geniet mee van onze avonturen Een jaar lang op wereldreis : ikzelf (Katlijn) ben een Vlaamse Belg. Mijn vriend Andrew (een Canadees) is de schrijver van dit blog ... daardoor zal de hele blog in het Engels zijn
Annapurna Circuit: Days 3-7
Day 3 Bahundanda to Jagat (Elevation 1300 meters)
Eco-friendly solar-powered water boilers can be found throughout the Himalaya. It takes about 20 minutes to boil water on a sunny day.
After countless trips to the toilet in the middle of the night, I wake up early the next morning to the uncomfortable realization that I need to walk six hours with both a heavy backpack and a serious case of the runs. It is at this point that I am happy Katlijn brought a porter who significantly lightens my load by taking my sleeping bag. Of course, Vishnu now carries all of Katlijn’s stuff, 10 snickers bars, the last installment of Harry Potter and TWO heavy arctic sleeping bags. In order to manage this, he uses a head strap in addition to the shoulder and waist harness. Mahish calls this Vishnu’s “magic” which makes it all possible. Regardless, Vishnu is my hero.
Having the runs in a foreign country is one of the unfortunate facts of life in traveling to Nepal and India. Since many small villages dot the entire Annapurna circuit, trekkers are discouraged from going in the wild. Naturally, I was able to take advantage of this excellent opportunity to tour of the gamut of Himalayan toilet facilities. Like the vast majority of the world, they are of the “squat over a hole in the ground” variety and come in a few predictable classes of materials and designs. My favorite was when, in sheer desperation, I had to ask one of the villagers to use the toilet in her home. A tiny, hunched, ancient woman led me into her barn where I had to navigate my way through several chickens, a flock of goats, and a buffalo to the smallest wooden bathroom I had ever seen. Just outside the bathroom was her kitchen stove of all things- a funny wood burning stove with a small iron chimney that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. I stepped over the buffalo and ducked into what must be the filthiest spider infested bathroom in Nepal, if not the entire Indian sub-continent. I had to simultaneously hold the door shut and assume the crouching position forcing me to hang monkey-style over the hole- an acrobatic feat that would require extreme coordination even without my bowel condition. I lost my balance several times causing the whole shack to tremble violently for the duration of this experience. When I emerged, I was horrified to find the old crone just outside my door cooking some Daal Bhaat on the Dr. Seuss stove. She looked at me with her mouth wide open, revealing all three of her teeth, giving me a look of simultaneous astonishment and disgust that said, “What is the matter with you man !? You are 32 years old and still not potty trained !?” With what remaining grace I could muster, I stepped over the buffalo, put my hands together, and muttered “namaste”. She watched me carefully as I moved her goats aside and was literally attacked by an aggressive rooster on my way out.
There are currently no roads in this part of the Annapurna so all supplies are carried between the villages by porters who bare all sorts of strange and bizarre Eastern and Western items and livestock, often in ridiculously over-sized and over-stuffed backpacks and cages. However, a new road is currently under construction which will connect Besi Sahar with Manang promising to change everything, for better and for worse. We have to take an enormous up-hill detour to avoid blasting of the mountain side necessary for this construction. Mahish says the road will be bad for porters and guides which currently form the backbone of the tourist and transportation culture. When I once asked him if they will control the nature and amount of traffic on the road, he muttered sadly, “like in Kathmandu” which basically means a cluttered mess of buses, cars, and backpackers where pounding the horn repeatedly takes the place of road rules.
This is my favorite porter who was very kind to let me take her picture. Note that she is carrying that weight on her head ! Himalayan women do much of the hard labor. I have seen similar old ladies wielding dangerous looking axes to chop fire wood.
By the end of the day, my condition starts to improve. Unfortunately, Katlijn seems to be developing sinusitis. The lodge owners give her some local inhalant which seems to work quite effectively at reducing her symptoms. Mahish then produced another local remedy for my stomach condition that looks suspiciously like guinea pig droppings- I decide not to chance it.
Katlijn taking full advantage of the Jagat's local anti-sinusitis inhalant underneath her jacket.
During the night, Katlijn hears some commotion in the village.
Day 4 Jagat to Tal (Elevation 1700 meters)
Mahish gets us out of bed early the next morning and we enjoy a tasty apple pancake breakfast. He explains that the commotion was due to a thief caught stealing from one of the lodges. He is currently held in the local Jagat kindergarten since the nearest police station is in Bahundanda, nearly six hours walk away.
