postcard from himalaya, nepal
diary of a one in a lifetime trekking
I feel a bit weird. I came back last night from the Annapurna Sanctuary Trekking and I don’t know. Maybe because I was used to wake up at 6am knowing what I had to do during the day, or maybe it’s the heat here in Pokhara, it’s strangling me. Or maybe I miss the people I met there and I’m nostalgic. Or maybe it’s the grey hair I saw a minute ago at the mirror (I cut the white hair two weeks ago, how could it grow back so fast???).
But let’s start from the beginning.
Monday, day 1. Wake up at 6am, small backpack ready with two t-shirts and two underpants, a tiny towel, soap and flipflops, a reusable bottle for water. No porter for us poor girls, we have to carry our own backpack, so it must be as light as possible. Breakfast with two croissants, coffee.
Two buses and at 9 am we are in Phedi, where our expedition starts. A spider has just fallen onto my head. A small one. The first hour is a bit dramatic. An hour of steps to get to Dhampus.
The Mt. Emei nightmare (8 hours of steps to get to a temple in China) grips me. From there it’s an easy path, a sloping ground among rice fields, streams and cows that step in the way, with a slight climb from time to time.
The first porter of the trekking walks with us for some time. He’s Sonkor, a 13 yo boy that carries in the bag secured to his head canned food and eggs (it must have been about 20kg, I couldn’t lift it). Products for the guesthouse his mother manages. He does this everyday. Shouldn’t a 13yo be at school on a monday morning, you might think? It’s a difficult topic. You should probably hear their reasons before judging.
When we get to Pothana there’s the first check point (you need a permit to trek here). Because it’s September 27, International Day of the tourist (who knew?) we are blessed with the tikka (that red spot on the forehead) and we are given a yellow silk skarf (that with this heat I can’t wear). Phedi is not very high, it must be about 1.000m asl, I think. The Annapurna Base Camp, our final destination, is at 4.130m. Pothana, that we reach at about 12pm on the first day, is at 1.990m. Well, that’s good, you would think. No. Because after Pothana there’s the first descent. From 1.990m you go to 1.620 in Landruk, 1.340 on the second day, and then up again to 2.210… I had already gotten a bit nervous looking at the itinerary, but finding myself hiking up a mountain, down on the other side of it to the valley, up another mountain and down the other side, and this for 4 days… it’s discouraging (to say the least) for me.
At one point my legs decided not to move, refused to take one single step, knowing that every step down meant other two up (and climbing again on the way back). Maybe it’s because I’m not used to hike this way. The treks I usually do (Carega, Pasubio, Cima Marana), you hike up those 2-3-6 hours, but once you are at the summit you know you only have descent. This is not the case at the Annapurna Sanctuary. I had ascents until the last day. And what an ascent! I don’t know what their problem is, but they definitely love steps! It’s probably too easy to make a path that follows the side of the mountain at the bottom. No, you have to straight to the top and down the other side. And no zig zags, they are a waste of time. Straight up, on a line. Terribly hard for me, not so trained.
Anyway, the first day we stopped in Landruk at about 4pm. A light rain was beginning to fall. In the guesthouse we met Bob, a 61yo English man that was back in the Annapurna after 40 years, a Kiwi couple that did in 3 days what we hit in one (also due to diarrhea), an Israeli couple (we will meet a lot of Israeli on the way).
The morning of the second day the alarm is at 6am. It’s the wake up time of the Nepalese mountains. Wake up at 6, trekking starts at 7 and you hike until about 2pm. Probably it’s also because the sky is bright and clear early in the morning, gets cloudy at about 10am, and often in the afternoon it rains.
