Archive for June, 2013

30 days wandering the Himalaya

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from May 20th to June 18th i trekked throughout the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal.  i covered anywhere between 5 and 32 kilometers a day amounting to a total distance of 439 kilometers.  i reached altitudes as high as 5416 meters.  i stopped in 24 small villages along the way to sleep and take care of my basic needs.

the Annapurna Conservation Area consists of two main quests: the Annapurna Circuit – a 230 kilometer loop starting in Besisahar, climbing up over Thorong La pass at 5416 meters and ending in Ghorepani. and the Annapurna Sanctuary – starting in Naya Pul, continuing 47 kilometers up through the middle of the Conservation Area and ending at Annapurna Base Camp (“ABC”) at 4130 meters.  i did both of these including two side quests: Ice Lake at 4600 meters and Tilicho Lake at 4970 meters.

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Besisahar

Nicolas, Katya and i began the journey in Besisahar with all the excitement and apprehension that came along with it.  we also knew this was the largest town we were going to see for the next month so we tried to make the most of it.

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P1030186 (copy)hours into the circuit and already the Annapurna starts to get straight to the point.  giant lush green hills with deep valleys, voluptuous rivers and long cable suspension bridges to cross them.  frequent breaks in the clouds would reveal the massive snow covered mountains that seemed to dwarf us.  we lovingly referred to this phenomenon as “Annaporn”.

IMG_9141 (copy)IMG_9153 (copy)in the first town we stayed – Bahundanda,  we wandered over to a near by school and somehow got ourselves invited to not only tour the school but teach there as well.  Nicolas and I couldn’t find it in our hearts to miss an opportunity like this even though the idea of suddenly “teaching” a mob of Nepali children with no prior teaching experience scared us to death.  it’s a good thing that hesitation was not in the schedule because the next moment we were standing in a classroom in front of 50 well dressed Nepali children after little to no introduction and no adult supervision.  at first we just stood there engaged in a mutual silent stunned stare.  they were all quiet and attentive and seemingly well behaved as well as very curious as to what we were going to do next.  i broke the silence by yelling “Namaste!” and then they all immediately called it back to me in unison.  “Hello!” i yelled even louder and again they responded right on queue.  then with my eyes i told Nicolas “hey Nic, if you yell at them they get excited!”.  we were quickly able to determine their English level and general interest simply by yelling at them.  we knew we couldn’t exactly teach them anything they didn’t already know so instead we devised a game on the spot.  we drew a picture of a person on one side of a chalkboard and then a list of body parts on the other side.  we then drew lines connecting the terms to all the wrong areas of the body and then invited them up one by one to re-map each term to its rightful part.  they competed boys against girls and we made sure it always ended in a tie.  the game was a huge success.  they would laugh in terror when we tried to coax them into getting up in front of the class.  after 2 hours of playing this game with 2 groups of children we decided it was time to trek on (or “walk hard” as we called it).

by the second night we lost Katya and Gained Alex from France and Matteo from Switzerland.  us along with Alex’s guide hiked together for several days up into the mountains, after which Alex + guide hiked on at a faster pace, leaving Nicolas, Mateo and i as an inseparable trifecta.

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Matteo and Nicolas

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each town we went through had a row of prayer wheels at its entrance and exit that you were encouraged to set spinning whenever you walked passed them.  this brought us good luck on our long journey.  most of the villages we passed through were nothing more then a few guest houses and shops surrounded by terraced farms.  they were all placed awkwardly either hanging over steep hill sides or in a valley.  most places would let us stay there for free as long as we ate dinner and breakfast with them.  we referred to this as “the deluxe deal”.  the people were friendly and hospitable and seemed to take genuine interest in us.  we hiked long hours, slept and woke with the sun and lived on pasta, MoMos, Dal Bhat and candy bars.  sugar was paramount and my hunger had become more intense then any i had ever experienced.

P1030637 (another copy)oddly enough, almost the entire trail below 2000 meters was lined with marijuana fields.  for whatever reason it grows like a weed here.  we were a long way off from harvest season but that didn’t stop us from burying our faces in the crops to breath in their pungent odor.

as we got higher in elevation it became progressively harder to get oxygen into our lungs which made everything harder to do.  walking across a room would take your breath away.  we took the trail at a snails pace in silence so not to interrupt our breathing.  we were left to our thoughts uninterrupted. after about 3000 meters, i along with many others began to feel the onset of Acute Mountain Sickness.  i experienced headaches.  others experienced nausea and loss of appetite.

