Man. 27 years old. Who'd have thought that by this stage in life I'd have no job, no girlfriend and no home. What a loser. At least I have a large assortment of bikes with which to measure my life's success.
The 21st of May marked a few kilometre-stones for me: I had after all reached the formidable age of three cubed, not quite as triangular as 3^3^3 but as good as I could rustle up on short notice.
It also marked the first time on my trip I'd left the Eurasian Plate, getting myself over the scraped up subduction zone of the Indian Plate (and managing to be neither scraped up nor subducted in the process!).
Another interesting kilometre-stone was that this was the time I finally had less money than when I started this trip back in October last year. What's this? Have I been selling my body in Bangkok to horny Thai girls? Nooooo... As it happens I started my trip with five weeks of paid leave and that, along with the odd squirt of bank interest (praise be to rising rates!), has lasted me these seven months traveling in Asia. The moral of the story: don't travel in Europe.
But all these kilometre-stones would have to be appreciated over time, for now I had just walked into the Kathmandu Guest House with Helio, my companion from the Tibet tour. I was just wondering how I would get in contact with Dad and Rob who were supposedly already here when I saw them walking to greet me. It was my first meeting with Dad for seven month and with Rob for over a year.
The next two days were fairly frantic – packing for the upcoming Annapurna trek, buying gear and meeting up with my excellent and dedicated friends Tim and Rhonda (who, like Rob and I, formed a small exodus from the Engineering Music Society’s cello section for the following night’s concert – good choice guys!). Reacquiring my bike from the Postal Universe – one whose physical laws seem to permit a high density of black holes (I lost my brake pads and beer magazine sent on from Hanoi to one of those black holes) – was another major priority. This was particularly nerve-racking: after disappointment at the reception of KGH where I’d sent it I was beginning to lose hope – until Helio spotted a notice for me on an obscure board. I had to visit eleven desks in five rooms at the sprawling General Post Office to get my hands on it, having pieces of paper stamped, money paid and documents signed in triplicate (Nepal’s bureaucracy is legendary – you can even read epic novels dramatising adventures within it). After stuffing the awkward bike box into a taxi and negotiating the tight twisting streets of Thamal I had to lug it the last couple of hundred metres on my head, following the natives’ lead. I would wait until my return from the trek to explore the extent of its intactness (excitement to come!).
However, I had other concerns now, for it was my birthday.
The evening began as advertised months in advance at the Jatra Bar in Thamal where I bought everyone a round of longnecks for making the effort to turn up – that should be sufficient incentive to travel thousands of kilometres to meet me on my birthday. There were six of us there to congratulate me on my great age, dispense presents and well-wishings and laugh at my jokes (as all good birthday party guests should). No large contingent of clandestine Melbournian or backpacking invitees presented themselves having booked flights on a whim without telling me, and they needn’t have with the excellent company I already enjoyed.
The rest of the night accelerated into a blur of two-for-one cocktails, a frenzied funky Israeli restaurant and Nepalipop dancing at a nightclub into the small hours – my drunken dancing skills would become the butt of jokes for many days to come.
Getting up the next morning for the trek was painful and difficult – I wondered why I’d bothered to go to bed. Saying goodbye to Helio who was staying behind to await his flight home we embarked on a halting and abortive journey to meet our bus to Bhulbule. After getting lost, trying again and then being taxied by the bus company to the actual depot, then lost again, we were finally on the bus and our way – all eight hours of it. Not good for hangovers.
The bus ride’s presentation of the epic Marsyangdi Valley did its best to bring me back to health, as did the haphazard traffic rules and a thorough update on the missed goss’ from home. Finally, we had landed at Besisahar and sat for geological ages on a sweltering and drastically cramped oversized “jeep” awaiting the one extra passenger who would make the driver’s trip to Bhulbule worthwhile. When the crowded jeep finally did depart we all wished it hadn’t as it jangled our concertinaed legs towards total uselessness. But the views and hospitality of the lodge at Bhulbule, overlooking the Marsyangdi River and underlooking the eight kilometre high Manaslu Range, dissolved the painful memories of the journey there.
