A Travellerspoint blog

The Pass of DOOM... Yak Kharka to Ranipauwa

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And after that night, we started out again from Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi – Phedi meaning 'foot of the mountain', and as the name implies, traditionally the last stop before the pass. (There is one other possible stop beyond, Thorung High Camp, which is actually after what the guidebooks rightly describe as the toughest part of the climb to the pass. It's too high for comfort and whilst some trekkers opt to sleep there it sounds mad to me). I began the day with a lot of scepticism and worried the same problem would happen again, but the need for closure was so great!

We reached Thorung Phedi much quicker than expected, passing the place where we'd turned back the day before and pausing just after at a tiny, solitary restaurant – a hut with a wall and some logs outside, where people huddled before the wind and chill drove them on. The path climbed gradually through a blasted landscape where the evidence of landslides was more common than vegetation. The sight provoked a kind of nervous amusement – only birds and hardy scrub survived here; this wasn't a 'human habitat', and only people are mad enough to search out such harshness.

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Thorung Phedi... a unique, bizarre place: two large hostels clinging to life in the fold of a shallow valley formed by surrounding cliffs, at the foot of the scree slope the guidebooks had promised. As I looked at it, some of my fear drained away – Thorung La became more real, less mythic. The sun dipped early behind those cliffs, and during the bitter night the dark was absolute, and the silence almost. Trekkers crowded in the warm dining room of our lodge, spreading their shoes around the heater and eating elbow-to-elbow on long benches.

Thorung Phedi

Thorung Phedi

We met David, a German who'd relocated to Sweden to start a business, and his girlfriend Lena. Both had been WOOFing in Nepal and knew an enviable amount of the language. We also met an excitable Slovakian who talked enthusiastically about Camden Town, of all things. All smiled reassuringly at my fear. I spent a lot of the evening feeling queasy and light-headed. We also found two Americans we'd encountered before somewhere earlier in the trek, who were willing to join us to attempt the pass at 6am, rather than the ungodly and unsafe 3am that some were planning (it's apparently inadvisable to attempt the pass in groups of fewer than four). We ate our dhal bhat (and for the first time had to ask for a second helping – what is Thorung Phedi coming to?) before turning in early. I lay awake for a while, and my thoughts changed.

I thought that there was no need to apologise for knowing one's own limits, that I had the power to choose, and that to choose not to do it was no shame, simply that my own view of the universe did not require me to do it to prove anything to myself. Rich still said he didn't care, didn't want me to push myself to do something I didn't want to. This is part of my routine, I realised, remembering how I'd panicked about my degree and then done it. I'd needed others to say that they didn't care before I could overcome how much I did. These thoughts went on for a long time, and are beyond my recall.

In the morning we began the scree slope in cruel, bone-shuddering cold as the sun had not yet risen over the cliffs. We'd got only a third of the way up the slope before one of our companions felt ill, and they both descended. We looked at each other and shrugged, fine but freezing. Then, climbing slower than the sun, we zigzagged up in near silence, caught in the shadow of huge crags wrinkled by strata of snow. Every now and then a single stone would slide down that slope, and the hackles would rise: such a dangerous, precarious sound.

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Toes burning, lungs heaving and bladder continually full, I made it with painful slowness, rounding the spur of rock at the crest of that awful hill to see a ram skull on a boulder and, later, a scrap of paper, moist with melting ice in my hand, that seemed to be a page from some Nepali child's English exercise book. I gasped suddenly, the air crackling in my throat, at first just out of fear, and then as we reached the icy, bitter – whatever synonyms there are for 'cold' – High Camp, the headaches and nausea struck. We will have to turn around, I thought.

With High Camp we had entered a strange world – the lodges gaped emptily, exposed at the top of that slope, and behind us the Annapurna peaks had begun to open out with an unearthly, crisp beauty. I apologised for the nth time, hugged Rich, and ate cereal bars on a low wall. We decided: we would go on as far as the box-bridge over a frozen stream that the guide had promised, and then see. As we continued upwards (and every way there was 'up'), a Nepali woman emerged from a doorway, and a blast of cheerful Hindi music erupted from behind her. Laden pack donkeys could be seen milling outside a lodge; behind, mountains soared into the brilliant sky.

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The snaking path rounded a corner. Tiny icicles cupped the boulders by my feet. Every step altered the view: an endless clash - to the left, dome-like hills coated with snow showed their dark bodies in coy patches; to the right, a vast beige hillside rippled with sand, reminiscent of Frank Herbert's Dune. We found the box-bridge, and took photos of the crystalline stream below, before toiling onwards, buoyed by the theory we'd reached 5000m, to a teashop. Behind the wooden hut a horse pawed the ground restlessly. To our amazement the lodge had two rooms... I imagined the rugged madmen who would stay.

