Once around the circle…

Hello again. Welcome back. I know. It’s been a while.

I’m sitting on my balcony as darkness falls. A chill glass of white from a neighbourhood winery sits to hand. The distant clouds are frosted in pink, the nearer hills shading to bronze; following a week under the shroud of a smokey haze, it’s lovely to breathe clear air and see down the valley again. The crickets have begun their nightly chorus – the rhythmic song of late summer that lulled me to sleep my first nights here.

It was a year ago this weekend that I left behind my home in Ontario. I’ve come round the calendar, marking the changes and learning the rhythms of this new home. I’ve seen the summer orchards shade to bronze and copper, watched as winter crept down from the peaks and watched it retreat again, drank in the scent of orchards in blossom, marvelled as clusters of fruit appeared among the rows.  It was peach season when I arrived and it’s peach season again; each day’s offering bigger and juicier than the day before. Berries, apricots and cherries have had their day, now root vegetables and field tomatoes are crowding the stalls. Cabbages and pumpkins ripen in the fields, the trees are burdened with still-green apples.

Summer is far from over here in the Okanagan – but I’ll be heading off in the morning to spend the remaining weeks of the season in Turkey.  After a year of exploring and learning a new place, it’s time to return to a familiar one. The dig at Zincirli opened at the beginning of August and I’ve had word that lovely objects have emerged from the soil and are waiting to be drawn. I’m eager to reconnect with friends – it’s been nearly two years! – and I’m wondering how the sleepy little village of Fevzipaşa has fared meanwhile. I’m awash in thoughts of steaming tea in tulip glasses, tiny cups of morning espresso, late night conversations in a windy courtyard and early mornings awakening to a somewhat-less-than-melodious call to prayer. Adventure – of a sort – awaits.

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If you’ve been following this blog previously, you have an idea of what’s to come. If you’re new here – you may want to take a look at this early post to catch up on what I’m up to. Old friend or new – I hope you’ll come along!

Day 9

 

Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi and High Camp

I awoke refreshed with no altitude headache and a renewed appetite for the ‘French toast’ I’d ordered for breakfast. We headed out in bright sunshine for Thorung Phedi – and High Camp if we remained in good form.

The trail followed the contours of the steep valley, a gradual but steady climb. The slopes were gravelly and the path narrow; signs were posted cautioning of the danger of landslides. The landscape was a little bleak – not much vegetation, but enough to sustain the flocks of Himalayan blue sheep the guides pointed out to us. It was the busiest day on the route so far. We all looked like we were moving in slow motion – the altitude effect was pronounced. I remembered something I had read and tried to follow my breath as I walked, matching it to my pace. Whenever I felt winded, I stopped for as long as it took to normalize my breathing. This worked, but by the time we reached Phedi I’d nearly run out of steam. Neil, Ria and I brought up the rear, but three of the porters who were crossing the pass for their first time – Jaluna, Primila and Kalpana – kept pace with us.

The door to the  dining hall at Phedi opened onto a warm, noisy room filled with buzz. It was so like a ski resort that I was momentarily disoriented. We enjoyed a hearty lunch and recovery period. Patrick (characteristically) discovered a musical connection with the proprietor. Bhagawati pronounced us ready for the climb to High Camp for the night, assuring us that she’d be monitoring everyone carefully. There were some misgivings, but we knew that continuing would shave off considerable time and effort for crossing the Pass in the morning.

High Camp was almost visible from Phedi; we were only on route briefly when we caught a glimpse of the flags waving at the crest. Gazing up the 45° slope as we set out looked a little silly – a scattering of brightly coloured figures wandered (seemingly) aimlessly back and forth across the face of the hill. What one couldn’t see because of the incline was that the track switchbacked constantly, turning the steep climb into a gentler trail. I recalled reading a description of this section: it’s only 45 minutes – but you will remember every one of them!

I was the last to arrive as light flurries began to swirl and found the others huddled around a table in the dining hall. The only heat came from the press of bodies – and the room was filled. After hot drinks, we dispersed to our rooms to – supposedly – warm up. The snow was now falling in earnest and the toilets were across the courtyard from sleeping quarters. I suited up in my thermal layer for the night – determined not to be naked one single time more in this cold!!

I’d enjoyed some lovely conversations with Kathleen over those past days. This day we had touched on identity and our perceptions of self. I’d come to view myself as strong and independent, so being sick had taken a bite out of that. I was, as yet, the only one remaining in our party who had no symptoms of altitude sickness – and the only one not on Diamox – and that had become inordinately important to me. Fingers crossed for a restful night.

