Solo Trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary – the long of it

for the first condition of right thought is right sensation, the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” – TS. Eliot, “In Praise of Kipling’s Verse” 

I woke up at 5:15am to a phone call from the front desk asking about a taxi cab I had requested.  I had not requested a taxi cab in fact, as the owner of the Hotel Middle Path had offered to drive me to the bus stop that would take me to to Phedi, one of the starting points for the Annapurna Base Camp trek. This was the ‘good beginner’s trek’ that Sy on the plane to Kathmandu told me about.  This was the goal, and this is how I did it.

Grabbing the Bus

Ramesh bought Hotel Middle Path two years ago after spending the last twelve working as an engineer at Toyota in Japan.  He had left the business and decided to purchase the Pokhara hotel while maintaining other ventures in Kathmandu.  He is tremendously friendly, and other than the collared shirt and tie he wears, you’d never know he was the owner of the place.

We jumped in his car at about 7:15 and headed around the back roads of Pokhara to find the bus stop.  We pulled to the side towards where they usually pick up.  A Nepalese man leaned over into the window and explained something to Ramesh, and we flew down the road.  The bus had just left and we were going to go catch it, presumably at the next stop.  Not the case: Ramash found the ragged pink bus puffing along, darted around it when he found the chance–it took him a few tries–got in front, put his arm out the window and honked and slowed down, forcing the bus to stop in the middle of the road.  He got out, I got out.  I grabbed my trekking bag–containing everything I owned, for the record–and climbed aboard.

Now, if someone had pulled this move in America, I’d be faced with the fuming glares of a half a bus of angry, pissy people.  When I boarded after this stunt here in Nepal, the bus operator asked me where I was going, and off I went to take a seat.  No one seemed to mind, not a single judgmental look at all.  Yes, the bus was packed, and it was a bit awkward lugging my huge backpack all the way to the back of the bus, but I squeezed into the last row and we continued on.

The ride to Phedi wasn’t a bad one, not too long, punctuated by a conversation with the Nepali next to me that helped us plod along in step with the pleasantly bumpy road.  Yes, he asked for my email, my ‘facebook address’, as I left (remember what I said about Nepalis), but no harm seemed possible here.

The bus dropped me off.

DAY 1

Phedi

I walked out to Phedi, a non-town of two restaurant shacks and some people standing around.  They asked if I was alone, I was, and rightfully assumed that I didn’t want a guide or porter.  What I did want, which they saw I needed, was a walking stick, as I forgot to buy a walking pole in Pokhara before I left.  Nr.70 was asked, but I only had Nr.50, so I handed him that and he seemed not to mind; the simplest haggle of the trip.

so it begins

The start of the trek was a from an innocent grassy step around a girl washing some clothes in the rushing water.  I started up the stairs, and 4 minutes in realized that this journey was going to contain lots and lots of steps.

Thanks to the glory of the word ‘Namaste’ (it means, according to co-Habitant Pat ‘I acknowledge the god within you’) I made a greeting with everyone I walked by.  However, noticing that there were a number of, let’s say, non-Nepalis coming through, I started saying ‘Good Morning’, hoping for a less than broken response.  This turned out to be a good move, as it allowed me to have brief talks with a number of Australians, Londoners, Germans, and some Americans, coming the other way and giving me advice on my solo trek.

I stopped at the top of the hill with two German girls and a guy from Boston and his guide, where we chatted about just why we were here, just where we were going.  The next stop was Dhampus, the summit of this start-off hike up.  I briefly explained my life story (as I would a number of times, more to come I’m sure), said goodbye and took off up the hill.  They warned me to slow down, but I’ve never known how to do that.

Dhampus

it’s a sign

I made it to the top, where a little tiny village presented itself, and was greeted by some more porters taking a rest.  A young guy came up to me and asking where I was from, said I should stop for tea and we can sing Hotel California–seemingly everyone in Nepal’s favorite.  I looked around, figured I could take a break, and walked in.

