Kathmandu, Nepal – I almost decided to skip the trekking, and instead cruise around Nepal for a week or so on a motorbike. But I ran into a guy named Zed. He was also staying at the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Center in Kathmandu. He was young, incredibly intelligent, made money trading money, had traveled the world, been on all the major treks in Nepal at least once, and was weary of life. But he convinced me: you have to walk to Nepal. Kathmandu and the relatively few cities and towns connected by roads are like a different country. Most of Nepal is made up of small villages scattered amongst the valleys, cracks, peaks, and mountainsides of the Himalayas. I explained to Zed that I was put off by the new rules requiring certifications, guides or porters, and set itineraries; and by the continuing presence of the Maoists demanding “taxes” from trekkers (refuse and they beat you with sticks). Plus I was alone. Zed explained to me that I was being ridiculous. You want to see Nepal? You have to walk.
Zed told me about a place nearby with a bulletin board for trekkers seeking partners. I decided to check it out. Hidden in a twisted vein of Thamel, I found the place. Not a single note on the trekker board. Empty. I sat down in the cafe there and glanced through some mostly outdated trekking log-books. Before long, an Irish woman, some ten years younger than myself, wandered in and started sifting through the logs as well. We sat like this for a few minutes, looking at logs. Then I spoke. “Are you thinking about trekking? Where and when? Are you looking for a trekking partner? Can I go with you?” almost as fast as that. “As long as you’re not an axe murderer… [I guess you'll do],” she said. “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone…yet.” And with that, Nate and Susanna began planning a 16-day trek around the Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas of central Nepal, to begin the following morning.
Susanna had just arrived in Nepal. I had been around for a while, but was mostly clueless. How to decide on a trekking company for porter and certificate? There were dozens upon dozens in Thamel alone. We got three suggestions from a man at the cafe and set off to compare them. We chose the very best one that we could find—actually the only one that we could find. Even with a clearly marked map, the other two agencies got lost in the tangle of Thamel. But Himalayan Glacier Trekking was courteous and professional and reasonably priced and, most importantly, ready to set us up with porter/guide willing to leave the next day. We signed up, laid down a load of cash, and celebrated with some great pizza on a sunny Italian terrace overlooking the bustling heart of Thamel. Later that afternoon, we met Hira, our young porter/guide from Gorkha, who helped us rent puffy jackets and a down sleeping bag for the journey. We agreed to meet at 6am next morning, for the 6-8 hr bus journey to Besisahar, from where we would begin our epic trek. What had seemed like a daunting task to me – organizing a trek, deciding where to go, finding traveling companions, picking an agency, etc. – all just fell into place in the space of a few hours.
What works best? Don’t worry. Be open to what arises. Let God, karma, fate, the cooperative universe provide the rest. (Remember that, Nate.)
The bus ride to Besisahar was freezing cold. Our window was missing a pane, exposing us to the elements. Susanna engaged in covert tug-of-war with the couple in front of us, each subtly sliding the single remaining pane toward themselves when the other wasn’t looking. In Besisahar, Susanna, Hira, and I stopped to register at the first of many official checkpoints on the route. It was there that we met the Australians. James, Ben, Andrew and their guide Deepak were heading out on the same circuit, planning, like us, to finish it in 16 or 17 days. We hooked up and stayed together for the duration.
Susanna is a doctor; a general practitioner who had just finished a gig living on a small island in Ireland (The kind of place where they speak Irish. I learned some. “Smuggli Bui” means “yellowish snot”). The Aussies are all three, graduate medical students, on their winter break after hefty exams. Needless to say, I felt safe. I told them so. The boys laughed and said I best look to Susanna if I need medical advice. But Susanna, who has seen much of the world, was off duty. I had already tested the waters. “Hey Susanna, I’ve got this nasty cough that just seems to keep lingering on.” “That’s interesting.”
It was the first time in Nepal for the lot of us foreigners. It was Hira’s 23rd time around the Annapurna Circuit. Deepak had already been to Annapurna dozens of times. Each had also been on all the other main trekking routes in Nepal plenty as well. They knew this business inside out. We had a good crew. We were in good hands. We stepped out on the trail. Crossing the first of many suspension bridges to come, I knew that Zed was right: I had been a fool to consider skipping the chance to trek.