Midnight. Dinner was a little dismal – the antibiotics were making things taste strange so I had chosen something fairly bland and disappointing and choked it down. I needed the calories. I’m huddled now in my sleeping bag, cradling a tin cup of hot mint tea. The warmth is a pleasure, but I’ve drunk only enough to ease my pills down my throat. I’ve just returned from my third foray to the far-too-distant facilities (another side-effect of altitude is frequent urination) and I don’t want to make another!! Trudging through the newly fallen snow, I’m grateful that I splurged on the purchase of a new sleeping bag. Sandwiched between two Nepali quilts, it still retains a trace of warmth upon my return. The stars are peeping through here and there. Hoping for a clear morning!

Note: I’ve been back nearly three months and creating this record is taking far longer than I imagined. Meanwhile I’m trying to get a house ready for selling and down-sizing for a move, so my time has been occupied elsewhere. Heartiest of apologies for making you wait for the instalments! I’ll keep plugging away…

Day 8

Manang to Yak Kharka

Our second morning in Manang dawned bright and clear – a hopeful sign for the road ahead. We were only two days from crossing the Throrong La pass; snow would be a potentially serious setback now. No worries – the day was soon warm and the layers were peeled away.

At 3,519 metres, Manang sits at twice the elevation of the Lake Louise, Alberta, the highest settlement in Canada. While our bodies were definitely acclimatizing, altitude decidedly affects athletic performance. The feeling is something like perpetually slogging through deep water; this would only grow more pronounced. Our first day’s goal was to reach Yak Kharka – a half day’s hiking and a gain of more than 500 metres. Bhagawati would decide over the next day whether we were managing well enough to push on to High Camp the next day, or remain overnight at Throrong Phedi for a bit more adjustment. The second scenario would mean a more gruelling climb to the pass, but perhaps a safer alternative.

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Looking back toward Manang

The trail swung away from the Marsyangdi River that had been our companion for so long, turning up the Jarsang Khola valley – so we still had a chattering, watery accompaniment below. Above, our journey was punctuated periodically by rumblings from the Gangapurna glacier as avalanches thundered down the distant slopes. We walked now in arid sub-alpine terrain, the slopes cloaked in autumn-coloured barberry shrubs, low spreading junipers and sparse alpine grasses. The climb was gentle but unrelenting and continually up.

We took our morning tea break on a roof top with an unobstructed view back toward Annapurna III and Gangapurna stretching across the mouth of the valley, splendid in the full sun. Time to catch our breath and soak in the light then back on the path, past a chorten stacked with exquisitely carved mani stones and on to our destination.

Until now, we’d seen relatively few other trekkers, considering we were traveling in peak season. Manang had been something of a gathering point, and we were definitely encountering more traffic. Fighting the altitude seemed to have levelled our own group’s disparate speeds and our porters, too, were slowing. On previous days we’d have ended up strung out over a fair distance; now we were traveling as more of a pack, resting together in little clumps and more frequently. I had more opportunity to chat with our ‘girls’ and learned that for several of them this was also their first time over the pass – and also the highest altitude that they had experienced. Bhagawati was not only monitoring our adjustment, but theirs as well – and the porters were carrying our baggage as an additional challenge.

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Our intrepid porters

We reached the Himalayan View Hotel at Yak Kharka in time for lunch. The tea house offered an ambitious menu, and although Nepali pizza was credible, the moussaka was something of a stretch.

The recommended afternoon action was a short hike to a higher altitude, then back down for the night, but we staged a minor mutiny. Neil and I made personal health decisions to rest and nurse our virus. Ria very kindly offered me an Indonesian massage – a welcome addition to my recovery regimen, but sadly not as relaxing as we hoped because I coughed through the entire process. Then, blessedly, I slept – curled up in the afternoon sunshine streaming through my window. Nightfall brought us all together in the toasty warm dining hall. The porters gathered around a melodrama on the television; the rest of us huddled near the fireplace, variously occupied with journaling, reading, charging devices, treating water, drying socks and staying warm. Much of our conversation circled around our itinerary for the next days. None of us were having serious difficulty but there was an even distribution of early symptoms of AMS – mild headache, loss of appetite, nausea, sleeplessness – although it was hard to tell if these were also cold symptoms. No one was experiencing all of them, but nearly everyone had elected to take Diamox as a precaution. Ironically, while I was still recovering, I seemed mostly unaffected by altitude. Bhagawati was encouraging us to consider reaching for High Camp the next day and I think we were all anxious about gaining the extra altitude, which maybe accounted for our sleeplessness? In the end, we were in her hands; she would make the decision as our lead guide.

As pleasant as the day had been, nights were growing increasingly colder; the expanding thickness of the quilts at successive establishments testified to this. We left the warmth of the dining hall early to burrow under those ample quilts and await the next day’s decisions. Tucked up in my room with the requisite thermos of mint tea, I huddled by the window, tenting my sleeping bag around the steamy warmth. The stars – and later the moon – were spectacular. So many! So bright!