P1030319 (another copy)by day 7 we reached Manang at 3500 meters, the last major outpost before crossing Thurang La pass.  we stayed there for a couple of days to acclimatize as our guide book recommended.  to our surprise they had a projection house with a sizable collection of American films.  we riffled through them with a gleam in our eye and then watched gems such as “Into Thin Air”, “Warhorse” and of course “Braveheart”.  from that point on we adopted Mel Gibson’s “freedom” war cry as our own every time we scaled a difficult peak.

one of the days in Manang we decided to attempt a more difficult side quest up to “Ice Lake” (actually 2 lakes, neither of which contained any ice).  at 4600 meters it would be a 1100 meter climb up to the highest point we will have reached.  if we wanted to get over Thurong La Pass at 5416 meters then we were going to need all the practice we could get.  the trail was an unforgiving series of tight switchbacks 10 kilometers straight up the side of a mountain.  it was a calf killer to say the least.  3/4 the way up we stopped and rested at a “Yarsagumba camp”.  during this time of year, thousands of locals move up to the hills, camp for months at a time and hunt for Yarsagumba – a small caterpillar fungus that when in its cocoon phase is believed to act as an aphrodisiac.  they mostly sell them to the Chinese.  they all seemed well aware that continuing this practice would only amount to less Yarsagumbas and more Chinese people but the money was too good for them to care.  when we finally reached the summit we found the two small lakes side by side atop a cliff overlooking wall-to-wall Annaporn.  there we sat for hours and pondered its awesome beauty while enjoying some of Nepal’s finest hash.

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Yarsagumba!

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Ice Lake

about half way down i heard the freakish sound of tumbling boulders above me.  i looked up to notice a basketball sized object hurtling toward me in an unpredictable zigzag pattern.  after a brief dear in headlights moment i knew i had only 2 options: make a mad dash to the right, or make a mad dash to the left.  i chose left.  it was the correct choice.  after the rock bounced passed me i saw the cause of the small landslide to be a stampede of about 15 yak all running as fast as they could down the mountain face.  i could not believe what i was seeing.  they were so agile and so awkward at the same time.

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sunrise over the Blue Sheep Guest House

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upper trail

our next side quest was a multi-day mission to Tilicho Lake.  at 4949 meters, it’s one of the highest lakes in the world and the trail to get there and back was treacherous.  once we hiked out of Manang we were faced with 2 options: a lower trail and an upper trail.  from our vantage point we could see the lower trail stretch on for several kilometers along a steep face through a landslide area and then disappear around the curve of the mountain.  the upper trail seemed to lead to the top of the ridge directly above us.  someone had taken the time to scratch X’s and write “no way” onto the upper trail sign.  we took one last look at the landslide area and decided to take our chances with the danger we could not see knowing we would have to backtrack when the upper trail prophecy became a reality.  we followed the upper trail for several hours up to the top of the ridge only to realize that the prophecy was entirely correct and that the trail disappeared into an even steeper landslide area.  i crawled slowly and carefully up and peeked over the sharp point of the ridge hoping to find a magic hidden trail but instead found a vertical drop of 1000’s of meters into a deep rocky valley.  it was a breath taking sight but my very real and legitimate fear of heights kicked in and kept me from enjoying it.  for a minute i could only bury my head into the rock, hug the ridge tightly and try to regain control of my breath.  Nicolas, being the reckless psychopath he is managed to straddle the ridge with a leg on each side and scoot himself in the direction we intended to go to look for the other end of the trail but even if he did find it there was no way Matteo and i were going to spend another minute flirting with death… so in the end we backtracked with our tails between our legs and attempted the lower trail.

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crossing the landslide area was not easy and again my fear of heights began to kick in.  it took all my mental effort to focus on my feet and only my feet, especially in the places where the trail was non-existent.  i just had to be confident that as long as i leaned into the mountain and kept moving forward then i would reach the other side safely.  after a gruelling hour of this we could finally see Tilicho Base Camp in the distance and we knew we were in the home stretch.