Mule trains with colorful head-dresses and clanging bells around their necks huffed and panted under the weight of winter provisions, their drivers dishing out hoots and grunts or deftly smacking them on the ass with rocks to move them along. Sun-dried porters hoisted wire crates full of chickens on their backs, tracking up the steep inclines with flip-flops for trekking shoes. Tumbling stone homes with ornately carved and decaying wooden windows and balconies. Buffalo lounging in makeshift sheds with straw roofs. Young girls and old women bent low beneath great bales of hay and bundles of firewood, strapped with a single rope to the forehead. Herds of bleating goats cascaded and squeezed through the often narrow trail. The last of the autumn wildflowers held the edge of the terraced fields. Ancient villages perched high up on the hillsides, a fierce climb to reach them. Ice-blue glacial torrents rolled over boulders as we followed the river further in. Cabbage patches under apple trees. Waterfalls. Hot sun, cool shadows. And the first hints of the Himalayas, stretching two-plus weeks out in front of us.
The trekking routes in Nepal are well established. In the peak season, between August and November, a trekker can get by with little more than some sturdy shoes, a change of clothes, some water-purification tablets, and a warm jacket for the higher passes. There are guest houses in every village, and some in between. The same “sub-committee approved” menu appears in kitchens and small restaurants all along the route, offering bland and often uniquely-interpreted versions of such perennial favorites as lasagna, banana porridge, tuna pizza, momos, and the Nepali inevitability, Dhal Baht. The deal with dhal baht is that you get your rice and soupy lentils, with some curried veg on the side and maybe some papad, and before you get half-way through the rice the cook appears with more of everything and starts dumping it on your plate. You are highly encouraged to eat much dhal baht. I dig the pickle (chutney), but couldn’t begin to keep up with the rest in the dhal baht campaign. Hira and Deepak often ate dhal baht twice a day (Dhal Baht Power, 24 hour!) and the Aussies made a noble effort. But even they began to fade, especially once the yak burgers appeared on the menu. Food prices are dirt cheap at first, but start to rise with the altitude.
It is early winter. The trees are bare. The rice and millet has been harvested. Villagers gather on the terraced fields to thresh grain, beating the sheaves, tossing shallow basketfuls into the air, the slight wind blowing away the chaff. It’s late in the trekking season. Most traffic is heading down the mountain trail. Families of seasonal workers are starting to descend, to winter in the bigger cities of Pokhara or Kathmandu. Many of the guest and tea houses are already closed. That is fine with us. Hira tells us that in the high season we might see as many as 200 people hiking along the same route in a single day. But in early December, we are among the scattered few.
This time of year you need to add extra warmth to your list of things to bring. There are occasional wood or kerosene stoves in the teas houses to huddle around during dinner, but it gets damn cold otherwise. Extra warmth means extra weight. Susanna and I decided to hire a porter, rather than a full-fledged guide who would not be expected to carry anything. We were told that the porter would carry up to 20 kilos of our gear. We asked for a porter. We got Hira, who we later learned- as he labored under the weight of my down jacket and sleeping bag and enough of Susanna’s gear to make a difference- was actually an experienced guide and hadn’t suffered the indignity of carrying extra baggage in over four years. But Hira was the agency’s decision, not ours. And to his credit, Hira, all thin taught muscle, took up the extra kilos and trudged on without complaint (although he was pretty quiet until he got his smoke and glass of raksi at day’s end).
Deepak was Mr. laid-back, taking up the rear of the trekking train. He was always singing. He was married and didn’t drink or smoke on the trail. Hira, on the other hand, is a player. His parents had tried to marry him off a couple years back to a girl he hardly knew. He wasn’t having it. Now he has an apartment in Kathmandu and a fine steady girlfriend, her pictures all over his slick cell-phone. He smoked and drank (but only when trekking!). He had ladies in every village. He claimed he had twenty girlfriends in the small village of Tatopani alone. I told him I hadn’t even seen twenty women. “They are inside,” he said. Soaking in the hot-springs there, we did see him walk away carrying the bag of a young lady who had been checking his skinny ass out while he lounged in his bikini briefs, cigarette in hand. She did his laundry. He said he had so many ladies he never had to do his own laundry (“They are mostly just my friends, you know?”). We later learned, from Hira himself, verified by Deepak, that he hadn’t come home that night. “The girl from the hot springs, eh?” I said. “No. no. Different girl.”
