(This post will be a co-blog featuring a “Rashomon” style of two perspectives of the same experience. Richard Arnold IV joined me on my third visit to Nepal and he wrote an extensive travelogue of his own, which he is permitting me to feature here.)
The Himalayan mountain range is formed by a tectonic plate jutting up out of the Earth’s mantle by the drift of the continents. It is the highest mountain range in the world. The variety of artistic, religious, architectural and natural destinations in Nepal stunning. The people are welcoming, engaging and charming. And the adventures you can have feel epic in scale.
My first visit, I decided to complete the Annapurna Circuit. It’s a weeks-long trek around several of the highest Himalayan mountains that, unlike Mount Everest, are not perched on the border with China. So you can traverse the entire trek staying in one country.
In preparation for the trip, I took a bus to Pokhara from the capital of Kathmandu. It isn’t advisable to sit on the bus top these days. But I had heard of accidents that were possible on the high ravines. I thought then that it would be safer to be outside of the bus than within in such a situation. These days, you have to take your chances with those inside the bus if you want to take the trip. But for my ride, I was up with the luggage on the amazing drive along the ridge of the foothills.
Pokhara is a small village astride an idyllic lake at the base of several Himalayan peaks. Machapuchare juts up from the farmland to a sharp peak that has been nick-named “fishtail”. I was told that nobody has yet climbed this peak. Sherpas consider it a holy mountain.
Pokhara is an idyllic lakeside town where you can get all your provisions for hiking the mountains and dine in luxury before heading into the sparse hillside villages of the trek. The town was inaccessible by road until the 1950s. And beyond hiking, farming, or heading through the mountains to Tibet, there isn’t much other reason people travel here.
We rode by bus to a bend in the road where the valley trails start to begin our trek, the paths are perilous and small, meant only for animals and people from this point. So we set out with backpacks and a map that showed the name of each village along the way.
At the lower elevations the hillsides are covered with large rice paddies. Everything is green and there is no treeline in sight. The climate is warm and the air is fresh. It feels like early spring on the first few days of the trek as you wend higher.
Dozens of small Nepalese villages dot the course of two major holy rivers descending from the massive glaciers further north. It is a very rustic hike each day. But at night you can rent wooden beds at guest houses in each of the villages that dot the shores of the river. There isn’t a way to schedule your visit. You have to show up and ask.
Our hosts at each guest house cooked buckwheat bread, rice and lentil soups that generously nourished the weary traveler. Sometimes they would let me sit with the family to chat with the locals. Other times, I relaxed with the other visitors. All the trekkers who set out with us, we would see every night or every other night somewhere along the week-long trudge to the highest pass. I hiked on different days with a younger or elder French couples who were keeping roughly the same pace as me.
As you ascend, you start to get brief glimpses of the highest peaks, if the view down the valleys was long enough to see beyond the foothills.
Each village you come to has dozens of prayer wheels that you are to spin as you walk by. Inside the vertical-spindle wheels are long scrolls of parchment with Sanskrit mantras inscribed, wrapped like thread in clock-wise fashion about the center. Each turn of the wheel can pray thousands of chants for you faster than you could utter “Om mane padma hum” yourself. So save your breath and spin the wheel. Some even carve their Sanskrit prayers into stone tablets and leave those on the “chorten” gates at the entrance or exit of the village.
Yak, which look like small furry buffalo, wander the slopes around you where other animals can’t or wouldn’t tolerate the altitude that you’ve come to. So the settlers here make all their dairy from Yak milk. The local cheese is elegant, similar to Gouda in my opinion. And you can drink Yak butter tea if you choose. Anything you would consume here that isn’t made locally must be hauled up by foot for you. So it’s best to eat local.
In the higher elevations the air is so thin that anyone coming from the dense oxygen climate below will start getting dizzy, feeling euphoric and, in bad cases, develop extremely intense debilitating headaches. Your body tries to shut down at high altitude. This does you the service of preventing forward motion until your body has acclimatized. The views up here are so spectacular, you can’t blame it on the hypoxia.
At the highest village near Thorung La pass, medics offer health training to hikers who plan to cross the pass. They caution against hasty hiking, as there have been fatalities due to sudden loss of consciousness. The Annapurna circuit from the Jomsom side is slightly steeper than the approach most hikers take, counter-clockwise. If you don’t run, you’ll spend a whole week to get where we had reached. At that pace, acclimatization happens during sleep very gradually. Most fit individuals can complete the pass hike rather easily from this ascent. Those who rush it put themselves in danger and are an inconvenience others.
My team, feeling well briefed and ready, set out to finish the final slope to the top of the pass. We followed the medic’s advice: gradual assent, swift descent. As we came down, and the euphoria subsided, my team all shared a sense of depression. Everything was still amazingly beautiful. But our direction had changed. And the tense drama of the climb had subsided. Everything gradually became more ordinary. And as “the quest” was done, we were just ourselves again. No matter what a great person you are, after Thorung La pass you feel less than ordinary. You feel small. It’s hard to realize. But it’s the inverse of everything you felt during the climb. Somehow, there is a balance between both states you feel in this climb, and it is considered a parable for life in general. After Thorung La you think, “It’s all downhill from here.” And unless you decide to trek Peru, or climb Everest, that’s correct!
Coming down from Thorung La, one descends to the temple of the eternal flame at Muktinath. Prayer flags of rainbow colors bedeck this amazing wood temple. If you’re lucky and the snows permit, you can see the eternal flame. I did. Frankly, it made me wonder why I was going into a dark place to see a light when everything outside the temple was so beautiful. Perhaps that’s the moral of the story!
Further down the hill you meet the mighty headwaters of the holy Kali Gandaki river. It starts as a tiny trickle of a stream. But as multiple Himalayan glaciers feed it, you will see it transform to a mighty river further on the trek.
At Kagbeni, the large village near the headwaters, there is a massive ancient mud fort. This fort oversaw all traffic that was coming between Nepal and Tibet in ancient times.
Heading down-river the small village of Jomsom is the only town where the valley is flat enough for a small air strip. For those not eager to complete the whole Annapurna circuit, I recommend flying to Jomsom to hike up toward Thorung La clockwise. This allows you to visit some of the spectacular temple towns in the high mountains. But it does require Yak wool sweaters and feather down sleeping bags because you’ll be hiking through snowy terrain.
The lower you go, life and jungle “normal” life begins again. The villages are larger. The nourishment is better. The comforts comfier. And eventually you are back at Pokhara. And you look then at this humble city as if it were a palace of riches.
You may wonder why anyone stays at the higher climes of the high mountains. But then you’ll remember the euphoria and beauty there, and the depression brought on by the descent. Somehow, human choices make sense, no matter what context. If you go there, share space and meals, you can see how anywhere can be home. Humans share a nomad yearning, and we have a tenacious nature. The push and pull between these become our culture.
The trip was so amazing that I asked my father, who is also a prolific world traveler, to put this on his bucket list. Not a person to put off important things, he said he’d come straight away. He was part of a hikers club called “Bergfreunde”, German for “Mountain Friends” that did these kinds of trips sporadically. So he was able to gather in two other friends of his to hike with us.
When the arrived we took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara and spent some time there enjoying the food and ambiance in the lake side. Then we joined a small chartered flight that got us mid-way up the trek route . Jomsom has a small airstrip that allows visitors to get above the heavy vegetation of thelower climes to the alpine part of the trek. From there it is only a few days’ trek to get to Thorung La. It was a great adventure to share this part of the Himalayas with my father.
Full Flickr Album of Nepal’s Annapurna region: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leapingaroundtheworld/albums/72157676198884967
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