Mar 13, 2004
David Rich 1950 Words
A n n a p u r n a T r e k k i n g
Anyone who loves to tromp through spectacular scenery eventually ends up hiking through the highest mountains in the world, Nepal's Himalayas. You can get there overland from India or Tibet but most people fly into Katmandu. Then they head for the hills as fast as they can go because Katmandu is a nasty polluted city famous for hacking coughs and killer traffic:
"In Katmandu the air on most days is polluted with a suspension of heavy metals from the exhaust of diesel engines and airborne particles of human waste...one of the first challenges is to leave Katmandu healthy."
Cleaning up Katmandu remains a low priority because the average Nepali earns under $200 a year. Instead the priority is caring for flush tourists from rich countries who hire guides and porters for the three-week Annapurna trek at a price approximating the average Nepali's annual income. If you tote your own bags you're depriving a poor Nepali family of a year's sustenance.
The Annapurna Circuit (AC) is the most popular trek in Nepal and likely the most popular long trek in the world. Perhaps this is because it circles among peaks over 8000 meters (26,400 feet) including the world's seventh and eighth highest, Dhaulagiri (8167M, 26,794') and Manaslu (8156M). The loop circles the Annapurna Peaks (I, II, III, IV and South) and in one sense is easy because it's a series of day hikes strung together between zero star hotels/guest/teahouses. On the other hand it's ultra-strenuous if you heft your own backpack from the 820M start at Besishar over Thorung Lu Pass at 5416M (17,769'), a gain of over15,000 feet which most achieve by day nine or ten. The same day you cross the pass you drop 1700M (over 5500'). It doesn't sound so bad on paper but when I did it the whole expedition immediately deteriorated into shambles.
Leaving Katmandu when the 7am bus was full only took patience, the driver braking abruptly to solicit more passengers for umpteen eons before five hours later dropping already weary trekkers at a turnoff 38km from the AC trailhead. Normally a local bus would whisk you to the trailhead in as few as three hours but not on this day. The pesky Maoists revolutionaries had firebombed the trailhead bus so the trek began 38 km early, an extra slog of two hot dusty days.
The poor Nepalis are surrounded by Maoist rebels pillaging, looting and ambushing police stations. Meanwhile the corrupt government does nothing and the greedy king raised his annual stipend by 300% the week we arrived in Nepal. Fortunately for us the Maoists avoid knocking off the golden tourist geese though they occasionally demand tribute of 1000 Nepali Rupees ($13), or 2000 NP from Americans and Belgians (the Belgium government sold arms to the Nepali government). However the Maoists give tourists a receipt for their tribute, the most highly prized souvenir you can get in Nepal.
After two dusty days of warm-up preliminaries we, along with assorted Aussies, Brits, Israelis and half a dozen other nationalities, reached the Besishar trailhead. There we stepped off into quaint villages over suspension bridges spanning glacier-melt rivers, hiking steeply up to a burg with a view high on a ridge below a 25,000 foot peak. Brilliant green rice paddies sculpted the valleys ahead, steep swoops up and down dotted with brightly colored candle-trees full of green and red parrots and monkeys galore. Those not in trekking shape rapidly became fit. With five or six hours of daily exercise our prime preoccupation became restaurant menus featuring world cuisines from the West, India and Nepal, imitation Mexican chow, pizza and deserts without the threat of gaining a pound: deep dish apple pie, strudel and crumble drowned in steaming vanilla custard, deep fried Snickers on the side. For breakfast I had custard apple pie and chocolate pudding, sugar and fat turning instantly to muscle.
Prices were directly proportionate to altitude. Some compare the worldwide prices of McDonald's Big Mac but my yardstick is beer. Tuborg 600ml Gold rose from $1 in Katmandu to $3 closest to Thorung Lu Pass at an altitude where no sane person would even glance at an alcoholic beverage. Meanwhile I combed every village for the best beer price with the result that I saw more than the average trekker: moon-faced maidens washing meter long hair at the village spring; incessant greetings of 'namaste' (I salute the divine in you, which might not be saying much for many) masking the immediate next word from grubby toddlers who hastily added with palms out, "sweets", "school pen" and "rupee"; Hindu mystic men in saffron and ox-blood red robes with orange foreheads and gray curls carrying a tin vessel and wearing sandals, the extent of their worldly possessions, exceedingly photogenic by telephoto lens; mule trains carrying an entire lumberyard but without the circus clowns needed to sweep up their steamy leavings; a slab of granite 5000 feet vertical and a dozen miles long, soaring into the ionosphere like the end of the world where the India tectonic plate dives below Tibet; the glacier-capped Annapurnas pale orange at sunrise, brilliant pink at sunset with Tibetan temples in the foreground surrounded by red and yellow prayer flags flipping like topsy and curtaining the high slopes; white and gold stupas with gompa monasteries high on the cliff-sides.