Looking back: so desert on the left and snow on the right.

Looking back: so desert on the left and snow on the right.

As we sat outside purifying water, we heard a rumbling sound. Two avalanches, one after another, like the foaming mouths of successive waves, crashed into the blue shade of a nearby mountain. I wondered, felt encouraged. 5000m... Maybe we could try, maybe we could do it.

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We continued, huffing and puffing, into a paradoxically monotonous and fantastic nightmare. The land was desolate, except for the odd pile of stones with prayer flags tied to the top, and once, in a gully, the corpse of a horse (headless, and otherwise an oddly clinical and clean-looking mixture of bone, meat and hooves – as though the cold, dry air had alone performed a dissection). We moved through that dead place like the dying, heads pounding, out of breath at the least effort, and increasingly dehydrated as our water supplies ran low. Yet the sky was alive with panoramas of such splendour that it felt absurd, sublime to the point of comedy. Multiple peaks with cloaks of snow, their rocky sides gnarled and textured with age, their tips shining, opened more, lotus-like, whenever we looked back.

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The ache in our heads grew worse, and I forgot to care about mountains – only where was the pass, where was the teashop at the pass with water, where was the pass? Around this corner, just over that summit... Never-ending, except that it ended. I had to stop, sit down feeling sick, whispering “scary” pathetically into Rich's ear, terrified we'd run out of water, that we'd have trouble even getting back. Rich put down his bag and went to look around the next bend, to see whether the line of prayer flags he could see led to anything more. He came back with a thumbs-up. Suddenly we were passing snow where people had scratched initials, slogans, messages... and there was the pass! A teashop and, beside a cairn festooned with prayer flags, a small but gleaming stupa with a 'congratulations' sign at its foot. A blast of exhilaration swept through me, and all I could say was, “we made it!”

Working the multicoloured mittens.

Working the multicoloured mittens.

“Hey,” one of the figures at the teashop called, and it turned out to be the German couple we'd met at Phedi, David and Lena, who had set off half an hour before us. They were in the process of organising a porter to carry their stuff down. The pass froze us, buffeted us with wind. We took photos, bought boiled water from the teashop and then immediately started the long, wearisome way down. The experience of reaching the pass felt untouchable – through the headache and thirst it appeared more like a vision, or a film of someone else's achievement. But as we began down, my thoughts tapped it and leapt, as though I had won some strength by doing something I'd been scared of, that I'd chosen to do it, that if I wanted the experience to be transformative, it could be.

What a long journey down... a long, strange afternoon spent down an endless zigzagging path, in a brown dry land, windswept, and presenting us with yet another dead horse – more recently deceased, its eyes pecked out and its legs and neck folded in unnatural positions under the cloudless sky and yet more spectacular mountains. Whereas the approach to the pass had become barren in only the last few short days, and even then unforgiving rock would be enlivened by a splash of vibrant plants, here everything below us spoke of lifelessness – a palette of greys and browns, unrelieved except for the blue provided by distance. A harsh, dream-like beauty that now makes me remember Stephen King's The Dark Tower... travelling through such a landscape can't be physical alone.

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A whole new world!

A whole new world!

To add to this impression, as the hills turned slowly around us in the descent, we saw the path ahead, the flattened top of a forked ridge – and at the fork, a figure sat, cross-legged, meditating on the bleakness around him. Or so I thought, until he stood up and put a mobile to his ear.

Our wilderness sadhu.

Our wilderness sadhu.

It was the porter the Germans had hired! We eventually caught up with them, and they seemed impressed we'd continued carrying our own packs on the way down. So was I. My toes burned anew from hitting the front of my boots, and my leg muscles whimpered at every pace. Too late to reach the fabled 'over the pass' town of Muktinath, we stopped in the temporary settlement before , exhausted. In the rudimentary electricity-free lodge the four of us sat and drank fiery 'Mustang Coffee', coffee laced with the local rice brandy, rakshi, and got quite drunk, and ate dhal bhat in candlelight, futilely trying to warm ourselves around a fire-bucket until the copious amount of smoke made us plead to have it outside. It seems increasingly strange!

After a freezing night we went down to Ranipauwa, the living, profane town beside the Muktinath temple complex. At The Path of Dreams hotel we luxuriated in everything we'd lacked for days... hot showers, WiFi, tasty if surprising international food (the 'burrito' was great, but not what I'd call a burrito), large rooms... including a warm dining room filled with at first classic English rock (Led Zepp, Deep Purple) and then psytrance (Infected Mushroom), and decorated with stoner-esque paintings of shamans.

