October 22, 2011
This trip was different. It was different because I was going by myself for the first time. I would be on the trail for three weeks with no companions and I have never done it before. I was curious how it would work out and whether I would like it or not. After returning from the Rowaling trip last year, David and Tony lost their appetite for more Himalayan adventures. I did not, in fact I wanted much more of the same.
I chose the Manaslu and Annapurna regions as they are relatively easy to travel in and developed. I thought that it would be a perfect trek to try on my own. I would not have to use any technical equipment and could rely on the local teahouses for lodging and food. Many western people do not even hire local guides for the Annapurna section and they do it on the cheap. A local guide is required for the Manaslu, Naar and Phu though. Manaslu and Annapurna would be more about people and cultures and less about the high Himalaya. Rowaling is remote and devoid of human settlements. Manaslu and Annapurna are quite the opposite.
Furthermore, I think that hiring a Nepalese guide and porters gives back to their economy and brings one closer to the local people. Kumar, my guide, can converse with the locals, ask questions and purchase food from their gardens. We also get invited to their kitchens, homes and are offered lodging or camping near their homes. It makes the trekking experience more complete and less isolating. Through those conversations, I can learn about their life, how they think and perceive the world, what they believe in and dream about. I believe that there is more to Nepal and trekking than the high mountains. Interacting with the local cultures and people on a human level is an integral part of the experience.
In Doha, Qatar I had my birthday and celebrated it by pigging out on local shwarmas at some strip mall. I arrived in Kathmandu from Doha on a cramped flight that went by quite fast. The airport in Kathmandu was the same place where nothing had changed in the past 17 years. It is really falling apart and it is quite noticeable. The arriving hall had plenty of broken doors and was in an overall state of neglect. It all works though and they process hundreds of thousands of tourists quite efficiently. It felt like a dejavu, especially that I was here just one year before.
Kumar met me at the airport with a customary garland of marigolds. The drive from the airport to Thamel seemed like I was just there (which was the case exactly). I felt that Kathmandu was rather tiring by now as it all seemed almost too familiar. I now noticed the dirt, the traffic and the pollution much more than last year. The stores were selling the same crap that saw the year before. It seemed instantly tiring to be in this city built for 500,000 and inhabited by 5 million.
I went to see Rajendra, my trek organizer, in his closet sized office and paid him for the trek. Rajendra is a very nice man of the same age as I. He is extremely fair in his business. He is a gentleman, never angry, always smiling and very genuine. I really like dealing with him and he is my go-to guy in Nepal. He is a city guy and does not particularly like trekking or the high mountains. His staff is also very genuine and kind. If needed, Rajendra hires a Sherpa climbing guide to support his regular guides. They are all extremely nice and likeable. We have become friends with them all over the past decade.
My plan was to do the Manaslu circuit, continue onto the Annapurna circuit and visit the remote Naar and Phu villages. Manaslu is one of the 8,000m mountains in Nepal as is Annapurna. Both mountains form two distinct massifs that are separated by a deep valley. I had three weeks plus to make it all happen. I was gone for a month but travel to and from the trailhead ate the remaining days. The Manaslu and Annapurna trails connect to form one long journey that covers the distance of almost 300km.
In order to obtain a permit for this trek, one needs to travel in a group, which is defined as two or more persons. Since I was alone, I needed another person to form a “group”. In order to get the necessary permits, Rajendra paired me with some random German guy who happened to walk by his office and purchased the Manaslu trek. It is customary in Nepal to pair random people on a permit just to get the bureaucracy out of the way.
Rajendra, quite enthusiastically, informed the German that he also had a permit for Nar and Phu villages for no extra charge. The German was reluctant to go there and he was skeptical about his ability to see it through anyway since he had no tent or any other gear. Rajendra reassured him that he could just sleep in caves and scavenge for food from the locals or the forest and that there would be no problems with this plan. The German was quite scared of this option and visibly shaken (it was funny to watch). The more Rajendra reassured the German, the more reluctant he became suspecting some sort of a scam or attempt to rob and murder him by Kumar and I. The guy obviously did not know that in Nepal, improvising and letting events just happen without prior planning is an integral part of the local psyche. Winging it is the Nepal way.
The lack of a solid plan, inexperience and complete ignorance of the route and its dangers is very common and widely accepted form of doing business. Guides are often farm folk on a break from plowing their fields who travel with westerners for a quick buck. Before the trip they are full of confidence and reassure their clients of their vast experience and knowledge. Once in the field, their incompetence and stupidity sometimes has disastrous results. It is very important to know the people that one deals with in Nepal. I trust Rajendra and know them enough to know exactly what to expect from his guides and crew. Having said that, I also feel that safe trekking requires me to be prepared and have some level of training and experience to be self-reliant.
Personally, I like the improvised and unstructured nature of traveling in Nepal it as it allows me to change plans on the fly, improvise and gives me the freedom to do whatever I want (which is the opposite to the restrictive nature of group travel). Traveling solo takes this freedom to the limit.