He told a guy in the back to make a ginger tea, and noticing that I saw a guitar case in the corner, opened it up and handed it to me.  I tuned it up a bit, and with the Himalayas as an audience, started playing around on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.  As I began to sang, his eyes opened wide, and he leaned against the bar, to listen.  The song seemed especially valid, as I thought about everyone back in SF, wishing they could see what I was seeing out the window. I was alone out here, but with the comfort of the guitar on my lap, I was home.

kamal loves bryan adams

After I finished, I handed the guitar over, and we traded some songs back and forth.  He reached around Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 (not the first Nepali I’ve met that loves Bryan Adams), and I played some Led Zeppelin.  When I finished my tea and realized I should probably get going, he asked me if I wanted to smoke some grass, which I would have if I didn’t know for a fact that it would keep me here for another hour playing guitar.  He told me to come back and stay the night, gave me his card and email, and watched me go.

The next step was to Pothana, where my in-flight consultant recommended I spend the night.  When the path turned into a dirt road that seemed to go on and on, I thought for a moment that I had gotten off the trekking path, and on to that controversial road around Annapurna I’d heard about: not where I really wanted to be.  A little girl popped out and seemed to be rocking back and forth around the path, so I said hello and asked if she wanted to walk with me.  She agreed, and took me forward.  Her name was Djimoona, and though she spoke no English, she seemed to know where Pothana was, and took me along.

onward!

Eventually I made it to the first Tourist checkpoint, where they ask to see your papers–a gentler experience here than some have had to deal with.  I had my registration, but not my TIMS card, a second registration that helps with conservation and education in the area.  There went Nr.2000 in cash that I was hoping to use for food and lodging throughout the trek.  At this stop, I ran into Jim from Boston again, a soft spoken older man, who I just knew would be my on-again-off-again trekking companion, something I wasn’t entirely looking forward to.  They took off, while I dealt with my papers.

The path grew more interesting after officially entering the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA), with lots of footpaths through the forest, wild dogs and roaming cattle, donkeys carrying goods clanking their bells around their neck, and gorgeous clearings revealing the majestic valley below.  This was what I was hoping for on the first day: not quite the Himalayas, but the sloped and smoky rolling hills that introduce you to Nepal.

While ascending the final stairs up to Pothara, I saw Jim and his guide just arriving.

Pothhara

At the Tourist checkpoint in Pothara, I waited outside with Jim as his guide made the arrangements.  We small talked about the walk and weather, and just as I was going to go inside to sign in, Jim told me they’d be at the Gurung Restaurant if I wanted to join them for lunch.  I really didn’t, but acknowledged his offer with a nod and an ‘alright’.  After getting my registration in order, I took off through the town, and upon seeing the place he was talking about, sauntered past, gawking at anything else worth looking at (really just looking for a place I could eat in peace).  After walking past a few guest houses, someone at a picnic table to my left said ‘hey, your friend?’ and pointed behind me.  Jim was there, waving.  He caught me.

So we sat, and Jim’s guide Indra eventually walked off to talk to the guys at the guest house and left us alone.  Jim was trekking alone, as his initially planned trip to Tibet was canceled due to China locking the border again–never a good sign for the Tibetans.  Spending most of his life working freelance as a heath innovation advocate, he had just accepted a full-time position working for the World Health Organization, a job he was looking forward to.  He had been given six weeks before starting, and took that as an opportunity to do some travel.  His wife did not join as she had to tend to her mother’s Althzeimer’s in Florida, so there he was, alone, trekking around.  He said it’s the kind of thing to do ‘while I still have time,” Jim, getting a little morbid at the table.  He ordered a coke.

After clearing our bill, we all walked together.  I sort of commandeered Indra, asking him all sorts of questions about the area and what we were seeing, while old Jim plodded along behind us with his dual trekking poles.  We saw water buffalo cooling themselves in the mucky ponds, more musical lines of working donkeys, and listened to a laughing thrush Indra pointed out.  As we ascended, the views became more spectacular.  I’m starting to understand what people mean when they say Nepalese treks are the best in the world: every hour or so, it seems, an entirely new type of landscape reveals itself.  Occasionally walking through humid jungles will give way to massive, lush green canyon views, and in the distance, if you are lucky, you see the imposing white-capped mountains, peering down from above.

At some point, Indra began to warn me of the potential dangers of trekking alone.  “You watch out for steals” he mentioned, trying to find the word.  He said he’d never had a problem himself in the mountains around here, but he had heard stories.  He said not to worry, it won’t happen, but just be careful.  He was part of a multi-day rafting group about 6 years ago that was accosted by masked men with rifles in the middle of the night, stealing over Nr.100,000.  This was obviously a rare occurrence, but it does happen, and Indra suggested I join a group, make some friends, or hire a guide at some point.  Whatever, Indra.