Mahish tells us that only kindergarten and elementary schools are available in most of the small villages we pass. He had to walk two hours to get to his nearest high school [uphill both ways] and this is not unusual. Some kids stay with relatives or in boarding houses away from home while other students can be seen in their uniforms walking the same trails as us. Still others, especially the girls, won’t go to school at all and are needed to work the farm at home. Maybe that road really will come in handy.
As we leave the town, we see all the villagers gathered in a crowded circle: men, women, children, and babies. We have to ask them to move aside so we can get through. In the center of the circle stands the young thief who looks positively terrified. There is blood dripping out of his mouth. He had been beaten. One of the villagers passes me by and feels the needed to explain, “he stole money”.
Waterfalls carving the Himalaya from stone.
Katlijn is still not feeling well so we do only a short three-hour walk to a small town called “Tal”. The path is very beautiful with several waterfalls cascading down the valley side. The Himalayas are caused by the massive collision of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, encompassing both India and Australia, with the Eurasian continent. The resulting force is causing the bordering land to raise in elevation at a rate of a few centimeters each year. When we look at the Himalaya, we are not so much seeing mountains but the gaps between them carved by the rivers. It is interesting to consider that the river we are following through the valley is therefore older than the mountains themselves.
Day 5 Tal to Chame (Elevation 2700 meters)
Tibetan people live at these higher elevations. Chortens, such as this modern example at Tal, mark the entrance to Tibetan villages.
Katlijn spent a lot of time in bed and we are considering staying in Tal until she recovers. However, Mahish encourages us to continue on at least a bit further today. He is afraid that if we lose another day or two now we may have trouble making the high pass since we are attempting this trek so late in the year. The next storm could block our passage entirely and we would have to return home.
Amazingly, Katlijn’s condition seems to improve as we walk. After a long nine-hour slog, we manage to make it to Chame making up for the time we lost yesterday. Mahish told me later he never thought we'd make it ! Along the way, the diverse sub-tropical vegetation gives way to pine forests. There are no more terraces of rice fields. Rather, corn, wheat, and millet are grown at this altitude. In contrast to the Gurung people living at lower altitudes, the people here are mostly Tibetan- both newer refugees and older communities dating back to the ancient trade routes between India and China. The villages themselves look notably different with spiritual displays of prayer wheels, flags, and stupas.
As if marking this contrast to a new stage in our journey, the weather also begins to roll in- changing from this morning’s balmy, “why the hell are we lugging around these arctic sleeping bags ?”, to the evening’s bone chilling “why the hell won’t the zipper work on these cheapo Kathmandu North ‘Fake’ jackets we borrowed from our guide ?” Towards the end of our walk, it starts to snow and we experience our first night of serious cold weather.
Mist through the trees. The weather rolls down the hills at us.
Nepali people are very fond of the word “system”. Everything is a “system”, no matter how trivial. If you go to a restaurant in Kathmandu and ask them to wrap your tuna sandwich in foil, this is referred to as the take-home "system". Similarly, after Mahish finds Katlijn huddled on her bed refusing to come out of the room unless we cut out little leg holes from her sleeping bag, he invites us down to use the fire “system”. We decide to take his advice and follow him to a room where a few Tibetans sit around a fire.
Underneath a curtain of drying yak jerky, sipping from a piping hot cup of coco, roasting my feet in front of the cozy fire after a long day of hiking, reveling in my lack of bowel problems, I realize that this is my ideal vacation. Katlijn is not convinced, however, and argued vehemently in favor a cocktail on a Thai beach. Nevertheless, she had to admit that this particular moment was bliss. We spent the evening chatting with our guide and porter until, thoroughly exhausted, we retired to our room at about 8 PM- a late night by our mountain trekking standards.
Day 6 Chame to Lower Pisang (Elevation 3200 meters)
The sun burning snow off the impressive bulk of Annapurna II seen here towering above us to an elevation of 7937 meters.