The German gave up an opportunity to join us for the drive to Arugat Bazar the following day by a 4x4 as he was obviously suspicious and scared of us. He opted for an 11 hours bus ride that must have been just horrible. Eventually, I never saw the German again and I am not sure if he even went.
October 24, 2011 Arugat Bazar Monday 530m
We left Kathmandu early in the morning leaving the traffic and smog behind. The road to Manaslu follows the main highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara. The main highway is choked with trucks belching unreal clouds of blue fumes and pollution. They also overuse their incredibly loud horns. The caravan of brightly colored and decorated trucks snakes its way out of the Kathmandu Valley at 10 km per hour and then slowly descends to another valley along which the main road leads to Pokhara for 180 km. Usually, it takes 10 hours by a local bus to complete this journey (five hours by jeep). Fortunately, we turned off the main highway and left the traffic behind after about two hours. Our destination was Arguat Bazar, a district capital and the starting point of the Manaslu trek.
The road to Arugat Bazar should hardly qualify as a road. The road is made up of a maze of deep ruts in liquid red earth. The road dissolves into mud during the rainy season, often impassable, and solidifies in the fall. There were a lot of cars, buses and lorries stuck in the deep mud.
We drove 40 km in 3.5 hours and arrived in Arugat Bazar by 12.30 pm. Arugat Bazar is a hot concrete town with little charm. We unloaded the jeep and left immediately for our first destination Soti Kola that was apparently 3,5 hours away. As soon as we hit the trail, there was a check post and we needed to produce the permits. I am not sure how Kumar handled the missing German but we went on without any problems.
The walk was on a flat trail and rather uneventful. We passed small villages with many dirty children asking for balloons, pens or sweets. Obviously this is not a virgin trekking route. It will be good to move out of the lowlands and to the higher elevations. The mountains seem much cleaner and sane. A lone trekker like me provides the kids with much needed diversion and a chance for a balloon or a pen.
There is no road up the valley to the villages above. All supplies have to be brought by people or mules. The mules carry all sorts of supplies on them up and down the valley. The mules are also used for trade with China as Manaslu is basically on the border with Tibet. I would witness this trade higher up the valley. The shops in villages are well stocked with the cargo brought up by the mules. Also, a lot of things, especially materials for house construction (lumber, pipes, cables, etc.) are carried up by porters. Porter time is worth much less than the mule time. It is very sad to realize that human potential is wasted to such extent on such menial tasks. I have seen this before in Pakistan.
October 25 Soti Kola Tuesday
We run into a French group (22 persons). Since my crew was blissfully unaware of the route ahead, their guide gave us good tips for rearranging our itinerary to save time. We would combine some sections lower down to maximize the time higher up. We have followed his plan and it worked our quite well.
October 27, 2011 Thursday
Today we walked for 7.5 hours. We bought a chicken after much difficulty of convincing the local people to sell us one.
I felt sorry for the chicken but could not bring myself to stop killing it. I learned that chickens know their way home. They always make it back to the coop for the night. We carried the tied chicken for couple of hours before we killed it and cooked it. The chicken was stressed out and this affected the quality of the meat that ended up chewy and not good. At the end it was not worth killing it. I prefer the vegetarian momos. They are great here. It looks so easy to make when I look at Kamsing doing it but when I tried, it was not the case.
We walked faster to save two days of the itinerary in order to spend the extra time higher up. Nepal low valleys are all the same: hot and humid. Walking in canyon like, deep river gorges such as this one of Buri Gandaki is not fun as there are no views, it is dark and walking becomes a slog. This valley has been very nice though: spectacular views, a lot of waterfalls some of which were quite impressive. In Tatopani there was even a hot spring that allowed for a fine hair wash after a long hot day. The teahouse in Tatopani was quite something – the celling was so low that I could not stand up. The toilet was also low, like a cave. I had to squat quite low to enter and remain in that position for the duration of the “visit”.
October 28, 2011 Sama Gaon Friday 3450m
Sama Gaon (or Simigon) is a grim little village that seems to exist in another century. The people living here are accustomed to conditions not far off from the animals that they keep. There is a general feeling of filth and squalor. It is difficult for me to see much culture in this stone-age lifestyle. The only signs of culture are the mani walls and chortens that were built many years ago and are covered by the patina of time. On the way to Simigon we stopped in a small monastery that, in contrast to the surrounding villages, did not lack too much in terms of comforts. I suppose that it benefits from monetary support form the West.
My other porter and cook Kamsing makes great momos. Momos are steamed or fried dumplings with the truly organic vegetables that he buys in the villages we pass on the way.
October 29, 2011 Saturday Samagon 3450m
Last night we camped in a yard of a house belonging to a local family. We were invited to sit by the fire in the kitchen. The lady who owns the house was very nice, welcoming and gracious. I am constantly amazed how little the people here have and how little one needs to exist. They have a shoddy house and some land to grow their food. All their meager belongings have a purpose and are used by them each day. There is no room or need for cuties or décor. By contrast, I am surrounded by superfluous material possessions majority of which are not really needed or required for anything. We have so much. The big difference though is that they can grow their own food. They eat simple and organic diet. We need to shop for our food, which complicates matters, as food in the West is expensive. I do not think that I would last here very long. They would have no use for me, as I do not know anything by their standards – not even what to do with a live chicken.
