A few more images from days 4 & 5:
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.
It rained during the night – a gentle noise that softened the roar of the river below our ramshackle little inn and also put an end to the regular small animal expeditions across my ceiling. We downed a hearty breakfast and then set off in a light drizzle.
The day was spent mostly climbing. The way was rocky, steep at times and slippery with the rain, but we exceeded our guide Bhagawati’s expectations, taking our late morning tea perched above the terraced rice fields surrounding Bahundanda which had been our projected lunch stop. Instead, we later lunched beside a lovely waterfall after climbing further on. Our previous jaunty pace allowed for a leisurely meal and extended tea break, so I took the opportunity to begin a short sketch. Perched on the steps overlooking the trail, taking in the view and the myriad passersby – trekkers and lines of ponies carrying goods to neighbouring villages – strains of music washed over me. Although I was wrapped up in my drawing and missed the lead-in, I recall it began with singing and then Vishnu, a porter, brought out his flute. Someone else – Patrick? – tried the flute too, I think. In any case, there was a great exchange of laughter and song and the beginnings of how music was to knit our disparate group together. The next day would find Vishnu engaged in a Nepali ‘dance-off’ with a young traveler during one of our rest stops.
We had entered the predominantly Buddhist area of Nepal, and from here the architecture became increasingly Tibetan in influence. We passed through the first of many stone gateways housing prayer wheels.
Our afternoon hike was a gentle rise and fall ending with a rickety suspension bridge which took us directly onto the flag-stoned main street of Syange and then on to Srichaur and the Hiker’s Guest House: a tiny enclave painted in a jumble of unlikely hues. We were barely settled in before the rain began in earnest. We huddled in the dining hall over hot drinks and spent the afternoon pouring over the map, catching up on journals, showers and laundry.
The next day dawned overcast but was soon gloriously sunny. The Marsyangdi valley had closed to a narrow canyon from the sides of which our route was carved. Another day of climbing; I was surprised how quickly we gained height, leaving the valley floor and soon hiking near the crest of the surrounding hills. We’d start each day dressed for the early morning weather and by the time we’d warmed up and stopped to take our jackets off, our previous night’s lodging would already seem far below.
We passed through numerous villages, walking sometimes on the road, sometimes on the trail, although the two were hard to tell apart at times. We criss-crossed the gorge on the now familiar suspension bridges, at one point stopping in disbelief to watch a bus and a transport truck pass each other on the alarmingly narrow road across from us. Not surprisingly, all the passengers got off the bus before the maneuver.
Lunchtime found us at Tal and another gaily painted establishment. Here the valley opened and the river snaked through a gravelly flat plain. We were again ahead of schedule and Bhagawati decided we would carry on to Dharapani for the night. The clouds closed over once more and we walked in a light drizzle, but the afternoon’s trail was easier and we were soon at our night’s accommodation at the Heaven Guest Hotel. That laryngitis I’d started out with had developed into a full-on cold, so it was heaven indeed when the promised hot shower actually hit the lovely temperature of 42C!
A last thought to ponder: throughout the day we occasionally glimpsed snow-covered peaks above us. Each time the clouds parted to reveal a snowy face we would eagerly enquire: which mountain were we seeing? Our guides patiently explained that the clouds were still concealing the mountains, and that we were only seeing “hills.” At 3000 metres a Himalayan hill earns status as a “peak.” At 5000 metres, it is considered a “mountain.” The Annapurna mountains are between 6000 and 8000 metres high. Everest tops out at 8,848.
For perspective: the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies is Mount Robson at 3,954 metres and the highest in the Alps, Mont Blanc, is 4,808: mere “peaks” by Himalayan standards.
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.
Here is a small collection of shots in the neighbourhood of the Tewa Centre in Lalitpur and a few from the historical district of Bhaktapur. I seem to have got caught up in architectural details and didn’t step back for the larger picture. Sadly, my camera battery conked out before we hit the main square where all the major temples were – it was quite spectacular. Note the beautifully carved (and apparently famous) Peacock Window that is heavily shored up following earthquake damage.
In many ways our trek wasn’t typical – so let me take you back to our beginnings to explain.
We started out as seven traveling together. Not all of us knew each other, but we all knew Michael and Juliet, who had inspired and initiated planning for the trip. They completed part of the Annapurna Circuit three years ago and invited friends to join them when they returned to trek the complete circuit. I jumped on board immediately (as I mentioned previously, I’d been waiting nearly forty years to do this trip!) along with Janet – who had been on the previous trek, Kathleen, Patrick, and Neil. We’d been putting together the details for over a year via conference calls, but we met in person finally, at Toronto Pearson Airport en route to Kathmandu.
In addition to trekking previously, Michael, Juliet and Janet had all made personal acquaintance with a Nepali development organization, Tewa and it’s founder, Rita Thapa, and shared news of their work over our planning period, particularly in the aftermath of the earthquake of April 2015. Tewa was our host and our focus for the first days in Nepal.
We arrived in nighttime Kathmandu somewhat bedraggled after a lengthy flight, the second leg of which was chaotic followed by a baggage claim experience that was practically riotous. We stumbled out to our tourist taxis, somewhat dazed, to be driven through a darkened city in the throes of a power outage. It was difficult to say what we were driving through aside from the terrifying state of the roads and what little the headlights revealed. Thankfully, it was not too far to our destination, and the gates of the Tewa centre opened upon an oasis of tranquillity.
