Thursday, October 13, 2011

Namaste - Annapurna Circuit

Namaste is roughly equivalent to "greetings" or "good day," in English, implicitly with the connotation "to be well" and i think i said it about 5000 times over my 12 days in the Annapurna region.

The Annapurna Circuit sees thousands of foreign trekkers every year. It's route snakes thru lush valleys and up to arid peaks, passing Buddhist and Tibetan villages and even some Hindu holy sites. It can take as little as 17 days to complete the entire circuit (or 10-12 days to do the first half, like we did), or as long as one wants to wander within the mountain range. You could very easily take your time and spend months without once leaving the circuit.  

When planning the trek Amy and i decided that we would take no guide and no porter.

Day 2 views.
Essentially that meant we had no translator, no one to show us any cool short cuts or give us some background info and most importantly no one to carry our shit. Anything we brought with us would ride in our packs or on our persons from the start till the very end.  Thru the process of brutal elimination we managed to cut our pack weight to about 10 pounds each, taking only essentials (and a couple of toys, can't lie) and warmer clothing for the higher altitudes we would enter.

The Annapurna circuit used to be done in a clockwise fashion, starting at Phedi and passing Jomson before hitting the pass. Most people travel it counter clockwise nowadays and we decided to do the same, for a couple of reasons.

Hop hop hop.

A - there is a "road' that has been under development from Phedi to Jomsom and from Jomson to Mulktinah for a few years now, making the clockwise route busier and less pleasant than it used to be. Jeeps and buses do not make for interesting trekking buddies.
B- tackling the pass counterclockwise is easier, the climb less steep, which is a blessing since the pass was FUCKING HARD enough.

We set off out of Pokhara early on the first day, and took another one of those terrible third world bus rides to Besisahar, the entry point into the circuit. (for those of you with no knowledge of the region and who never intend on doing this trek im sure the town and village names will mean next to nothing.

A waterfall runs thru it.
apologies in advance.) This particular bus ride stands out as it introduced me to the idea of Nepalese personal space, as in...there is no such concept. The bus was over loaded, about 20 seats and maybe 30 people packed in. At one point i had a Nepalese gentleman decide to come over and talk to his buddy, who was sitting in the aisle next to me. Without asking or even looking back he proceeds to wriggle his ass in front of my face for a bit than sits on my armrest and gently reclines into my shoulder, turning me into his personal armchair. Now, in NYC if you tried to pull this shit on the subway your ass is going to get smacked, or worse. Someone, probably someone having a bad day, will very quickly show you the error of your personal space invading ways. So i tapped this person on the elbow and tried, with hand gestures, to explain why i was not comfortable with his actions.

What a place to have lunch...
He gave me a queer look, stood up for a second and then leaned on back of my headrest, forcing my entire body forward. sigh. i couldn't win. thankfully i was going someplace without cars or buses for the next 2 weeks.

Anyway, 5 hours later we were out of the bus, packs on our back, taking our first steps into the Annapurna circuit. i had waited for this moment for a very long time and a low thrum of excitement was building up within me. Almost immediately we met a couple from Canada and fell in step with them. John and Kristen would be our shadows for the next week or so. We did not share the same pace and they wanted to take their time on the trek, but we ran into each other almost daily for the next 8 days. They entertained us with stories of their travels around Asia over Dahl and dinner time tea.

Mischievous little Nepali girl.

I have a tradition of starting every hike/trek by searching out a suitable piece of wood to act as staff and pole. In Peru i found that bamboo makes for a perfect walking stick. It's light weight and strong with a flex i find perfect for my needs. Thankfully i located just such bamboo pole within minutes of undertaking our journey and it would be my constant companion for the next 12 days.

The circuit starts at 800 meters altitude and climbs every day until the ultimate ascent into the Thorong La Pass which looms at a hefty 5,450 meters above sea level. In comparison the Empire State Building stands at a total height of 380 meters. Mt McKinley in Alaska, the highest peak in the USA, has a total height of 6194 meters. One last piece of trivia.