During the conversation she told us that her sister died recently during child birth. She was not sad or bitter but very accepting and factual about the entire experience. The people here have an attitude of acceptance and let the fate decide the events of the day. They do believe in karma and based on this belief, accept whatever comes their way with little protestation. There is no access to medical care and the road is a few days of walking away. Medical emergencies usually end one way.
Today was a spectacular day. We had our first view of Manaslu and the entire range. It was very impressive. This 8,000m peak towers at the end of the valley glowing white in the sun. The massive glaciers and ice flows descend all the way to the valley below.
On the way, we stopped at a large monastery. It is the main Buddhist monastery in the entire region. While we were there, the monks and the locals were celebrating the puja ceremony. There were a lot of monks and village folk. Everyone was praying, spinning his or her prayer wheels and singing. It is interesting that mostly old people participate in prayers. The young are probably busy grinding it out (in Kathmandu or in the Gulf).
The trail is like roller coaster; it undulates up and down with very few flat sections. Each undulation does not seem like a lot but after all day’s ups and downs, it really adds up. Up 60m down 30m up 60m again and on and on like a roller coaster it goes.
Most French do not or do not want to speak English. According to Kumar, the French are proud. Kumar has isolated and labeled each nationality and attached specific characteristics that define them. Some of his opinions overlap with our western perceptions.
I have not met any single English speaking trekker yet and did not have an opportunity to chat or talk with anyone except my crew. There are a lot of French but they refuse to speak English and stick to themselves. So I hang out with my porters and Kumar in the kitchen usually. This gives me an opportunity to observe the interaction between the Nepalese and allows me to get to know them better. I like them a lot as they are jovial and lively people. They treat each other with friendliness and openness. They seem to have instant camaraderie and connection as if they have known each other for years. In contrast to that, the Westerners seem guarded and reserved. The Nepalese take life as it comes without much planning for the future or rehashing the past. The Westerners live mostly in the past or the future, seldom in the present moment.
In each teahouse and every house, the kitchen is the focal point of social activity. In the teahouse we are in now, the kitchen is a transit point for the porters and travellers that visit this valley. The visitors come by, sit and chat for a while. They have a tea, exchange information about the trail, the weather or other important things about life and then go on their way. It seems like not much has changed in 200 years. When I imagine how travel used to be in Poland 400 or 500 years ago, I think of this experience.
We are now right under Manaslu. Tomorrow we will try to go the Manaslu basecamp. Apparently is it a 4 hour hike away. I am starting to feel the pain in my thighs and butt. We have been walking non-stop since Monday (it is Saturday now). We usually walk for 7 hours each day with good speed. I hope that I can make it over all these passes – it seems like a lot. If I do, I will have a good sense of accomplishment.
October 30, 2011 Samagon 3450m Manaslu BC 4800m
We started the day in brilliant weather: blue sky and not a cloud. The morning light on Manaslu was brilliant, the sun illuminating the entire mountain in front of us with deep blue sky. We walked up an old moraine that is now overgrown with leafless bushes that brushed against us as we labored up. The basecamp is at the altitude of 4,800m so we walked up 1,350m from the village. The final approach to the basecamp ("BC") is along the crest of an old moraine along the jagged glacier that flows down from Manaslu. Soon after we got to the BC, the clouds started to fill up the valley below from where we came from. To the East, we could see all the way to the Ganesh Himal and all the high peaks along the Manaslu range. A large green lake glittered in the valley below. It was a fantastic view. The glaciers and ice surrounding us on all sides were very spectacular.
The wind picked up and we stayed as long as we could before the clouds moved in to obscure the view completely. The BC is on the moraine in front of the Manaslu northeasterly aspect marked by chortens and prayer flags. There were no tents in the BC as the main climbing season is in the spring. We descended in the clouds and the rest of the day was overcast.
October 31, Samdo 3860m Larkya La BC 4460m
The day was overcast with low clouds obscuring any views of Manaslu or the surrounding mountains. On the way we run into a teacher who was also a monk with a group of rowdy kids that were more than willing to pose for photos.
In Samdo we stopped for lunch a teashop. The food was prepared on the floor while everyone was walking around it. The owner did not, of course, wash her hands (I am yet to see any of the cooks to wash their hands). The overall process of food preparation was very slow. They chat, take breaks, look after kids and do whatever needs to be done at that moment. I waited for two hours and watching her do it was painful.
Sometimes I think that the locals look at us, the white folk, with a mixture of curiosity, pity, contempt and envy. They pity our rushed and scheduled ways, they do not quite get us so they are curious. Since we do not follow the teaching of Buddha they look down on us. They are envious of our stuff and money and maybe of our clean hands. They do not understand our preoccupation with planning and worrying about the future that we do not know or can even influence. They pity our ignorance about the Karma and our inability to accept the impermanence of things. They also seem very set in their ways and changing those ways may be very difficult or impossible.