After a nice 10 hours sleep and breakfast with banana pancake and honey, at 7.25 (already late on our schedule), we leave. First sight of the Annapurna South. So emotional! So first two hours going down, to the valley. Then one hour of stairs up to Jhinu. Where I enjoyed a much deserved lemon tea. It’s the first time I have an Italian-style tea out of Italy. With a lot of lemon and a lot of sugar. I really needed it. And there starts what will remain one of the worst times of my life. Another hour and half of steps up, lunch break, steps down and another hour up. It must have taken a lot of time to put all shose stones as steps (and I am grateful for them, as the only time I walked on the grass I fell to the ground), but couldn’t they make them slightly smaller? A bit of zig-zag? Will never understand. The second day was a nightmare for me. And from that moment on I became the weak member of the team (the first day I was always in front while Hilde struggled a bit). My body asked for mercy. And I praied for it (“please, let me see some flat ground at the end of these steps!”).
We stopped for the night in Sinuwa at about 3.30 pm. We had walked for about 6 hours. There was the best shower on earth at that guesthouse. Hot water, a powerful stream. I had a nice mint tea with a lot of sugar. For dinner an onion soup. Of course I was still hungry, so I shared with Hilde a Gurund Bread (Nepalese bread, fried) with an omelette on top. Delicious!
I must say that the food along the trek was a pleasant surprise. Great pancakes and porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner with purea of potatoes, melted cheese and onion, fried chips with vegetables and cheese, the traditional fried rice with veggie… All delicious. Actually the trek dish is the Daal Bhaat, white rice with a piece of bread, cooked vegetables and hot pickles, plus a soup. I had it only once, on the last day, because it’s more expensive than the other dishes (3 euro instead of 2!!), but when you are finished you can have a refill if you are still hungry. I had it the last day, because I wanted to try, and wasn’t able to finish the first serve. Me!
The first day at 8pm I was in bed. On the second day I couldn’t resist after 7.30. When I went back to the guesthouse living room after I brushed my teeth out in the cold night, Hilde was telling fellow trekkers about her one year long trip. She must have been happy to have an audience, I hadn’t be much of a companion during the last day.
On the third day more steps up and down, till Deurali, where we arrived at about 2pm. Better than the previous day. When we stopped for lunch in Himalaya, there was a group of porters that would keep us company for the rest of the trek. They worked for a group of South Koreans that brought their food from Korea, so they not only needed boys to carry their backpacks, they also needed more people to carry their food and pots and pans, plus they had their personal chef.
I found it a bit weird. It’s much more expensive to travel this way (well, we are still talking about 10 euro per day), because in the guesthouses it’s more expensive to sleep if you don’t eat what they cook (a bed usually costs 1 euro, gueshouses earn money from the food they cook; if you don’t eat there sleeping costs about 3 euro). Food becomes more expensive the further you go, as porters have to carry it, but it’s so good! So it’s hard for me to understand why they have their own food, but I don’t care that much.
Among these kids there’s Pawan that has sweet eyes and a smiles that makes my days lighter for the rest of the trek. I miss him today. I thought he was 15, he’s 18. Very skinny. I don’t know how he can carry those 30kg on their head, walking on flip-flops on these stones (he doesn’t have money to buy shoes). He says he doesn’t like this job much (he started one month ago) and hopes to enter the army (the Nepalese one. There’s also an Indian army that pays better money and offers good retirement benefits, but it’s difficult to get in). He’s paid 5 euro per day. Can I take him home?
In almost every village there’s a volleyball ground (or better, a net on a flat ground). In Deurali I watched a bit these kids while they were playing. They were actually good, you can tell they play often. It must be a nice way to loosen up after 6 hours carrying 30kg over your head…
In Deurali it started to get cold. We were at 3.200m asl. Here we met a funny Chinese guy; he’s from somewhere near Shanghai. His English isn’t perfect, but much better than the average Chinese person (at least those I met in China). He also has his Chinese vegetable soup, to drink at the end of the dinner. His name is Tang. The following day we met him again at the Annapurna Base Camp, then I’ll meet him again on the way back and yesterday in Pokhara I met him again. We have become friends (it must have been the hot spring we shared two days ago). He gave me 3 bags of vegetable soup. Nice :).
So, day 4, start at 7am, final destination Annapurna Base Camp. At 10.30am we were there. It was already foggy. Fortunately during the hike we could enjoy some of the mountains around us. It was magic. It was extremely cold up there. 4.130m, fog and not a fireplace or stove in the house! I didn’t know how to warm up. I drank liters of tea, but only after dinner I warmed up a bit.
