Before we left on our trip I met exactly one person who had hiked in the Himalayas. That happened to be Baroon, our dear friend whose family we had just spent a week with in Kathmandu. I was green with envy when he told me about his adventure; just imagine! The person sitting in front of me had trekked around the Annapurna range and seen the exact things my eyes dreamed of seeing. Our discussion had the sealed the deal, I was going there, damn it. Somehow my mind was even able to skip over the minor details, like the part about the hike being three weeks long.
The closer we came to Nepal the more we talked about our trek. Brad tried to be realistic and made it clear that he thought we were incapable of finishing such a feat.
“Don’t you remember what happened in Peru? We had to sleep in that guy’s barn because you couldn’t even walk anymore. That trek was only three days. THREE DAYS!” he clarified. “You’re talking about doing something that is THREE weeks.” He looked wide-eyed at me. “Do you really want to hike that long? I mean, seriously?”
I did remember Peru quite clearly. I had cried outside of a guinea pig barn in the Peruvian Andes unable to motivate myself to take another step forward. The problem was that I was wearing my running shoes and the weight of my pack was crushing my feet. I had reason to cry. I had been crying “uncle” for hours and the pain hadn’t subsided. The steel pliers only gripped my feet tighter and the only way out was to hitch a ride back to Nacho in the back of a produce truck.
I learned lessons there. First, that Brad would carry the food next time, and second, that I needed some hardcore boots. With the Himalayas in mind I bought my first pair of backpacking boots. Since the boot purchase however I’d only worn them twice to date: first when I tried them on the store and second on that ill-fated day in the Thai jungle when Brad and I were attacked by leeches and bees.
The thing is, despite wanting to hike in the Himalayas, just a few months prior we had our doubts about whether we’d actually make it to Nepal. Nepal was in our minds the most unattainable place on our trip; the biggest of the big fairy tales on our whole around-the-world trip. We had also been told straight to our faces that even if we did make it to Nepal we’d never survive the roads, first because they were far too dangerous due to Maoist rebels, and second because we’d need some sort of hardcore 4X4 jeep.
But we were in Nepal, and this was reason enough to do the Annapurna circuit, one of the best treks in the world. The Annapurna circuit is a 140 mile long route that begins in the tropics and winds up into arctic climates, over Thorung La Pass at 17,769 feet—one of the world’s highest passes, and out the other side into formerly restricted Tibetan villages, all the while winding through snow cone mountain scenery and traditional Buddhist villages on ancient salt trading routes.
The Annapurna circuit is a teahouse trek, meaning that villagers along the route cook and provide lodging for trekkers. If ever there were a trek where you didn’t want to have to be fully self-supported, this was it. Most people do the entire trek with just a modest pack, while many still opt to bring everything their hearts desire and hire a crew of hardcore Nepalese porters to carry everything up and down the mountains for them.
And so we packed up Nacho and temporarily said goodbye to the Rai family. Durga blessed us with a smear of tikka on our foreheads, and to our surprise we found that someone had even blessed Nacho by placing a string of marigolds inside of our spare tire. We drove out of Kathmandu with smiles on our faces and the marigolds fluttering in the wind.
We arrived in Pokhara by evening, a popular lakeside destination where our friends Regina and David had been resting since our drive across India. We found David propped up on his elbow, basking in the sun on a long-haired fur rug in the campground. It was quite a scene; he would have looked at home in a posh log cabin nestled deep in the Alps. But there was no mistaking David’s surroundings; he was lying next to his van in a valley filled with shoulder high rice fields. He looked exceedingly happy and was obviously enjoying his reprieve from driving in India.
We too spent a few days relaxing and then we got down to business, purchasing trekking permits and trail food.
On the morning of our departure we stuffed our bags with a four season tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, cookware, a stove, lanterns, clothing, and food. Brad stubbornly told me that even though we were going on a teahouse trek, we’d be camping a fair amount.
“We don’t need guesthouses. I like camping and why did we even buy this tent if we’re not going to use it?”
“Yeah but this is a teahouse trek. Don’t you remember Peru? Why make it unnecessarily harder than it has to be?”
“How about this” he said confidently, “I’ll carry all of the camping gear. Your pack won’t even be affected”.
“Wait” I said, “if you carry all of the camping gear doesn’t that mean that I carry everything else? Isn’t that twice as much as I would have carried otherwise?” He was sneaky.
We went back and forth until he had succeeded in his mental trickery, and I reluctantly agreed.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave.
“Is that the bus I hear honking?!”
Down the valley the locals’ bus was moving in our direction. We couldn’t see it coming through all of the rice fields but we could hear it. Brad threw the rest of the things in our bags while I stuck our fruit bowl’s remaining contents in my boots, tied the laces together and threw my pack over my shoulder. We regretfully said our goodbyes to Regina and David and other newly made friends and ran toward the road. During this run I fell out of my brainwashed stupor and suddenly realized I had been told a big dirty lie. My freaking bag felt like a sack of bricks. A sack of bricks I’d have to carry all the way up to 17,000 feet. A sack of bricks I’d have to carry for three weeks!