Typical village along the early part of the trail.
..the human body process 53% less oxygen at an altitude of 5000 meters.

On day one we started far below the cloud line. It was nearing the end of monsoon season, but that still meant it was humid and wet every inch in the lower valleys. We slowly made our way thru lush hills and over swollen rivers, into and out of bamboo forests and along muddy mucky leech inhabited track. The little bastards are sneaky, they get on your shoe as you pass over a puddle or step into some mud and crawl inside, numbing the area they sink their slimy mouth over before sucking your blood. Finding them on our persons was always an unpleasant experience. Sometimes the trail would vanish under a rushing stream and we'd take our shoes off to walk over wet stone, sometimes it would be enveloped by a waterfall, which had to be traversed with utmost care.

That's the trail...and that's a waterfall.
We skipped from rock to rock with our packs on our backs like Mario and Luigi, except without the benefit of one ups or extra lives. At one point, on the second day of our journey, the trail wove its way into a hillside which was nothing but gold and silver speckled mud. This giant hill of mud perplexed us greatly. Every sign of the path disappeared and when i made the mistake of putting my foot into the muck.  I sank down to my ankle, and probably would have lost my shoe if Amy handn't yanked me back onto a rock. We gingerly navigated some half immersed boulders after watching a couple of locals make their way thru the mud.

Each night saw us staying in a different village along the trail. All of our accommodations were pretty basic and we learned to appreciate small things like thicker sponge mattresses, walls without cracks to let the critters or the cold night wind inside, a "shower" that ran from tepid to warm as opposed to stone cold to still cold, a squat hole that didn't stink TOO badly.

Dah Bhat. Yum!
Dinner (and for me usually lunch) consisted of dahl bat a local dish of rice, soupy lentils, curried potatoes, and something pickled, usually something i could not identify. It was all food found in the ecosystem and eating it was akin to consuming pure energy. My body grew accustomed to the fare. I stopped feeding it booze and meat, and my intestines responded in a happy fashion. My only vices were the occasional soda consumed for a quick burst of sugar, my small hoard of snicker bars, and the cigarettes that i foolishly brought up with me. In retrospect i wish i had left those behind but they were available everywhere and at prices cheaper than almost anything else you could purchase. A pack of cigs cost less than a chocolate bar, much to my confusion.

Everyday we climbed higher into the hills and everyday we saw the climate around us change.

Lower Pisang, day 5.
The bamboo forests gave way to pine, the rain came only at night, the humidity declined, and the mosquitoes disappeared altogether. Low valley gave way to middle hills, muddy track to dusty path. At some point we started to catch glimpses of the snow capped mountains looming to the north, and they were beacons. The trail would turn and dip into a valley, the peaks would vanish, but we knew they were there in front of us, waiting. The very land seemed to expand at some point, and we walked past fields of wheat and pasture for horse grazing where before we traversed along tiered rice paddy and river.

We met many a trekker on our journey, and for every two tourists a local porter or guide. Some of the porters were carrying far more than they should have been, an over sight by the tourists that hired them and the greedy trek companies that organized the trips.

A day before Manang.
We met porters who were carrying not one but two or three suitcases on their backs, all using a sort of sling harness that went over their foreheads. Now, i understand that some people just NEED to bring extra food, extra fleece, extra make up, extra whatever the hell have you but really a suitcase? That's plain irresponsible and flat out wrong. Leave your fucking Gucci luggage in the hotel and invest in a proper bag, if you are using a porter, please! These stopped locals made their way up the path faster than the locals, but ultimately i question whether the toll on their bodies is worth the meager earnings they pocket. Even worse were the accommodations these local porters were subjected too. Every hostel and tea house had a "Nepli Room" which was usually the worst room in the establishment lined end to end with twin beds, so that the porters slept side by side in absolutely zero comfort, with no blankets or pillows.

Coming upon Manang.
None of the porters i communicated with seemed to think anything was out of place and that just pissed me off more. These are people, not mules. I took a tiny comfort in knowing that we hadn't exploited a local in this fashion, but it was purely a moral victory. And in the end we had to hire someone for the last leg of our trip.