Indra still works with a rafting organization in Kathmandu, and asked if I would be around any time after this trek.  I told him I would have a free day in the city while waiting for my flight to Thailand, and while he was giving me his information, some locals girls started gasping and yelling, and pointed at our feet.  There was a long, svelte, and apparently extremely poisonous snake curled at our feet.  We quickly shuffled away, and the snake took off into the brush, but Indra just laughed and noted how dangerous the thing was, how lucky I was I wasn’t attacked.  Real funny, Indra.

like a briiidge over

We parted ways in Tolka, a colorful little town on the cliffs, and I carried on alone.  I ran into an Israeli group on the way down the ravine, a lady named Y’ael, who had been trekking with her family.  A little down the way, the clan had been waiting for us.  I said hello, but quickly determined that it wasn’t a good idea to impose on the family by walking along side, but we were both headed to Landrung and I’d see them there, so I walked ahead.  Two minutes in, the young boy of the group, Yuvon, ran up to me claiming his family was slow.  So, he was now my guide.

Well traveled at only 11, Yuvon told me stories of India (he’d been there 4 times), France (he’d been there 5 times), and even San Francisco, which he visited just last year.  He remembered the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods.  Though he struggled with English, he was plenty of fun to walk alongside on our way to the day’s final destination.

Landrung

Landrung, nestled on the hill, seemed like a fantastic place to stop.  Unfortunately, it seemed that all the guest houses were all booked, so I went from place to place asking for a room.  Sherpa Guest House, full.  Tibet Guest House, full.  I settled for the Peaceful Guest House, the one without the hot water or the western toilets, but at only Nr.200/night, I couldn’t complain.  There, the kind lady that runs the joint made me a simple dinner.

In the dining hall were two Nepalese graduate students, which I fell into conversation with regarding their studies: the challenges of sustaining and taking care of the Annapurna Range, and how to empower the locals, allowing them to benefit from the tourist foot traffic.  On a side note, they explained how Nepalis, specifically in Kathmandu, are quick to try to scam you by inflating prices, and not just we white tourists, but also other Nepalese.  Krishna, working on his Ph.D in City Planning in Hong Kong, said that just last week, he, a Nepali, was given outrageously unacceptable prices for some things he wanted to buy, and depressingly had to haggle.  Maybe Lesley was more right about these guys than I thought.

By this point I was dead tired, having done two days worth of trekking in one day, and went down to my room at 8pm.  Though I could hear music and dancing from up above at the fancier and busier guest houses above, I passed out, sore, tired, but feeling fantastic.

Then I wake up to Annapurna I.

DAY 2

At Landrung, I fell into conversation with two Canadian ladies on their yearly tandem vacation away from their husbands.  They initially thought I was Canadian, and seemed surprised when I told them I was from America, but when it was clarified that I was from San Francisco, they came aboot.

They had the same destination as myself, but had a different route of return after descending from ABC than myself, who was planning on simply back-trekking.  Their plan actually seemed shorter on the return, and would bring them to Gandruk and Birethanti after coming back to Chhomrong from the ABC.  That sounded far more interesting than revisiting places I’d already been (and truth be told, I was not looking forward to climbing back up some of the steep descents we made before Tolka), so I snapped a photo of their itinerary (writing things down is so 2009) and changed my course of plan.

The next step would be Lundruk to Chhomrong, Chhomrong to Himalaya (a long one), Himalaya to Maccupuchere Base Camp, MBC to Annapurna Base Camp.

donkeys clanging bells

The morning of day number two, I set off for Chhomrong.

It was chilly while I ate my first in-trek breakfast of Tibetan bread, eggs, and cabbage, potatoes, and tomatoes.  Soon after finishing, the sun came out and the town started to get it’s wheels moving; villagers coming out, travelers getting their act together for their next legs.

Again alone, I wasn’t quite sure which way to go, so I asked every friendly face along the way which was the way to Chhomrong.  Trekkers and guides are always  helpful and sometimes take a real interest in your safety and well-being, always trying to make sure you’re going the right way.  Physical signs also work.

