The horse was probably the single greatest deus ex machina I’ve ever witnessed in real life, trotting starkly down in the huge azure sky, blissfully unaware of the thin air and freezing temperature…but I’m getting ahead of myself. How does one write about the roof of the world? The stark drop of rock face and daggered snow, parched rainshadow and color wheel flags. The journey from a mere few thousand feet to over 17,000, and what happens to the land as it is forced to those jagged heights. Well, one begins with a road.
The road is the Annapurna Circuit, at least at the start. Not an American road, of lines and order and promptness, but a dirt track that must have taken years to blast through the Himalayan rock. And the start of the Annapurna Circuit (at least, for us) took us along that road from Besi Sahar. There were eight of us–Arista, Hana, Katie, Nate, Shane, Shippy, Terri, and me–and we had elected to go with a guide service. This meant two main guides, Kumar–the sirdar, and Kancha, our ice-ax toting pacesetter. As well, four porters–Ghopal, Kaji, Priam, and Sanjeep–carried the heavier loads during the day. Some groups we saw had no guides, some were like us. For our side, I certainly felt that we had a much more interactive experience with the Nepali culture since our guides could interpret and inform us on many things that would likely have escaped our notice had we been without. They also could lead us the best way, the actual Annapurna Circuit trail rather than the dusty, aggravating road.
The first morning in Besi Sahar established the rituals we would come to know well further along the trail. Wake at 7:00 to a bowl of hot water for washing. Breakfast of porridge and fried eggs (probably what I could eat until end times and be happy) at 7:30, and then–crossing fingers–a little time in the outhouse! Trail by 8 or 8:30–and so it went. The first day felt exhilarating; to be out of the smog-pit of Kathmandu actually walking in the Himalaya was relief. However, the trail aspect was often interrupted by the road, which had a steady stream of traffic, mostly for construction of a dam along the Marsyangdi River. Yes, the Chinese are just outside the Annapurna Conservation Area, building a series of dams that will completely change this lower aspect of the Annpurna Circuit.
A friend once said, “You can’t eat culture.” He was referring to the clash between development and tradition. This is a larger
argument than one simple recounting of a Himalayan trek, but there is definitely a sense of NITBY (Not In Their Backyard) that many foreign travelers get when they see dams being built, roads blasted into place, a culture uprooted. However, we don’t stay for long in many of these places–we taste at each culture like it was International Night–and don’t see high child mortality rates, easily preventable diseases claiming lives, poverty; how can we deny someone the ability to just turn on the lights as we do here because we want the local to fit into our definition of who he or she should be? Those dams will change the Marsyangdi and the lower Circuit. The current construction makes for an unpleasant first day, but it does reinforce that you are not in the cultivated wilderness of the developed world, but the breathing world of the developing. The completion of the dams will cause change and conflict, as those towns that once depended on the trekkers for hard currency see massive declines as folks simply drive past to more bucolic settings. Will the dam replace the missing income? Will the villages diversify their offerings? Will the tourism ministries route a new circuit?
Down at this elevation, only 1,000 meters, the foliage was still dense jungle in places and paddies (recently for hay or corn) now browning as the season turned deeper into winter. The Marsyangdi, the river we would follow for almost the entire trek, was a violent, powerful thing–azure and green and smashing through the gray and white limestone boulders. Waterfalls pored down the sides of the massive valley, and a humid haze rode heavy across the narrow sky. Shippy and I spotted long-tail monkeys frolicking in the overhanging brush, and Kumar told us we would see even more animals later. Sadly, he said we wouldn’t see a yeti, but this did not deter us from keeping a keen eye out for that most abominable of snowmen.
We arrived at Ngadi, a very small village surrounded by the destruction of construction, after about six hours of trekking (including a lunch stop along the river). A child promptly ran up to Shane because young Nepali children can sense gingers, demanded a chocolate, and when Shane didn’t pay up, promptly started beating him. It was awesome–he just kept smacking Shane and trying to take his things. The rest of us simply watched, powerless to intervene. Eventually, the kid lost interest, and we all decided to investigate the hilltop above Ngadi.
It was a world much different from the chaos and mud below–the tiered paddies stretched up the mountain, water buffalo and cattle munched lazily at the broken stalks, and children played soccer with a deflated ball on a patch of bare earth. It almost felt staged as some aid worker’s dream, but the realistic touch of cow paddies underfoot kept the fantasy grounded. Arista, who spoke some Nepali from her previous visits with Engineers without Borders, asked the name of the village, and a ropey farmer responded, “Usta,” and pointed even further up the hill where yet more homes were nestled against the steep hills. Sun began to set through the haze, and the lighting drew closer to abstraction. Below, the dam construction ground relentlessly towards completion, yet only a few minutes away on this hill was a bubble in time–far away from the modern.
That night, after dinner, we sipped tea in the common area of our teahouse. The owners had a TV, and we watched Jason Statham deliver one-liners in Hindi, before running down the list of the Top-10 most dangerous animals.
The morning ritual repeats, and we are off again, still tracing the Marsyangdi as it falls from the Annapurna highlands. We finally saw our first glimpse of the coming mountains, but Kumar corrected us–they weren’t even mountains by Nepali standards. We didn’t understand then, but later it would become clear when we saw the real mountains, the thousands of feet of snow and ice and rock that rose towering over the 14,000 foot valley floor. We began a climb up to a picturesque village on a ridge, passing a village wedding on the way where we heard the shouting of the celebration. On the far side of the village, the valley opened in front of us, and we could see the general direction of the circuit until it completes a hard turn to the west. The eastern bank of the river belonged to Manaslu, the western to Annapurna–two of the world’s greatest mountain massifs, divided by one river.