Rich and I wandered around the temple complex in the afternoon... A quiet, lovely, mysterious garden of orange and yellow trees, railings hung with bells to alert the gods to worship, a gushing stream, and stone shrines, all unexplained. Even the dampening effect of a pair of 'sadhus' who demanded a donation - one orange robed and turbaned, and the other sporting a very seventies blazer and glasses - failed to douse the sense of peace there.

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On the other side of Thorung La, I drank rum coffee. The four of us shared dinner, rakshi, and dubious but strong cocktails until late. I am so, so happy to have done this, and to have been lucky enough to travel through such crazy places, seeing such mad things.

Posted by wanderingwolf 08:35 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal Comments (0)

Manang to Yak Kharka, with panic

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The next step turned out to be Yak Kharka... a slow and difficult step.

The day after our Ice Lake adventure, we took our time deciding about whether to go on, or whether to give our bodies another day to adjust. Jerome and Perinne set out ahead of us, and said they would save us (Rich, me and Maria) a room in the next planned stop, Yak Kharka (which translates as 'yak pasture'). We were delayed first by shopping in Manang (a sunhat for me, a fleece for Rich), then by a sudden visit to a doctor on my part (boring infection), and finally by some tears. One of us worried aloud about AMS; another lay gasping on the bed, describing their exhaustion. Not an auspicious start.

So we left very late, and getting to Yak Kharka was a slow thing. But beautiful, at least at first: through the serene, narrow streets of Upper Manang, onwards past fields to brown, shadowed expanses between mountains, the promised pastures bare of all but low bushes and scrub, manure and stone. In the sunlight our surroundings showed an incredible variety of hues – surprisingly red bushes sat on the edge of the cliff dropping down from the path, and behind them a green tree-swathed valley dipped and then climbed to brown, then snowy slopes, and above the sky appeared a curious light blue, as though the glacial peaks had bled a little of their whiteness into the air.

Prettiful.

Prettiful.

We walked slowly, carefully. But then the sun dipped behind the mountains, and the cold came, and the increasing dark. Yak Kharka seemed always to be around the next corner... or the next. My stomach roiled with the odd surge of queasiness. By the time we got to Yak Kharka it was pitch black, and we stood outside bright, bustling and uniformly full lodges. Yak Kharka is predominantly a lodge village, crammed with trekkers and not much else. Rich walked around asking about Jerome and Perinne but to little avail – one guy said maybe they'd gone to Letdar, the next village, maybe.

By this point the beauty I'd seen earlier had seeped away. I was exhausted, freezing, and half sick with fear of the coming pass, and of the sense of being on a ride I couldn't escape. I'd also been disturbed by an unexpected encounter earlier. One of the group to do the Ice Lake immediately after arriving in Braka, a guy whom I'd been convinced would leap over Thorung La, had woken suddenly in the night at Yak Kharka. What had woken him was the fact that he'd stopped breathing. After many dizzying, worrying hours he decided to turn back. AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) can ring some very scary alarm bells.

So later, in the dark, in full Yak Kharka, my mind overflowed with worry. There seemed to be no turning back, not without giving us something we'd both resent, that I would see as proof of being a coward. In the hallway of the most visibly crowded lodge, with a wall of warm backs at every window, one of the owners suggested one of us hunted beyond in the dark to the first lodge, a good 10 minutes after the rest of the village, to see if there was room there. Rich volunteered, and whilst he was gone, all my fear seemed to strike at once. Maria led me to the dining room, bought me tea, and was generally wonderful whilst a stream of incoherent terror poured out of me. She told me that she didn't think Rich cared about the pass. I recovered slowly over dhal bhat. Rich came back with bad news, but it turned out okay – some porters volunteered to give up their rooms in that lodge – and we stayed in the porter's quarters, in a cocoon of sleeping bags, liners, blankets and bottles of hot water.

A lot of trekkers at this altitude pop pills – specifically Diamox, which is meant to aid the process of adjustment. I took one mainly to reassure myself, but at this point the sickness was how damn BIG Thorung La had got in my mind. If you imagine a swell of classical music and intone the name in a deep voice, it becomes as imposing as the Mines of Moria. When had the journey become about the scary destination? Rich and I talked about it. He confirmed what Maria had said, saying he didn't care about the pass, that we shouldn't do it if I didn't want to, etc. We went to bed in a state of indecision. The air half-froze with the bitter cold, but in our nest I felt warm, if still aglow with self-disgust. I sank into my thoughts but it seemed as though I never slept – but I kept breathing.

In the morning we decided to try... but the walk to Thorung Phedi defeated us with something more concrete. And after all that panic, it felt perverse, as though I'd inflicted it on myself. And what a walk! You ascend slowly through strange, unbelievably remote landscape – brown, walled with landslide-scarred ridges with glistening icy peaks peering over them, and containing only yak or stone half-ruined looking houses that proclaim themselves restaurants, or shawled women with children who seemed as alien in this place as fairy changelings. In another surreal twist, we found a startlingly blue pool, nestled in the folds of the hills.

