November 3, 2010
We woke up a little earlier than usual, eating our pancakes and porridge and heading out the door by 7:15. The Kali Gandaki river bed is very wide here, and while the wind is at our back in the morning, by noon, the wind switches direction. The dust from the river bed has been known to drive people crazy, and often, the fine particles irritate the delicate membranes of the respiratory system. Lots of trekkers have developed deep, phlegmy coughs that are hard to shake.
For lots of Annapurna Circuit trekkers, Marpha or even Jomsom are the end of the road. An airport in Jomsom whisks away travellers short on time, and a relatively new road now joins Jomsom to the rest of Nepal. In fact, there were jeeps as early on as Muktinath. This is no longer a pedestrian-only valley.
But for some trekkers, the dusty, jeep and bus filled road from Marpha to Tatopani is just a two day trip by foot. Yes, it’s dusty, and yes, there are obnoxious horns the whole way, but it’s a matter of principle: sure, there are roads and we could take a bus, but we choose not to. We choose our feet.
You’re right. This has the makings of a totally miserable, self-righteous journey. Fortunately, Joshua and I were able to avoid all but 30 minutes of road on our way from Marpha to Lete. Outside of Marpha, we walked for about 15 minutes, and then we crossed a suspension bridge headed for Chimang. We had heard that there might be a landslide that had washed out part of the trail, but we decided to risk it. If we could navigate the path, we might not need to use the road for most of the journey.
The light this morning was muted. The wind was strong and at our backs, and with the trees rustling and the leaves blowing, it felt like fall. The first village we walked through was silent. The only signs of life were smoking chimneys and blankets drying in the wind.
The fields on the other side of the village were filled with apple trees and evergreens. My throat still hurt, so we didn’t talk much; we kept walking. The path continued on through the shelter of more evergreens. Our tread was quieted by a blanket of brown needles. We crossed small streams and women walking with woven baskets strapped to their foreheads. Otherwise, we saw no one.
Whenever the path came to a fork, we chose the one closest to the river. After a wider stream crossing, we picked our way across what must have been a mudflow. For about 30 minutes, a dry, pathless plain of dried mud and rock occasionally revealed the tops of evergreens, determined not to give up. It took a little longer to make our way across this terrain, but on the other end, we were perplexed. Was this the landslide that had detered other trekkers from taking the East bank?
Where the mudflow ended, the Kali Gandaki veered in towards the mountains, and the path took us sharply upwards. Although we were concerned that the landslide might actually be at the top of this steep path, we again took the risk. We climbed for a while through evergreens, high above the river, and although it was uphill, the path was always wide and well-trodden. At the top, we could see Tukuche and other trekkers hiking on the road across the river. Our path may have been harder, but we did not envy them: the sound of a bus blowing its horn is enough to make Joshua have a hissy fit. He hates it.
The trail descended again, and we passed a village at the foot of the mountains. The river bed stretched out for a mile in front of the village, and the gusting wind blew dust everywhere. All the buildings were covered in a thin veneer of grit. Even the little children who held out their hands for sweets and school pens were dusty.
We picked our way across the river bed, and on the other side, we found a thin trail carved into the mountainside. Walking avobe the Kali Gandaki, long pieces of wood reinforced weaker parts of the trail. It would have been precarious, but it looked well-used and maintained.
We continued walking. Eventually, the path took us to a road, but thankfully, no vehicles ever came. Across the river, we could see other trekkers, but we never saw a soul on the East bank. As we entered another village, we started getting a bit tired and hungry. Even when I pointed out a field of marijuana, we barely laughed, so determined were we to find the next restaurant.
The village we passed through had no lodges or restaurants, but the careful attention to detail was charming: the homes were tidy and cozy, the road had poplars planted at even intervals all alongside, and even the troughs for the livestock were clean and attractive. Some villagers looked at us as if to say, ‘what are YOU doing here?’ But they all said Namaste.
On the other side of the village, we continued on the road. Around the bend, we spotted a shortcut through the river bed and took it. It saved us time, but our feet did get a bit muddy. At one point, I’m fairly sure I stepped in quicksand.
