Pokhara and Day 1
Our original plan had been to take a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara and the start of the hike, but the fuel shortage had seriously reduced ground transport, so we flew instead. Looking back, I’m grateful. One: because it gave me my first sight of the Himalayas; aside from a view of the Annapurna panorama on first landing in Pokhara, the weather quickly grew hazy and it would be several days before we’d catch another glimpse. And two: the more I saw of Nepali roads, the less I wanted to drive on them!Pokhara is the second largest city in Nepal and the assembly point for most trekking. It’s a busy, colourful, commercial centre with a “hippie” vibe, but far from busy – tourism is down by 40% post-earthquake. As we toodled about town hunting down various needed items, I began to wonder just what it was that I was missing…the conversations would go something like this:
Shopkeeper: Ah, welcome – so glad you have come to Nepal! Are you trekking?
Yes, we’re doing the Annapurna Circuit.
Shopkeeper: Ah, Annapurna. Just a short trek then?
No, we’re doing the Circuit.
Shopkeeper: You are here for how long? Seven days? Ten days?
No, for twenty-one days. We’re doing the whole Circuit.
Shopkeeper: Really? The whole Annapurna Circuit?
We were traveling with 3 Sisters Trekking company – an outfit that is owned and run by – you guessed it! – three Nepali sisters. Years ago they found it nearly impossible for women to enter the trekking business, so they started their own company. Nearly all their porters and guides are young women – and as we went along, we found that the company – and our girls – were highly respected and well known in the trade.
We settled in at the 3 Sisters guesthouse and then set off to the office for a short orientation. I squeezed past a group of kids in the reception area, wondering if it was ‘take your kid to work day’ or something? We were introduced to Bhagawati – our lead guide. Michael and Juliet had trekked with her previously and requested her specifically; her easy, throaty laugh was something that would become addictive, I was sure. Khim, our assistant guide, constantly beaming, seemed equally delightful. Of course, the young women who trooped into the room to be introduced as our porters were the “kids” I’d pushed past earlier. As fit and strong as these girls were, they were all tiny – and even the two male porters were slight by North American standards. We all immediately went back to our rooms to pare down the extra weight in our packs!Next morning we were off in the van to Besisahar, joined by a Dutch woman, Ria, who was to accompany us as far as the pass. So now we were eight. We rendezvoused with the porters, had lunch – and then we were off. No fanfare, no official photo, no fuss – we just started walking down the road. We hiked through woods and villages, along roads and paths, following the course of the Marsyangdi River through a deep valley with the rich green hills close around us, hiding the mountains from sight. The sub-tropical greenery was lush and exotic, yet many of the plants were familiar – poinsettia, lantana, coleus – only grown to an unfamiliar height. Most houses had gardens – vegetables certainly, but also flowers: roses, hibiscus, bougainvillea and everywhere – marigolds. The pace seemed easy, with time for chatting, getting acquainted and taking advantage of the bamboo swings that had been erected in the villages for the Dashain festival just past.
In spite of the remoteness and the forbidding heights, the landscape struck me as a very human one, an engineered environment – terraced and sculpted rice fields, criss-crossed with ancient drystone walls and flagstone paths. Each time we reached what felt like an impossible height there was always a farm precariously perched on the hillside further up or a village higher still.The trail also crossed from one side of the valley to the other – via bridges. Suspension bridges. Long ones. For which I have always had a profound…distaste, shall we say? I made it across the first one; learning very quickly how far ahead to focus to give the illusion that I was crossing something solid. (Just walk…breathe…you’re good…) I also learned who not to follow onto the bridge – as in: the avid photographers. As in: the ones who stop in the middle for the best shots. (Breathe…you’re…good.)On that first day, and many days after, I reflected that hiking Ontario’s Bruce Trail had been better preparation than I imagined. Not in elevation gain, certainly, but the terrain underfoot was familiar – rocky paths, gravelly slopes, uneven stone stairs and interlaced tree roots. So, the first day I felt strong and prepared and even the steeper climbs left me feeling undaunted and rather, well, triumphant. Yes, I had a little bit of a sore throat – well, full-blown laryngitis actually. But who needed to talk? Let’s just say I was speechless.
We finished up the day just as it began to get drizzly, at the Holliday Trekker’s Guesthouse in Ngadi – rustic but cosy and dry. Bhagawati figured we’d covered about 17k. Dinner, then, tucked up under the mosquito net, I was lulled to sleep by the rush of the river below.