The Tewa Centre is, indeed an oasis. Along with housing the offices of Tewa and its’ sister organization, Nagarik Aawaz (Nepali for “the people’s voice”) the complex operates as a conference, retreat, education and arts centre, a performance space, a guesthouse and a community model for sustainable living. Modelled on traditional Nepali architecture, the various buildings spill down a hillside, wrapped in terraced garden beds where most of the organic produce served in the centre kitchens is grown. The philosophy of peace and respect that underlies Tewa’s operation is palpable in the calm, meditative air of the grounds.
Over three days we met with the organization’s founder, Rita Thapa, along with numerous staff of Tewa and Nagarik Aawaz, hearing about their history, their ongoing work and the challenges that face Nepal currently. We hiked through the neighbourhood and surrounding countryside and toured the cultural sites of nearby Bhaktapur with an eminent professor of history. A highlight was spending an afternoon with an inspiring group of young women in a nearby community, as they recounted personal stories of how they were mobilized by Nagarik Aawaz in the days immediately following the earthquake and how they and their community have been empowered and supported in the months since.
We had hoped, in our brief sojourn at the centre, to be of some assistance – but our combined skill set didn’t offer too much scope. Our conclusion was that our greatest contribution might be to spread the word about the incredible work of these two organizations, Tewa and Nagarik Aawaz. Nepal’s recent history has been tragic and complex, and the government has been paralyzed by infighting, so post-earthquake rebuilding has largely stalled. In the midst of this, what was impressive to me was the degree to which individual Nepali communities have taken initiative and responsibility for their own local reconstruction – and we continued to see this throughout the trek as well. Nepal continues to need international help post-quake; additionally, the country is currently suffering under an undeclared fuel blockade by India that is now affecting all aspects of daily life, curtailing some of the community programs run by these organizations. Assistance that goes through on-the-ground, community-based, Nepali organizations like Tewa and Nagarik Aawaz is more likely to be effective and to reach those in need. Please follow the links, take a look and consider what you could do to help.
This post is totally outside any chronological structure I should be imposing on the tale of my Annapurna adventure, but the reason for that will be clear as you read down. Today I’m taking you to the Thorung La pass – the crown of the climb.
At 5,416 metres, the Throrung La pass is the goal of the Annapurna Circuit. Everything is up until you reach that point and everything is down from there on. The days leading to the pass are all about preparing for the crossing – carefully pacing your altitude gain to allow for acclimatization, monitoring your body’s reaction as you ascend: are you sleeping normally? do you have an appetite? headache? nausea? Regardless of your symptoms (or, in my case, lack thereof) you will still feel as though you are slogging through mud. Putting one foot in front of another will be the best you can manage – you are, after all, operating with half the oxygen that would be available to you at sea level. You can see why reaching the small island of prayer flags surrounding the sign that announces that you’re at the Pass becomes a sort of pilgrimage.
I gave a lot of thought to that in the months leading to our departure. The pass is adorned with strings of Tibetan prayer flags that climbers have carried with them, along with photographs and silk scarves, signs and countless memorial objects tucked into the colourful mass of flapping fabric. I knew what I wanted to leave there early on – but it wasn’t until the last days before our crossing that I understood why.
Tucked into a pocket of my backpack I carried a six-inch square of tie-dyed fabric from one of my late husband’s t-shirts. Craig wore these bright shirts in the dark days of his cancer treatment as a testament of hope, and they remain a symbol of that nearly nine years since his loss. I didn’t exactly understand what a prayer flag was or how they were suspended at the site or if hanging a tie-dyed one was some kind of sacrilege, but I thought I’d figure it out. Along with the fabric, I had an old film canister from Craig’s photo equipment, into which I had tucked a small photo of him. In some vague way I believed that I would leave these objects at the pass, magically end something and be granted permission to start over. In the end, another act entirely took shape.
In the days leading up to the pass, I found myself constantly mentally consulting Craig. If he were here, if we had done this together – how would he have framed this scene? How would he have engaged these people, what would he have seen that I was missing, what would have caught his imagination? And as always throughout the last nine years, I found that trying to see through his eyes stretched me a little bigger, moved me to listen instead of chatter, called me to look a little deeper.
Two days out from the pass we reached the town of Manang. Members of our group went looking for material for their various tributes; I quietly purchased a package of small prayer flags, added my bright fabric to the string and, reflecting on the previous few days, penned an inscription on the square. Two days later, stumbling through the snow, half-blinded in the Himalayan sun, I added my prayers to the mound of remembrances strung across the pass.
When you first endure the loss of someone dear to you the heaviness of it seems unbearable – like struggling to lug a backpack up a mountain pass, gasping for the oxygen that is just not there. In time, the weight becomes something more comfortable, like a stone always in your pocket, something you turn over and over and can never let go of. And finally, one day, you reach into your pocket and find something bright that you bring out to shine in the sun – a celebration of how incredibly blessed you were to have that person in your life, how their memory continues to call you to be so much more than you were, so much bigger, so much better.
Today, November 24th, would have been Craig’s sixty-third birthday. Somewhere high in the Himalayas, a small flag dances in celebration on the chill mountain air.