Finally, at the finish of our shortcut, we rejoined the road, and it wasn’t long before we came to a suspension bridge that connected the East and West banks of the river. As far as I had seen, this was only the second bridge since Marpha. We were already past Larjung.
From here, the river turned sharply to the East, and we followed the path until we entered the village of Kokhethanti, where – Hallelujah – there was a restaurant. We both ordered Chowmein and with a side of roasted potatoes, and when the plates came, we inhaled them. We had been hiking for 5 hours.
Once we had finished, we split a Snickers bar for dessert and then paid. The waiter told us that it should take about an hour to get to Kokhethanti to Kalapani if you don’t take the detour to Titi Lake recommended in Lonely Planet. Tired, we decided to skip the detour. We were already fast-forwarding through Lonely Planet’s schedule – they took three days to cover the distance from Marpha to Tatopani, whereas we were trying to do it in two.
The path from Kokhethanti to Kalapani follows the Kali Gandaki’s narrowing river bed. The road has wide cobblestones, and there are mud-brick homes and gardens most of the way. Outside, women were washing their hair in the river or under faucets. Little chicks were singing sweetly from the side of the path, and brightly colored blossoms were spilling over the wooden fences. The sun had finally come out, and we were warm enough to walk in just a long-sleeved shirt, no hat.
Eventually, we came to a suspension bridge, and on the other side, we entered Kalapani. A sign informed us that the walk to the ACAP water station would take 20 minutes. Having read about an Eco Lodge in Lonely Planet, we set our sights on the other end of Lete – a good 30 to 40 minute walk from the start of Kalapani.
Kalapani and Lete blend into one another, and really, they’re pretty indiscernable. Homes, lodges, shops, and restaurants line either side of the wide-cobblestoned road, and there isn’t a whole lot of charm to mention. We stopped at the water station to fill up, and then we continued on. At the very end of Lete, we spotted the Eco Lodge.
The man outside led us upstairs, and for the usual 200 rupees, he let us have a double on the second floor. We immediately collapsed on the beds.
Unfortunately, that’s also when we happened to first really look at our surroundings. It was only 2:30 PM, and although most budget lodges are created equal, this one wasn’t. We’d have another few hours of daylight to take in the dirty floors and walls, the dark, dark rooms, and the decidedly unpleasant dining room. We didn’t unpack.
Joshua tried to strong-arm me into making a decision: did I want to leave? Well, the answer was yes and no. Yes, I wanted to get the hell out of there, but no, I did not want to tell the proprietor that I didn’t want to stay there. Joshua told me to stop being a wimp; he put his smelly socks back on, laced up his mud-caked boots, and hefted his pack.
Luckily, the man outside didn’t seem to be to bothered. We muttered some lie about thinking our friend was at another lodge, but really, it all happened so quickly that I don’t think it mattered. We headed back in the direction we had come from. The Old Namaste Guesthouse was the first lodge that we came across, and it had a beautiful, window-filled dining room and a garden of marigolds. No one appeared to be staying there, but the woman informed us that they were full.
Thankfully, the next place we came to – Paradise Guest House – was nearly empty, and the double that woman showed us had lots of windows. She charged us 150 rupees for the room. Done.
Joshua went to go take a shower, while I pulled out the computer to write. Sitting on the roof, this non-descript town takes on a bit more description. In fact, with the snow-capped mountains and saddles above, the scenery reminds me of Temang. Downstairs, I can smell something sizzling. It hasn’t been long since lunch, but I’m already hungry again.
In the dining room, we sit at a table with a coal-fired heater underneath. Within minutes, we’re warm enough to take off our hats and jackets. We play Rummy until the food comes, and when it does, we have some of the best Dal Bhaat and potato cheese Momos we’ve ever had.
Later that night, we read until we fall asleep, warm in our sleeping bags.
