photos and text copyright 1998, James Waldron Design,
all rights reserved
5/29/98 Pokhara, Nepal
When in Nepal you are more or less expected to trek. Trekking is not mountaineering, where you use ropes ice axes and the like. Trekking is hiking along the thousands of trails in the Himalayas. Being of questionable physical prowess, I had decided most definitely not to trek anything.
But then I saw the mountains.
Flying into Kathmandu Nepal from Bangkok was most amazing. For three hours along the way the earth looked brown and dusty, with the occasional river delta passing below the plane, but fifteen minutes before landing you first see the mountains shrieking up from the plains. And there, in the late afternoon sun stood the highest of all: Mt. Everest. Very big.
So I rethought my decision about trekking. I planned on doing a short one with some nice views of the mountains.
Once in Kathmandu the number of trekking guide and mountaineering establishments is numbing, literally hundreds of places to choose from. And many times more opportunities for routes. After a few days wandering around aimlessly, I finally threw myself to the dogs and dropped into one of the more reputable-looking shops: Himalayan Encounters. There I was met by an engaging, slightly greying man named Tony, who immediately sized me up as a sale. And why not.
See, when one thinks of trekking, one usually visualizes a tan, fit, athletic person carrying a well-used, perfectly-fitting backpack holding a slick sleeping bag and a tent on their back. Those intrepid souls take a map, some water, dried food and a permit, and head off into the hills. I am not one of those people. What I wanted was a little four or five day hike through the low hills. I wanted someone to carry my bag for me and help me find the tea houses along the trail to comfortably munch dinner and curl up in a lumpy bed. It seems, however, there is another option, an option Tony's company regularly offers. It's called "fully-supported trekking."
Tony referred me to one of his capable Nepalse guides who explained what their next trek offered. "Fully-supported" seems like a cop out, but it allowed Himalayan Encounters to book me within thirty minutes. There are nine trekkers in our group, and twenty-five support staff. We have the senior guide, assistant guide, three junior guides, a cook, the kitchen staff, and porters for all our stuff. This equipment includes our tents, our food, our dinner table and chairs, silverware, flashlights, bags, medicine kits, and whatever else real trekkers need to survive. With this kind of assistance, Tony and his staff enticed me into an eight day trek topping out at somewhere around 5200 meters, just over 15,000 feet.
The pictures looked great.
So after a quick flight to the departure town of Pokhara (real trekkers take the bus all day) I departed with eight other youths on our trek to the base of Machhapuchare, or Fish-tail mountain in the Annapurna Range in the central Himalayans. I'm really excited.
The trekkers are:
We started the day at 7:30 at the office and arranged all our equipment. What we didn't have we rented next door. After a quick breakfast while the staff loaded tons of equipment onto the roof of the bus, we hopped on and drove 45 minutes to the start of our walk, a little roadstop near the river called Kaski.
Reasonably reticent about the day's hike we started up handmade granite stairs in the early morning heat. We began what I expected to be a grueling two hour slog, but what actually ended up a 45 minute spurt up a steep, but completely do-able climb to a lovely view.
Next, one of the joys of "fully-supported." We were treated to a lovely lunch with croissants, salad, garlic potatoes, and tinned meats. We washed it down with orange drink and tea. The leisurly lunch lasted 90 minutes before we suited up and started off again.
After two hours through terraced corn fields we ended up at the tiny village of Dhampus, at 1600 meters, where we were promptly served tea and biscuts. Enlivened by the caffeine Sarah and myself took a stroll and watched the late afternoon sun streak across the valley below. Later our guide Jimmy took us to an end-of-mourning celebration in the village where we were given more tea by the participants and tried the local celebratory bread.
Just before sunset the peaks of Annapurna South emerged from the mask of clouds from which it had been hiding treating us to a inspiring sunset view.
Now I sit under the stars and type away listening to the excited banter of a pair of Nepalese porters guarding our tents and persons. Eight days like this I'm sure I can handle.
Day 2 Forest Camp
Seems the locals celebrate the end of mourning period quite fully. Tucked in my nice tent ready for a long sleep, I was treated to about four hours of local singing from the restaurant in the tea house above our camp. Add to this the ever-villigant watch dog barking till 3, and the light-hearted banter of the staff, just three meters away. Let's just say the far-off sounds of crickets was drowned out and I thought I was still in Kathmandu, or perhaps even New York City before the bars closed. Not real happy.
At 4:45 am the happy local roosters started welcoming the new day. I thought I'd take a look outside at the view. Overnight the clouds had cleared and I was treated to the morning's first rays just kissing the crest of Annapurna South. Assuming that I would avoid all future sunrise adventures, I grabbed my cameras and took a stroll.