Day 7

Manang

I’ve often found that the surest way to overcome a minor ailment is to make a doctor’s appointment. I’m not claiming that miraculous cures result from the ambiance of medical waiting rooms – but rather that my tolerance for being ill usually falls just a little short of the time needed for my immune system to kick in. It would follow then that after several days of feeling quite miserable on the trail, the very morning I was about to visit an actual clinic I would awake feeling considerably better.

Sunshine was streaming through my window, warming the floor and giving a spicy wood-scent to the white-washed room. Drawing aside the curtains, I was treated to the glorious view of snow-crested Gangapurna filling my window. Just around the corner from my door, the courtyard opened into a sizeable garden and rows of frost dusted cabbages. I hung my laundry on the rail fence to dry in the sun and headed off for a hearty breakfast. My sense of taste – and my appetite – were returning!

Despite my nascent recovery, Neil convinced me to go along to the clinic. My cough persisted and by this point others in our party were also showing symptoms; it might prove valuable to us all if I sought out medical advice. So, after breakfast he accompanied me down the street to the international travel clinic run by the Himalayan Rescue Association. 

The HRA operates in three popular trekking areas of Nepal. Along with educating visitors about Acute Mountain Sickness, they also run a medical clinic in trekking season. Trekkers are charged a fee for consultation, funding the staff to provide free health care to local Nepalis. The doctors work on a strictly volunteer basis. In Manang at the time of our visit there were three doctors on staff: two from Britain, one from Nepal and a Nepali assistant.

Dr. Emma Forsyth greeted us barefoot. She was engaging and casual and generous with her time. Like most patients arriving from Kathmandu, I had a virus, likely exacerbated by the dry, cold air. She affirmed that I also likely had the beginnings of a respiratory infection, but the amoxicillin I was taking would target that effectively. Mostly, she reinforced the common sense advice that Khim and Bhagawati had been offering:  hot, soothing drinks of mint, lemon and ginger; staying well hydrated and ‘cough sweets’ to soothe the throat. To that regimen she added twice daily ‘steam baths’ with Tiger Balm (I am a total convert now!) and regular doses of both ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Chances are the virus would play out in a couple of weeks (!) Meanwhile my lungs were clear, my oxygen saturation was normal and there was no reason not to continue over the pass.

Reassured (except for that bit about the virus lasting two weeks or more!) Neil and I rejoined the others at the hotel. I grabbed my day pack and we headed out for a short morning hike. Manang was larger than any of the communities we’d been in so far and had a frontier sort of ambiance, sitting high on a plateau. We hiked down through the gated and across the valley. The terrain was dry and eroded, reminiscent of the badlands of Alberta, re-inforcing the ‘wild-west’ feeling of the town. Our path followed a narrow crest overlooking a small lake and then continued up the side of the mountain. Somewhere above us was the glacier-fed Lake Gangapurna and we were on our way to have a closer look. Unfortunately, in my haste to join the group I had come out wearing my casual, indoor shoes: sturdy enough for walking, but as we reached a height where there was snow on the trail I didn’t have enough traction to continue. Khim supported me, slipping and laughing, back to the dry trail and I headed back alone along the smaller lake to await the others.

The path back was the narrowest I’d followed up until then – a thin, flattened track along a crest of loose scree. It wasn’t far, but I took it cautiously. I’d only just reached a problematic section when Ria and one of the porters, Subash, caught up with me. We parked ourselves at the lip overlooking the lake; I was regretting that I’d relinquished my pack earlier when I started slipping. Here I was with ample opportunity to draw and no sketchbook! Instead, I soaked up the sun and the scenery and it wasn’t too long before the rest of the party re-appeared on the slope above us and we headed back to town.

Lunch, more laundry and later in the afternoon we attended the lecture at the Himalayan Rescue Association on Acute Mountain Sickness. Less than 1 in 1000 trekkers experience serious consequences from this, but that is due to being prepared and being able to recognize symptoms. It can be fatal and the HRA evacuates several serious cases each season. We’re warned to control our ascent, taking time to acclimatize to the altitude and to pay attention to symptoms that don’t resolve. We were heartened to learn that we had one thing that made AMS less likely to affect us – we’re all over 50! Who knew that age would actually be an advantage? At the conclusion of the lecture, our oxygen saturation was checked; we were all at healthy levels. Onward and upward!

The broad main street seemed quite busy as we headed back, people lining the road. I browsed a few of the shops and bought a string of prayer flags for the Throrong La pass, then opted to join some of the others at the bakery for a cappucccino and chocolate brioche. We came out onto the street just as a rush of brightly decked ponies went barreling by, bells jangling. There were horse races in progress! I may have gone without my sketchbook earlier, but my camera was ready this time! Wild west indeed!

