If you have trekked the Annapurna Circuit, or something of the sort, you may not like this tale. The enthusiasts have called me a cheater, a slow poke, and a rule breaker (not in the good way), but I never claimed to be a trekking enthusiast and never agreed to the rules anyway. I just like new experiences and testing the waters, sure.
The Annapura circuit is a well-trod path that takes one through small Nepali villages and holy sites for Buddhist and Hindus alike. You walk through the most breath-taking scenery imaginable. Massive waterfalls daily, lush forests of pine, steep cliff edges prone to landslides, snow covered mountains, multi-hour climbs that make you feel like your heart may go ahead of you on the trail- it’s beating so fast. You stay in small lodges called teahouses. Each run by a family which generally let you stay for free if you agree to purchase dinner and breakfast. You could compare guesthouses by a few main points.
• Do they charge for the room?
• How much is their Dal Bhat?
• Did you see the bathroom? Where is it?
• Will they let us charge our camera for free?
• If there is a hot shower, is the water really warm, or just warm enough to be called not-cold?
The prices increase greatly the higher you go, as the harder food is to transport up. A big discussion point on the trail is the roads they are developing where only a path was previously. If taken, these roads cut out three-fourths of the trek, which has veterans screaming and wailing. At the highest levels porters and horses are the main movers of goods. What the tiny porters can carry makes you feel like you should be able to run up these hills, but their strength trumps, out of pure genetics and culture.
The mission of most who chose to trek the Annapurna circuit is to cross over the Thorong La pass reaching a height of 5,416 meters, or 17,769 feet only accessible by foot or horse. It’s the main attraction, the whole purpose, why on earth would you just walk around through the villages and not go to the pass? It’s the Annapurna Taj Mahal for goodness sake!
I started planning in Pokhara. There is a trekking service named 3 Sisters which offers female-only guides and porters and proceeds in return give back to the prosperity of women in Nepal which is much needed. They helped me plan my route. I really just chose the first one recommended, not really sure of any of the details of the itinerary. I bought a book and on the way out of town, a map, 20 granola bars, a jar of high-shakti wild honey, some peanut butter and some mini-snickers and boarded the bus to Besisahar. I still didn’t have anyone to walk with and hadn’t put much effort into networking to find a group either. I knew if I was meant to walk with people, I would, otherwise I would walk alone and that would be just as fabulous. After a few hours tacked onto the trip because of a suspension problem on the bus, I arrived in Besisahar as the sun was making its final debut of the day. I asked a local where the trekkers congregate, hoping to meet anyone who had any idea of what they were doing, because I sure didn’t. We walk which way? Do I really need waterproof pants? I reach the top of the main road after a few minutes and the first person I see, sitting, playing cards, is Merlin. Now, I had been in the same camp as Merlin at the Kumbh Mela in India (see previous K.M. post) and also ran into to him in Pushkar for the Holi festival, dancing vigorously, covered in orange, pink, and blue powder. Merlin, yes! So nice to see you!
Merlin had his friend from Germany with him, Jan, and they offered to let me walk with them, at least the first few days, to get my bearings. We set off in high spirits down through the gorges, passing small villages, horses, goats, and children throwing flower pedals at us and asking for sweets. Par for the course, my backpack was absurdly over packed and I had intentionally ‘packed light’. I felt like Katz in Bill Bryson’s, A Walk in the Woods. I wanted to chuck everything out of my pack over the cliff side but I genuinely smiled and walked on. We hiked to a ridge that overlooked the Marsyangdi River and we could see where we should be and we had missed a turn. We backtracked down through a small village. The people looked glad, but a little confused to see us. They kept asking us where we were going but communication was tough and we just kept walking. After a few attempts and head nods we gave up and kept going, yes, yes. We met with a long, steep staircase that had varying widths of slippery stair tops. It took about 25 minutes to get down and all the concentration you had. By the time I reached the bottom, I told my German gang, man, I am glad that is over, I can really feel it in my ankle. They gave me a look of compassion and broke the news that we were, in fact, on the correct trail initially and we needed to turn around and walk right back up those stairs. My mind revolted. I could see across the river where every once in a while Jeeps flew by bouncing off one rock to the next. I felt like an idiot trudging up and down these hills with this heavy pack while within sight are these man-machines zipping past full of all the power I seemed to lack. Something about it didn’t seem smart, but this, my friend, is trekking, right?