November 2, 2010
We all padded down to breakfast at 7. I got a little crazy this time and ordered oats porridge with apple. I love the buckwheat pancakes, but they didn’t have any on the menu, and I had started to envy Joshua and Ankit’s hot, steaming bowls of goop in the mornings.
Turns out the goop tastes great, especially when there’s world-famous Mustang apples inside. Once we had finished eating, we paid the wonderful, smiley woman in charge, and then we headed for Jomsom.
Actually, first we took a detour so that Ankit could take a picture of the ancient Bon fertility statue. I bet you can’t guess what was sticking out of it.
Following the goat-droppings out of town, we found a road that ran alongside the Kali Gandaki river bed. We passed a few porters with enormous packs, and at some point, the kindly trekker who had led us to the Red House Lodge yesterday caught up with us.
John’s a general contractor in Prescott, Arizona. He grew up in Sedona and near the Grand Canyon, so he’s been living in Arizona most of his life. For a while, he was a marine, but now, he’s trying to figure out how to replace drywall with clay and bamboo lath. Apparently, the gypsum used in drywall is not only allergenic, but it’s also harmfully mined from China. Clay has all sorts of great properties – it’s breathable, it has a negative ion charge (which means that allergens don’t stick to it), and it’s a less toxic material. Bamboo, of course, is another sustainable and healthful material. John’s working with a university in Arizona to develop his product, and he’s gotten grant money from the government because he’s trying to develop an ecologically-friendly building material. ‘I don’t think of myself as a tree-hugger,’ he said, ‘but I would like the planet to be here for my grandchildren.’
Well, John seemed like a pretty cool guy, so we kept talking to him as we walked. His guide, a Sherpa, is a particularly famous mountaineer in Nepal. He’s appeared in a couple of documentaries, and on the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmond Hillary’s first climb of Mount Everest, he stood in the place of Tenzing Norgay’s grandson. John and Dowah met about 10 years ago, and John’s been coming to Nepal ever since. They just finished a trek in Upper Mustang, and John says it’s as wonderful as ever to see his friend.
John also had an interesting perspective on some of Nepal’s difficulties. In particular, he hadn’t made up his mind about the new roads. Apparently, not only is there a road to Mukhtinath, but they’re also building a road through Upper Mustang all the way to Tibet. John’s done the Annapurna Circuit a number of times since he started coming here 10 years ago, and to him, the roads have brought mostly bad things to the communities they’ve entered. Sure, his Nepali friends mostly think it’s a good thing, a sign of progress, but John’s not so sure. Before the roads were here, he says, no one was starving. People had plenty of work to do, and almost everyone was healthy. They ate a local diet of whole foods, they spent time with their family and neighbors, and they had rich religious and cultural traditions. Now, jeeps have taken away the jobs of porters who would carry loads on their backs; they’ve brought in packaged food, and the Nepali diet has suffered. There are beggars, and for him, what the Nepalis see as ‘modernization’ looks a lot more like using drugs, alcohol, and listening to bad pop music.
I’ve been trying to be open minded about the whole thing, but I’d have to agree. Later, we told Ankit about the things John had said, and he agreed too. This is a topic he’s concerned about in India as well. Yes, China and India would like to develop just like Europe and the US, and no, it’s not fair to say that they can’t. That said, if your friend had never seen a boiling pot of water before, and he went in to touch it, wouldn’t you say something? If China and India use as many resources per person as the USA does, the world will be snuffed out. And while the consequences might not be as dramatic for Nepal, modernization doesn’t always seem to be improving their quality of life. It’s a tough question, and I’m not sure what the answers are.
The other problem John sees in Nepali culture is the caste system. I’m a total ignoramous on the matter, but John broke it down for me very simply: a very long time ago, the Aryans came to India. To create order, the Aryans told the Indians that they were the Brahmans, a high caste of rulers. The other castes were determined by the color of the Indians skin, and the low and untouchable castes were pacified by being told that if they were very, very good, they might one day be reborn into a higher caste.