Yak Kharka and Letdar. Clearly the mountains are at the mercy of these industrial giants.

Yak Kharka and Letdar. Clearly the mountains are at the mercy of these industrial giants.

You get these urban chains everywhere.

You get these urban chains everywhere.

As above...

As above...

Breath became less and less. Headiness crept towards headache. Then came the nausea, in waves that occasionally brought me to a halt. Then we crossed a bridge and it got so bad I nearly threw up. It was impossible to tell whether it was AMS or the infection, but we decided not to take the risk. I felt like screaming from frustration. As I sat there, swallowing the gorge, another trekking group passed us by. The man at the front puffed with exertion – and at every breath, his chest crackled in a disturbing way. This is a classic sign of HAPE (High-Altitude Pulmonary Enema – basically, fluid in the lungs), another fun complication of high altitude, and very serious. Maria suggested that he stopped, but he wouldn't. I keep wondering what happened to him.

We said goodbye to Maria, who continued on alone. We never found the French couple. So Rich and I turned back, and had to go back through a full Letdar (a truly tiny cluster of lodges that guidebooks tend to suggest is bigger than Yak Kharka – lies!) to stop back in ruddy Yak Kharka in the first lodge we came to, which had a greenhouse-like communal area with breathtaking views, with hardly anyone there to appreciate them). On the way back Rich tried to reassure me, pointing out that not many people I've met have even been trekking in the Himalayas, and even fewer would know the significance of Thorung La. (The problem is that I do! Whilst I never had 'crossing the highest trekking mountain pass in the world' on my wishlist, I do want the closure of having done it, and resent how I will not be on the other side having a beer with the people I shared the journey with).

So tomorrow we either go back down, do some new side-quests and enjoy what we can in the better weather, and I find a new story for myself that emphasises what we did rather than the concept of failure, or if I feel better, we try again. The decision appears to be mine... Brilliant. Decisions aren't my forte. Only the morning will tell, and there's a night between first.

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Posted by wanderingwolf 23:41 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal Comments (1)

Manang and shouting at mountains

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At last the weather forgave us for whatever sin we had committed, and we woke to blazing sunshine.

We are in Manang, about 3500m up. Manang is a rest-place for trekkers, a necessary pause before the challenge of Thorung La: an opportunity to do much-needed laundry, buy any trekking gear you forgot and do some 'side-quests' to nearby heights (light-shouldered, having left your detachable spirit double, the companion closer than family or love, your rucksack, in your hopelessly picturesque room) in order to give your body some time to adjust. We took our leave of Sebastian and Mikhail, who were ganging up with some other hardcore folk to the Ice Lake, one of the more challenging side-quests. Jerome and Perinne would wait in Braka for a while as the former felt unwell. The remaining three munched cinnamon rolls on the road to Manang.

Now, a brief meander into food... Walking for 4 to 6 hours every day creates the ideal circumstances for gorging. You NEED king-sized portions of dhal bhat, and you certainly need cinnamon rolls... Or perhaps apple pie. For some reason, the guidebooks claim the Annapurna Circuit is famous as the 'apple pie trek': a phrase that conjures a cuddly picture of hobbit-like, rotund trekkers toddling from lodge to lodge and from pie to pie. Most lodge menus do feature apple pie, and here it's a savoury thing, rather than the glistening, sugar-encrusted glory I'd imagined. We shared one in Pisang, and Rich, who doesn't have a sweet tooth, thought it was great, but not awesome enough to merit a continuous diet. Still on this theme, I should also mention the 'custard' sometimes promised with the pie. This turned out to be a kind of translucent sealant - not at all appealing, and not what your English hobbit would expect. Lodge menu interpretations of continental food have been a little odd (though except in Manang, where we haven't done as many hours of walking, Rich and I have stuck to dhal bhat and momos), and thanks to general ignorance of spellcheckers, even breakfast can be weirdly exotic: in Tal I ordered something called 'cat porridge'. It didn't seem to contain cat.

I must say a little more about Braka in order to describe Manang. I've already said how the former initially seemed a lifeless huddle made browner by the night. Our teahouse lodge felt very much like the extension of the family home - we ate in the living room, with faded brown photographs of an expressionless couple watching us from the wall. The guy taking our orders waited for us to turn in before switching off the lights.

But Braka had an all right location, I guess.

But Braka had an all right location, I guess.