Day six and seven saw us staying in Manang, a small village resting at 3,700 some odd meters. We were advised to stay there and acclimatize to the altitude and so we did, using the day to rest, sipping tea, taking in the spectacular mountain views and reading in leisure.

The road grew harsher after those two days, the air thinner, the nights colder. The cold mountain air rubbed our throats and sinuses raw until we were all producing thick mucus and a dry persistent cough.

Buckwheat grows while the mountains look on.
We took to sleeping in multiple layers, under the heavy local blankets, and we were still cold. I have a hard time getting real REM at altitude and my nights were filled with disjointed but epic dreams. I found my brain going back to my days working at the New York Post every night, much to my puzzlement. As entertaining as the dreams sometimes were i wished for some real sleep.

At the end of each day we would consult the map to hart our progress and we would see Thorong Pass approaching, looming ahead of us like some final boss in a video game. We knew that soon we would have to face the 1000 meter ascent.

That day came on the 11th of the trek. It started at 430 on a frigid morning in the Himalayas. Breakfast was tea and a couple of boiled eggs, my usual.

View from hostel in Manang.
By this point we had hired a porter for the final leg of the journey. Amy and i split up our stuff, leaving one bag a bit lighter than the other, and rotated carrying it while our porter hefted the heavier of the two. This proved to be an ironic decision. We attempted a 200 meter initial ascent in the dark morning hours but the altitude got to Amy, inflicting her with nausea, shortness of breath and a general inability to climb higher. We descended back down and waited a few minutes before trying again. This time we made more progress but again the altitude gain was too quick. If we had an extra day to acclimatize i have absolutely no doubt that Amy would have conquered the pass on her own, but we did not want to spend another frigid night in the desolate "village" of Thorong Phedi (really just two hostels and a couple of yaks) nor did we want to risk an acute onset of altitude sickness so we decided that the porter would accompany Amy back down to find a horse and that i would proceed on foot.

Climbing towards Thorong Phedi, a few hours out of Manang.
We split up our gear right there on the moonlit slope so that i carried as little as possible on my back. I watched Amy and our porter them make their way down the hill until they became dark specks. 

Alone for the first time on the trek i ascended, step by tiny step. The going was slow, the air painfully thin. I made sure to keep my breathing under control, not too deep less i hyperventilate, not too shallow and too fast lest the same happen. I created mantras in my head, distracted my brain with thoughts of Jaime meeting Un-Cat, and used some blaring hip hop as motivation. Allow me to re-introduce myself you fucking steep ass path! Jay-Z as a motivator struck me as hilarious at that moment but the beats kept me going.

Hours passed, the sun came up to keep me company, and my left foot stepped slowly in front of my right, my forward weight leaning on my bamboo pole.

Getting close to the pass.
I rested often and took in the spectacular mountain views on all sides while eating my last three snickers. Even eating had to be slow and methodical at altitude or you suddenly found yourself with a mouthful of chocolate gasping for air. My first trip into altitude in the Andes last year left me vomitting and feverish, mewling like a little babe. I was determined not to let that happen this time around.

This is how i found myself sitting on a small rock, face to face with the snow caps and some of the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas. I was overcome with a sense of awe, a humbleness bordering on servitude. The mountain was all that existed and i was its little bitch. I exalted in the feeling, in being a small tiny creature climbing a giant king of a rock, of doing something that a year ago had bested me.

We made it!
I thanked whatever willpower had me still on my feet, and continued on. Five hours after i took my first steps that day i found myself clearing one last camel back, one last false summit, and there it was. Thorong Pass.

It was all downhill from there, literally. 1500 meters straight down, which is pretty painful in it's own right. I pity anyone with a bad knee attempting that descent so quickly after the uphill slog. As i write this, sitting in a small internet cafe in Pokhara 48 hours after the fact my legs are still sore, still hurts to stand up, to walk up stairs.