The locals’ bus took us seven hours from Pokhara to Bhulebhule—the starting point of the trek. We wedged ourselves onto a homemade seat at the front of the bus and rested our feet on a sack of grain while more grain bags, a few live goats, and building materials were loaded on top of the bus. We were the lucky ones. Half of the occupants on the bus stood sandwiched together in the aisle in complete discomfort while our bus driver raced a tractor down the potholed road. If you assumed that the tractor was the turtle in this turtle and hare race, think again. I’ve never seen a tractor move so fast. It pulled an empty wagon and rocketed through the ditches like a bat out of hell. Our bus driver rocketed through the ditches too but he had passengers. And goats on the roof.
We started the Annapurna trek at midday. I already felt whipped after the bus ride and wanted to lay down on the road and take a nap, but at least we had begun the Annapurna circuit. We walked a rough dirt road alongside a wide and powerful river for much of the day until a trail formed, leading us through green terraced rice fields and atmospheric stone villages. In front of the village huts, platters of beans, peppers, and corn dried in the sun. We made it to our first guesthouse thoroughly tired. The sun had already set and we didn’t feel like setting up camp.
From my journal:
What can I say…day one kicked our butts. If ever I questioned whether I was out of shape, today confirmed it. Brad has worse problems because his fancy boots are rubbing holes right through his heels. By the end of the hike he had moleskin wrapped around his heels and every toe. At this rate we’ll be out of moleskin in three days.
Brad would speak no bad words of his boots. “What can you expect? I’ve been wearing sandals for a year. My feet are like dough balls.”
On day two we were passed by a group of porters. The Sherpa porters have been carrying cargo in the Himalayas for centuries; food and goods for the villages inaccessible by road, and packs for the trekkers who don’t really want to backpack.
A typical Nepalese porter can efficiently carry cargo equal to his own body weight for days on end in oversized baskets called dokos. These baskets rest against the back and are secured with a strap that runs across the crown of the head, forcing the porter to lean forward and look down at the ground all day.
Later in the day we passed by a group of American and Israeli hippies (one of whom actually had a hula hoop strapped to her bag) as they stood in a field of ragged, well picked over marijuana plants. They each held a white plastic bag in their hand which they worked hard to fill.
Brad’s heel pain worsened throughout the day and he limped around like a run over dog. We made slow progress and stopped alongside a dry riverbed to set up camp. We had just finished staking our brand spanking new Mountain Hardwear tent to the ground (as our old one was stolen in Argentina) when a local man approached and pointed to the 50 foot cliff band above us. We stared back and watched him perform a round of charades. He milked the air with his hands, squatted down and covered his head with his arms. It seemed we had set up camp under a rock fall. We thanked him and moved our tent twenty feet outward, and sure enough in the middle of the night we heard the meteoric thwump of a rock that had fallen from the cliff. Dodged a bullet there.
On day three we climbed into a pine forest and saw our first big mountains. It was also the first day of Dashain, Nepal’s longest and most important holiday. Pesal had described it as a time when all Nepalis try to reach home, visit their families, and celebrate with large meals—all centering around goat meat.
In the late morning we came upon a group of men butchering ten of the village’s goats for the holiday. It was like a rural production line; a few of the men chopped up the lower half of a goat on a wooden stump while others sorted the butchered pieces into organ and meat piles. The last man took the sorted piles in a bucket and distributed its contents evenly amongst the dozens of piles laid out on a blue tarp, each one to be given to a village family.
It was a frigid night and we ended our day huddled in our guesthouse’s kitchen—a classic Nepali kitchen with a clay wood burning stove and a wall of narrow shelves lined with cups, plates, and bowls. We drank chai and watched our hosts work through the requested meals for the night. Everything was made from scratch and tonight I scored free cooking lessons. The wife sat on the ground at my feet and made dough and filling for a few orders of momos, one of Nepal’s classic dishes of steamed dumplings stuffed with vegetables, chicken, or buffalo meat.
The next day we both limped around like run over dogs. I had finally begun the break-in period of my new backpacking boots and I looked just as pathetic as Brad. In the village of Chame we unlaced our boots and ordered lunch: a cup of local liquor and a heaping plateful of pan fried potatoes, spinach, and egg. Chame was an authentic village with a suspension footbridge covered in a rainbow of prayer flags that stretched in every direction. In Buddhism, prayer flags are meant to send good fortune to the world by wind, with each color on the string representing a different element: blue for the sky, white for the air, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for the earth. Together they are said to create harmony, and the old flags are continuously overlapped with new flags, signifying a renewal of the cycle of life and the acceptance of change.
