Dharapani – Chame – Lower Pisang
It was only a few days in to our 21 day trek, but we were already falling in to a rhythm. Each day we’d gain about 500 metres in height, so each night would be a little colder and we’d add more layers the following morning. By tea time we’d be back down to our lightest clothes; hiking generated a lot of warmth and the mountain sunshine was strong. Mists clung to the heights, but the weather had cleared and at last the stunning Annapurna mountains were in sight.
Each morning Bhagawati reviewed with us what to expect for the day and we were slowly learning to translate this information. There’s a t-shirt that reads “Nepali flat: a little bit up, a little bit down” which gives the idea. Bhagawati’s “mostly flat” meant the vigorous ups and downs over the day would cancel each other out. “A gentle climb”? That would be a steady few hours uphill. When she warned us it would be “a little steep” we prepared for a serious work-out and a day of aching calves. For the most part, a strenuous day would be followed by a gentler path and shorter distance on the next.
Day 4 out of Dharapani was one of the long days but we were energized by our first glorious view of the Annapurnas. A steady climb to rejoin the road brought us through a string of Tibetan style villages, past one impressively large prayer wheel and a long wall of smaller wheels and out to the countryside. A brief descent took us over a small wooden bridge and then zig-zagging up across a forested slope on a seemingly endless stone stairway. When the lead hikers reached level ground at last, a celebratory whooping let the rest of us know relief was near.
We rejoined the road, ‘paved’ now with stones set upright in countless rows. No vehicles passed as we traversed this section, but it looked like a tough ride, although that pretty well described any section of road we’d seen so far. It made one grateful to be on foot.
Another hour of switch-back trail brought us to the gate of our lunch stop. Released from our packs, we stretched out in the sun on a small plateau overlooking the valley, Annapurna II shining at one end, Manaslu at the other, the sun silhouetting the lesser peaks beside us. After lunch we rounded out the day with an easy, “Nepali flat” stroll to Chame for the night. The town didn’t seem so much bigger than others we’d been in, but there was a more commercial “vibe” to it and definitely more trekkers in evidence. The guidebook indicated a clinic – or at least a pharmacy – and I was hoping for the means to deal with worsening cold symptoms, but we were unable to locate it or it had closed for the night. I had to settle for draping my head with a towel over a bowl of steaming water. I struggled not to cough in the smoke of the dining hall but was reluctant to forego the warmth of the fire.
Over dinner we chatted with a Polish trekker, in Nepal for his second time and with hiking experiences stretching from Europe to Kilimanjaro. “If you want things to work,” he said, “ you go hiking in Switzerland. But if you’re looking for the unexpected, you come to Nepal.” We were all enjoying the darkness of a power outage at the time.
I passed an uneasy night, convinced that I was keeping everyone in the adjoining rooms awake with my spasmodic coughing. In the morning, I debated the merits of taking Cipro – an antibiotic that several of the group were carrying for possible intestinal issues, but a bit of research indicated that it was not effective for respiratory infections. Nix that. I acknowledged that if I’d been at home feeling as I did, I probably would have stayed in bed but it wasn’t an option. By day’s end, I would be so grateful that I was not – not in bed, nor at home.
The road out of Chame took us past a ‘hydro-powered’ prayer wheel – perpetually turning in the flow of a stream. A line of inscribed tablets – mani stones – and a beautifully decorated chorten (a Buddhist shrine) marked the exit from town. It was an easier hiking day, but my energy was ebbing. Bhagawati and Khim were both plying me with ‘horrible’ lozenges – or at least, that’s what I understood the description to be at first. I was reluctant to take one, until I finally asked Khim “what makes them horrible?” She looked at me, puzzled, and said, “ well…they are natural, made with plants and flowers…you know – herbal.” Ah. It turned out that they were not at all horrible and very soothing.
Mid-morning brought us to a tea house at Bhratang in the midst of an extensive apple orchard. There were fresh, crisp apples for snacking and a sunny deck to rest and soak up the sun. One of our porters found a drum, Vishnu brought out his flute and soon the group was singing and clapping together. As other trekkers approached along the trail, the smiles grew and the music drew them in. Gazing out at the sun glinting on the apple trees, framed by the bright plumes of prayer flags and immersed in infectious laughter and music I found myself momentarily awash in tears, completely and sublimely happy. Later on the trail, we were warmly greeted by a lone hiker coming in the opposite direction. I commented that he must be so happy because he was going down and he answered, quite convincingly, “you have wonderful days ahead of you!”
I held on to that prophecy through the afternoon. I ran out of energy along our next climb and Bhagawati persuaded me to give up my pack. Lunch and medication revived me somewhat and I was able to reclaim my load for the last hour as the road levelled out to ‘Nepali flat’.
Our hotel at Lower Pisang was perched on the side of a wide valley. Upper Pisang was across and above us and some of the others headed off to tour the monastery there. I wrapped up in my sleeping bag to catch a nap. Later I went seeking warmth in the dining hall where a fire had been lit. I sipped a hot lemon tea and caught up on my journal. The porters start to slip in after a time and tuned the sound system to Nepali pop music. By evenings’ end this turned into a full-blown dance party – and soon mostly everyone had taken a turn on the floor, including the family who ran the tea house. Their little son circulated among us, delightedly showing off his school work and the photos he had taken on a broken smart phone some trekker had discarded.
Reluctant to leave the warmth of both the fire and the company, we stayed up later than had been usual – but not, of course, as late as our dancing porters.