Every afternoon we'd collapse in a similar hotel: high windows with a view, two or three beds to a sunny room, bath down the hall with solar shower (please shine sun) and rooftop dining from 4-page menus, tea and crumpets, rinse out the laundry, stare helplessly at the view and slide into bed at eight o'clock sharp to be up at six. The architecture rapidly changed to little Tibet with flat-topped gray-stone hotels, brass-embossed prayer wheels (260 spinning down the middle of one village) and rainbows of Hindu murals with a liberal dash of Buddhism. Our best hotel was Manang's Thongra Lu with double panes, three beds a person and a dozen windows overlooking Annapurnas I & III, Tilcho Peak, glaciers and ice-falls, a breezy lake below and a 1000 prayer flags whipping in the wind. Manang's local video pirate was showing "Seven Years in Tibet" and my hiking companion LOVED Brad Pitt, a deal for a dollar. Hundred of English language books were available for trade. Many people stayed two nights at Manang's 3540M (11,682 feet) to acclimatize with only two days left before the high pass. On the way to the fabled pass we crossed precipitous ravines opposite blue sheep and herds of yaks, fighting winds gusting to hurricane force.
The night before the ultimate ascent I didn't think I'd make it over the pass. We'd taken an hour to climb from 4400 to 4600M, from the main guesthouse to the high camp guesthouse, an ordeal our guide called an exercise in acclimatization. Immediately upon our 5 pm return I was nauseous and had no appetite, classic signs of high altitude sickness. We were scheduled to leave at 4am to climb 3300 feet (1000M) to the 17,769 foot pass, then down from what would be the highest I'd ever climbed, abruptly down 1600 meters to the religious pilgrimage town of Multinath, dropping a vertical mile.
I hit the sack at 7pm, sick and dreading the 3am wake-up call. At 3am I still had no appetite but my gung ho 18-year old hiking companion (famous for announcing, "I'm from Holland") was raring to go. I begged my teenybopper companion for two more hours sleep, re-rose at 5am, slammed down apple porridge that surprisingly stayed down and we hit the nigh vertical switchbacks, flashlights on at 5:30am.
What a slow slog, gasping for oxygen, legs rubbery, but we made the pass by 10am, almost no wind on one of the windiest passes in the world, photos with new friends in front of barely horizontal prayer flags. I felt the nausea flooding back and knew I had to get to a much lower altitude pronto. I slid down to 4000M under two rapid hours of a near vertical skid, a knee-killer, and was only sick once. My stalwart Dutch urchin discovered weak knees and took over five hours to reach Multinath.
Multinath is a temple town, revered by Hindus and Buddhists pilgrims for centuries, hence the helicopter pad so the greedy king and other rich notables can pop in for a spiritual boost. Multinath's hype rests largely on a thin flame of natural gas burning from a hole that also drips water, a truly spiritual combination, or as described by Ekai Kawaguchi in "Three Years in Tibet", "...I found this mystery to be nothing more than the fancy of ignorant natives who saw a burning jet of natural gas escaping from a crevice in a slab of rock...so that its prolonged flame looked, at the first glance, as if it were crawling over the water." During the next week's trek we met continuous streams of Hindu mystic men trudging toward Multinath, which also contains 108 brass water spouts where bathing under the freezing water guarantees salvation to Hindus. Trudge and trudge to shiver into immortality, the final Hindu release of death.
The lower valley brought charming villages, Kalopani with a view, better than famous Poon Hill touched on later. Over the Kalopani hillside towers Dhaulagiri (world's seventh highest) and Tekuche Peaks with a half dozen others west and to the east several peaks named Annapurna. Just before Kalopani perched whitewashed Marpha, enforced by council decree to look like a Greek island village except for firewood stacked along the perimeters of every rooftop. Winter can be chilly in the Himalayas. A Tibetan monastery stretched three blocks down Marpha's middle and behind it sat a meditation center with freshly repainted murals mish-mashing Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism in dazzling blues, luminous blacks and sun-halo red, some from the Kama Sutra. A young head monk in horn-rimmed glasses tried his best to supervise 15 exuberant novice monks aged six to twelve.
From Kalopani it's an hours walk to the deepest canyon on the planet, 6000M (over 19,000 feet) deep from the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna tops at 8,000 plus meters to the crystal river below at 2000M. The "deepest canyon on the planet" is a claim also bandied about in Peru (for Cotahuasi and Colca Canyons near Arequipa) and China (Tiger Leaping Gorge where the Yangtze River pours off the Himalayan plateau). But the Peruvian canyons are pathetic ditches well below the sight of the volcanoes towering on a far removed plateau and offer "only" a 5000M (16,500 foot) drop counting the well-out-of-sight volcanoes. Tiger Leaping Gorge is more spectacular than the Peruvian canyons and is Tibetan to boot; but is only 4500M from mountaintop to river. Thus Nepal wins the "deepest canyon on the planet" stakes while also featuring dozens of mind-boggling 1000m deep gorges filled with copious rivers, second only to Brazil in fresh water. Every little village is built around a natural spring where my filter bottle converted the almost virgin outflow to drinkable.
Which brings us to the last interesting village of Ghorepani where it's obligatory to stagger off at 5am to catch the sunrise on Poon Hill, named for the local Poon family. But we already know the views were better at Kalopani and not too shabby on the approach to Manang. Still, Poon Hill meant the trek was over except for navigating a long 1000 meter hill, depressingly vertical. We'd finished 21 days to Pokhara, having completed the most difficult and popular long trek in the world with scenery and colorful people to spare. We realized this was only a warm-up and immediately began planning the ultimate Nepali trek: to Everest Base Camp.