Our second night we arrived right as a big storm was blowing in. Wind and rain that could knock you over battered against the one sheet of wood that separated our beds from the outside weather at the teahouse located on the tiny ledge of a cliff. My collarbones and hips were raw from my backpack straps and I waddled more than I walked, as my legs were stiff from the alarm of this drastic change in activity. I needed some honey scoops to help sooth what ailed me. In the dark, due to lack of electricity, I unzipped my pocket of the pack where my secret stash was and reached for the honey. A thick, cold, gooey mess had saturated my bag and most of what was inside. Lesson number one. Well, if they can’t have honey, give them…. peanut butter! You can’t mess up peanut butter, plus I wanted it gone so I could be lighter on my feet. I took a spoonful, imagining the good crunchy peanut butter I could eat for days. I was thinking back to the good ole days of honey roasted Earth Fare freshness. This was not it. There was something off about this peanut butter, so I had another spoonful just to check. Made in India. Okay, that’s not unusual- everything here comes from India. I read on. Peanuts, oil, rapeseed and sugar. Rapeseed? That’s the culprit. After much discussion Merlin deemed it passable, so it joined his pack never to be seen again.
I trekked with the German gang a few more days when we met up with an Australian group in their early twenties that had just finished cycling to Nepal from Thailand and they wanted to work a different group of muscles. How nice. Needless to say, I fell behind. I just couldn’t keep up, I didn’t want to keep up. I wanted to stop, catch my breath, look around and move slowly, as I needed to. This was not enjoyable. At all. Even as a grown adult, tears came to my eyes. Why am I doing this to myself, again? We passed through a small village about lunchtime and the boys pushed on. I gave them a wave from behind to move on and leave me there. I was starving and there wasn’t much convincing me to go any farther. This is where I met my first big group of Israelis. They had taken a jeep up and were only on day two of their walk. For lunch they had light food, beer and smoked their herbs. Whoa. How were they going to make it through this? I am doing everything by the book (except the packing rules) and killing myself each day and here they are having the time of their life, porters in tow and owning a buzz, or Rush, as they call it.
As I walked out of the village I took a wrong turn and ended up on the side of the river with the road. A purposeful accident, so to say. A landslide had just occurred and there were rocks covering the road so all vehicles were stopped, waiting. Some men were spinning their wheels in their offer to help move the rocks. The rocks were more like boulders and about 15 men would get behind one and strain to push it down the hill while everyone was waiting for the bulldozer to arrive. We had time to get to know one another and this is where I met my bike gang, my salvation. Two young Israelis Arnon and Raz, fresh from the obligatory Israeli Army of three years had bought bikes in Delhi and drove them over the border. An Australian, Arran, who had his motorbike shipped over to Kathmandu and is taking 6 months to drive to London. Sometimes it is not just the scenery.
I still had another two and a half hours to walk by the guidebook, which meant about 4 hours Beth-speed. It was already about 2pm and the weather was turning. With enough time to mingle with all the jeeps waiting to pass, I found myself a ride up to Tal by the time the road cleared. It was fabulous but also nerve racking. Seated beside me in the middle was a stoic Russian woman, on her right was a Nepali older boy, holding the woman’s 5 year old son as he dangled out the window, shouting- as we made our way along the side of the cliffs. If one rock shifted under our tires we would have been eggs in a washing machine. The driver and the Russian woman were sharing a joint. They let me off on a ridge that overlooked the village and I hiked down. Right when I arrived on the outskirts of town along comes the bike gang. The air snapped with the roar of their loud Indian Enfield engines. I gave a big welcome wave and threw my pack on and we paraded into the village of Taal. It was a pretty big event.