And the next morning we were off! The participants:
The stoical unstoppable Rhonda;
The avuncular Tim with his knowledge historical;
Rob - doyen of bushwalking Southwest Tasmania;
Sandy, faithful father, fit beneath his years; and
I, Felix, who came up the idea in the first place.
This marked the beginning of for some of us three weeks of almost continual trekking. On that day I dealt the group a bad portent when I misstepped while appreciating the disappearing cloud cover and thus fine views of mountain-hemmed villages and fell several metres off a cliff. Miraculously I landed onto an adjoining path upright and completely unharmed, pumping with adrenaline, despite having to support and balance an eighteen kilo pack. I used to criticise Tim’s sure-footedness: he’s so tall the electrical impulses take too long to get from his brain to his feet, lacking the advantage of a second brain in his hips like a brachiosaurus. But this trek has proved my critique outdated (has his lower spinal ganglion inflated?).
Over the next few days we learnt that we had chosen an excellent time of year to go trekking – perfect weather as the monsoon had yet to hit but, not willing to risk it, no crowds. From the few trekkers we did encounter we found ourselves to be in an extreme minority for opting out of both guide and porter. One French trekker we discovered later had employed both, like the motorcade of a presidential outing. Unfortunately, we were all versed in independent Australian bushwalking rather than teahouse trekking and lacked the ability of some European trekkers to keep their packs in the five kilo range. I managed to bring about five kilos of books alone (okay maybe two), not to mention a one litre glass bottle of port and 750 grams of salt (for oft-threatened but non-eventuating leeches).
The end of the first day was marked by lunch at our lodge of sleep – the only day this was to be the case – under the auspices of a spectacularly tall waterfall and an equally spectacular thunderstorm (two of my favourite water phenomena, excluding comets and tsunamis of course). Here we laughed ourselves to sleep at the hilariously inept PhotoShopping on a poster of a Bangladeshi bridge in our rough yet cosy bedrooms. We would later look back on that day as an age of innocence before we knew of the destructive effects of road building upriver.
Luckily, the next day’s annoyance at the horrible scar on the landscape wrought by picks and jackhammers, belying the remark in the guidebook, after promising ancient wooden galleries to negotiate some steep rock faces, that “They’ll never get a road through here” (a wry phrase we used sardonically throughout the trek), became great excitement as we were stopped by the army so they could blast the opposing cliffs with dynamite. The awesome spectacle was enhanced by the long delay between sight and sound, entirely unlike Hollywood special effects. As it happened, after the third day’s forced clambering around both working jackhammers and undetonated dynamite while perched precariously over a sheer cliff (one trekker was nearly wiped out by a falling boulder – if my work’s health and safety officer saw this he’d explode), the road construction ceased interfering with us. This road building stuff is a real tragedy – the teahouses upriver lobbied for it so they could sell cheaper beer to trekkers (so far it’s hauled in using frequently encountered mule trains) but I don’t think they realise what a disaster it will be for business, as others have discovered all too late.
A few days into the trek the real stuff began. Climbing higher into the Himalayas we passed through beautiful rhododendron forests (I’m told the flowers are a vivid red), around a curved, sloping and smooth glacial wall the size of a dangerously angled city, through sleepy villages of the Tibetan culture (prayer flags, sutra wheels, chortans and gompas vying for our irreverent attention) and beneath the ever-present gaze of the Annapurna Range’s ice capped behemoths, scraped up from the Tethys Sea to just below the maximum height our planet can sustain – if you want more go to Mars. Yes, the group being entirely comprised of engineers resulted in a constant stream of Nerd Talk. Quantum physics, genetics and a group-effort calculation of the gravitational acceleration on the Earth due to the sun dominated the conversation – I’d been missing nerds.