The weather clears up and we enjoy spectacular views of the Annapurna range during an easy five-hour walk to the town of “Lower Pisang”. Upon arriving, two loud Korean girls tell us that there are “hot” showers in our lodge. Excited by this prospect, Katlijn and I grab our camp towels and head for our first winter high-altitude shower experience:
Imagine that you are naked in an enclosed wooden room completely shielded from the sun. Imagine, if you will, the temperature in this room is close to 0 degrees Celsius- sort of like sitting naked in your freezer. Now, think of a chest-high tap on the wall with one merciless knob dribbling luke-warm water onto the floor. Imagine how cold that water feels against the concrete in your bare feet. Now, imagine small holes in the wooden shack through which you can feel a cold draft blowing against your body. Imagine standing there for what seems like an eternity waiting for, no… hoping to god, that luke-warm dribble will eventually turn into a “hot” dribble like those damn obnoxious Korean girls promised. Finally, imagine it never gets “hot” at all. In fact, it gets slowly colder and colder as whatever “hot” water that might have been there to begin with is being used up.
We soon learn that it is actually better to be under the luke-warm water than getting splashed by it in the freezing cold. You still feel cold under the tap, but it is definitely better than not being under the tap. Thus, it is not only hard to get into the shower, but infinitely harder to get out of it. My approach is to plan carefully my actions before I reach up from my naked crouch position and shut the tap off. I then slowly and methodically dry each part of my body and, as soon as possible, cover that part of my body with clothing. Katlijn’s approach is to yell maniacally several expletives followed by the word “cold” at the top of her lungs to serve as a warning to any other trekkers within the next village.
After our shower, we proceed with haste to the fire “system” and I eat some of the lodge’s chowmein wondering how on earth it is possible to cook something with absolutely no taste at all. The Korean girls are kind enough to lend me their red chili sauce. They tell me they take this with them everywhere in Nepal to provide a little character to their meals. It doesn’t help.
Back in Kathmandu, they make tea by simultaneously boiling together the milk, the tea, the spices, and some water. It is a truly satisfying beverage which I highly recommend. Up here in the Himalayan mountains, you are lucky to get a small tea bag floating ineffectively in a glass of slightly-warm unpasteurized milk. I decide, instead, to try my luck with the local “Tibetan tea” which turns out to be a vile brew made from salt and warm yak butter. I couldn’t drink it. I couldn’t get anyone sitting around the fire to drink it either. In fact, I couldn’t even get any of the Nepali people to drink it. Instead, it turned into the evening's much needed entertainment as everyone took turns smelling it and then contorting their face into an image of disgust followed by guffaws of laughter.
After this game grew tiresome, we spent the rest of the evening around the fire gossiping with the other travelers. One of the joys of doing the Annapurna Circuit is talking about the various eccentrics that are crazy enough to do this hike in the middle of winter. Since we are all walking the same trail, sitting around the same fires, and eating the same food, you get to know them pretty well. There is Evan, a Canadian Biologist from Nelson, BC, who actually decided to start the Annapurna Circuit immediately after he got back from a 20 day trek to the Everest Base Camp- otherwise he is entirely normal and we like him a lot. There are the Dutch girls, a 55 year old mother and her daughter who claim that Eindhoven has everything we need to be happy (at this point, a soft mattress, a hot shower, and sit-toilets). Our favourite, however, is the infamous “Korean Himalaya Woman”.
Everyone on the mountainside knows of the Korean Himalaya Woman; rumors travel fast between the villages. According to the two Korean girls, she has been sited recently on horse back at Lower Pisang and they claim she gave them a cup of instant noodle ramen. She visits the Himalaya twice a year with not one, not two, but TEN porters ! This is in addition to her guide and chef. Each porter is purported to carry several kilos of Kimchi, an octopus, and some dog meat which her chef turns into a giant Korean feast every night somewhere in the distant mountains. Reports indicate she is generous. We have not yet seen her but have only heard stories about- she is sort of the Asian culinary counterpart to the illusive yeti.
I looked down at my full cup of salty Tibetan tea in quiet contemplation. Could the legend be true ?
Day 7 Lower Pisang to Manang (Elevation 3540 meters)
We get up early the next morning and I have some buckwheat bread with jam. Tibetan buckwheat bread looks like a Frisbee and tastes a bit like one too. Anyone for a game of Ultimate ?
Katlijn and Vishnu checking the map en route to Manang.