This portion of the trail followed the rushing Jinu Danda river for a long time, which kept the scenery lush and green.  Stunning waterfalls situated on both sides of the trail caused me to forget that I was in Nepal sometimes, reminding me of some of the pop-up scenes on the Na Pali coast in Hawaii.

I passed a group of Israeli hikers that confirmed my plan of stopping in Chhomrong, even though it wasn’t particularly far away, as a good place to rest for the night before the big journey the next day.  He said to look for the German Bakery (German Bakery?) after you finally start descending after making it to Chhomrong.  Encoded in this recommendation was a subtle hint I’d pick up shortly.

Road to Chhomrong

After passing over the longest bridge I’d come across on this trek so far, the road to Chhomrong goes up.  Up, and up, over countless, unending steps.  These next few hours were easily the most difficult of the trek so far.  Hauling my huge heavy bag up over the steep and awkward rocks seemed like a trial with no reward in sight.  Passing by porters taking breaths and breaks was a reminder that there was no shame in doing the same, so every moment that things got too hot, I’d pull to the side to heave and huff and catch my breath.  This was the most solo part of this solo journey so far.

Whenever some trekker did walk by, I would wheeze ‘How far to Chhomrong’?  Their response was “an hour and a half,” or ten minutes after that, “an hour,” or a half hour after that, “an hour and a half.”  There are no rules in Nepal.

Chhomrong

Finally at about 1pm, I made it to the top.  It was still early in the afternoon, but because this was only day two of my strenuous journey, I thought I’d follow the advice I’d gotten from everyone so far and give my body a rest.

I saw the German Bakery down the hill, but stopped for a tea at the topmost guest house.  The view was unbelievable, the high point above where three mountains merge into one massive valley.  Through the clouds, snow-covered peaks poke through, inspiring instant awe.  This was a place that most people do not get to see, requiring some real physical perseverance to get to (and an expensive plane ticket, let’s not forget).  Now it was time to find out where to stay.

all I need

There were plenty of guest houses, and I had trouble deciding which to stay at.  One trumpeted the best pizza around, one said it had a ton of internets.  I’m on a internet-free diet for the duration of this trek, so that wasn’t exactly a selling point.  Guest House Elysium had a blue roof and a sign that extolled their “24-Hour Hot Solar Shower”, which was much more appealing, so I walked over to their office.  The place looked deserted, and the dining hall unappetizing, but dang it, I was already there.  I asked if they had a room which they obviously did, and I was taken to Room 5, a cold, dark hole in the wall, that I instantly regretted taking.

So I didn’t.  I escaped just as she walked away, and scurried into the Chhomrong Cottage, a nicely painted lodge with a Lonely Planet recommendation badge on the sign.  This turned out to be a great decision, as the lovely Tibetan owner Susila graciously showed me to the best single room in the place.

“Where are you from?”
“USA”
“Oh!  We have California style burrito, Time magazine loves it!”

Yes, Time magazine had written up the Chhomrong Cottage as one of the best spots to stay on one of the great treks on the Earth, and they make a California style burrito.  Om Mani Padme Yo

She offered me a towel for a shower (some guest houses charge extra for a shower, not Susila), and gave me the key to my room.  I spend the next hour reading my book on the landing, listening to the Russians sunning themselves singing ‘We are the Champions’ in their broken proud bellow.

“HEY!!”

I turned around.  It was the two Canadians, who happened to be staying at the same spot.  Once again, a great decision (though their guide seemed a little annoyed that I was sleeping in that best single room in the place. ‘His’ room.).

Here I sit, killing some time before dinner, with the great valley in the distance.  Tomorrow is a huge trek, and hey look, girls!

DAY 3

If Macchupucchare and Annapurna I became like my big old brother and sister, my walking stick became my best friend;  I’m so glad I didn’t buy a ‘pro’ walking pole.  This stick has grown alongside of me, as my sweat pours into it’s grip, it becomes an extension of my arm as it propels me forward and catches me when I’m about to fall.

Susila’s hospitality extended to a delicious breakfast of Gurung bread and omelette, while I watched the trekkers in the nearby compartments started getting ready.  I grabbed my Annapurna Base Camp sleeveless and threw on my bandana, ready to rock this show.  Kuman’s wisdom from the last night gave me direction, and along with the Israeli’s advice of ‘go as far as you can’, today was the day to fly.