The view of the range was spectacular, and the celebration from the night before was still going strong in the village. Most everyone was up and about this early, clearly using all the daylight hours they could. Folks were bathing on the front porches of their houses, shepards were herding goats and ox through the tiny streets. I took pictures and had a cigarette. Quite a marvelous morning.
The days's climbing began at 8:30 and started slowly through a series of villages filled with tea houses for the tourists. Eventually we entered the forest and started a some steep climbs before lunch. Half of the eight trekkers are ill from previous journeys. Sarah had stomach cramps so bad she cried, Peter has been puking and trotting to the bathroom frequently, the rest have various levels of stomach upsets. Such fun.
After lunch we finally left the frequently trekked routes and entered the deep forest, following a ridge towards Mardi Himal, our final base camp at the foot of Fish-tail. The forest is indeed deep here. Moss hangs to all the trees and rocks, and the sunlight is well-filtered. We traveled up and down the ridgeline for three hours, eventually arriving at a clearing which will serve as our home for the night. The site, however, was occupied by a goat herding family. We made the best of this situation by negotiating for a goat at reduced price for tomorrow evenings dinner. Baa.
Day 3 Low Camp
Well, day three was noteworthy for annimals. Dogs and leeches. Last night, starting about 8pm and ending about 6:30am the Goat herders faithful companion, the dog, did it's job only too well. See, unlike its cousin the Australian sheep dog, who runs around yipping and yapping, keeping the sheep in order, the Nepalese goat dog has one duty only, to scare away anything that moves. This, the dog achieves by barking. Not happy, lighthearted barking, but a bellow that would make the Hounds of the Baskervilles proud. Who knew that a single annimal could bark non-stop for nine hours straight. Well, our goat herders canine companion has the record. In series of three yelps, then a breath, then three more yelps, the dog kept all dangerous annimals away from the herd of goats at our camp. And in the meantime made mortal enemies of nine high-paying "fully-supported" trekkers. No one slept.
The only dangerous animal the dog did not scare away was the tenacious Nepalese mountan leech. The leech became our next mortal enemy as we departed around eight for our five hour climb to the low camp.
About one hour into our trek the forest began to feed us leeches at every turn. The mountain leech varies from about 1/2 inch to about 2 inches. They move like an inchworm, and stand on their hind legs waiting to latch onto any moving warm-blooded animal from which they enjoy drinking their blood. Once they sense such a being, they crawl vey quickly towards the movement and move as fast as they can to exposed flesh. Although not dangerous, they seem to elicit negative emotions in both the trekkers and staff.
Once attached, the leeches happily gorge themselves on the patrons blood, and grow very large in diameter, up to about cigar-sized. This is the size our intrepid guide Jimmy found in his scalp this morning. What way to wake up.
So, even though we made our low base camp in record time, just over three hours, there were numerous quick leech awareness stops. After reaching the camp the entire crew essentially stripped and gingerly removed leeches of a host of sizes. Most severely infested was our sick trekker Peter, who had tried to avoid the leeches with ankle gaiters. Instead, they found their way underneath undetected. When removed, the blood-sucking leeches numbered around fifteen. And well-fed they were.
The rest of our day, when we were supposed to be enjoying breathtaking views of the Annapurna range, was instead spent watching the clouds drift through our camp and drinking tea. Perhaps the wind will blow them away for breakfast tomorrow.
What a difference a day makes. Where one leech would cause a huge ruckus yesterday, only a number of over fifteen elicited anything more than a quiet "Oh, fuck." The rain from the night before had really brought out the little devils, and our trek through the forest included a quick check for the insects every ten or twenty meters.
We made it to the High camp rather quickly. We were promised a 5 hour trek, but we got here in just over two and a half, happily taking tea at about ten-thirty in the morning.
After lunch, Rob, Garreth and myself took a short climb above the camp to help aclimitize ourselves to the new base camp. The weather deteriorated and after an hour we got back down just before a thunderstorm hit.
I learned how easy it is to get in trouble in the mountains today. After our climb I was really tired, and sat outside for an hour in my shorts, getting rather cold. By the time I got around to adding some clothing I had really begun to shiver. The weather was not helping. A stiff wind had come up and it was raining, as well as getting dark. I returned to my tent and put on all my clothes: seven layers on top, three on the bottom.
At dinner I tried to fill myself with with warm stuff, but the only thing I could stomach were 8 vegatable-stuffed momos, kind of like Chinese dumplings, and hot pudding. Not much energy for a freezing man.
In my tent I crawled into my bag fully clothed and found, not really a surprise, that my height precluded wrapping the sleeper around my head. I eventually got to sleep, but was still pretty cold through the night. Nature is a powerful force outside of hotels.
4:55am wake up call. Finally, a clear view of the mountains around us and they are quite impressive. We all dashed about looking for the best vacation photographs in between stuffing down breakfast. We were all excited, and a bit nervous, about the days climb.