We as the visitors do not have much chance to make any genuine contact. We meet in the commercial realm, they have something to sell and wee need things to buy. This is where our cultural interaction starts and ends, all superficial niceness aside. The Nepalese are somewhat reserved and do not express their opinions freely. When one of the locals gets drunk on rakshi, then perhaps some truth comes out. Today, a porter got drunk on rakshi and started to make some statements that made my guys very uncomfortable. Kumar did not want to share the drunk’s insights but I sensed that they were rather derogatory.
Samdo is the last village in Nepal before the border with Tibet. Caravans of mules loaded up with Nepalese crafts, semi precious stones and other goods make their way to the bazar on the other side of the border. The money obtained from selling the imported stuff is then used to buy Chinese goods that will be resold in Nepal. There are no border controls by the Nepalese and the Chinese turn a blind eye to this. It seems that the trade is quite active and good for the locals. It obviously dates back hundreds of years.
We continued our approach to the Larkya La basecamp. The views cleared up in the afternoon and we could see the northern aspect of the Manaslu range. It was very spectacular. Across the valley from where we were, a row of high mountains towered over a small glacier. The higher peaks of the Manaslu proper filled the background. We arrived at the collection of stone huts that were the Larkya La Pass basecamp at the altitude 4,460m.
The weather deteriorated in the evening. It snowed heavily all night and it did not look like we would be able to cross the pass the following day. I think that maybe I have some curse for these passes. In 2007, we had horrible snow storm on the pass to Mt Kailash, last year, we had bad weather on Teshi Labtsa (right on the pass crossing day) and this year it is the same story again.
November 1, 2011 Larkya La Pass 5,135m
Today we crossed the Larkya La Pass at 5,135m. All night, before the crossing the snow was falling heavily. It was a total whiteout. There was another French group in the basecamp with us, and they left at 4 or 5 am. We eventually left at 7am.
I had a bad night sleep at the basecamp at 4,400m. The room in the stone shelter was a windowless cell with wooden beds. Considering the remoteness of the location and elevation, it is still a palace. It was cold and drafty but it beats camping in the snowstorm. The building consists of loose stones just piled on top of one another without any insulation between them. Consequently, the wind just blows right through (I think that a tend offers better wind protection).
I woke up at 10pm and could not sleep until 3 am tossing and turning in the sleeping bag. At first light, we had a quick breakfast consisting of a greasy omelet. As we were eating breakfast, the snow was still falling and we were not quite sure whether we should go or not. It was overcast and the aura did not look promising. At dawn, it cleared up slightly so we decided to leave. As we progressed up, the visibility improved and we could see great snowy peaks through the swirling clouds. The entire pass was snow covered and it made it look and feel very high and alpine. We could see fresh snow avalanches coming down the Larkya Peak that towers above the pass. The views to the east were ok but the west was in a total whiteout. As soon as we reached the pass the cold wind started to blow and we could see absolutely nothing to the west of us.
After a quick group photo we descended quickly, passing the French group along the way. The descent was very slippery down a frozen moraine, frozen mud and rocks. I had to concentrate fully to maintain the balance on the iced rocks. I managed to bend one of my walking sticks to halt falling after I slipped on the frozen mud. The walk to the campsite of Bimitang was very long and gloomy. We walked in the fog whiteout without any views. Once, the Phungi Peak managed to show its very steep face somewhere high between the angry clouds. It was a pity, as I knew that all around us in the fog there were spectacular peaks. At this elevation, the views would have been fantastic. We arrived at the camp around 2 pm.
November 2, 2011 Bimitang 3,850m
After crossing the pass I felt like quitting and going back to Kathmandu. This was a natural exit point as the Manaslu trail connects to the Annapurna trail near here. The weather was not good and it had not been good for the duration of this trek so far. It is interesting how the weather influences how I feel. I think my sour mood was caused by a combination of the weather and the lack of companion to complain to about the weather. The following day started clear and brilliant. Once the sun came out I regained my enthusiasm. I decided to stay put in Bimtang for a day and explore the area and to take advantage of the sun.
Bimitang consists of two stone shelters and a few others under construction. The room is very drafty with stones slapped together with large gaps between them. This makes for a chilly night. The outhouse is literally full of shit and overflowing. Consequently, the hill of the moraine behind the settlement serves as a communal toilet. In addition to normal toilet business, the hill is full of broken glass from beer and alcohol bottles. The porters must hold parties here to celebrate crossing the pass by getting drunk. The locals knew how to build a hotel and a restaurant but forgot about a place to shit.
The kitchen in the teahouse is the center of activity here. Since I am alone, I hang out with the porters and guides in the kitchen. It is a smoky and dark place. Everyone is squatting by the wood stove. The place is very smoky because the chimney from the stove ends inside the room and does not vent to the outside. The source of the fire is the local wood, which is quite scarce. The fire stove is also used for cooking. There are a lot of folk coming and going all day jabbering in Nepali. They usually have a glass of rakshi (local alcoholic drink) and a smoke as they squat by the fire to warm up their cold hands.
