Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Annapurna Circuit

It is possible to walk from the town of Besisahar to Bhulebule, the start of the 16 day, 300 kilometre trek around the Annapurna mountains, but we took the bus on the dirt track that had taken 30 years to dig by hand and blast by dynamite through the Himalaya. The bus carried 50 or so people inside and another 20 or so on the roof. We had grandstand seats on the roof along with a mix of guides, porters and western trekkers.

We climbed down as dark started to close in and walked an hour up valley with a Czech couple, Radic and Teresa, to the Super View tea lodge. Dotted along the whole trek, tea lodges provide a bed for 30 pence a night and food for not much more. With a slug of Radic's Czech rum in our bellies, we ate dal bhat (rice, lentil soup, curried vegetables and poppadom) by candlelight.

We left early the next day climbing continually through terraced fields of rice and barley with small villages of stone and wood dotted between. The trail was the only way to the villages and we passed (and were passed) by locals carryng huge loads of firewood, chickens in cages, foodstuffs and trekkers' rucksacks; trains of mules driven by men wearing flip flops; and small children. It was exploring by foot rather then trekking with human interest as important as the scenery.

The first two days were quite hard as our bodies adjusted to the effort and, increasingly, the altitude. However, we started to find our rhythm and seemed to gain fitness as we climbed up the valley, always heading towards the source of the river. Its milky white colour gave us a clue as to where that was. As we gained height, the landscape became drier and steeper and the fields gave way to pine forest, cliffs and towering flanks of mountains. The path, which in places had almost been a 4x4 track, narrowed to a winding path of loose dirt and rocks. We walked into deep gorges and the heavy shade cast by the vast mountains.

A few days after the start, time had begun to lose its meaning and we had settled into a routine of getting up at five, eating breakfast of apple porridge, walking all day stopping only for water and lunches of noodle soup and chapatis, eating in the evening and going to bed at eight. With no electricity in many places, there was little else to do. One morning, we rounded a corner to find the valley widen and flatten, the consequence of past glacial erosion, into a plain-like landscape reminiscent of cowboy films. Horses grazed the sparse clumps of grass, large pines covered the valley floor and the river thundered between crumbling bluffs.

In the village of Lower Pisang, the Tibetan influence took over from the Hindu influence. Walls of prayer wheels were common, every spin sending thousands of mantras into the wind, and we saw prayer flags in the five elemental colours (red, yellow, blue, green and white - spirit being the Tibetan fifth element) everywhere. Stupas, in their typical three tiers, littered the landscape and stones carved with mantras were piled against their bases.

From Lower Pisang, we climbed to the medieval village of Ghyaru where we sat drinking mint tea and staring at the immense vista of the ice and snowclad Annapurnas. Fluted snow, jagged ridges, blue glaciers and summits marked with blowing cloud filled our vision and, although there was 4000 metres separating us from the 7000 metre peaks, the mountains seemed so close that we could touch them. The majortiy of trekkers followed a route along the valley bottom and we seemed to have the trail to ourselves. No litter, no mule dung, no large groups. It was wonderful.

We reached the village of Braga (3800 metres) late that afternoon under a baking sun and settled into a lovely tea lodge overlooking the valley. With ensuite squat toilet, it was luxury and the food was excellent. We spent two nights there acclimatising and filled with intervening day with a punishing climb and knee-hammering descent (over 1,100 metres each way) to a frozen lake. The idea was that it was supposed to help us acclimatise. In reality, it meant that the next day, though short and flat, was the toughest day of walking as our legs refused to work.

The valley around Braga was barren, dry and in the rain shadow of Annapurna, with cold clear mornings ideal for walking and taking photos. I watched mountain deer graze nervously as the yaks were turned out of their stables by the villagers. Horses, squat and hairy, followed the line of the sun as it melted the frost on the grass. As the sun climbed over the ridge, the jagged ridges cast deep shadows and the ice thousands of metres above gleamed brighter and brighter until I needed sunglasses to make out any details.

On the morning that we left Braga, we visited a Buddhist temple built on a spit of cliff above the stove village. Based on a belief of rebirth and the desire to avoid suffering, Buddhists accumulate merits through certain acts during their lives aimed at achieving a higher level of rebirth. In the temple, we watched monks chanting mantras - the thinking being that by repeating one phrase, you stop thinking and the fundamental thoughts rise from your subconscious. We received woven threads to bring us luck and walked north towards the Thorong La pass, two days distant.

The valley narrowed and became wilder as we climbed to a camp at 4300 metres. Landslides had destoyed much of the path forcing light-footed dances across loose dirt and rocks. At the camp, we watched snow fall and wondered if we would be able to cross the pass. We woke, wearing all our clothes after a cold night, to a clear morning, but knew that wind and cloud would probably sweep in by late morning. After a quick breakfast, we started the 1,100 metre climb at dawn and made quick headway past the groups. A few walkers, affected by altitude sickness, were riding yaks (at a cost of $150); many had porters carrying their rucsacs. We carried everything ourselves and plodded through snow over morraine, gasping for air as the oxygen thinned. After three hours, we reached the highest pass in the world at 5,416 metres. It was bloody cold despite the bright sun and we snapped photos before a knee-jarring descent of 1,600 metres to the pilgrimage village of Muktinath.

We ate and rested, sleeping well despite the barking dogs, and headed out early the next morning into a Tibetan-like landscape of baked rock, wind-whipped dust and crumbling cliffs. After a couple of hours, we reached Cagbeni at the entrance to the Kingdom of Mustang. A few irrigated fields washed against the walls of the village and we wandered a maze of twisting streets before a large sign warned us not to enter the ancient kingdom of Mustang. We stared up the valley wondering what lay beyond. Photos suggested a way of life untouched by the Coca Cola corporation, but only a $700 permit and group would get us any closer. We headed south through the edgy town of Jomsom, where soldiers and police stood outside their respective barracks with weapons, to Marpha, the 'Apple Capital of Nepal'.

We had a rest day shopping for necklaces, yaks' wool scarves and bracelets. We ate tangy yaks' cheese and dried apples and apple pie and porridge with apple. We drank apple juice and cider and apple brandy. We left and walked hard for 3 long days. The mornings started so hot that we sweated litres. Rain and freezing hail pelted us in the afternoons. Eight hours, eight hours and ten hours of walking was hard work, but we covered a lot of ground uninspired by the grey weather and crowds of people doing the 'easy' walk from Jomsom to Pokhara.

The walk undoubtably split into two parts - the remoter and less popular first part where the Tibetan influence was strong and the more populated second part where motorbikes bouncied noisily on the road that the government was building between villages. With more development inevitable, we had an inescapable feeling that the attraction for trekkers would be lost as the road, which many locals welcomed, encroached further and further into the valleys where mules and people had, for centuries, been the only way to transport goods.

On the third day of our walk south, we climbed 1,500 metres before losing it all the next day. It was torture on the soles of our feet and, more so on our minds which had seen the pass as the turning point of the trek. The landscape, greener and more agricultural than the first ten days, was interesting and we watched the barley being harvested and threshed by hand; oxen dragging wooden ploughs through the deep brown earth; and haystacks reaching for the sky.

On dawn of the last day, I watched the sun light up the Annapurnas for the last time before we walked six or so hours to the roadhead and a battered bus that climbed agonisingly up the foothills before barrelling down to the city of Pokhara. In torrential monsoon rain, we found a hotel and a shower so hot that we were as red as chillis when we finally dragged ourselves from under its jets. A big feed and a long night's sleep were all that we needed.


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