Manang is big, bright and strangely peaceful for all its status as a trekker hangout. Yaks and horses roam the wide green main street, which is lined with lodges, stalls selling jewellery made from yak bone, and shops selling everything a trekker could desire, not to mention a couple of bakeries dishing up real coffee and cookies and cakes. At a tiny cinema, you can watch questionably chosen films about mountain disasters. The lodges are more expensive*, but you can pay, as we did, for an attached bathroom and a charging point in our room (a real luxury). And yet Manang doesn't feel like a soulless tourist hub. Unreal, sublime peaks, searingly white against the crisp blue, form a magic wall to one side of the town; in the sun everything, including the usual, worn-by-believers prayer wall, glows. A shop on the main street assists the atmosphere by playing 'om mani padme hum' on repeat. In our lodge, the Yeti Hotel, a cavernous dining room leads to a cosy heated antechamber where trekkers eat, drink, talk and read. I wrote a lot of this entry sitting there, digesting yak curry. (Which was delicious by the way, tender and flavoursome, though other people had some tough, stringy experiences).

Yesterday we climbed to 4000m to a nearby viewing point facing the tip of Gangapurna mountain. A short, beautiful trek: the clouds opened to reveal a luminous, majestic crown. Some way higher than the viewing point, crumbling ruins sat beneath a hill tipped with a stone block and a flag, and an incredible view over the fissured land we'd traversed. A few snowflakes chased us down.

Brooding, much?

Brooding, much?

There's also an awesome lake, apparently sacred, right next to Manang. Best seen from above.

There's also an awesome lake, apparently sacred, right next to Manang. Best seen from above.

Whilst the weather had forgiven us, my body hadn't. I went to sleep with a headache and woke in the middle of the night feeling queasy, my mind churning with the altitude sickness lecture we'd attended after the viewpoint trek. (This is an interesting free lecture provided by volunteer doctors. Apart from warning us about many altitude-related horrors, it explained some minor issues common to trekkers. It's apparently natural for the human body to respond to crazy heights and superb landscape by peeing every five minutes. Good to know my bladder isn't broken). I got all worked up and woke Rich up. After many reassurances that I wasn't about to die, I went back to sleep. In the morning I still felt dodgy, and hoping that it was just my vegetarian stomach responding with surprise to yak curry, we met up with some Germans Maria knew and set off to Braka to begin the Ice Lake side-quest I mentioned earlier. At some ungodly height, there's a lake, with some ice. It's apparently very beautiful, and in terms of elevation gives you a trial run of the pass.

Hard, amazing, but so hard! Feeling so unsure and afraid I whined as we began, had another issue with the camera, another episode of tears, another round of apologies for being a rubbish travelling partner when Rich came and sorted it out again. The first hard thing, and the most consistent thing for me. As for the trek itself... The surroundings were supernaturally lovely. An almost completely clear sky unveiled the nearest mountain in absolute radiance, its head crowned with blinding snow, its body a slide from brown to green to a bottom like a gigantic paw, bulging onto the floor of the valley. The sharpness of the light created edges of lethal beauty. I thought, when the clouds first departed here, any people must have looked up and guessed a heaven for the first time. (It seems mountains make me cheesy).

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The view from the highest we got. Just wow!

The view from the highest we got. Just wow!

But the climb was hard, relentless and seemingly never-ending in the heat. Maria and the Germans drew ahead whilst I dragged an increasingly parched and breathless version of myself up the precarious dirt path. As we climbed and the valley dropped away, and both Manang and Braka became toy towns, and we rose over gryphons circling on thermals, and the steep sides of the winding trail became steeper still, and the imagined fall ever more deadly, and the mesmerising Annapurnas ever more gargantuan, ever more dwarfing of all around them, and the climb visible ahead ever more ridiculous and unending, the wonder, and the fear and disbelief rose in me - the terror of going above this absurd scale at Thorung La. "I'm not sure I'm brave enough."

[Extended inner sequence... feel free to skip!]
The thought followed me both on the way up and on the way down. I hate being a coward. I hate being this subservient, apologising self. Why am I doing this? I wonder if this - or things like this - can change me, or is the groove of my personality set? When will I stop being afraid? I wonder if the fear reflects the fact that I have not developed the capacity for pain. And because I have not developed that capacity for pain, I haven't developed the ability to succeed. I look back at my London life, and see myself like a resentful dog, whimpering and flinching at the slightest tug of the leash - sometimes because I didn't WANT to succeed, but even in things I 'wanted', like writing, I lack the capacity. And I don't write, because I fear the pain of effort, which begs the question, do I really want it? Is telling myself that I want it just another way of fleeing pain?
[END]

Something not publicised about the Ice Lake side-quest is that there is no opportunity to get more water until you get there. This can be a serious problem as you need to drink more at high altitudes, and about 3 litres between 2 wasn't enough. When we realised that we were running low, Rich asked a porter if there was a tap on the way up. We'd reached what we thought (incorrectly) was the viewpoint, the halfway mark - a hill tipped with a stand made of rocks, cupping a flag into place. I stood there, torn at by the wind, and felt ecstatic.