It is unfortunate that I do not understand anything, as it would be interesting to listen to stories about their experiences on the trails. Kumar (Bimbadur) told me that his house in the village where he is from is like this kitchen, a center of activity. Since there is no radio, books, newspapers or television in the village, people congregate to talk and entertain each other with stories.
In the teahouse, they cook in almost total darkness. It is difficult to believe that they can make anything without seeing. The selection of food here is rather simple mainly consisting of rice, some local greens and tea. The Nepalese eat dhal bat everyday, all the time. They do not add any variety to their diet. The variety is expensive and they do not have this luxury unlike people in the West.
Today, November 2, we went for an exploratory hike to the head of the glacier to hopefully salvage some views that we missed yesterday while crossing the pass. When I got up in the morning to see the weather, it was still overcast and gloomy at 6am. When the sun came out, the clouds parted and the magnificent panorama of huge white and wild mountains and glaciers revealed itself to us. I decided to stay here for the day and take advantage of being here.
First we had to cross the glacier to get to the other side. The moraine was filled with garbage and glass. The glacier was covered with loose boulders. The other side of the glacier had a steep moraine blocking the exit. The moraine had large boulders and rocks hanging by a thread ready to fall at any instant. I do not like walking or climbing these on the moraines for the fear of dislodging the rocks. We climbed up the moraine to the ablation valley on the other side. There was a trail there and we followed it up the valley. At what seemed like the end of the trail, we climbed to the top of the moraine. The altitude was 4,100m and the climbing was surprisingly tiring. My pack seemed quite heavy although I only had my camera and water. The view from this point was great, we could see across the glacier to the pass we crossed the day before. At the head of the glacier, a wall of large peaks dominated the view. One mountain in particular was very striking, a point triangular tooth that looked like Cerro Tore in Argentina. It must be more than 6,000m high perhaps even 7,000m. Behind us, a magnificent and huge west face of Manaslu dropped steeply to the valley below in a 4,500m sweep of spectacular icefalls. The peak next to it, Phungi is also very steep and spectacular. Kumar thought that it was Annapurna when he saw it through the clouds while descending from the Larkya Pass.
The clouds started to move up the glacier towards us. Since it was still early in the day, the sun was directly behind Manaslu making photography of the west face rather futile. The clouds moved quickly around 10 or 11 am and obscured the view. Since it is a West facing face, the good light for photos is in the afternoon. What a spectacular face though. It is hard to see how a photograph can do justice to such magnificent view. Standing under it makes an impression and exemplifies why the Himalaya are so spectacular. I think that Manaslu is especially spectacular as it is so isolated from the other high peaks. The entire Manaslu range stands on its own. The Manaslu Himal is separated from the Ganesh Himal by the gorge of Buri Gandaki that we just walked up. On the west side there is another gorge where we will drop to tomorrow to link up with the Annapurna Circuit trail.
Manaslu is so high and large that it most likely generates its own weather. We had very sketchy weather on the Manaslu trek. We had overcast days with heavy cloud cover. We also had a lot rain and snow. Now we are sitting in Bimitang on the west side of Manaslu at the altitude of 3,750m engulfed in a fog. It is damp with no visibility. It is also snowing lightly again. All in all we had maybe 4/5 hours of sunny weather today.
We have made a decision to skip the Nar and Phu and Kang La section of the trail and instead go to Jomsom via Tilicho Lake and Mesocanto Pass. The regular route of the Annapurna Circuit is via the Thorong La Pass, which is 5,400m high with 300 people a day going over it. Mesocanto La and Tilicho Lake have fewer visitors and the route to the pass travels along the Great Barrier (a continuous wall of high glaciated mountains forming a northern boundary of the Annapurna Range) offering great views. The pass is considered very difficult and steep and this is the reason why it is not used frequently by trekkers. It is also remote and often blocked by snow and ice. Due to its steepness, snow presents an avalanche danger and ice can make it impassable. The route to the pass also requires 3 nights of camping at 5,000m altitude. Most trekkers doing the Annapurna Circuit are not equipped with camping and climbing gear to traverse the Mesocanto Pass. The area is therefore not touristy, in sharp contrast to the rest of the Annapurna Circuit. I hope that we will be able to do it. I do feel the last 10 days of non-stop walking in my bones and I hope that I have enough energy to complete this trek. Kumar estimated that we walked 150/160 km from Arugat so far. We actually walked 223.22 km from Arugat to Darapani in 11 days.
Today I had some rakshi with my crew. Rakshi is a mild wine made from barley and similar to sake in taste. I also had some good fresh radish. The radish is white long root vegetable that can be eaten raw, fried or pickled (with chili powder). The pickled radish is good with rakshi.
It would be very interesting to cross the Himalayas between Nepal and Tibet with the caravan from Samdo. The caravan goes to Tibet in two days to attend a market and bring back alcohol, beer, cleaning products and cheep Chinese clothing. In Tibet, they sell trinkets from Kathmandu, turquoise from Taiwan and silver. The caravan uses horses and yaks to carry the goods. The horses have a tough life here. They are left in the cold and snow, have scars and open sores from the bags they carry. Some of the wounds look fresh and open. There are no medicines for the animals or vets to attend to them. The horses also do not seem to well fed as I witnessed them eating garbage (including plastic bags). But considering the living conditions, who has the time to think about the animals?
