Day 2-3

Ngadi-Srichaur-Dharapani

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Look closely…yes, that is a road winding around that outcrop! The tiny orange spot to right of centre is a vehicle and there’s a white one coming around the curve at the left…

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!

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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.

And they’re off!

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!wp_12_3aPokhara 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?

Hmmm.

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!wp_12_3bNext 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.
wp_12_3dIn 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.wp_12_3eThe 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.)wp_12_3cOn 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.wp_12_3gwp_12_3f.jpg