Friday, November 26, 2010

Annapurna Circuit: Week 1

I should preface all of these trekking entries by stating that I had fully expected the trek to be physical carnage, for my feet in particular. I had pretty much assumed it would be a new blister every two days at least and so I was armed with enough Compeeds for twenty feet. Day 1 took us from Besi Sahar to the village of Ngadi, about 2 and a half hours away. From the outset the views were immaculate. The trek entered a valley which followed the route of the Marsyagandi river almost all the way to the pass at Thorung La and on our first days we trekked with views of rolling hills and innumerable stunning rice terraces.
October and November are the peak trekking months and it's easy to see why - the weather, in trekking terms, is immaculate. Temperatures peak at around 20 degrees so that it's warm but never hot and there's almost no chance of rain. Perfect. Nepal certainly knows how to have a winter. Bhuwan has fixed the itinerary so that we have a mixture of short days and longer days but on no occasion are we trekking for more than 6 hours. Very quickly it becomes apparent why this trek is so widely regarded. There's the views to start with which change ever so slightly over the first week. The rice terraces and rolling hills gradually give way to a slightly more barren yet no less spectacular mountain views.
The lodges we stay in are pretty standard traditional homes which have been altered to cater to the hordes of trekkers in peak season and there are a lot of trekkers on the trail in late October. The standard of the rooms varies little from lodge to lodge so as a solo trekker your room will be a rudimentary wooden space containing a bed, a light switch and you. Blankets you’ll have to ask for and you will definitely need them as night-time temperatures plummet this high in the hills. Many of the lodges have solar powered showers and so you need to get to your lodge early or pong the joint out for the rest of the evening. The closer you get to the Pass, instead of a shower you can buy a bucket of hot water to do the needful.
What’s most surprising about the first week of the trek is the average age of the trekkers. I’d imagined, given the nature of the trek, that it’d be filled with folk around my own age but the average age is easily over 50 and this is mostly down to the fact that many of the over 50’s trek in groups which can be a complete pain in the arse on the trail especially, for example, if you get stuck on a narrow stretch behind a group of French trekkers, none of whom will move out of your way. This was a common occurrence and as you eventually passed them by, you’d be greeted with a series of haughty comments, all en Francais of course. French trekkers do not understand the concept of giving way.
As the first week passed, an element of frustration began to creep in that our days were that bit shorter than I’d anticipated. Each morning we’d begin between 7 and 8am, trek for 3 or 4 hours so that by the time it came to lunch, we were done for the day. This meant arriving in a village around noon leaving a long, generally cold evening ahead. That’s said many of the villages were quite stunning and rewarded further exploration whether that meant a chat with some of the locals or a visit to the village monastery.
As the week progressed a trekking routine was established which involved an early breakfast, 4 or 5 hours of trekking, lunch and hot shower (or bucket) at the lodge, hang out the day’s saturated trekking gear and change into something dry and warm and while away the evening until dinner reading a book, exploring the village or chatting to fellow trekkers. And it is a very sociable trek - by the second or third day you see the same faces arrive at the lodges and the evening is spent bitching and moaning about the French trekking groups. Or perhaps that was just me.
My trek coincides with the celebration of the Dashain festival - a 15 day orgy of indolence, to my eyes at least. Not meaning to be cynical at all but there’s little doubt that this festival was first conceived of by a man. The celebrations drag on arbitrarily over several days and seemingly involve little more than the men of the villages gathering together to drink, gamble and, as a bonus, each sister is obliged to give her brother(s) a gift. Now that’s a proper festival and, as you could imagine, it’s celebrated with real gusto. It also seems to last indefinitely which is no bad thing if you’re a Nepali male.
Finally by Day 4 there are views of the Annapurnan peaks which reveal themselves finally on our trek to the beautiful village of Chame as we see both Lamjung Himal (6,986m) and Annapurna II (7,937M) in the distance. Best village of the first week though is Upper Pisang - a stunning collection of Tibetan flat roofed brick houses perched precariously atop a hill which towers over Lower Pisang. And if the village itself wasn’t beautiful enough then the view it offers of the mountains is pretty remarkable. There’s also a monastery above Upper Pisang at which we witness some monks play their wonderfully tuneless music whilst chanting their unintelligible prayers. Upper Pisang also stands out in my memory because of the 7 year old who ran riot through our lodge on the day we were there. A definite ADD candidate, his antics reached their peak when he entered the dining room in the evening, carrying in his hand a huge bag of weed (which thrives at this altitude) and which he offered to everyone in the room shouting (this kid had one tone only) one of his few coherent English words ‘GANJ?’ Upper Pisang’s future Al Capone for sure.
The only difficult day of the first week comes as we trek from Upper Pisang to Manang - we head off on a long, winding trail with switchback after switchback but the pain of the first two hours is eased by the fact that by the time we reach Manang in the afternoon we are right in the heart of Annapurna country and the full beauty of the mountain range is laid before us. And it really is an astonishing collection of peaks. The weather remained perfect each day - cold mornings followed by cloudless, sunny skies and warm mid-morning temperatures - which afforded us unbeatable views. Manang is 3,500m up and it’s commonly accepted that you’ll need to spend an extra day at Manang in order to acclimatise and avoid any trouble with AMS as you ascend further. Which brings me neatly to my next post…….