John’s seen the caste system at work a number of times in Nepal, but the ones that stuck out to him involved his guide and porter. During another trip, his very young porter was rather inexperienced and had been carrying a heavy load. John saw that his shoulders were hurting, so he walked over and massaged his shoulders. Both the porter and guide were shocked that John would dare to touch an untouchable. In another scenario, John had decided to bring Dowah to a fancy restaurant in Kathmandu to express his appreciation. It turned out to be a horrible idea, because although Dowah is something of a national hero, he’s both a low caste and a Sherpa. The other diners in the restaurant – Brahmans – asked to have their tables moved. ‘I was furious,’ he said, ‘you see, I’m the kind of guy who sees just one race. The rest is just culture.’
There was something else that John said that made me think. He’s guided in the Grand Canyon before, and he’s an avid backpacker. He doesn’t need a porter, but he hires one when he comes to Nepal. Far from seeing it as a form of subjugation, John believes hiring a porter is supporting the local economy. It’s creating a job that pays.
When John realized how far he had gotten from his group, he said goodbye. We waited for Anit to catch up, and then we continued on towards Jomsom.
The road turned into the sunshine, and across the wide river bed big gusts of wind kicked up little tornadoes of dust. A couple of off-road jeeps splashed through the streams, and in the distance, we could see the square, concrete buildings of Jomsom.
Just before we entered town, we heard the roar of jets and an engine. An airplane had just taken off from the small strip in town, and we looked up as the small vessel arched and then turned South. We waved. Maybe it was Eric and Nora’s plane.
Jomsom is a sprawling town, and it takes about 30 minutes to reach the tourist businesses. I’m not going to lie; I didn’t great the first signs of Internet, blaring horns, and ATMs with either fondness or relief. Instead, I felt crabby and hungry. I didn’t like Jomsom’s long road, and I didn’t like that we had two more days of vehicular roads ahead of us.
At the ACAP check point, we registered our names and permits, and Joshua went off to get some more cash out of the ATM. Unfortunately, it was down. Actually, this wasn’t just unfortunate, it was also catastrophic: if we didn’t get more cash, there was no way we’d be able to finish out the Circuit and Annapurna Sanctuary. We decided to regroup at a cafe for lunch.
The little Bakery across from the ATM is both clean and sunny, and the woman who runs the place is a force to be reckoned with. She tried to upsell us on every entree, but she was so friendly and earnest, we didn’t mind. The food was delicious. It was the first vegetable chowmein I’ve had that I didn’t have to drown in chile sauce.
Ankit passed us a piece of paper. We wrote down our emails, my blog. We passed him a piece of paper. He wrote down his. This is where we part ways. Ankit needs a day off, and while he’s taking it in Marpha, we’re taking a detour after lunch. Maybe we’ll see each other again, but maybe we won’t. There’s no question that we’d like to take Ankit in our pocket, but he has a lot more traveling to do, and maybe one day he’ll travel his way to our farm in Wisconsin. We hope he does.
After lunch, we said goodbye and split off in different directions. Ankit headed down the road towards Marpha, and we stopped in at the Internet station. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working.
Now that we were full, we weren’t quite as crabby, and as we walked back through Jomsom, we tried to have a positive attitude about the thriving little town in the Annapurna. Even so, it’s not that great. I’d skip it, if I were you.
Hiking out of Jomsom, we headed for Dhumba Lake. It had only taken two and a half hours to get to Jomsom, and we wanted to hike a bit longer. The trail took us up on the East side of the river valley, through apple fields and glittering irrigation streams. Thini, a small, old-fashioned Thakali village, charmed us with its mud-brick homes and bundled-stick rafters. Mani Walls of prayer wheels craddled the village on either end, and as we walked through the cobble-stoned lanes, we forgot that the Annapurna is modernizing. Not here. Chickens sqwuak in the courtyards, woodsmoke billows out of the chimneys, and their isn’t a guest house or restaurant to be found. The children don’t even ask for sweets or school pens; they just hold their palms together, grin, and say, Namaste!