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trapped at Tilicho Base Camp

Tilicho Base Camp, as its name suggests is situated at the base of the mountain that Lake Tilicho is at the top of.  from there it’s a 4+ hour hike up through the icy caps to the lake.  this time of year one needs to get up very early if they want to see the lake in its entirety.  after about 10am the visibility on the mountain decreases dramatically.  you could literally stand on the shore of the lake and not even see it.  the game plan was to spend the night in base camp, wake up at 4am, eat a quick breakfast, reach the lake soon after sunrise then head all the way back through the landslide area by nightfall.  this plan became totally botched by heavy rainfall that lasted all through the next day.  we were stranded.  it was too wet to goto the lake and it was too wet to cross the landslide area.  for the entire day we sat in a small room with 20 other travellers in the exact same situation.  we read, ate, played chess and card games while the Nepali men shovelled Yak shit into the stove to keep us warm.  we managed to orchestrate a 7 hour non-stop game of Asshole with most of the people in the room.  this was was a great way to get to know each other and forget the fact that we were essentially trapped for an unknown amount of time.

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ascent to Tilicho Lake

luckily it was clear skies the following day so we woke, ate and headed for the summit.  when we got up past the snow line we were un-gently reminded of that fact that rain in the valley means show on the mountain.  the trail was completely covered with a fresh snow pack which gave us no choice but to blaze our own trail up the face in the direction we thought the lake was in.  despite my very best efforts of stomping and wiggling to keep the feeling in my toes they had turned into icicles in less than an hour.  when we got over the steep face and over the first ridge we could hear the loud rumble of frequent avalanches coming from the mountain range directly to our left.  giant clouds of icy debris formed over the areas under attack.  afraid that we were getting too close, we decided to change course and get to higher ground to the hills on our right.  after about 5 kilometers we came up over the final ridge.  my tear ducts filled up when i saw the sight of the peaceful surface of the huge ice covered lake.  an elated smile stretched my frozen snot covered moustache.  we sat on a bench on a small cliff that overlooked the entire lake and warmed our naked feet in the rising sun.

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Tilicho Lake

the way back across the landslide area was far easier than i had remembered it.  i guess the nightmares i had been having about it for the past 2 nights had paid off.  our next daunting objective was to reunite with the main quest and start the 3 day journey over Thorung La pass.  by this time we had adopted three new trekkers: Alvar from Spain, Julian from France and Dan from England.

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High Camp

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on the 15th day we arrived at “High Camp” at 4860 meters to spend the night before crossing Thorung La pass.  we woke up before 4am, choked down some hard boiled eggs, Tibetan bread and cold coffee that we had procured the night before and made it to the pass in good time.  we spent several hours on top of the world overlooking the Annapurna mountains on one side and the Mustang mountains on the other then started our long but rewarding decent.  after many hours of high mountain desert the scene opened up into Muktinath valley which from that distance looked like a large romantic painting.  it was a lush green valley sunken into the desert speckled with small medieval villages, farm land and an odd network of streams.  two large plateaus towered up from the valley floor, each with villages resting on their cliffs.  they seemed to be staring directly at each other.  this place was an oasis.  it was also one of the most strangest most beautiful places i have ever been.  we stayed at the ever popular “Bob Marley Hotel” where we ran into countless others we had met previously on the trek.  here we enjoyed our first taste of civilized comforts for the first time in over 2 weeks.  we took hot showers, washed our clothes, ate delicious food, drank beer and socialized late into the night.

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Muktinath Valley

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laundry time!

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once we got back down to a comfortable altitude my headaches went away, breathing became much easier and i began to notice the full effects of my high red blood cell count.  i was in the best shape i had ever been in my life and i had more energy than i knew what to do with.  climbing steep hills for hours on end at full walking speed became effortless.  i felt as though i could sprint straight up a mountain, rip a tree out of the ground and break it over my knee.

i had also by this time made some improvements to my hiking technique.  i managed to incorporate the Alexander technique which i had studied in my theatre days into my hiking.  i simply let my torso only be as heavy as it needed to be while my legs propelled me along.  this allowed for more nimble graceful movements over technical terrain.  why stomp and fight gravity when you could just as easily prance from boulder to boulder and finish off with a Pas de bourrée?  yes, i became a mountain ballerina.

on day 18 we reached the town of Jomson – the largest town since Besisahar.  it was here we said a sad goodbye to Matteo and a welcoming hello Lieselot from Belgium.