N.E.P.A.L. get the money

I took off down the Chhongrong hill, stomping down a ton of steps, steps which I knew I’d be ascending in the very near future (a constant thought worth tucking away forever).  The lower I got, the less tourist motivated the town was, with little girls in their school uniforms joining me in my descent, roosters crowing and the day’s work beginning.  At the foot of the hill was a gorgeous bridge, which the Canadians whom I’d just ran into took some pictures of me on.  We quickly parted (slowpokes, eh), and up the Sinuwa hill I went.  More steps.

Sinuwa

Most of this part of the trek I spent alone, which was quite pleasant, since most of this leg was spent chugging uphill, not the ideal environment for conversations with anyone else but my pet brain.  By the point of Sinuwa, you could turn around and see the Chhumrong village in the near distance.  So many steps, and it feels as if I hadn’t gotten anywhere.

Bamboo

A little farther along the way was Bamboo, a nothing-town, built for uninspired trekkers to sleep at, or at the very least, to refill their water bottles on their way.  Right after leaving this town, I ran into a South Korean father and son team, who I fell into talking about the North.  The son, the English speaker among the two, seemed impressed that I even knew about North Korea, and told me about how awful it was, and how little hope he had for reunification.  “It’s always 10 years away,” he said.

Walking and talking with these guys, I noticed yet again how incredible the scenery was around this hike.  We found ourselves in a near-tropical jungle, wet green canopies above us and little waterfalls and runoff streams around every corner.  It was a little chilly in the shade, but every time the sun found it’s way through the trees, it warmed us nicely and we kept on moving.

Eventually, I scooted ahead of them (the benefits of trekking alone), and started another steep stairway descent though this time, an unbelievable view of the valley helped ease that thought that I’d be climbing these awful steps far too soon.

At the foot of the steps, a returning Aussie wished me a ‘G’day!’ and noted my Annapurna Base Camp T shirt.

“Cold up there?”  I asked.
“Fucking freezing!”
“Oh god.”
“You prepared?”
“Not at all.”
“Well, there’s tons of single women up there you might want to throw in your bag!”
“You sure know how to warm up, eh?”
“Damn right!”

His fourteen year old daughter behind him blushed.

Eventually, I made it to Himalaya, the point at which the Canadian ladies were supposed to have stopped and I was planning on too, until I saw the pulsing blob of trekkers sitting around the only two guest houses in the area, harshly implying that I had no chance of getting a room.  I did however need some water, so I stopped in the dining hall and asked for a bottle refill.  The guy returned to me a warm, flaccid bottle and demanded Nr.120.  I told him that I’d give him Nr.100 for this stuff that I didn’t want, which I suppose technically would hydrate me, but without a trace of the sexy part.  He didn’t want to haggle (some Nepali!), so I dumped the water out, and decided to carry on to the next stop, Deurali.

Deurali

The road from Himalaya to Deurali is the first time that hints of the ABC region start revealing themselves.  The Nepali jungle receeds as the altitude grows higher, and the mountains become more bare, and more impressive.  There was one spot in particular that brought me to a special place which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but here goes: I found my ‘happy place’.

You know how when in high stress situations, some person (always a female), will say ‘just go to your happy place!’  I’ve never fallen into actually attempting this, and I still doubt it’s a worthwhile

happy place

therapy, but on the road to Deurali, as I was hiking hard up the hills, I collapsed onto a sitting rock to catch my breath and I looked around.  The mist was slowly rising upward toward the higher points in the valley, the rushing of the river was in perfect ear shot, and as I huffed and puffed, I realized I was happy.  Really freaking happy.

So onward up the mountain, hopping over streams, taking wobbly half-finished bridges over the rushing water, nimbly dancing over rocks, and eventually, finally, as the temperature dropped, as the wind grew faster, colder, and louder, Deurali revealed itself.

I stopped in Shangri-La Guest House, built upon the cliffs looking over the valley below, with tremendous mountains leaning overtop, looking almost as if they were about to collapse upon us.  They didn’t have a room, of course, but I got a bed in a shared dormitory for Nr.150 (for those keeping score, that is less than $2 for a bed.  Nepal.)  I stopped into the dining hall and sat down for a tea.

This room was the kind of archetypal base camp hall that I’d always dreamed about.  A sort of frozen Star Wars Cantina in the mountains (let’s say Hoth) filled with folks from all over the world, some reading books, some chatting in low tones, no one entirely sure who anyone else is, but all on the same mission for the same very near goal.  I took my cards out of my bad and started playing Solitare.