Our route today was a series of steep, rocky climbs separated by leisurely strolls through lush, green, high mountain meadows dotted with purple and yellow flowers. The views of the sun rising on the snow-covered mountaintops was, as the brochure promised, breathtaking. Maybe it was the altitude.
Once again we got to our destination in a couple of hours, and gave each other high-fives and shared chocolate. We were at a lovely plateau at 5000 meters, about 15000 feet above sea level. I had somehow been bitten by a leech between two fingers and the blood was streaming down my nails. The bright bloody mess was the subject of numerous photographs.
After a short rest, four of us headed up to a much steeper ridge, determined to get as much out of our climb as possible. The going was pretty rough, most of the time I was on all fours scrambling up the hill. Falling short of our desired rock by a few meters we stopped, perched on a jumble of large boulders and had a celabratory cigarette.
The trip back down was much, much longer than I expected, and I hung back with Garreth, arriving back at high camp last. I suppose the climb up was filled with adrenaline, leaving only a little left for the trip back.
We got back at 1 pm, and the afternoon was a nice lazy few hours spent in the dining tent as the weather changed from sunshine with a view, to rain and wind. A number of us could not escape the reach of popular culture, and bought Cokes from two porters who had carted them up along with us. Lovely.
Breakfast greeted us with the best views of the trip, but by this date we were all non-plussed and focused on scarfing down our gourmet meal instead. The day's task was simple: walk back down the hill. Well, it's a big, long, steep hill when you are going the other way.
The sun stayed out and we had excellent weather for once. We backtracked to low camp in just over two hours. Then we turned and broke some new ground through the mossy forest. Leeches were happy to greet us, but by now it wasn't a crisis if you had to pick one off your leg. The new crisis was leg strength, and most of us were pushing the envelope of our weak muscles.
The whining started about an hour down from low camp as we winded through a steep, slippery, rock-strewn creekbed. A couple stumbles by our clearly-not-fearless trekkers added to the general feeling of crankiness. When we exited from the forest into some pastures and farm terraces the angle of the earth seemed to turn to just the wrong level, tilted exactly to cause the most pain in your upper thighs. One of us began to cry.
After another hour we entered Siding village on the way down to our riverside campsite. After lunch by our tents, and a welcome swim in the river, a group of us walked back up to the village with one of the porters and visited his family. The village sits on a hillside of terraced corn, wheat, and rice paddies. a winding, hand laid rock pathway traces the contours up through the many neat stone houses. Children followed us tourists in bewildered amusement, taking special interest in our watches, cameras, and anything else that looked modern.
For the first time in five days I heard the rhythm of some form of mechanized activity emanating from one of the huts. Given that there is no electricty, motorized vehicles, or even a road for about 9 miles around the village, I hunted down the source of the noise and found the waterwheel-driven flour mill. One of the small streams was diverted to spin a water-wheel, connected to a belt, which spun the heavy, thin grindstone. Above the stone was a leather bag filled with dry corn which, driven by a stick riding the stone, shook out a few kernals at a time into the hole in the grind stone, eventually making the corn flour they bake and eat.
This was stepping back 150 years into agrarian culture. Certainly a different perspecitve on life fo me, having lived in mechanized culture central: New York City.
We started today about 14 kilometers away in Siding village. Our hike started at 8:30 am following the river up and down the valley, across bamboo bridges, and through villages on both sides. I suppose the local people see this parade of foriegners every week or so, but many of them are surprised by the sight of us anyway.
For a while there were two boys dressed for school leading our pack of trekkers. It occured to me that these boys could tell their grandchildren stories about when they were young, just like our parents told us. Only in this case they really DID walk two miles to school in the morning over a rock path in any kind of weather. I can see into the future, "When we were kids we didn't have electricity, we made our own bread by milling the wheat from the fields around our houses. There was no referigeration, no video games, no television." And the grandchildren will refuse to belive them just like we refuse to believe our parents about their childhood. I've stepped back in time.
Two of our group were nearly beat down by the trip today. Sophie began
to cry around lunchtime because she was vomiting every kilometer or so.
Peter, ever the victim on this trip, was once again felled by too many
trips to the loo. The trip was mostly flat, but over
the rocky riverbed in some fairly hot sunshine. We decended through
the countryside and more and more people, houses, and the first vehicles
we have seen since departure showed themselves. Here there is electricity
and a semblance of running water, but the two local stores still have no
chocolate, which depressed the group hungry for sugar.
Anything modern holds their attention. Last night four boys spent 25 minutes playing with my watch. I held an entire family in rapt attention showing them pictures on my digital camera. Lots of people stop me and ask me to photograph them, which I usually do.
Right now ten boys are reading aloud everything I write, word by word. I keep typing so they continue enjoying themselves. Too tough to keep my concentration, time to sleep.