The trail took us down the other side of the pass to a small town of Mulktinah. Mulktinah is connected via the "road" i mentioned at the start, and it's impact is instantly visible.

Downhill form here.
The village is filled with motorbikes and packaged goods, loud, dusty, and perverse after the peace and solitutde we found on the other side of the pass. On the far end we located a jeep depot with dozens of jeeps waiting to take us down the dirt road to Jomsom. We decided to take the first available car south, somewhat disillusioned by what we found, and hauled ass to Jomson. We spent the night in a quite hostel and engage in conversation with its owner over dinner. Turns out he lives in California and has a restaurant in the Nappa Valley. He told us a bit about the history of the town and bemoaned the stingy tourists the circuit has been attracting recently. He shook his head sadly while telling us over tourists who haggled over room prices, quibbled over what literally amounts to pennies.

From Jomsom we booked passage on a tiny airplane that navigated it's way no higher than the hills, flying south through the valleys. Before we knew it we were back in Pokhara, (which seems like a booming metropolis to someone who's been away from modern civilization for two weeks) almost as if we had never left. The transition was jarring and a bit melancholy, truth be told. I immediately missed the unspoiled greenery of the circuit. I was just a brief visitor and i was going back to where i really belonged, a place of machines and carbon monoxide and commerce. Not a happy thought.

Life, as I observed, was hewn from the very land the people of the Annapurna region inhabit. To an outsider like me it's like someone turned the clock back one hundred and fifty years. No Lexuses, no Rolexes, no scratch off lotto. You eat what you harvest, you trade what the land provides, you build your habitats from the materials on hand, and you live life seemingly closer to the essences. Does simple mean better? Is there more inherent value to the lives these people lead than the one I do?

It's a complicated question. From my observers perch, mine eye already sensitive to the garish nature of my culture, the crudeness of western civilization and its impact stood out like bold typeface almidst a page of sanskrit.  Young Nepali boys running around with life-like plastic Glocks, shooting up the hills, the chickens, each other. Ninty percent of them wore World Wide Wrestling t-shirts. The WWF.... ambassador of Americana? In terms of culture it doesn't get any worse. Will watching bulging men on steroids simulating physical violence enrich them in anyway whatsoever? In one hostel, I observed a particularly disquieting scene over dinner. This establishment must have been doing well, as it sported a high-definition flat screen in the dining area, and even had a satellite uplink. Porters crowded around the set as it spewed colors and lights until they were dislocated by the white people, myself included, who came to eat. At that point the channel was changed to Starz or something, presumably in a misguided effort to make the westerners feel at home. The movie playing was one of Hollywood's finest productions, the cinematic masterpeice…Van Helsing. Nobody wanted it on and it went unwatched with the glaring exception of a little Nepalese girl, daughter of the innkeep. She stared at the tv in rapt fascination as monsters and grotesques did battle with one another. The screen depicted a succubus, seductive and sexual, engaging in some act of ridiculous violence with the protagonist. The little girl whirled her head around, eyes wide, to check if we were paying attention. I wanted to tell her that what she was watching, while glossy and flashy and stimulating, was trite tacky souless turd. Instead I shook my head sadly and kept silent. Who was I to say anything?  As a tourist in these mountains, I was partly to blame.

I might as well have been that Hollywood movie for all the good I did.
On the other hand you can't completely discount the positives Western society brings to the table. Health care, clean water, some sort of model for an educational system (the locals were terrible at math, stumped by the simplest room and board bill). Yet as i sit and type these words they ring false. In the end, I think the peoples of Annapurna and its many small regions and villages would be better off if we had never inflicted our culture and our values upon them.

Every month, every year, progress is made on the a road that traced our route. One day, maybe less than a decade form now, the circuit as i experienced it will be a forgotten memory, a place of buses and jeeps and day trips for rich tourists, mirroring what is happening on the other side of the pass. If you harbor a desire to walk the Annapurna circuit do so quickly, before progress renders it obsolete.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary and trek pics...K especially like the photo of the dahl bhat!