Things get Tibetan this high up.

Things get Tibetan this high up.

Smug me at said 'fake viewpoint'.

Smug me at said 'fake viewpoint'.

The porter told Rich there was a water tap, so we kept going. But when we encountered him again, some time later, at the actual viewpoint - a larger plateau rimmed with prayer flags - he suddenly didn't know. Rich smouldered but I exploded, turning away, screaming something to the effect of 'you fucking bastard' at the surrounding mountains. (Shouting at a mountain is both strangely empowering and terribly hopeless).

One of the mountains I shouted at. It doesn't seem too contrite.

One of the mountains I shouted at. It doesn't seem too contrite.

In the end we crawled up to about 4350m before turning back - we didn't even have enough water to get back down comfortably. However sensible the decision was, turning back felt like another personal failure. On the way down we talked about the other problems we had with trekking - about having exchanged mental exhaustion for physical, the desire to continue learning when most learning is computer-based and is impossible here, of vacuous conversations of where you're going and where you've been rather than who you are. 'We're planning to go to Nepal, India, New Zealand' feels sometimes like the kind of self-definition people have when they introduce themselves as 'accountants' or 'teachers' or '[insert job title here].'

We got back to Manang exhausted and dehydrated. We decide tomorrow whether we stay here for another day, or go on up.

  • As a reference, on average, up until Manang we were paying 100 NPR a night. That's less than £1. EVERYTHING is expensive compared to that!

Posted by wanderingwolf 10:34 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal Comments (0)

'Om mani padme hum': Pisang to Braka, with gryphons

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Today we reached 3800m, walking a windswept ledge on the side of a cliff, a pair of Himalayan gryphons flying tantalisingly close, their wings outstretched as they soared lazily on the thermals in a perfect, symmetrical dance. Such ease whilst we shivered and struggled! At one point a lone one wheeled round us, dodging our cameras and gazing down with apparent disinterest, its brown face framed by a ruff of pale feathers.

Damn you, Himalayan vulture! Think of the publicity!

Damn you, Himalayan vulture! Think of the publicity!

This morning we climbed through the steep town of Pisang, past houses built of unshaped stones rather than bricks, away over the sides of grey hills before descending into a pine forest. The sun touched us then, and on a valley floor, having wound through the widening gaps between trees, we found a long rough stone shelf, the kind usually used for prayer wheels. This one held carved tablets, some painted with faded Buddhas, most carved with Devangari blessings - the most prominent, and which I could recognise easily by then, was 'om mani padme hum': 'the jewel is in the heart of the lotus'. 'We' comprised of me, Rich, Perinne, Jerome, Maria, Sebastian and Mikhail. We breathed, ate cereal bars and stared at the wall.

'Om mani padme hum'. You see this everywhere in Nepal. There even seems to be a 'hit single' that a lot of shops and restaurants play. Guess what the lyrics are.

'Om mani padme hum'. You see this everywhere in Nepal. There even seems to be a 'hit single' that a lot of shops and restaurants play. Guess what the lyrics are.

A prayer wall, with Atmosphere.

A prayer wall, with Atmosphere.

Then we began the heady ascent - first over a bridge strung with prayer flags and then up a zigzagging sheer path that seemed to go on forever. I had to take regular breaks and puff like a steam train; the air is so thin that you feel winded after the least effort. Through the trees showed the distracting, increasingly ridiculous view of the valley floor we'd left - the pines becoming ant-like specks, an apparent mountain dwarfed into a hill, the real mountains rising, crowned with fast-moving clouds, and beyond them the ghosts of the peaks, still mainly shrouded from sight, and brightest of all, the gleaming thread of a river - the river we've left and met again and again over the trek, evolving from a foaming, roaring presence to a remote, glowing seam and back again.

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Finally the trees ended and after few more zigzags we were rewarded: a platform rimmed with prayer flags, with posing mountain goats at its foot, and a white stupa garlanded with flowers at its rear. We photographed like mad, and I sat on a bench feeling heady and triumphant, my feet inches from the precipice.

On edge.

On edge.

I'm an arty person, but have never been 'into' landscapes. Here my feeling changed. There was no monotony in what was below me; everything was textured, veined with the evidence of vast natural convulsions - jaw-dropping. I celebrated reaching 3500m (and being told by the seemingly invincible Mikhail that I was doing well on my first trek - Annapurna is apparently a jump in the deep end - or is it a catapult to the sky?) by buying a yak-bone necklace from a solitary local woman selling jewellery (sorry, another note here. If you go trekking in Nepal, I recommend spending your money like this: with locals in remote places where a few rupees goes so much further than in a city. Plus it tends to be handmade, unique stuff).