The following morning we woke up at 5.45 to enjoy the sunrise. Nice. But didn’t stay there long, because it got foggy soon. So we started the way down. I was tired of running. We did in 4 days the length that was recommended in 6 days, so I decided to relax and I started to walk more slowly. Hilde, on the opposite, was always walking fast. From time to time she sopped to wait for me. This was annoying me, I don’t know why (well, I know, but don’t want to admit). She was actually kind to wait for me. With me was walking one of the Koreans, who shot about a hundred pictures of me. Asians find us exotic, interesting photography subjects (at least they did 10 years ago, before they started traveling so much).
The next day I suggested Hilde to split, as she was walking so fast and the path wasnt’ dangerous, there was no need to stay together (I planned the trek with her because I don’t think it’s safe to hike in the mountain alone; but this path was actually quite safe and with lots of people walking it). At first she refused, but later because she wanted to take a longer path to see another moutain (while I wanted to take the shortest way back to Pokhara), she accepted. Wow. Suddenly I felt much lighter. I was traveling alone because I like it, it had become boresome to travel all the time with someone else!
Also, when I’m tired I loose all my patience and become horrible. I lost a friend once during a trip, and almost did a couple of times more.
So I had two days all to myself in that beautiful environment. That day I decided to end the hike in Jhinu at 11am. Why did I have to rush back to the city? It was so nice up there! In Jhinu there’s this famous hot spring, that everybody talks about. I went there immediately. It was such a relief for my feet! And there I met Tang, the Chinese guy. And after a while the porters of the Korean group also arrived. It was such a pleasure to look at them while they washed their clothes in the hot water (not in the pool, outside. For 10 days they wear the same clothes because they have enough stuff to carry!), Pawan that was trying to swim in a pool that was 3m x 4 (he learnt to swim in the river), the laughs. Loved them. In the evening I was in the same guesthouse as the Koreans. They were celebrating their last night with a nice dinner and rakshi (a local wine, similar to sake) for the porters. At one point the porters (Nepalese) started to sing and play music. A guy was hitting on a drum, everyone else sang, somebody danced. I love how they dance. The way they move their bottoms and the hands above their heads. I was there with them and simply clapped my hands following the beat (probably not everyone knows that I am a terrible dancer). Koreans showed some interest for a bit, but soon went to bed. After a while it was just the Nepalese and I. One of them sang a song for me, so to thank him I had to sing too, both songs were Italian. Of course this provoked big laughs and enthusiasm.
It all ended quite early, at 8pm they close down everything. But an elder Korean sitting on a chair in the garden, was singing to the moon. A show I can still see if I close my eyes. He even sang “O sole mio”. Who would have thought to hear “O sole mio” under the Nepalese Himalaya, sang by a Korean???
At the same guesthouse was Bob (the English man we met on the first day) and a Californian guy. For Bob these 7 days were just a warm up for a 4-week trek he was doing a few days later, up to 6,000m. And he’s 61. When he came to Annapurna for the first time, 40 years ago, there were no paths and no guesthouses. He was with a friend, they were camping and eating rice they carried in their bags. It must have been nice to come back after so many years and take note of how much it has changed.
Last day was easy. All sloping ground. If only I didn’t get lost. Instead of walking for one hour to get to the first village it took me 2 hours and 15 minutes. I took a path up the hill instead of walking low and I couldn’t find the right path anymore. Then I walked fast to reach Bob (I told him he didn’t need to wait for me while I was brushing my teeth, I was going to reach him after a bit). I met him again 5 hours later, when he stopped for lunch. He was drinking a beer and it looked so fresh and thirst-quenching that I suddenly wanted one too. But at that point I couldn’t take more Daal Bhaat.
It was a pleasant day all considered. Nice path along a river, with usual streams and rice fields. In Naya Pul I got on the bus to Pokhara (on the roof, again). Here was the last time I saw the porters.
So here I am. I made it. I don’t know if I could do it again, it wasn’t easy. I am left with a broken boot and a backpack with a hole. And a lot of amazing memories.