Heading for the hills

Now if I was one to believe in omens or the whispers of fate then I probably would have decided against beginning the trek as it seemed as if the fates were conspiring against me ever setting off at all. First off there was the ear infection which laid me low for a week and next it was the unexpected 2 day stop off in Bhuwan's home village of Turture. The plan was the spend a night there so that Bhuwan could catch up with his family and then we'd head off and hit the trail bright and early the next morning. This was something I was initially very happy to go along with as it gave me a rare chance to peek beneath the veneer of Nepalese society. It took two bus rides to get there on two chaotically overcrowded buses - this is the norm in all means of Nepalese transport - and we had one stopover to enjoy some buffalo momos and change buses at Dumre, a place where I also enjoyed watching a fist fight between two Nepalese youths.
Communication in Bhuwan's house was an issue as apart from Bhuwan, only his Dad spoke a smattering of English but, happy in the knowledge that we'd be there for one night only, I was content to ride out the interminable silences that come with language barriers. Besides the family were unfailingly polite and friendly so the awkwardness was felt on my part only. Nepalese males eat daal bhaat twice a day for their entire lives. No matter where they are, no matter what they're doing, lunch and dinner will always be daal bhaat. It's remarkable then that Bhuwan sincerely professes to still love the stuff. Our first meal there is of course daal bhaat and as I'm living with the locals I eat like the locals and tuck into the daal bhaat with my bare hands - no cutlery required. And it's not as easy as you might think. Daal bhaat contains rice which is smothered with lentil soup and then there are the sides of pickles, meat (if you're lucky) and spinach. The food is mixed together and you scoop it up with your right hand - always the right hand as the left hand is used for wiping one's arse and other such unmentionables - and eat. I watched the experts nervously before I tried, trying to give off the air of a man who's eaten several meals like this (do sandwiches count?) and scooped, slopped and swallowed.
The following morning it became clear that we weren't actually hitting the trail that day. Bhuwan's Dad reassured me that we'd be starting tomorrow - a Tuesday - which as he explained to me "Tuesday is lucky day in Nepal." Lucky for some maybe but not if you've been itching to hit the trail for some 10 fucking days. And so we duly spent the day in the village again - not the worst thing in the world by any means - and enjoyed the best of Bhuwan's family's wonderful hospitality.
Tuesday morning arrived and we waited for the bus to take us to the head of the trail at the village of Besi Sahar. Our bus had no room inside but this is Nepal and if there's one thing the Nepalese do well it's space management so up we climbed aboard the roof of the bus and off we went. I hadn't travelled like this since sitting in my father's boat years ago as he brought it to Lough Conn in time for another fishing season of big fish who got away. Eventually there was space for us inside - though I use the word space in the loosest sense - and I sat in the front of the bus with the driver ramming the gear stick into my knee with no little relish on every gear change. Exactly what every trekker wants before a 3 week trek.
About half an hour from Besi Sahar, the final obstacle to our trek emerged most unexpectedly. A motorcyclist, upon seeing our bus, decided that now would be a good time to lose control of his bike and damn well nearly slide right underneath us. Fortunately he stopped before going under and only because our bus had reached the crest of a hill or perhaps my patella saved him. The driver was fine but his passenger cut his knee pretty badly and was none too happy with his pilot. And so finally we reached Besi Sahar.....

Friday, November 19, 2010

And now the end is here

Sitting in a hotel room in Pokhara typing these words at the end of 18 days trekking, listening to This Is Just A Modern Rock Song whilst two Nepalis try to outdo each other at cards in the foyer of my hotel for the night. Will attempt to put into words what was the most incredible trekking experience of a lifetime over the coming days. The people, the villages, the mountains, fucking hell the mountains, the fact that whenever we needed clear skies, the clear skies appeared....every single little detail of what's happened in the past two and a half weeks. Anyway, draining a beer now and listening to some tunes - two pleasures I've deprived myself of these past 2 weeks...more to follow. Heady times. Roy Hodgson's still in charge? What the fuck?