One of the Nepalis across the table said “who has cards?”, not exactly referring to me, but clearly inspired by.

“You wanna play a game?” I said as I packed up my cards.
“Yes!  10 Killer!” he was exited.
“How many people?”
“Four, you me, who else?”

A Nepali and a Dutch guy came forward.  All of a sudden, there was action in the hall.

The game was like Spades, only it’s played with two teams of two sitting across from each other,

good hand, right?

where the goal is to capture all four 10s over the course of a round.  You capture tricks a little like Hearts (ok I admit, I have no idea how to play Spades), and using subtleties in your card casting, try to either get the 10, or ensure your partner does.  The Dutch guy was really into it.

So there we were, playing Nepali card games at 3200m with the harsh cold wind blowing outside, the Annapurna Base Camp at arm’s length.

I eventually fell into conversation with a German guy named Daniel, suffering from serious altitude sickness but with determination to get to ABC early in the morning.  While I had planned on staying up there (I had just called ahead to book a room), my serious lack of warm clothing made me hesitate.  Daniel and I made plans to hike up to ABC early in the morning to catch the sunrise, then come down to our next destinations.  Hanging around us while we talked was a Spaniard who introduced himself as Xavier (pronounced JAYvier), and said that he’d only been at his trek two days and was already in Deurali–incredible.  The three of us decided to go on up early in the morning, and all staying in the dorm together made it an easy goal.

That evening we spent in the dining hall (there’s not much to do at 3200m) playing cards, Yahtzee, telling stories, and being hardcore trekkers up on a mountain, you know.

Food was Dhal Bat, which simply means ‘FOOD’ in Nepali.  Before tourists came around and

dhal bat: “food”

things got all fancy-like, Dhal Bat was the standard meal, twice a day, for most people in Nepal.  It consists of rice, Dhal (a sort of lentil soup you pour over the rice), pickled vegetables, and curried potatoes.  I’ve learned since that once you order Dhal Bhat, you’re entitled to unlimited helpings of any more of the ingredients.  It is fuel.  It is food.  It is delicious.

DAY 4

The alarm rang at 4:45, and we started getting our heads together.  Daniel was already up, as he was hoping to go ahead of us due to his altitude sickness and meet up with us higher on the path.  Xavier and I fell through the darkness into the dining hall where all the Nepali guides and porters were spread out on the floors and on the benches.

We ordered some breakfast and coffee to fuel our early morning ascent.  Gurung bread and eggs have become my trekking breakfast staple, the Tibetan bread providing the short term fuel for the stair climbing, the protein in the eggs for building back those muscles we seem to find so much fun in destroying.

The moon was hanging high in the sky as we walked out of the hall.  No clouds to be found but a quiet star-filled night, with the ominous shadows of the mountains that glaring overhead.  Xavier and I took a final glance down over the valley, and set off–a four hour trek in the span of two.

The road was difficult, though more flat than the past few days hikes.  We were not yet past the tree line, but the diminishing oxygen value inhibited large trees from growing in this region.  The air was getting colder.

Just as I noticed frost accumulating on the grass, there was Macchupucchere Base Camp.  As we approached, we heard a “HEY!” from Daniel, who’d been waiting there for us.  The man was faster than I thought, especially with his headaches holding him down.

As we climbed further, past a sea of sheep and goats, we turned around to see the back of the huge Macchupucchuere peak, something we instantly understood to be a sight that few people

macchapucchre from behind, the fish’s tail

ever get to see.  Macchupucchere, colloquially known as ‘Fish Tail’, is one of the most imposing and impressive mountain tops in Nepal.  It is an arrowhead; a sharp point shooting upward into the heavens.  Considered so sacred no one is allowed to climb it, and based on what we know, no one ever has.  And we were looking at it’s behind.

Onward we crept as the sky grew bluer and the ground grew frozen.  Runoff streams were now covered in icicles, and you could start to see traces of your breath in the air.  Soon, we could see Annapurna I in the distance, and with that, the sign welcoming trekkers to Annapurna Base Camp.  We were now 4130m up, the highest I’ve ever been, based on altitude.