November 3, 2011, Darapani
Today we arrived in Darapani, which represents the end of the Manaslu section of the trip. It was a long, long walk from Bimitang to Darapani of 25 km. It seemed like the longest day of the trip so far. We walked in the fog, which I find depressing, as there are no views. We are on the Annapurna section now. We start off to Chame, which is supposed to be an easy day.
I took a bucket shower (first one in 11 days). In the teahouse, the room was infested with large spiders that Kamsing killed quite efficiently at my desperate request. I wander if it will rain now for the next 5 days.
November 4, 2011 Darapani to Chame.
Yesterday we walked from Darapani to Chame on the Annapurna Trail. Hordes of people – looked like over 350 in places. It was quite a shock after the serenity of the Manaslu trail. There were lines of people on the trail especially when going up hill. At one point there was person to person on the trail. It was all very unpleasant. The people in the line were all white folk: English, French, German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. The whole of Europe was here. A long line of European trekkers must look like a giant centipede with 100 trekking poles that look like legs moving in unison.
The walk was easy and relatively short. Kumar purchased a chicken that was then made into a stew. We had a 3 hours lunch break. After lunch the walk was again in the fog, no views. We heard on the radio that in Lukla, 2,000 people are stranded at the small airport again, the same happened last year. Hotels have no food, the banks have no cash. There must be scenes of pandemonium there. In the evening we watched Bond – Diamonds are Forever with the porters. It seems that this year the weather is poor all over Nepal. This resulted in poor weather on the Manaslu trek as well. Tomorrow we continue on to Pisang village on the Annapurna Circuit trail.
November 5, 2011 Chame – Pisang
The walk up to Pisang was through a nice pine forest. Easy and uneventful. The weather cleared up after Pisang and the scenery changed a lot. In order to get a room in Pisang (which is quite difficult on this section of the trek) I had to lie that I was climbing Chulu Peak. The hotel owners are reluctant to give out rooms to singles and tell me that they are full (which is not true). In Pisang, the cook from the teahouse got really drunk and gave us great performance in the evening. Apparently he cooked on one of the Kamerlander’s expeditions. The route from upper Pisang follows a high cliff overlooking the valley below. Across, is Annapurna 2 and to the west, the view extends to Manang and Tilicho Lake area, which is our objective. The route we will be following now is along the north side of the Annapurna range with spectacular views. The area looks dry and desert like reminiscent of Tibet.
November 6, 2011 Pisang - Barga – Manang
We arrived in the village of Barga, which is located 2 km before Manang. The village is located on a dramatic rocky cliff. The houses climb up the rocky escarpment with the gompa situated in the middle. It seemed deserted though with no people in sight.
We moved on to Manang, which is located in front of Gangapurna, a 7,000m mountain in the middle of the Annapurna range. We had a tough time finding a room in Manang as the village was very busy (being the last stop before the Thorong Pass) and the proprietors did not favor single travelers. The owners of teahouses here are shrewd businessman and businesswomen who have dollar signs in their eyes. They seem to be very experienced in separating tourists from their cash and give the locals very few concessions. Kumar judges how badly commercialized the trail is by how much they charge him for a cup of tea. A free cup of tea indicates a good value and low level of commercial development. When he has to pay for tea more than in Kathmandu, he feels ripped off and the locals are no good. Everest region is the worst in his opinion.
We did manage to find a room though. Manang is a crowded place geared up to service masses traversing the Annapurna Circuit trek. It is build up and soulless (at least the new part). Grey concrete hotels dominate the landscape.
We are moving on from there and leaving the main Annapurna Circuit trail to go to Jomsom over the Mesocanto La Pass. After walking on this trail, I would not come to Nepal to do the Annapurna Circuit. It is too crowded, very commercialized, devoid of local culture and lacks the high alpine experience. It is good to cross it off the list though.
The route to Mesocanto La follows the flat riverbed at first with good views back to the village of Manang where we spent the previous night. It also offers spectacular view of the north side of Gangapurna with its steep fluted snowy slopes. The route then crosses the hanging bridge and starts ascending towards the Tilicho Lake. The area is very dry. The riverbed is dry and arid. We are on the north side of the Himalaya range so the rainfall is much lower than on the south side, which is very lush and green. The 8,000m high Annapurna range blocks the monsoon rains with very little moisture making it into the northern slopes.
Along the way, we crossed very steep and gnarly scree slopes that drop off to the river 1,000m below. This section gave Kumar and the guys a scare, as they felt that the trail was loose and exposed. The scenery was outstanding and it improved the higher we got. The slope we walked on was punctuated by tall sandstone pinnacles and wired rock formations. It looked as the weather had finally improved and we left the rain and snow behind.