And on the seventh day we rested (the seventh from Kathmandu that is) for purposes of altitude acclimatisation. Or we called it resting. In actual fact the non-Rhondonians got up early in the regional centre of Manang for a day walk to Milarepa’s Cave. This involved a lot of scrambling uphill and arguing over directions, but for our troubles we received a cultural experience in a Tibetan Buddhist gompa and, our curiosity getting the better of us, a further climb to 4400m altitude to watch from close-range a gigantic glacier groaning and grumbling, tumbling and tinkling under its own weight.
It was during the surprisingly exciting audiovisual experience of the glacier (its face was in view but the rest was buried in cloud) that we heard a distant, deep rumble. Over the seconds it enloadened into a violent roar like thunder or a low-flying 747. We all looked at each other nervously: an avalanche.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” someone shouted, possibly inside my head. Dad and I legged it uphill obeying the old principal that where the interests of good photography and life preservation coincide you should always follow your instincts, but Rob and Tim were too cool to do anything except adjust the focus on their cameras, as though for them Death by Avalanche was a typical Friday afternoon. When the rumble died away without consequence I was so relieved and disappointed I laughed until my brain ran out of oxygen.
That evening we celebrated our survival by socialising with some fellow trekkers over a few momos and seabuckthorn juices. One Dutch girl called Veronique who we’d been bumping into sporadically over the last few days enlivened us with tales of her bizarre trekking companion, an old American man, Douglas by name, whose physical capabilities seemed to lie well below the threshold required by this trek and was slowly going insane from nicotine withdrawal. They each had separate guides so they could split up meiotically, as they were doing then. Another pair, an English duo, were running out of money so badly they were forced to share meals – our group had been visionary enough to extrude wallet-warping wads of cash from the digital ether before our departure. All these companions were a sort of ephemeral community, crystallising and dissolving from the trekker-pool.
Day 9. The Ascent over the Thorung-La Pass. Rob is feeling poorly due sipping untreated tap-water (I need not describe the symptoms). The group is nervous but excited, somewhat short tempered. It has been snowing the previous night. The target elevation is 5416m with Rhonda fronting the assault. Tim has made the ultimate sacrifice. He is taking up the rear to ensure that any injuries are treated with a humane rock-to-the-back-of-the-head.
As it happened the actual ascent was not that tough. But it was spectacular – we were ascending to almost rival the surrounding peaks: teetering cornices towering above fluted snow faces, snaking moraines evolving from the rock/ice landscape with the Himalayan Griffin nonchalantly peering down at our puny party. At 5000m we heard a distant rumble and turned to this time actually witness a vast avalanche falling about a kilometre, reshaping an opposing mountain-face before of our eyes at the deceptive speed best known to astronomers.
At the pass we celebrated the highest altitude ever reached by any of us (from sea-level, not from the Earth’s core) by passing around the port for Port on the Pass (traditionally known as Port on the Hill, but one must be flexible). This communal offering deeply excited a pair of Spanish girls as the brand I’d lugged up here was a local favourite of theirs at home, luckily they got to it before the Nepalese porters got a chance – the porters’ gluttony of the drink is surely an etymological clue.
Strangely, having managed to largely avoid altitude sickness so far (apart from the odd headache), the descent from Thorung-La sent some of us into waves of nausea. I myself was inured thanks to my Tibetan escapades, but I happily took part in the group-snooze half-way down on a neat patch of grass at some ancient ruins. From here we could see a whole new set of mountains, towering above a bleak valley.
The next few days saw growing realisation on the part of Tim and Rhonda that their expedition was soon to end. We stayed in a passive/aggressive hotel called Bob Marley – a truly strange experience not easily described, toured the temple complex of Muktinath where Dad stripped to his jocks to purify his soul beneath 108 water-spouting gargoyle bulls (here we also rediscovered Ross, an English buddy of ours who’d been abandoned by his otherwise charming ‘friend’ Luke on the wrong side of the pass after exhibiting signs of altitude sickness), and made our way towards the oasis town of Kagbeni. This journey was harrowing in every sense of the word: deep bull dust, violent winds, then a combination of the two resulting in an onslaught of airborne missiles. I got one in my eye, ruining my views of 3000 year-old Buddhist caves and monasteries nestled amongst the eroded badlands.