We enjoy a flat and highly enjoyable walk to the Tibetan town of Manang, the district capital and a virtual metropolis compared to the villages we had been staying in. Along the way, we are offered stunning views of Annapurna II, III, and IV. The weather is gorgeous. We have recovered from our illnesses. Upon arriving, I turned the tap water on… hot water ! It is a perfect day.
You can do everything in Manang. You can check your e-mail, buy Pringles potato chips, and even watch a small selection of DVDs on a big screen (“Seven Years in Tibet”, “Kundun”, “Into thin air”, etc.). You can even spend an evening around a campfire with the local Tibetans listening to their classic rock CD collection.
In short, Manang is the best place on this side of the Himalayas and we are very happy to be here for the next couple of days.
A couple of locals hanging out on main street Manang in the early morning.
Machu means "fish", Puchre means "tail. It is the fishtail mountain.
As seen from Sarangkot in Pokhara at sundown.
Sorry for the long delay in updating this blog. Believe it or not, there really are solar powered internet cafes in the Himalaya. However, they cost a small fortune to use so we decided to wait until we got back from our trek before updating our blog and responding to e-mail.
We completed the entire Annapurna Circuit a few days ago. Since it was a very special experience, we will provide a detailed day-by-day account of this particular journey which we will post in installments over the next week or so (subject to Internet availability and power outages, of course). After that, we will try to update the blog more regularly to describe the places we have visited...
The xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Annapurna Circuit
Day 1 Bus ride from Kathmandu to Besi Sahar (Elevation 800 meters)
Before it started leaking uncontrollably all over our hotel room floor, Katlijn enjoyed one last civilized luxury in Kathmandu: a hot bath. I have to say, in retrospect, our Kathmandu hotel is comparatively not so stinky and actually downright comfortable compared to what we will experience in the next 17 days.
We met up with our guide, Mahish, and our porter, Vishnu, in the early morning, got in a dangerously dilapidated taxi, and weaved at top speed through honking motorcycles and countless bovines before arriving at a bus station somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Mahish sat us down for a breakfast of Nepali tea and biscuits before we got into a rickety old bus painted in psychedelic pastel colours and took off for the Himalayas. This was our first experience with Nepal's public transportation system.
It takes two to three people to navigate the Nepali infrastructure by bus. There is the driver- in our case, an old man wearing a wool hat with a marijuana badge sewn on the front. Then there are one or two helpers who serve several purposes including the following:
- Calling out for passengers - Looking out for the startling number and variety of highway obstacles - A substitute for malfunctioning signal lights. - Strapping baggage, furniture, and roosters to the rooftop - Yelling Nepali profanities at slow moving vehicles and bovines
Our helper was a sixteen year old boy wearing a black "Jack Daniel's" bandanna, bandit-style, and black low-rider jeans. This wouldn't have been so bad except for the glaring fact that he was going commando. There do not appear to be actual bus stops in Nepal. Instead, the helper is constantly vigilant for potential passengers waiting in the middle of nowhere. To signal the driver to stop the bus, he would pound the side of the bus one time. After throwing whatever bizarre items the passenger may have onto a towering rooftop pile, he would pound the bus two times to signal it to start moving again.
Whenever passing another vehicle, a terrifying event which occurred with distressing regularity, he would pound the bus several times signalling there was no visible traffic, potholes, or farm animals. Our bus driver would then push the horn repeatedly and gun it- sending everyone lurching backwards, perhaps losing a few roosters behind us, as our bus hurtled past at full speed, held together only by a few rusty bolts, some rope, and the collective blind faith of those of us inside. On the narrow mountain roads, I had to hold back the urge to cry out. "Mr. Bus driver ! Are our lives really so dispensable to you !?"
Nevertheless, as our bus tempts fate just a few inches from a cliff side rounding a blind curve on the wrong side of the road, the Nepali people do not seem to notice. It was astonishing. I want to explain to them, "Our lives are in the hands of a crusty ex-hippy and a boy who wears no underpants. WE ARE IN SERIOUS TROUBLE HERE !". But yet, as I stare behind me, there are, at best, a few looks of mild concern. Our porter is sound asleep.
You may call me paranoid, but consider the following facts and figures which are all true:
1) You are 20 times more likely to be killed or injured in a bus fatality in Nepal than you are in any developed country.
2) I can see burnt carcasses of psychedelic pastel coloured buses off the cliff side that look disturbingly like the one I am riding in.