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Kunjo

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on day 20 after purposefully veering off the main trail, we descending 1000’s of steps into a valley and came across an unexpected small village on a bluff at the end of a cobblestone path called Kunjo.  it’s the kind of place you cant help gaping while you enter it while you come to terms with the fact that it exists.  the town had no proper guest house to speak of but one of the families that lived there was nice enough to let us all stay in a single room attached to their house.  our front door opened up into a tiny courtyard where the man of the house cooked large pots of millet to turn into a special wine they call “Raksi” (which we helped ourselves to large quantities of).  they served us the most delicious Dal Bhat we had to date and ate it in a circle on the floor with the family.  that night the 5 of us slept soundly all nestled together until we were abruptly woken early the next morning by a loud banging on the roof.  i crawled outside to see several Nepali men and women destroying the roof of the building we were staying in.  it was time for us to leave Kunjo.

1011418_4916130827256_748033823_nwhen we reached the town of Tatopani we took a much needed day of rest and relaxed in a near by hot spring.  the cost of entry was 60 rupees.  there you could drink cold beer and relax in 120 degree fahrenheit water which was a tad too hot for most of us.  with all the removed clothing it was interesting to see just how emaciated we had all become.  Tatopani is also the town of big decisions.  since it has easy bus access out of the Annapurna, every trekker who arrives must make the choice to either stop trekking or to continue on into the start of the Annapurna Sanctuary trek.  Dan made his escape but Nicolas, Julian, Lieselot and i trekked on.  after 22 days on the trail, to suddenly stop trekking was not a concept we were ready to compute.

from that point on most of the people we encountered were fresh faced trekkers either just starting the sanctuary or out for a leisurely stroll through the Himalaya.  we were Annapurna veterans in their eyes and we had the look and demeanor to match.  Nicolas and i had made a promise at the beginning of the trek that as long as we were trekking we would never shave and never wash the one T-shirt we brought.  by this point our shirts were so dirty, stiff and smelly, we ceremoniously cringed every morning we put them on.  our beards were getting out of hand.  he resembled Chuck Norris and i an old goat.

we met one sweet but foul mouthed British girl named Hels who when i explained to her that we had just completed the circuit and were about to conquer the sanctuary, she responded with “so you’re going to fuck the puppy!”.  you see, in her twisted brain “fucking the puppy” refers to completing all related tasks or going the whole nine yards.  as if fucking the puppy is dead last right after the kitchen sink on the list of everything.  i of course took a morbid interest in the phrase and found daily opportunities to use it to motivate my tired comrades.  “c’mon troops, this puppy isn’t gonna fuck itself!”… you get the idea.

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the sanctuary

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soon after we began our new ABC adventure we were greeted with torrential downpour accompanied by a blood-sucking leech apocalypse.  these little fuckers would climb up our shoes like olympic gymnasts, plant their faces into our skin and then proceed to suck our blood until they become so fat and bloated that they could no longer support their own weight.  they then fall off and squirt excess blood all over you.  we carefully extracted them by scraping them off with one finger nail then flicking them with another finger nail back to the hell from whist they came.  the leeches eventually subsided but the rain did not.  the monsoon was now upon us and in full effect.  our clothes were soaked for an entire week as we hiked back and forth through the sanctuary.  the clouds did let up enough one day to reveal the entire sanctuary in all its glory.  we were climbing endless steps along a roaring river.  high mountain cliffs lined with hundreds of waterfalls hung over us on either side.  when we reached the top of the sanctuary we stayed in Machhapuchhre Base Camp (“MBC”) for one night, then from there it was an easy 4 kilometers to ABC.

after 27 days of trekking, nostalgia started to set in as Nicolas and i made our final approach to the Annepurna Base Camp.  this was the final destination in the Annapurna and we had done it together every step of the way.  he was the Samwise to my Frodo and vice-versa.  we exchanged a few manly words of gratitude and then climbed the final steps to the camp.  “that is one thoroughly fucked puppy” i said to him and he agreed.

we shot down the mountain in 3 days and reached the end of the Annapurna at Naya Pul and the end of our journey.  after exactly 30 days of trekking i removed my smelly, wet, warn boots for the last time.  it was time to celebrate, for this day also marked 100 days since i left the United States.

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