A rest day in Kagbeni, our first real chance at recuperation, saw us eating, sleeping, reading and exploring the local ‘Yakdonalds’ prior to a day ambling our way to Jomsom – racking off point for Tim and Rhonda. Unfortunately, the subsequent day the monsoon finally struck, grounding their plane and forcing them into an epic series of bus rides, an enormous taxi ride and a fuel fail as they limped and struggled towards the airport at Pokhara. Rob, Sandy and I were ignorant of this adventure at the time as we negotiated the Kali Gandaki river valley for our circuitous route to the Annapurna Base Camp.
Our own experience of this sudden weatherosity involved a nearby footbridge being washed away, another bridge on the main road almost suffering the same fate (Rob heroically helped some workers escape with their gear from the flash flood) and a landslide that threatened our planned bus departure from the town of Tukuche. Luckily this did not eventuate and so the next day we executed Project Wuss-Out and skipped two days of walking along the Kali Gandaki road. Our wussing out, however, was only partially successful as we decided to walk some of the way to Tatopani through an explosion of fertility and, allegedly, the world’s deepest gorge.
Here an evening of male bonding greeted us over a few beers while we marinated our tired bodies in the eponymous hot springs during a thunderstorm. We needed all the relaxation we could get for on the morrow we were to embark upon an arduous 1800m climb to Ghorepani. The valley on the way up was almost insultingly green. But what a view from the top! A four o’clock rise the next morning got us up to the summit of Poon Hill which, being 3200m high, would be called a mountain anywhere but Nepal. The sunrise over Daulagiri and the Annapurna Range was an awesome terrestrial syzygy (try using that word in Scrabble) – fingers of eclipsed light torn from the jagged peaks – and a superb backdrop for Port on the Hill (or Poon on the Poon!).
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek, beginning here, was everything the Annapurna Circuit trek was not: rather than rock-strewn landscapes scraped bare by glaciers we encountered damp jungles of plant-life fighting for every cubic millimeter (while competing with steep paddy terraces and frequent landslides). Instead of glaciers and ice lakes we had waterfalls and hot springs (complete with water nymphs!). Losing Tibetan Buddhism we found Nepali Hinduism. Rather than European trekkers we met those from the British Commonwealth (don’t ask me to explain the reasons for that). Although, as exceptions, we did encounter the Spanish girls and Veronique again – the latter had last seen a severely weakened Douglas crossing Thorung-La on horseback.
The four days’ ‘ascent’ to the Annapurna Base Camp at 4130m felt like a cruel joke – constantly climbing hundreds of metres only to descend again. Our total verticality for the trip worked out to nearly 25 kilometres (in 236 horizontal kilometres) and most of that knee-bending was achieved here (what a way to celebrate Rob’s 31st birthday!). But the views were seriously excellent and no more so than at the base camp itself: here we witnessed another mountastic sunrise while completely surrounded by the fishtailed Macchapuchhare and three Annapurnas (keeping clear of a vast flowing glacier beneath us). Unfortunately, I’d dropped my camera some days ago so could not record the scene (continuing the sprawling Camera Saga), but I recommend Rob’s brilliant photography. At evening-time I consumed three serves of Dhal Bhat, our staple food, which shocked even the local porters (but I sure got my money’s worth!). Heading back to civilisation we sprinted at twice the advised speed, stopping only for a deeply appreciated semi-rest day at the spur-perched Jhinu Dhanda, before finding ourselves standing in the sun, bleary eyed and awaiting the bus to take us to Pokhara. What a trip!