There isn’t much that can prepare you for the sight of these mountainous beasts.  They are there,

ABC, easy as 12infinity

quiet, calm, and patiently awaiting your arrival.  In their presence, you are one of their disciples, there to observe the masters.  They expect nothing of you other than the reverence they deserve, and deserve nothing less.  They’re there to soothe you, and remind you how limitless limits can be if you only choose to reach up, as they did so many millions of years ago.

After taking far too many pictures (really, i’s impossible to take a bad picture up there), it was time to hike back down–but not before drinking a celebratory beer at 4130.  It wasn’t a great beer (Nepali brewed Tuborg, or TuStrikes it should be called), but it was a glorious beer.

Down we went, past MBC, past Duerali, past Himalaya, past Bamboo, where we had some lunch at Dobhan.  Here, Daniel got extremely sick and had to lie down while we waited with our tea.  We urged him to come along, but he resisted, saying he needed to relax and maybe wait for his cousin Ellie who was a few towns behind us.  He said he might meet us in Chhomrong, but based on the way he looked, Xavier and I doubted it.  The Three Amigos had disbanded.

Onward we went, with Chhomrong the goal.  I’d been talking up how great Susila’s Cottage was, and that was a great end point for our day’s trek.  Already, we’d defied expectations from every passing guide we’d revealed our route to, and as trekking machines, we pressed on fast and furiously.  At around Sinuwa, we decided there was no way Daniel was going to make it.

Stairs and stairs and stairs and stairs and we finally make it to Chhomgrong Cottage, and the hottest shower anyone in the mountains could hope for (make it easy on yourself: don’t hope for any showers).

der three amigos!

While sitting in the cozy dining room wondering if to order a plate of momos or two plates of momos, who should appear but Daniel, looking as if he’d just come in from being lost in the Arctic.  The Three Amigos reunite!

As I was now travelling with a trekking mate, Daniel managed to get the great single room, which that night was next to a room of Israeli girls.  Israeli girls are insane, a fact I’d known that was only confirmed again that night.

DAY 5

We got off to a late start, sleeping in to the late hour of 6AM.  Getting things off the ground with a group, however small, is always a hassle, as someone is always looking for something they ‘just left over there’, or squatting in the bathroom hole or something like that.

Daniel officially broke it off with us as he had plans in Pokhara that night and had to get down as fast as he could.  Xavier and I looked on the map, and noted that if we blazed (just as we do), we could make it to Ghorepani to try to catch the morning sunrise off of Poon Hill, one of the ‘things you’re supposed to do’.  This was far from my original plan, but it seemed altogether possible, so we went for it.

Xavier is faster than me and fitter than me, so he pushes me to go farther quicker than I normally do.  Sometimes through the trek, I felt I held him back–having to rest before a huge influx of steps, for example–but he seemed to enjoy having a partner in crime.  “I can’t believe I found another crazy one!” he said.  “I’m not alone!”

Onward we went, searching for the right paths as we were no longer backtrekking, but seeing entirely new sights along the way.  Bridges and valleys, small towns growing rice on the hills, bird songs and the sounds of rushing rivers filled these more rural pathways.  And then more steps.

The steep jungle climb between Ghurjung and Tadapani was one of the most brutal of the trek so far.  Never ending and forever upward, there were actual moments I considered stopping once we hit Tadapani, if we ever would.  Every time I saw a clearing, I thought I saw an escape from the trudge, and every time, there was no town there.  We stopped enough times to rest that our water bottles were empty.  My feet were starting to reject my body.  I had nearly enough.

Finally, oh finally, we made it to the summit.  Tadapani was a cold, small town at the top of the mountain, and though I’d typically been skipping lunch during this trek (hunger is just as good a fuel as food, sometimes), this time I needed it.  Two lemon teas and a plate of Mixed Friend Noodles hit the spot oh so hard.

At this point, we made a good move.  We called ahead to Ghorepani and booked a room at the Mountain View Lodge, the last room they had available.  Ghorepani is one of the biggest towns in the area, being the basis for the Poon Hill morning viewpoint, so I knew that it would be a good idea to try to grab a room before we got there at the late hour.

The food did me right, and I was ready to go (my feet, not happy about this).  On we went, going up, going down, again and again.  About two hours in, we ascended up to a plateau.  This was the Duerali Pass.