I connected with these two young Israelis like I would have never imagined. We shared the same humor and similar Indian experiences. They were light on life and silly, which I love. Raz, who I remember from a days hike earlier is not only tough but has the sentiment of a rabbit. Arnon is fueled with a fire that makes his nose crinkle and lips curl when he speaks truth. It doesn’t help that his brown hair curls around his cap as he makes wise cracks and states his age, 21. Dang it. Arnon, having given his drivers license to Raz to use for the trip so he was using sliding through check points with his diving license. Not one official noticed the lack of a letter in the title of the laminated diver’s permit. Arran, on the other hand, harnessed strong opinions with a first world viewpoint. It didn’t help that Americans were his main target, but that is just a side-note to the list of targets. It is easy to find in someone else the parts that get under your skin. Too easy. But this, as like most in life, is a point where you know your work lies. For these aspects of another are typically the same parts of you that you would like to shed, but haven’t yet. Fortunately, they are big and blaring, like someone shouting in your face, otherwise we may miss them.
The village men all woke early and gathered along the rock wall in front of our guesthouse to see them ride out the next morning. It was endearing. I was to meet them in Manang, the gateway and altitude-acclimatizing village before the Thorung Pass. It would take them two days by bike. By foot it would take me 4 days if I followed along at a swift speed. I thought of my options. Waited a day for no reason other than I wanted one more day in Tal and I could do some laundry and read. Then headed out by foot along a beautiful trail on a sunny, crisp day. Passed the huge waterfall onto a trail along the river and then over a wobbling suspension bridge that was fun to hop on in the middle. The bridge, as with most, was covered with Tibetan prayer flags. After about an hour, a gravel truck passed. My first vehicle sighting of the day! I stuck out my thumb just to see what would happen and boom! They stopped. I motioned, Can I get in the back? A head nod was given in return and I threw my pack into the gravel and climbed in. Sometimes locals will ask for money but these guys seemed to enjoy having a tourist gal in the back, bouncing around in the gravel, taking photos. We rode for a while then they stopped for lunch, I secretly bought the driver his meal and that got me a ticket to the front of the truck with the road workers. As if on cue the rain started, just a wet drizzle that soaked everything and everyone who had hopped on the back as well.
I was taken as far as they were going then dropped in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. It was a steep road up, covered in pine trees with rain and a mighty cascading waterfall. It was heavenly. I imagined Maine or maybe even Washington. I walked another hour then a jeep came speeding by. My thumb leapt out and I was in a dry and fast jeep barreling upwards to Chame, which is the farthest you can visit without a motorbike, horse or two good feet. A guy in the jeep owned a guesthouse so we stayed with him and helped to celebrate the Nepali New Year. We could only celebrate quietly as someone had passed away in the village so no music could be played. I had made up two days of walking in one day, I could relax now.
So yes, I could have walked to Manang. I could have. But a motorbike ride was found easily and I high tailed it up to town. I really just wanted to meet up with the bike gang. I enjoyed their company and it’s all about the people, not the place. Ultimately, the people end up being the place. I reached Manang the next day to find the guys back from a day trek. There were some trekkers sitting outside the lodge when I got off the motorbike, Hey! Where did you come from? That’s cheating! I told them that I wasn’t familiar with the Annapurna-how much you have to hike it- rulebook. It is only cheating if you are a trekker, and I, am clearly, not.
I joined the crew and they started to plan their assent up to the pass. They thought it was funny that I had hitched and biked it up and that’s why I love them. Everyone along the way would talk about the two Israelis and how can they possibly just bike up? They would surely reach their demise over the pass as they have not done the proper prep-work, the training. Little did they know these three. At that time I was just so thrilled to be able to view this remote part of the world and sit in the beauty of it all.
I still wasn’t sure I wanted to make the trek over the pass but I couldn’t let up now. To walk any farther would be blasphemy. I was plotting an attack on Annapurna where I wouldn’t have to walk it at all. Maybe I could hire a porter and hop in the backpack much like you hear people say, Oh, just put me in your suitcase. Or just ride in one of their baskets they tote. Or I could payoff a small group of children, one for the head, two to carry each limb and three for my torso. It would be helping the local economy. I had to think on this one.