Evening found me in the warmth of the dining hall, head under a towel, inhaling steam and Tiger Balm. Into this enforced meditative state seeped the voices of my companions: Patrick at a nearby table deciphering a Nepali folk song with some of the porters, Kathleen describing a meaningful purchase she’d made, Neil discussing a visit to the monastery at Braga. We share another meal of international cuisine and our Nepali companions once again round out the evening with music. Basking in the warmth, I realize I’ve felt like myself today, as though all this really is possible… even if the virus does hold on for two more weeks.wp_1_26

Day 6

Lower Pisang – Manang

Morning dawned clear but somewhat colder than previously – the socks I’d left to dry on the railing were frozen stiff. We warmed up somewhat before breakfast, hovering near the juniper scented fire in the dining hall.

There are two routes from Lower Pisang to Manang, Bhagawati explained to us over breakfast. One follows the river, gently ascending toward Manang. The other climbs higher for the view. Some of our porters would take the lower, faster route to go ahead and make arrangements for our accommodations. We would take the higher, longer route. It would be hard, she admitted, but it would be worth it.

I was at my lowest ebb at that point and would gladly have accompanied the porters. Miserable with cold symptoms, I was tired, achey and coughing continually. Ria, our Dutch recruit, had slipped me a course of amoxicillin the day before – out of pity, no doubt – but I wasn’t showing any improvement as yet. I could spend this entire entry telling you how miserable I was.

Misery is not what I remember of Day 6 and the high route to Manang.

The trail started out relatively gently through town and past an elaborately carved and decorated prayer wheel wall. The trail wound through soft needled pines and along the edge of a tranquil, turquoise lake.

And then we began to climb – two and a half hours of zig-zagging up the face of the hill, a gain of 500 metres in elevation. There was no chance of my keeping up in my state; I had to rest each time the trail offered a place to perch. Bhagawati relieved me of my day pack, but I still struggled – partly from illness but, as we were approaching 3700 metres in elevation, likely some of the fatigue was due to the thin air. My thoughts kept circling around the presence of a clinic at Manang. If I really was seriously ill, would I be allowed to continue over the pass? What would it mean for everyone else if I were sent back? What would it mean for me? Would I have to travel back along the road in transport of some kind? That was terrifying to contemplate. I slogged along, step-by-step, keeping my own pace but well behind the others. All my training and strength seemed to have deserted me.

At last, the trail brought us to the town of Ghyaru and tea-time – and it was worth every hard-fought, fatiguing, hacking, aching moment. Facing us across the valley Annapurna II blazed brilliantly in full sun – so close you felt that you might lean out and touch the mountain face. The sunshine was warm and luxurious on our faces as we rested and soaked in the wondrous beauty of the view. The day continued clear and warm, despite the snow that lingered here and there on the trail. The Annapurna massif accompanied our every step, looming over the day. (I don’t think I had a proper understanding of the word ‘looming” before this; there is just no other word for that weight of presence!) That view – that’s what I remember. That’s what I will always remember.wp_1_13c

The path continued up from Ghyaru; I continued to struggle. My companions encouraged me, tussling with Bhagawati for their turn shouldering my pack. Michael and Juliet reassured me that before the trek was done we’d all have had similar low points – this from the experience of their previous trek. Patrick and Kathleen made much of stopping for frequent photos, something that allowed them to slow down legitimately and keep pace with me. We lunched at Ngawal, a leisurely stop that allowed me to catch my breath. From there the trail began to descend towards Manang and I found my energy returning somewhat, but I was still the last traipsing into Manang – or I would have been had Janet not hung back to keep me company.

 

Day’s end found us in the Yak Hotel on the main street of Manang. Imagine a scene out of a western movie, if they filmed westerns in Nepal. The building was multi-storied and rambling with a confusing array of balconies and staircases. I was guided to my room, bundled into my sleeping bag and left to sleep until Bhagawati came to fetch me for dinner. Up the dimly lit stairs to the uppermost level, my legs barely lifting me, the door opened into a wonder of warmth and light, delicious odours and the bustle of kitchen staff and roar of conversation. The fire was crackling, the dining hall was filled to bursting with trekkers and the menu was an international hodge podge: pizza, burritos, rosti, dhal baat….in my memory the evening remains surreally magical.

Warm, fed, restored, I stumbled down through the labyrinthine levels to my cosy suite. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag, a thermos of steaming mint tea to see me through the night, awaiting a visit to the clinic in the morning.

And more photos…

A few more images from days 4 & 5:

Day 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.