From Thini, the path climbs a bit higher into another village, and around the bend, we find Dhumba Lake. It’s not amazing. I mean, the water is torquoise and there are snowy mountains above, but with a barbed-wire fence winding its way around, it can’t compare to the lake we found outside of Pisang.
We stop for a while, and I try to stretch out my back. For some reason, I’m experiencing this shooting pain between my left shoulder blade and my spine. My pack is ridiculously light, so I feel similarly ridiculous, but it’s so painful, I have a grimace on my face, and I stop talking.
We continue on the road up to a gompa and then down to a village below. Ringing the mountain, we find a suspension bridge, and then we cross back to the West side of the river bank. The wind has begun to blow in earnest now, and we spend the rest of our hike squinting into the wind and dodging jeeps. At one point, a motorcycle doesn’t honk, and because the wind is so strong, I don’t hear it coming. When it appears beside me, I’m so startled that I led out a blood-curdling scream. They look at me as if to say, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’
By the time we reach Marpha, we’re both thankful that we’ve bought dust masks. At least our lungs aren’t full of grit. The sign that declares we’ve reached Marpha also announces that this is the Apple Capital of Nepal. We follow a cobblestoned road and an irrigation stream into the village center. Up above, a red gompa sits on a rock face and looks out into the valley. The city is almost strangely clean, and with the shelter of buildings, it’s markedly quieter than the road leading here.
We pass a number of guest houses, and we stop in at a few. Neeru and Mountain View charge 300 rupees for a double. We find Paradise, and they charge 150. With a sunny room and a clean dining room, we decide to stay.
By now, I’m feeling a bit sick. I’m starting to loose my voice, and my back is sore. I can’t discern if my body is sore from falling and hiking or if I’m getting a fever. I’m exhausted.
In our room, we read for a bit, and at 5:30, we go downstairs to the dining room to order a small pot of tea and Dal Bhaat. We sit at the table with a heater under it, and I hunker down next to Joshua, cold, tired, and sore. Fortunately, not long after we’ve sat down, the proprietor comes over and puts some hot coals into the heater. A Dutch couple spy the source of warmth and head over to the huge table. We begin to warm up.
Our Dal Bhaat comes and we eat everything, including seconds. Ian, a Canadian from Vancouver Island, comes over to join us, and we introduce ourselves to Vincent and Marina, the couple from Holland. Ian’s disgusted with the hotel and its service, and his companions – two other men from Vancouver Island – are loudly complaining about their faulty showers, no hot water, and their hard beds. Vincent and Marina don’t seem quite as dissatisfied, and we all talk a little bit about our trek so far. Like us, Ian and his buddies have been hiking the Circuit for 12 days. They crossed Thorung La on the same day that we did. Marina and Vincent have been hiking for 10 days. They get bored if they get into the guest houses too early, so they’ve done some longer days. They made it over the pass the day after us, and although we had suspected that the trail would be impossibly slippy after the snowfall, apparently it was clear and they had had incredible views.
Taking out their camera, Marina and Vincent showed us a sequence of incredible photos they had taken in Upper Pisang a few days ago. An enormous avalanche had come down from Annapurna II, and the plume of snow had been so big and strong that it had come all the way across the river valley and up to their guest house. One of the photos looked like night had fallen, and there was a bunch on snow in the air. The photos were crazy; I told them – in all seriousness – that they should submit them to National Geographic. They had it all: a series of six or seven photos that showed the beginning, middle, and end of the most enormous avalanche.
Ian’s grouchy companions came over to sit down, and while we finished our pot of tea, they told us a little bit about the beautiful island they live on. ‘It’s the only place where you can go skiing, fish, and play golf all in the same day,’ said Scott, who was particularly disgruntled about his shower head. One of them asked where we were from, and Ian said, ‘they’re Minnesotan,’ with a note of certainty. We laughed. How did he know? He could just tell, he said.
We finished our pot of tea. I was feeling sicker and sicker, so we headed off to bed, even though it was only 6:30. In our room, Joshua and I squished onto the same twin-size mattress, and while Joshua read, I fell asleep.