Manang was bone-chilling cold but beautiful. You were snuggled right into the snowy Himalayas. Our salvation in the village were the bakeries with chocolate croissants, strong-flavored Yak cheese, and the two projector halls that played movies like, 7 years in Tibet, Slumdog Millionaire and Into the Wild. In a woodstove heated small room, you sat on tiered wooden benches covered with fur. A fourth of the way through the movie they would pause it and serve popcorn and hot black tea with a spoonful if sugar if you wished. This was a great escape from reality.
The Bike Gang, was now capitalized, and known throughout town. One morning a local guesthouse owner asked for help with his motorbike. It had been out of commission for 6 days and he needed to make a run for supplies and was out of luck. Arran and Arnon went to help. They were able to fix the problem by taking the carburetor apart and in the afternoon we did a day hike to the surrounding mountains trying to get used to the altitude. It is better to hike up during the day and sleep low. On our cave hike of about 3 hours up we reached a monastery where we found a monk alone on the mountaintop. He blessed us and let us take salvation in the monastery. The guys hiked up and I stayed behind to meditate in the small rock cut-out. When in Rome. We were still at the summit when it turned 4:30. We raced down and by the time we hit the village and were beat, freezing and glad to be back. The man whose motorbike the gang had fixed was headed out of town with a smile and gratitude. He said his wife would love to cook us dinner, how many did we have? Four, okay, no problem. We went to his guesthouse, sat and had coffee and waited. The common meal on the trail is Dal Bhatt. It is rice, dal (lentils), and a curry of potato or vegetables, a papadom (remember, these? You only get ONE!- first post) and some spicy pickles. It is always hot, ready and filling. This is what we expected to be served. But it was taking so damn long. What is going on here? We were sweaty but cold, stinky and tired. Then, the clouds parted, Nirvana had been reached as the boy brought the Yak steak sizzlers. Now after almost 6 months of very little meat this yak steak sizzling in front of me covered with a cream gravy adorned with thick fried potatoes and a salad that resembled a blanched coleslaw was more than any of us ever thought heaven could taste like. Kudos to the Bike Gang charity foundation of motorbike fixing! Kings/Queen for a night.
The day drew near as the Australian, Arran, had to be out of the country some time in May. This is April. He had to rush. Everything was rushed. I left my big bag in Manag and bought a cheap North Face knockoff smaller bag. The plan was to summit with the bike gang and then back track to Manang to retrieve my big bag and their bikes. It was going to be cold. And it was.
The next day we headed out. I felt fantastic. The sun was shining and the hike was beautiful and not overly torturous. Up and down, along a mountainside with stunning views of white jagged peaks. One of the real, true rules on the Annapurna is to not buy animal products. All the locals wear fox, goat or sheep fur to stay warm and it seems as though it works well. Of course, we had to ask around to see if there were any for purchase. Rule-breakers. No, these items are made by family, passed down, not possible. Well, as luck would have it, on our trek out to the next Village beyond Manang in a village called Gunsang sat a woman selling these fabulous hats. I picked out a huge goat fur fro for $5. Goat not dead, just sheared. Along the trail the locals looked in admiration. Finally, some trail-cred.
We arrived in Yak Kharta, the first stop along the pass. As we had our lunch of fried macaroni, trust me it was the best option at the moment, the sky once again faded to grey. It suddenly became frigid. There was nowhere to hide. Most of the teahouses have woodstoves that you gather around but in the early evening the fires are not yet lit. We were high up and only getting higher. I had showered once in the past few days and it was more of a deed than an enjoyable experience. I turned to Raz and said, I think I am ready to go home. The words came out before I thought but they rang true and as attempted to sleep that night (the altitude allows a very light sleep if any) my mind kept going back to why I would say that. Why do I feel the pressure to go on? I am already satisfied. I am already in awe of what I have seen, where I have walked (or not walked) and what I have done. Why freeze? To get what? Okay, so I reach the pass, get the photo made. Reach the goal, the big time, to be successful? This is my trip, this is my dream state, I get to choose and reaching the top, even it was only 2 days out after 10 days of some-what work, is not my goal and never really was. Sometimes the top is not even the best part. The time in-between is. It would be great to show you the picture of me at the top of the Annapurna Thorung La Pass, but alas, I will not unless I photo-shop it.