We arrived at the Tilicho Tal basecamp at 4,140m. The camp was very cold, as by the time we got there, the sun has already disappeared behind the mountains. In front of us, the Rock Noir (a prominent mountain in the Annapurna Range) rises to above 7,000m. We could make out the very top of Annapurna 1 at the end of a ridge ascending from the Rock Noir. I would have a good view of this mountain from a helicopter in 2018 while visiting the Annapurna Sanctuary. The wall of ice and snow behind us was glowing brightly in the setting sun. We set up the camp, had a juniper fire and stomped around in the cold. When we run out of things to burn, it was time for a cold night in the tent at 6 pm. What to do for all the hours between sunset at 6pm and bedtime? This is the worst thing about camping at high altitudes among the peaks. It gets really cold and 6 am is not the time to go to bed yet. It sucks to read in the cold tent.
November 7, 2011 Tilicho Lake – Tilicho Tal Kharka 4,949m
The approach to the lake was very dramatic. The trail ascends diagonally a bare slope with dramatic view all the way back to Manaslu. The peaks of the Annapurna range came into view the higher we went. Gangapurna, Annapurna 3, Rock Noir. All the peaks are over 7,000m. As we walked up the trail towards the lake, the Great Barrier was immediately in the front of us. The dramatic icefalls and cliffs were so close that it seemed that they could be climbed with no effort.
The Tilicho Lake is very beautiful. A wall of icy ridges on the south side flanks it. It looks like Antarctica. The ice descends all the way to the green lake below with chunks of glacial ice floating in it. The place is cold and windy. We had brilliant blue sky, which bode well for the crossing of the Mesocanto Pass. We stopped briefly for a tea at the lonely teahouse by the lake. Most people who venture out here return to Manang (or teahouses below) the same day. It is not a busy area and definitely it is a big contrast to the crowded Annapurna Circuit.
We found a nice campsite on the north side of the lake directly across the Great Barrier, a long ridge of ice and snow rising to 7,000m. The sun hid behind the peaks around 3.30 pm making the light for photos too dark. Once the sun was gone it got quite cold. The altitude is close to 5,000m here and it was clear making the temperature fall even further. It did get colder after the sunset to the point that Kumar and the crew did not sleep at all during the night. I usually take a Nalgene bottle filled with boiling hot water and put it in the sleeping bag. When it is really cold I take two. This was a two hot water bottles night.
Tomorrow is Mesocanto La crossing. I am anxious and eager to get this journey finished. It has been a long distance and it feels like a long time. In retrospect I have seen so much, a lot varied landscapes, famous mountains and I added another 300 km to my Himalayan trekking resume and my goal to travel the Great Himalaya Trail in its entirety.
It is 6.30pm and I am in the sleeping bag already. It is dark and cold outside at 4,920m although it is full moon. What would I do at home at 6.30pm? Definitely not sleep. Kumar, Kamsing and Suri sleep together for warmth. They have two poorly insulated sleeping bags between the three of them and only two mats. They have no spare clothing; their boots are falling apart and have holes in them. Yet they never complain, not even once and they always smile.
November 8, 2011 Mesocanto Pass 5,350m
We got up early at 5.30 am because of the intense cold. It was still dark and clear as the sun did not rise until 6.30 am. The tent had a lot of frost inside from condensation. The peaks across the lake, illuminated by the full moon, looked eerie. The silver light of the moon projected on the white peaks was reflected in the still water of the lake like in a giant mirror.
After a cup of hot noodle soup we left the campsite for the pass that was a long way away. I was anxious about the pass due to its reputation as difficult, steep and technical. It is not a very well frequented area so there is no formal trail. We started walking around 7 am and made it to the first pass at 5,350m around 9 am. The weather was clear and brilliant, probably the payback for many days of rain and snow we had on the Manaslu side. The rising sun illuminated the Great Barrier and the lake. Behind Rock Noir, Annapurna 1 summit was visible. The scenery was beyond spectacular.
The walk from the first pass at 5,350m to the actual Mesocanto Pass is very long. The entire way is at above 5,000 meters. We made it to the second pass at 5,100m with great view of Tilicho Peak and Nigrili North. The bulk of Dhaulagiri also came into view. We were basically walking around the Tilicho Lake at above 5,000m and now had views to the peaks on the east side of the lake: Gangapurna, Annapurna 3 and Annapurna 2. We arrived at the third pass at 5,100m shortly thereafter. It would be terrible to encounter a snowstorm here. The exposed and high plateau between the passes would make the route finding quite tricky.
The mighty Mesocanto Pass was right there in front of me. The views from the pass to the lake and to Dhaulagiri and Kali Gandaki valley were spectacular. We had completely clear weather and no wind. We could see the mountain range across the valley with the Dhampus Peak and the Dhampus Pass on the horizon. The pass itself is marked with a very sharp (horn like) small rocky peak. It is clearly visible from a long way away, which makes it easy to pinpoint the location of the pass.