Hira was great. His English was quite good and we would get to talking about all sorts of things. He played some guitar and was a huge fan of Nepali pop music. I asked him who some of his favorite western groups were. “Bob Marley,” he said. “Jennifer Lopez. Kurt Cobain.” That about covers it, I thought. (Kurt Cobain is huge in Nepal, his image in every bootlegging CD shop. Not Nirvana, just Kurt.) At one guest house, he invited us downstairs to watch Nepali pop videos. James and I went, down the rickety wooden steps, past the piles of sprouting onions on the dirt floor, past shelves full of glass bottles of Coke and Fanta (hauled up the trail on the backs of mules), into the threadbare entertainment lounge- where we discovered Deepak, Hira, a few girls, and an older man huddled in front of a TV. Hira drank raksi and smoked cigarettes as he cued up videos with the remote. They were hugely entertaining, to put it delicately. Earnest love songs, hard-rock guitar heroes, home-brewed hip hop and Reggaeton with hip-shaking (but never revealing) Nepali babes, all shot in easily recognizable locations around Pokhara and Kathmandu. Some tracks were simply note-for-note rip-offs of popular foreign tunes, re-recorded with Nepali lyrics. One of the girls put on some traditional Nepali songs, which I thought were beautiful, but Hira wasn’t having it. He controlled the remote. Everywhere he went, Hira ran the show.
We had started in Besisahar at 760 meters (2500ft). We were going to climb as high as 5416 meters (17,769 feet) at Thorung La Pass. Our plan was to circumnavigate counterclockwise the entire Annapurna mountain range, walking a total of about 300 kilometers (180 miles), almost all of it up or down. None of it requires technical expertise, just stamina. Over the first 8 days we hiked deeper in and further up. Sometimes we were ascending on steep switchbacks, other times skirting alongside river banks. The views became more and more spectacular. The faces of the people started to change. We were moving through different ethnic regions, from Hindu Nepali to Tibetan Buddhist. The landscape changed as well, from green terraced hillsides, through rhododendron forests, into the pines, finally rising above the tree line into stark winter deserts with snow-covered peaks, many over 8,000 meters. We hiked 4-6 hours per day average, and spent the afternoons and evenings reading, playing cards, sipping tea, and wandering around the villages.
The trail is shared by everyone: school kids, mule trains, itinerant watch salesmen, porters carrying impossibly huge loads, herds of goats, Maoists. It is mostly easily passable, but there are tricky spots. Landslides wash out huge chunks of trail. They are trying to build a new road around much of the circuit. Occasionally the trekking trail would merge with the road. Most of the work is done by hand. Workers swing sledge hammers, teetering on rickety scaffolds in the cliff-face. Large rocks are carried one-by-one. There are no bulldozers, no vehicles, no machines. But there is dynamite. One day, we came upon a contingent of soldiers and road-workers who started frantically gesturing for us to stop. They were about to blast out some stubborn rocks. They ushered us inside a nearby teahouse and told us to wait. A young woman started the kitchen fire to generate some warmth. Within minutes we were coughing and choking as smoke filled the room. We sat there with a couple soldiers and a middle-aged man whose hand was bleeding.
The man smiled at us as the first blast tore up the mountainside. It was massive. The man started counting the blasts: One! Two! Threefourfive! Six!…Twenty seven!…Forty four!..” The ground was shaking. The man said there would be sixty two explosions in all. When the din finally subsided, Susanna turned to me and said, “Was that sixty one or sixty two?” We set off again, to see what was left of the trail ahead. Sure enough, a worker started racing toward us telling us to get back. There had been a misfire. Back in the hut, one more blast… KaaBAAAM! And we were told we could continue on. The trail was covered with boulders and slippery shale, some still sliding down the steep hillside toward the raging river below. We scrambled over as quickly as possible, not entirely convinced that the rocks would hold, not entirely convinced that all sixty-two charges had been spent.