3) Riding a bus is considered the most dangerous activity you can do in Nepal. It is more dangerous than white water rafting, more dangerous than climbing Mount Everest, even more dangerous than drinking the tap water.
I can see our helper bent over in front of the bus fiddling with the dash board and mooning the passengers while he's at it. Before long, I hear a crackling noise through bus speakers and then the booming sound of Indian pop music played at full volume through an 80s cassette player system: my nightmare is complete.
Resigned to my fate, I rest my head against the grungy bus window and stare at the havoc outside. I start to feel the motion sickness pills kicking in listening to the rhythm of the music. I begin to play a game with myself: closing my eyes and opening them again then mentally remarking the foreign images in front of me.
Nepali girls with tikas wearing British school boy uniforms.
A technicolour truck with the words "push horn" painted on the back in Hindu font.
Cows parked between motorcycles.
Day 2 Besi Sahar to Bahundada (Elevation 1310 meters)
Every inch of land used. Rice is grown in the Himalays up to about 2000 meters.
Damn. I shouldn't have eaten so much chicken with my Daal Bhaat last night. I am sensing the start of a serious case of Traveller's Diarrhea. However, Katlijn is in high spirits so I try not to let on too much. This is our first day of serious trekking.
We have a Nepali guide named "Mahish" who can tell us what we are looking at and show us the way. Actually, this isn't true. Mahish also tells us when to get up, where to sleep, where to eat, where to rest, and where to go to the bathroom. In fact, we are total lemmings completely under his command. We even ride the bus when he asks this of us. We do absolutely everything he says and pay him for this privilege. Still, he is polite enough to refer to me as "sir".
I carry my own backpack, but Katlijn hired a porter named "Vishnu". After noting that we were basically paying our porter for my vacation, we also loaded him with a few extra comforts. Vishnu is not as outgoing as Mahish, but we learn to admire his quiet determination lugging his load up the mountainside. He always carries, by far, the heaviest bag and the biggest smile.
Katlijn, Vishnu, and Mahish. Vishnu's bag is loaded with Katlijn's belongings, a heavy arctic sleeping bag, 10 snickers bars, and the last installment of Harry Potter.
So far, the Himalayas are not the bitter cold, white, icy, yeti-abode I had always imagined as a child. Instead, the vegetation is sub-tropical and the green hills are terraced with rice plantations plowed by oxes. During our easy hike through the country, we pass by many small villages stopping occasionally for tea, before arriving at our lodge; "lodge" being Nepali for "spartan shack with luke-warm showers". Nevertheless, it is cozy by candlelight and the views from the patio are gorgeous at dusk.
A big thanks to all those who came to our send-off party. We had a nice cross-section of people from our lives in Belgium, and a few from our lives abroad. It was great to see all one more time before we hit the road.
In true form, the subsequent events after our party consisted of eating chocolate coffee beans for breakfast on the floor of our empty apartment, hauling refrigerators down three flights of stairs, and submitting that last journal article sometime in the middle of the night. After some serious last minute banking arrangements early the next morning, we finally left Leuven to arrive 20 hours later in Kathmandu. A guy named Ram, who has arranged our 18 day trek through the Annapurna Circuit, picked us up at the airport. We had a short, but harrowing, car ride through the streets of Kathmandu to arrive safely, with all our gear, at a stinky hotel in the middle of the city. This was pretty much our plan.
We spent our first day being chased around by honking motorcycles in the narrow streets of xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Kathmandu. At night, the power went out which, according to the receptionist, is a common occurrence here. Thus, we used a few candles to find our way to the top of the hotel. We spent much of the evening together on the roof listening to the sounds of the city. Kathmandu sounds like people, honking horns, and dogs barking (it smells a bit like that too). Katlijn wants it to be known that she doesn't think our hotel stinks. But really, it is all relative, and I think she may have already been here too long. Here are a few images of Kathmandu:
Temple through the trees.
Beautiful Nepali woman with children
A square where the children play
The children who wanted me to take their picture.
It's late. I'm at an internet cafe. I fear the power may go out again, so I will sign off for now. Tomorrow, we leave early in the morning with our winter gear to start our trek through the Himalayas. I understand there are some solar power internet stations along our route; sounds more reliable than the Kathmandu power grid, anyways. Until then, namaste !