The descent route looked very steep indeed. The pass lived up to its reputation. Now I did understand why this pass has such a fearsome reputation and is considered difficult. The descent route is basically a steep snow chute with steep rocks on both sides. The chute was full of snow and ice. One slip would send a person all the way down for a 300m ride to the rocks below. For a moment I considered going the horse way, which was supposed to be easier.
Kumar and Kamsing did not seem too concerned and started going down. The descent was quite exposed with steep drop-offs all around. The rocks were thankfully clear of snow and ice and there was no wind. We descended very carefully without a rope. Suri slipped a few times as he has the least mountaineering experience between us. The lack of proper boots did not help either. Sometimes I feel that the Nepalese just wing it hoping for the best. In case of a serious weather, accident or altitude issues they would just perish like the porters the year before on Teshi Labtsa Pass.
We descended to a flatter ground and set up camp on a green Kharka (grass pasture) with a lot of yaks. The yaks would meander between tents all day and night. It was strange having a car sized cow with sharp horns snorting right next to me while lying inside the tent.
This is the final night on the trek. We are camping in front of the Kali Gandaki Valley with Dhaulagiri clearly dominating the view in front of us. When I asked Kumar if the Dhaulagiri trek would be worth the effort, he said that I already see it so why bother? Dhaulagiri looked large and prominent. We had a spectacular sunset and a sunrise on it.
It is only 5 hours walking time to Jomsom from here. I am happy to have done Mesocanto La instead of Kang La and Nar and Phu villages. This pass was a true mountain experience with camping and away from the Annapurna circus. The day number 18 of walking is tomorrow and it feels like it has been a long way from Arugat (although it is only 18 days). Looking at Dhaulagiri it looks so alone and high dominating the sky like the king of mountains. I was thinking of Piotr Morawski and his tragic story of his death that played out in the public eye. It is a lonely place to die.
November 9, 2011 Jomsom 2,743m
The walk down was tiring even though it was only 3-4 hours long. We walked for almost 300 km (or more, as it is hard to measure distances here. Kumar thinks it was 300 km) in 18 days. We climbed 12,585m and descended 11,800m along all the ups and downs of the trail.
All the way to Jomsom, Dhaulagiri and its ice falls dominated the view like the king of mountains. Jomsom is a typical Nepali dumpy truck stop with hotels such as Dancing Yak or The Meaning of OM. It has some shops selling Tibetan trinkets and Marfa apple brandy. The natural setting of the village is very spectacular with the Annapurna range on one side and Dhaulagiri range on the other. I am sure that being the gateway to Mustang, there are a lot of interesting things to see around here (such as the village of Marfa with its large gompa). It will have to wait for another day though as I am too tired of walking and of taking photos.
The trip has come to the end not only time wise but also in terms of my energy and ability to absorb more stimulation. I have enjoyed this tip a lot despite my earlier feelings of indifference.
At the start of this trek, I was curious whether by being alone, I would have some revelations, insights or deep thoughts. I have not however, realized any great insights in terms of thoughts or profound revelations on the intellectual level. The change and impact have been more sublime. At the end, I did feel very at ease, relaxed without any anxieties or anger. The experience has heightened my sensitivity to the beauty of nature, the kindness of the people and my good fortune for being here. The nature has cleared me (although temporarily) from what feels like an artificial life back home. It was like hitting a reset button on a computer, a spiritual cleanse. It killed the proverbial rat that has to be fed consistently back home. I felt more laid back and able to surrender to whatever was coming my way. The rat was dead. It felt like I was stripped down to the basic components that resonate with nature around me. The layers of my armor needed for the life in the artificial world of western civilization, have been stripped away exposing the socket through which the connection with something greater could be made. I think that this feeling was heightened because I was alone, I had time to quiet my internal monologue and just listen to the silence around me. Subconsciously, I devoted all my attention to this process without even realizing it.
I am ready to go home but feel no anxiety about the things waiting for me there. I enjoyed traveling alone and did not miss the company of others. Deep inside I know that it was a good decision to come here and walk all this way. It was a great opportunity to level myself and experience a separation from my usual travel companions. In retrospect the feelings of anxiety and attachment to the things back home dissolved over the last 18 days. It is amazing how much 18 days can change in one’s perspective.
I mailed the postcard of Mt. Manaslu with Mt. Manaslu stamp from Jomsom. I am happy to have walked so far and to have crossed two high passes (one a difficult one) in such short time.
These trips allow me to gain some distance from the things back home, allow me to look at things from a different perspective. Perhaps this perspective increases my ability for appreciating what I have without abandoning the good life permanently. Back home, being in the middle of it all, it is hard to gain distance and focus on what is truly important. It is difficult to ignore the irrelevant and superficial. I enjoy the simple life on the trail, no expectations just taking each moment as it comes. I give up the control of the process and outcome. I think that I learned from my Nepalese companions that there could be another way of looking at life, at the future and our influence over the flow of events around us. Perhaps the liberation that came from giving up my desire to control everything around me, was the most valuable revelation I had on this trip.
Since these experiences are reinforced by each consecutive trip, this feeling becomes more permanent and is not as fleeting as if I had this experience only once.
I felt good, happy and ready for another cup of lemon tea.