The village just after qualifies as the most remote place I have ever seen. A ghost town of crooked buildings, bare of people, it crouched on the exposed mountainside and revealed nothing about the people who must occasionally be there - nothing except what could be told from the obviously communist leaflet stuck to a pole, showing a hoe and another item of mysterious but obviously agricultural purpose (rather than the traditional hammer and sickle), plus a depressing cartoon pasted to a door, portraying the consequences of not washing your left toilet hand. Later, looking back, the white stupa was the liveliest point in that dark huddle.

What fun.

What fun.

The way onwards took us via the cliffs and the gryphons. It was awesome. If you don't plan on even reaching the Thorung La pass, make sure you get this far! The wind tore through us with icy claws; if I stopped, I shivered... But I had to keep stopping because the view demanded it. At one point I stood on a stone bridging a small river, the beginnings of a waterfall at my feet, the trail visible either side, cupping the valley and lurking mountains in my vision.

Even with the cloud... stunning.

Even with the cloud... stunning.

All mine, all mine!!

All mine, all mine!!

It was late and bitterly cold by the time we reached the next village, and the mountain ridge above shone with snow. We met our porter friend again, as well as many trekkers we'd toasted socks with in Danakyu - all of us crammed into a tiny restaurant that seemed the only populated one in town. Those who exited to visit the outdoor toilet returned gasping from the cold. We made an almost running descent to the valley floor.

Brrrr!

Brrrr!

Another surreal landscape swallowed us: a plain of Christmas-like trees, blood-red bushes and bizarre hybrids of different trees growing around each other in the same spot, all dumped in a blasted grey scene with some crazy, wind-carved ridges reminiscent of the moon.

Hey, are we still on Earth?

Hey, are we still on Earth?

Increasingly tired and frozen, we reached Braka. Braka is described in my guidebook as picturesque and cheerful; arrival showed me a freezing, tiny huddle of brown buildings, none of which looked promising of hot water (we're at the point of interrogation: "Do the showers have hot water? Really? Like, HOT, not tepid? Can we come in and try?"). I lost my temper when there was a small disagreement over room prices, fuelled by an irksome Australian we met on the way and an altitude sickness-type headache (I would like to add that I found the other Australians we met in the dining room not at all irksome). A lovely watery pounding from the temples... that's your brain saying, "hey, what happened to the air? Did I agree to this?"

An older American woman, grey-haired but wiry, with bright lively eyes, appeared late in the living-dining room, flanked by a guide and a porter. She had come from Muktinath, on the other side of Thorung La, walking for 13 hours straight from somewhere still days away for us. She seemed none the worse for the experience... In speaking to someone else, I heard her explain that her husband, her best travel companion, had died with the trip already planned. "He was always about the journey, and I was always about the destination. I used to get so mad - when are we going to GET there? I wasn't sure I was still going to come here... But this is what this trip has been about. The journey, not the destination."

Meanwhile I think of our destination, Thorung La, and fear stirs in my gut. The pass is ever higher for me, ever worrying.

'Om mani padme hum?'

'Om mani padme hum?'

Posted by wanderingwolf 09:21 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal Comments (0)

The Wood Between Worlds... The road to Upper Pisang

semi-overcast 11 °C
View World Wander #1 on wanderingwolf's travel map.

'A little scary' seems to be my reaction to everything - even, it seems, to cows, here in Upper Pisang. We went wandering up to see the monastery at the top of the town, but it was dark, and after photographing the marijuana growing unchecked near a long shelf of prayer wheels I was too spooked by two roaring and posturing bulls - also wandering freely - to go any further. I hope one day to be less of a coward!

Feeling high? Welcome to Upper Pisang.

Feeling high? Welcome to Upper Pisang.

Today was largely beautiful, cloud giving way to blue, sunshine outlining individual trees with a gold glow from the dark masses in the distance (a thought that made me think of the Upanishads, about the Self in all, distinguishing the many as one. "O nourishing sun... Subdue your dazzling splendour so that I may see your blessed Self. Even that very Self am I!") and turning the snow on the peaks to liquid silver.

The lodge in Chame was really quite odd - empty at dinnertime except for us, Jerome, Perinne, and a Nepali porter we keep bumping into (a porter is usually a skinny guy wearing usually inappropriate footwear, such as flip-flops, who toils up mountains carrying other people's luggage. I will always find this extremely weird, unless the 'other people' are elderly/disabled). This felt strange as it's frowned on to eat dinner anywhere other than your lodge, and Chame was packed so where were the people? The young woman taking orders (and charging for increasingly rare WiFi) had a brusque manner, and erupted into cackles after phoning someone on her mobile and then putting it down on the table as the receiver shouted "hello? Hello" to no reply. Meanwhile the Nepali talked a little about the castes in Nepal, how there are too many, and showed Jerome raksi, a local alcoholic drink that Rich and I tried in Danakyu. This colourless drink is made out of millet and tastes like a fiery hybrid of scotch and brandy. It's cheaper than standard beer and is stronger than the local beer, chhaang, a cloudy brew that for me tasted mainly of yeast. Booze isn't great for adjusting to high altitude so we abstained. I'm quite capable of falling down mountains without alcoholic assistance.