After lunch we begrudgingly laced up our boots and continued on down the trail which crept between a steep canyon wall and a raging river. An enormous 1500 meter high rock wall grew before us, known by the locals as Swarga Dwari, or Gateway to Heaven. After passing the rock wall we entered a shaded pine forest and finally arrived at our guesthouse. The views of the mountains were once again fantastic but I wanted to crawl into a ball and cry. My feet were in a sorry state and the blood blisters on my little toes were so large it looked like my toenails were floating a top an ocean of red.
On the fifth day things got really spectacular. We emerged from the pine forests and began to climb quickly in elevation until we arrived in Upper Pisang, a beautiful stone village whose residents were nowhere to be seen. The town marked the beginning of Nyesyand, a region that sits in the rain shadow of the Annapurna range and as a result is dry and barren. We continued on, winding along the treeless mountainside until we appeared in front of a wall of prayer wheels at the base of a cliff. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but we had learned that prayer wheels were always placed just outside of villages. Strange. I looked straight up and saw, to my horror, prayer flags blowing in the wind far, far above us.
And so we began ascending. Brad’s heels were finally beginning to recuperate and he pushed up the switchbacks as if on a Saturday evening stroll. At 11,000 feet I was feeling the elevation and my legs burned with lactic acid. I felt irritated in my struggle and knew that I would only feel better if I could emerge at the top before Brad. I approached a shortcut and nonchalantly told Brad I was going take it.
He looked back, nodded, and continued up the trail.
I grabbed a shrub and pulled myself upward. This wasn’t going to be easy. I moved in a scattered pattern and followed any tree branch, bush, or rock that was available in assisting me in my upward climb. What I failed to realize was the landscape was slowly leading me away from the switchbacks, which I would realize ten minutes later during a brief pause to examine my next move, leading to a state of hyperventilated panic.
By the time my shaky legs had found footing on the trail once again, I had lost track of Brad, unsure if he was above or below me. I shouted his name like a crazed person but he didn’t respond. Finally I began uphill.
Ten minutes later I found him sitting on a rock ledge basking in the sun. He was smiling, “Did you get lost again?”
We ended our day at the top of the peak in the town of Ghyara, a typical Tibetan village where the flat roof of each home provided a deck for the neighboring house. We splurged on the “big room with mountain view” for $3. Anywhere else in the world this room, with its perfectly framed views of Annapurna II, III, and IV, would have cost us a month’s budget.
What had once been one big room was divided by a thin plywood into three smaller rooms, ours being the biggest, and having inherited the ceiling to floor windows from which we could gaze upward at a wall of 25,000 foot peaks. A German couple and their Nepali friend Melina occupied one of the other rooms, a group we’d been crossing paths with since day two.
From the other room a new female face appeared. At first glance I thought she was naked, but then realized she was wearing skin-tone thermal tights. We said our hellos and then I headed back the rickety stairs. On the way down I passed a cheery looking guy.
“Hey be careful,” he said, “someone could do some serious damage on these stairs!” He smiled. They reminded me instantly of our old dollhouse neighbors, Carrie and Ryan.
“Hey, where are you from?” I asked.
Of course. That’s where Carrie and Ryan were from.
“Sweet! My husband and I might move there when we get back home!”
“Oh really? When?”
“I don’t know, maybe in a year.”
He stared at me inquisitively. We spent the evening exchanging stories over a thermos of masala tea. Jake and Kendra were on their honeymoon. Jake had just finished nursing school, and being that they were the Portlandia type, they had come to the Himalayas to celebrate.
The following day it was so cold that got dressed over top of my pajamas. It was another spectacular day in the mountains, passing by high fields of barley and buckwheat, and our first herd of yaks: Nepal’s infamous high mountain, long furred shaggy cow-like mammal. We wound around patches of juniper bushes, through charming stone villages selling yak yogurt, yak milk, and apple pies, and past a never ending ridge of dry and eroded spines which stretched out like fingers across the landscape. By the end of the day we emerged in a narrow valley and stopped in the small village of Bragha at 11,500 feet. Bragha is one of two recommended villages where trekkers can acclimatize before continuing up to the pass. I was relieved to finally have a rest day.
In the middle of the night I was awoken by the sound of rain, and it didn’t stop for two straight days. The next morning we cheerfully sat in the dining hall, bundled up in all of our warmest gear, and pleased with ourselves for planning our rest day so perfectly. Outside countless trekkers trudged on, shivering from the cold and soaked to the bone.
By late afternoon trekkers were being turned away by every guesthouse in the vicinity. The change in weather had put a halt to people crossing the pass, disrupting the fine balance between trekkers arriving and departing from the lodges. Porters were being pushed out of rooms and moved into tents, or else forced to sleep in the dining rooms after all the trekkers had gone to bed. And then we heard the weather report. Three feet of snow had already fallen on the pass and the storm was likely to continue for three more days.