Much like the Oakland Hills, the Duerali Pass is a calm and serene respite from the jungles below.  Golden in color and just sparse enough to feel comfortable in, this was the gorgeous hiking spot that felt like home.  It was here that Xavier and I started real talk, discussing our lives back home, women, careers, etc., all that stuff.  We’d been trekking buddies for more than a day now, but it was here that we started becoming actual buddies.  I can’t hear your groans.

Thapla Hill victory

After about 45 minutes in the Northern California-like Duerali Pass, we exited, opening up to the top of Thapla Hill, with Ghorepani in the distance.  We’d made it.

A short, slightly confused descent into Ghorepani brought us to our lodge.  Our room was closet sized, and was given to us free of charge.  Nepali guest houses typically charge very little for the actual ‘staying’, and more for the food you’re essentially required to buy there to make up for it.

Over tea and during dinner we met a German businessman who lived and worked in Shanghai, and a Economics-minded Chinese born Swede, and we all discussed world politics, money, and futures over more Dhal Bat.  This felt almost entirely like a ski lodge in there, and since we nearly all had to wake up at 4:30 to get ready to ascend the mountain up to Poon Hill in the morning, 8pm signalled time for bed.  Trekking is good practice for old-man life.

DAY 6

Xavier and I sprung out of bed, still in our clothes, ready to get out and get up.  It was still dark, and I had lost my flashlight, so I had to rely on Xavier’s headlamp to lead the way up.

We brought our cameras and our walking sticks and nothing else, which helped us breeze past the slowpokes on the trail upward.  It was a hard slog that early, but we ducked and dodged past most of the cattle line to get to the Poon Hill viewing spot well before the sun arrived.

Coming from San Francisco, I know too well how worthless most tourist stops are.  I never go to Fisherman’s Wharf, never go to Coit Tower or ever consider riding a Cable Car (who can afford it?).  Knowing this, Poon Hill was a tourist destination, being one of the only spots you can see the peaks of 5 different summits at once, and see the morning light hit them all in succession.  Yes, there were tons of people there.  But it was still a spectacular sight.

I paid Nr.120 for a cup of Lemon Tea (outrageous!), as the tip of Macchupucchure began to gleam it’s orange morning glow.  Hundreds of gawking trekkers snapped photos every which way.  The Chinese had already left–their style is to get in and get out, much like my experience in Nepali bathrooms.

Xavier and I took off and headed downhill to our room, had a breakfast, packed up, and took off.  Today’s plan was to get all the way down to Nayapul and get to Pokhara by the afternoon.  Our speed-trekking was just about over, and not a moment too soon–I was out of cash.

My feet cursing the day I was born, we sped downhill, down the 3,280 steps of Ulleri (infinitely more pleasurable than going up the 3,280 steps of Ulleri, I imagine), past the bamboo forest and landslide area, past Tikhedhungga, Hile and Sudame, and past Jim and Indra, who we ran into briefly.  Indra still wanted to take me rafting in Kathmandu. I told him I’d think about it.

Finally we made it down to Birethanti, a really beautiful little town at the foot of the mountain.

chicken porter

Xavier and I were so looking forward to getting back to Pokhara, that we didn’t even consider stopping for a break.  After signing out of the region with the Annapurna registrar, we considered hopping in the taxi, but the price was too high and they seemed immune to haggling.  What’s up with that, Asia?!

We continued on, my feet almost entirely giving up at this point and seceding from the union, when we made it to Nayapul, and with that, a taxi haven.  Prices were no cheaper, but we needed to get out of there.  Our trek was over, our bodies were torn up, and the glow of the Annapurna Sanctuary was etched in our mind.  We made it out alive: harder, faster, stronger.

I can’t wait to do it again.

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2 thoughts on “Solo Trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary – the long of it

  1. Greg

    Brooks- this is great! I’m so happy for you that you are getting to do all this amazing stuff all while keeping an intelligent perspective on things!

    Reply
  2. Katinka

    He Brooks, as promised a little massage from Holland!
    You know from the Dutch with the Yatzee!!!
    How are you? We are already back home again but had some great days in Kathmandu.
    I found the elephant park in Thailand by google, the ladies name is Lek, you must see her website: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org
    I also found you the title of the book I told you:
    Little Princes
    One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal
    By Conor Grennan
    The also have a website: http://www.nextgenerationnepal.com
    Have a nice time in Nepal and I hope to hear from you.
    Katinka

    Reply

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