In the morning we got up to find a mountain peak iced with gleaming snow peering at us through a frame of weakened cloud, and ahead a ridge of rock looked down, its dark sides graduating from brown grass to again a dusting of snow. I felt annoyed, and then annoyed at myself for being so - for reacting to this amazing experience in this way. But I wonder what is a truer form of experience - to progress starry-eyed, ever conscious of the splendour around you and the new lifestyle you have, of hours of physical exercise followed by large meals of dhal bhat in picturesque remote villages divided by lines of prayer wheels and united by bridges bedecked with prayer flags, ever sensitive to how lucky you are? But that is not possible, for the mountains are too big to contain in the consciousness, and attempts to describe them feel insulting - 'dusted' with snow like flour or 'iced' like cakes, or else they are people, looming and peering, with shoulders and feet, or anything else that renders them manageable. Walking through them, they are ever remote, like giant cardboard cut-outs, and the knowledge that you are in the Himalayas doesn't feel real. Is it truer to be tired and fed up of getting up early to walk up steep hills with aching knees, and frustrated by other people wanting to leave before you are ready, however reasonable they may be, and to feel too dependent on your boyfriend, and to have a dodgy stomach and so on?

The going was at first easier than usual, walking up a steadily climbing rock-strewn road under dripping overhangs, hugging a cliff of dark tortured rock still broiling with the ancient river that carved it, and crossing suspension bridges over pastel blue water. Above, the clouds appeared to change their nature, seeping down black, serrated mountains as icy rivers.

Yes, really, there ARE mountains.

Yes, really, there ARE mountains.

Yesterday we passed from tropical to alpine in terms of vegetation - today there was another dramatic change. We rounded a corner and dominating the sky was a blasted, desolate ridge, its top two thirds bare of trees and disappearing into a white wall of cloud, and its shape suggestive of the ice-cream scoop of a giant (see, dessert again!). Later we heard how that ridge serves as a kind of stairway to heaven for departed souls.

A glacial stairway... just visible, vanishing into the cloud-line.

A glacial stairway... just visible, vanishing into the cloud-line.

We crossed the river and then climbed zigzagging paths of grey sand to find ourselves in a pine forest that dropped away to show its failure on the slope beyond. Wooden huts, their sides still visibly the split trunks of trees, their occupants attempting to sell drinks and jewellery, greeted us at the top of this breathless climb. In separate groups we then walked through a silent, sun-glowing forest, coming across piled cairns hung with flags - without explanation, and so the more memorable. It's a time that stays with me: the quiet, the orange leaves crunching underfoot, the fretted sunlight on faded rags swinging silently from the branches. Those small loved arrangements of stone that were the only trace of people there. I've referred to how centuries separate travellers from villages here; that place felt timeless. I think now of the Wood Between Worlds in A Magician's Nephew.

Who really knows?

Who really knows?

We had lunch in another postcard village, Dukur Pokhari, where white immensities watched their reflections in the shallow pokhari, lake, and we less grandly observed the juxtaposition, in the restaurant, of a vividly coloured Buddha poster and a very bling clock in the shape of a giant wristwatch.

Unusual decoration in Dukur Pokhari.

Unusual decoration in Dukur Pokhari.

Afterwards we journeyed through a surreal open landscape - the semi-dried up lake could be seen through the sparse pines, and the stone road dipped and rose towards a mountain blue with distance, blue like any mountain on a fantasy book cover. On one side the glacial ridge we'd seen before was the measure of the rain chasing us, its upper edge emphasising a grey pregnant underbelly of cloud.

Clouds, subject to RPG-esque distance effects.

Clouds, subject to RPG-esque distance effects.

'The blue throne of the dragons rose before them'.

'The blue throne of the dragons rose before them'.

The air thinned... Noticeably breathless and light-headed we climbed a sheer hill to Upper Pisang. From the window of our room a vast, bulging mountain can be seen, wreathed with cloud. At night the sky unfolds the secret; I take photo after photo (none of which came out) of the ghostly presence above us to the rumbling of bulls, and the tinkling of bells that is the sound of people in the Himalayas, whose invisible hands hung them on the goats, whose voices get swallowed by distance.

Posted by wanderingwolf 09:38 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal Comments (0)

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