As the altitude increased the air got thinner and colder, the push more demanding. The coming climb to Thorung La Pass loomed larger in our minds as we drew closer. At 5416 meters, this would be the highest I had ever been (outside of an airplane). We were holding up well. The daily ascent was gradual enough that we acclimated as we went, choosing to forgo the scheduled rest/acclimation layover in Manang so as to reach the pass in good weather. On the eve of the big day, we sat huddled around the dinner table, sucking up the heat emanating from the pot of hot coals placed by our feet. We joked about the day ahead. We would have to wake at 3am to begin the ascent by 4. Then it would be nearly a vertical kilometer of hard climbing, four hours up to reach the pass by 8am. Hira said it had to be so early to avoid high winds at the pass, and because the air grows thinner as it heats up. We all packed off to bed by 8pm, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep before Deepak came knocking on our door to wake us.
At 3am, Deepak came knocking on our door. Over mushy porridge, the boys informed me that they hadn’t slept a wink, a common phenomenon at these altitudes. Susanna and I fared better. I felt well-rested and ready to go. After breakfast, we set off up the switchbacks rising directly behind our guest house. Hira charged ahead, taking the lead. It was very cold. The trail was dimly illuminated by the pale moon, but we switched on our headlamps for sure footing. Despite the cold, I was panting and sweating within minutes. I started to feel nauseous. We trudged on one step at a time, occasionally trading sparse breathy words. Up and up. A couple hours later, as the sun began to rise, painting the eastern horizon orange and pink, I started to lose my coordination. Slightly dizzy, I felt drunk. I noticed that my legs were crossing over each other as I walked. The weight of my pack seemed to sling me off balance. I stopped and looked around. Everyone else was silently plodding forward. The view was magnificent. The only way to the other side is up and over, I thought. I checked myself. Heart is good. Still mostly coherent. Warm enough. Press on.
After another hour or so, Hira turned to tell me that we were close to the top. Then I spotted the thick mesh of prayer flags strewn about a sign marking the pass. Completely exhausted, I managed to summon a last blast of energy, and sprinted past Hira towards the sign. Hira laughed as I threw my hands in the air in triumph and relief. Three hours and fifteen minutes from breakfast to the top. We had made very good time. Susanna was close behind, the Aussies a bit further back. We all made it, grinning from ear to ear. Seemingly out of nowhere, a mountain man appeared, walking briskly towards us. He smiled hugely at us and opened up the little stone tea hut there, perched at nearly 17,800 feet. We celebrated our victory with hot tea and Snickers bars. It was absolutely freezing, even in my big puffy down jacket. We couldn’t stay long. We snapped our pictures and set off again, down the other side. And then the real hell began.
The “other side” consisted of 1600 vertical meters of steep slippery dirt and gravel, and occasional ice. By the time we reached Muktinath, some four hours later, I could barely walk. I was wrecked, my legs a tangle of pain. It got worse as the days went on. Down, down we went. I would repair my feet each morning with duct tape, but I couldn’t save my shins. My friends were hurting as well. Ben lost his big toenails from the impact against his shoes. But I seemed to fare the worst. Even with Susanna’s trekking poles (which she so graciously offered me), I ended up hobbling along by day’s end, planting the poles ahead of me and then easing my weight down onto my legs. I lagged way behind the others, swallowing my pride. First one up, last one down.
Sixteen days after setting out, we stepped back into the modern world. We pulled off the trail and in short order were caught up in mad cab race to Pokhara, with the Backstreet Boys blasting at speaker-shredding volume. The cab was a twisted sputtering work of art. The inside panels wall-papered with scenes of the Irish coast (welcome home, Susanna!) and downtown Sydney (for the boys!). We spent the next couple days in Pokhara recuperating- eating great pizza and downing Gorkha beers, catching up on email, watching the paragliders sail over lake Fewa. The entire trek (aside from the shin splints) was fantastic. My companions- Susanna, Andrew, Ben, James, Hira, and Deepak- were the best. Back in Kathmandu, we said our goodbyes. Susanna was on her way to the south of India to meet her sister. The Aussies were also heading back to loved ones, just in time for Christmas. That’s one of the strange parts of travel. I knew nothing of these guys before the trek. I spent almost every minute of every day with them for more than two weeks. Then I said goodbye. I was alone again. Christmas in Kathmandu.