We lunched at Ghermu Phant, a picturesque village across the valley from an epic two-tier waterfall. Most of our lunches were in absolutely gorgeous locales, and provided an ample opportunity to pull out the map, study, drink tea, stretch, shed shoes, drink coffee, finally eat, and then drink some more caffeinated beverage. While I love backpacking, lunch is typically the least interesting meal–the surroundings are usually incredible, but the cold bread and meat leave something to be desired, and there is always that feeling that the miles are escaping. In Nepal, lunch was always something hot and refreshing, and we took our time, relaxing in the epic Nepali landscape.
Our porters and guides would fix these amazing meals, and then sit down to a meal of daal bhat–lentils and rice and some veggies–
almost every single meal. They said it was their favorite meal, and that it made them strong for climbing the pass and hauling the gear. I can’t say that isn’t true. Every morning, the porters would gather up our duffels from our rooms, lash a couple of them into a makeshift backpack, throw a cloth around the waist of the improvised pack and run it up over their foreheads, then proceed to crush miles in a crouching gait that outpaced us more than once. These young men tirelessly walked the trail with loads somewhere around 30-40 kg–sometimes even arriving early to our destination and coming back down the trail with tea or juice, or just to make sure everything was going smoothly. The porters hope to eventually become cooks, and then eventually guides, maybe sirdar–it is an established industry in Nepal. Almost all the porters were from Kumar’s village; Kumar said that in his village (mainly of Rai–an ethnic group–and Sherpa people) most men are either guides or join the army (and those who come back from the army also go into the trekking business). Tourism is Nepal’s number one hard currency earner (followed by remittances, a helpful sign will tell you in the Kathmandu Airport) and these young men were those who made it happen. They worked hard, likely for a small daily wage and the hope of a large tip at the trail’s end. They didn’t know if there would be work when they returned to Kathmandu, but they kept moving forward. If there were no treks, some of the porters would return to hauling much larger loads of bricks or cement up the mountain trails. The ridiculous Western notion with which some flirt, that the poor are poor because they don’t work hard, doesn’t come close to surviving the crucible of Nepal.
We eventually arrived at Jagat, where some of us scored hot showers, some scored cold showers, and I proved my inability to learn a card game through osmosis.
Our third day of hiking found us leaving the road for most of the trail, and wandering the ups and downs of the Manaslu foothills. The Marsyangdi boiled fast and green below us, tearing scars into the rock–which was now a mix of limestone and granite. Huge limestone walls rose on either side of the valley, now more rightly a canyon. Kumar pointed out the beehives sheltered under one particular limestone roof. Arista had seen a documentary on the harvesters of this wild honey–men who tie off old ropes above and absail down to harvest a most ‘free-range’ of honey (that can also ferment to a light alcohol!) Simply amazing. Vultures and eagles soared overhead, and we saw yet another pack of monkeys. The trail had become something wild at last.
After a few miles of wilderness, I could always tell when we were approaching a Nepali settlement by the presence of domestic animals; as we began to climb upwards towards Tal, an invisible goat announced himself with full fervor. His companions were scattered about on the hill we were ascending, but he was nowhere to be found, except his oddly human-sounding screaming. And then, perched on the very edge of a massive boulder, inches from falling, near some tantalizing scrub, was our Screaming Goat! How he got there was his own business, and how he planned to return to a more terrestrial and horizontal setting was anyone’s guess, which is likely why he continued to holler for his companions–maybe moral support? That poor goat became our fallback for the trip–whenever we needed a topic, the poor Screaming Goat and his vertical predicament would fill. We hiked past our beset friend, and crossed into Manang District.
Here the Marsyangdi quieted before it plummeted down, and Tal was situated along the peaceful bend of the river. The village felt
cleaner and brighter than the closeness of the hillside settlements, but that could be due to the noon sunshine and absolute openness of the valley. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) had an office there, and therefore the conservation efforts were more apparent from this point on in the trek. ACAP is entrusted with ensuring that the lands around Annapurna are managed with sound policies, combing environmental protection with traditional activities preservation. ACAP looks to minimize and mitigate the negative effects of tourism in the Annapurna Conservation Area, as well as working to promote community development and alleviate poverty. It’s a momentous task, but at least there is an organization willing to tackle it. The difficulty, of course, is that same confluence of development, traditionalism, tourism, migration–basically the world writ on smaller scale.
Our third night found us on limestone bluffs above the river. Once the sun dropped behind the valley walls, the air grew much colder. We gathered in the kitchen/dining room for an excellent tree tomato soup, which tasted…unique? Tart, but sweet, but sour? It was excellent, to say the least. We also eavesdropped on a couple that had been hiking the circuit, but were now facing a difficult decision–the girl’s knee was injured and causing her major pain, and they didn’t know if they should continue going up or head down. Their guide was also very young and didn’t have the confidence to tell them that continuing upward was likely a very bad idea, so the couple mainly smoked and looked angry and frustrated. At that moment, I was very glad that we had a strong and capable guide in Kumar, for it was days away still when his strength and skill would prove lifesaving.
This was our last night in the lower valley; Kumar explained that tomorrow we would finally climb to the high country. I felt electric knowing that on the morrow, we would finally see the great Himalayan peaks. While the river crashed and tumbled below, we zipped deep into our sleeping bags–breath just puffs of steam in our chilled room–and dreamed those trail dreams.