That evening we had the most truthful discussion of the trip. As the four Amigos, yes there were really four, we sat around a luke-warm fire with an 84 year old-man who had summited everything from Everest to Kilimanjaro and was now going up on a horse to the of Annapurna again, and we talked about relationships. How Arran and I and had failed them and how Arron and Ras has yet to achieve them. It was pointed out how crucial it is to learn to love yourself before you are capable of giving the love you want in return. This is old news folks, but few of us follow through, really. An examined life is a painstakingly hard pill to swallow when you have knowledge of all your ups and downs, of your failures and passes. Who’s to really say but yourself and I don’t trust that even. What I call good and bad really is not even so, not real, not my Truth. Easy to know and hard to remember.
That night, my sweet friend, Arrran from Australia, who I had grown to love and appriecate, is sharing a bone-chilling room with me on the other side. Between chattering teeth Arran says, “Let me ask you a philosophical question.” I prepared myself for the worst.
“How does one learn to love themselves?”
I had never had the responsibility designated to answer a question such as this. It was a pivotal moment in my entire trip. This guy, who I had occasionally put off for being a hard headed, know-it-all had shown his beautiful softer side. I couldn’t help but love him and could only say that I couldn’t answer that right way. I stayed up half the night writing in my journal. It was one of those questions that is as good for me as it was for him to contemplate. So I thought, and I sat in silence. I still don’t have it mastered as I quaver now and again. But I gave him the best I could at the time I could and my love for him grew, as did my love for myself.
The next morning I was clear in my decision. I wanted to go down. I wanted to be warm, have a shower and a break. Back home to Pohkara it would be. Sounds easy, right? I broke the news to the Bike Gang. Raz had a few words with me about how I should push on but I explained it really wasn’t that important to me and I wasn’t just making excises. Arnon thought I was just kidding till I hugged him goodbye and saw the shock come over his face. Arran accepted it with ease and was disappointed that he would have to be the one to play catch-up on the trail now. He had been a good hiking partner for me. We parted ways and I hiked back towards Manang.
As I hiked, I cried, as I am known to do. I cried to leave the bike gang, I cried because of the sheer beauty of it all. I cried for love of humans, of life and of opportunity. These were true tears of gratitude. When we had hiked this same trail the day before we had said, won’t this make a beautiful hike down? It was. I passed all the groups of trekkers I had seen all along the way. They all wanted to know why I was going down. I simply said, this part of the trek is so beautiful, so nice, I think I would like to do it twice. It reminded me of Caroline Pond and her fabulous energy.
I can always go back. I may never, but I could. If I needed to.
A long, humbling, and exhausting downhill motorbike ride brought me to Chame in the rain. I met some great locals who showed me the local flair as an archery competition was underway. I stayed another day to shoot photos.
Then caught a jeep ride down through all the places I had painstakingly hiked up, which would only be the first part. We left at 7am and I was assured by the Isreali brother and sister team we would be to Besisahar by noon to catch a bus to Pokhara. Eleven and a half hours later in the back of an open jeep with my brains and bones slammed in every direction, two breakdowns and a flat tire, we reached Besisahar. We hopped in a split cab to Pokhara and now I am back in civilization. For the better, absolutely.
This just in- Dinner with the Bike gang in Pokhara. As soon as I departed their company in Yak Karka big storms rolled in. Whiteouts with blankets of snow adorned straight up-hill hikes. The Pass was a good experience, overall, but cloudy which obscured the views and I missed a card game or two. I hope they were just playing it down for me but I get the distinct feeling, they weren’t. Sometimes bailing is your best option. True, tried and tested.