for four hours and were only two-thirds of the way.

We still had 4252 steps more – over two hours to go, according to our guide. And by my calculation this meant we would arrive after sunset around 6:30, in the dark! Our late start and slow pace were coming back to haunt us.

At some point, as we climbed another set of hundreds of stone steps – I don’t remember where because I was concentrating so hard on the placement of my feet that I couldn’t look at the stunning scenery – I started counting the steps by 10s and then stopping to catch my breath. When we were still an hour from the top and facing still more hundreds of steep steps, I was so tired that I started taking only five steps at a time and then I had to stop and rest. My heart was pounding, my lungs ached and I wanted to sit down, but by then the sun was starting to set.

Annapurna South at Sunset
I have to say, however, that the view of Annapurna South at 7,219 metres (23,684 ft) and “Fishtail” at 6,993m (22,943ft) is spectacular. In spite of our exhaustion and fear of having to hike the trail in the dark, we just had to steal looks at the peaks as the sun set and lit up the snow-covered mountains in flames of gold and orange. “Spectacular!” Deep breath. “Stunning!” Deep breath. “Tell me again why we’re doing this!” Deep breath.

But night was quickly falling and the trail, which up until then had been quite warm, was getting chilly. We had been dressed only in t-shirts, but, as the sun set, the wind picked up and carried a cold winter chill down upon us from the glaciers. We stopped and put on our Gore-Tex jackets again.

Our guide had gone on ahead and we were now getting concerned about finding the trail and our footing in the dark. Luckily it was a full moon and moonlight guided the way. If we hadn’t been so exhausted, it would have been quite romantic with the moon glinting off the snowy peaks and Venus shining just below it. But then we had to go back to carefully putting one foot in front of the other. We climbed the last 200 metres in the dark.

Finally at the top, we discovered that the guesthouse we had thought our tour agent had booked in advance was all full, and we had to move to one even higher on the mountain.

After a thankful 10-minute delay, while our guide found the key and then pounded on the door to get someone to open, we were led to our Spartan room and flopped down on a hard, bare mattress.

But this was only for a minute. We cleaned up with the cold water in the tiny bathroom and prepared for dinner.

The dining room was a plain sitting area with long wooden tables for eight. The food was basic and dull, rice with vegetables, chicken curry, or “dal bhat” the Nepalese national dish of rice and lentils.
As the last to arrive, we took the only two seats left with a quiet group of four others. No one was talking. Even as tired as I was, I was determined to change that.

I engaged the others in conversation and discovered that the “quiet” looking couple were Lebanese, but living and working in Abu Dabi; she as an architect and he as an engineer. The more animated couple were from France and Monaco; she was a recently divorced Californian and wannabe actress living in Paris and he was a young Italian originally from Milan and now a rich banker in Monte Carlo.

Soon table talk became animated. We talked about the difficult trek, the Middle East, France, and Canada. We discovered that the Italian was in Asia to see a Formula 1 race, but couldn’t get tickets so decided to come to Nepal at the last minute. His Ralph Lauren bag was stuffed into a backpack he had hastily bought in Kathmandu. After Nepal, he was on his way to another Formual 1 race in Abu Dabi. It turned out that his partner had been married to a Lebanese and spoke fluent Lebanese Arabic. What a small world.

It wasn’t long before we learned that the Lebanese woman was a gifted singer. With a bit of teasing and coaxing from me, she was persuaded to sing a Lebanese love song for us and it rocked the room. She had a tremendous, lovely voice.

Upon hearing the singing, our “shy” guide Tilak came over. I asked if he could sing a Nepalese trekking song for us. I thought he would decline, but he suddenly grabbed another guide who took up a traditional Nepalese drum called a “madal” and the two began to sing wonderfully melodious mountaineering songs. This shy young man also had a lovely voice.

The evening turned out to be the second best thing about our trek, after the mountain viewing. It was one of those rare, magical moments that appear out of nowhere, like the smoke from a Genie’s lamp, and transform an ordinary evening into an unforgettable experience. Another wow moment!

Sunset on the Trail
We retired to bed, leg sore and weary. The room was damp and cold, but we had rented sleeping bags from our hotel in Pokhara and had also brought along our own silk liners for them. Thank goodness because the single cover was thin and dirty. We wore our Marino wool shirts and long underwear to keep warm. But we were too tired to care about the conditions and slept like logs in spite of the cold.

The next morning, we discovered that not only did we not have any hot water, we didn’t have any water at all. I had to hike back down the hill to a spring outlet and wait for a young boy to brush his teeth and wash his feet in order to fetch water to flush the toilet. It was only a couple of hundred steps down, but hard to climb back up with a full bucket of ice cold water.

Then before breakfast we hauled ourselves up another series of steps for 20 minutes to a look out at the high point in the village of Ghandruk to watch the sunrise. The morning light lit up the snow and glaciers on Annapurna South and “Fishtail” like torches.
View from Ghandruk just after Sunrise
It was truly special.

After breakfast, we faced a hard decision. Our original plan was to hike straight down to the bottom of the valley, then climb back up the steep mountain on the other side to the small village of Tokla for our second night.

When we reached the fork in the trail a half hour after our start, our guide still hadn’t been able to book a room in the village of Tokla. Faced with the prospect of no room, or at best another cold night in a room with no bathroom or no water, we weighed our options.

Tokla on the Other Side of the Valley
The view of the mountains would be the same for the next two days of trekking, so there would be little to gain by going down a 1,000 metres only to climb back up another 1,000 metres to stay in a damp, cold room with no water, if we could even get a room.

Little to gain for lots of pain. We opted to follow my brother-in-law Jim’s motto, which says, “No pain, no pain,” and headed back down 15 km to the start of the trail at Nayapul and drive back to the relative comfort of Pokhara.

But going down was faster, not necessarily easier – stepping down onto loose rocks was tricky. And not less painful; it was harder on the shins and our toes kept jamming into our boots. Ouch!

In the end though, we were glad we had done the trek. It wasn’t a major trek, but it was more than enough for us. The weather was ideal, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. We had a memorable evening with fellow international travellers and had seen Annapurna up close and personal as we had wanted to.

Now on to the next adventure – wherever that might be.


bigginsfish said...

Dan and Carolann,

Thanks so much for the stories and pictures. We loved them. We read it to the girls and they don't know if they will go with you on your next hike. They like the idea of mule piss and shit to roll in, all the great smell, and people to meet. However, they thought the hike was a little long and they like a warm place to sleep. They are still up for a walk on Long Bay Rd.

It was great seeing pictures of you guys. You guys are fantastic writers. You bring us the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of your adventures.

Take care and be safe.

Dick and Margaret

jamesanderson said...

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