by Jean Teoh
“Namaste!” greeted us as we got off the plane. Stepping out of the airport in Kathmandu was a culture shock – the heat, the noise and the chaos caused by porters trying to grab our packs for some meager tips. It didn’t help matters when pitiful-looking women with tots on their hips started crowding around our vans, begging for money. The beautiful image of the snow-capped mountains we had glimpsed earlier as our plane eased into Kathmandu Valley evaporated altogether in the sizzling October sun.
As we settled down and took in the sights, our enthusiasm and excitement returned. Kathmandu bustles with activities – the colourful marketplace, the vibrant tourist district of Thamel with its many shops, neon signs and quaint little restaurants. Then there are the religious monuments and stupas to fill time while waiting for the paperwork to be processed.
The bus ride to the trailhead town of Besisahar was and adventure in itself. The driver skillfully negotiated the steep uphill and winding downs as the tyres clung perilously to the edge of the trail. At one point we had to wait for the trail to be patched up before proceeding. By the end of the 8-hr ride, we were all dazed from the “heart-in-the-mouth experience”.
With clear blue skies above and snow-capped mountains beyond the great expanse of hills and valleys spread out before us, our group of 11 with 2 guides and 5 porters embarked on out trek around Annapurna in high spirits. The trail followed the awesome Marsyandi River and wound among the emerald green paddy fields and small hamlets. There were swinging suspension bridges across the raging river and rickety bamboo ones over bubbling streams. Herds of buffaloes, sheep, goats and mules shared the trail and we had to watch our steps to avoid the “landmines”. Along the way, shelters and teahouses provided a breather to enjoy the views. For the porters, it was a much-needed respite from their backbreaking task. We were on a teahouse trek, so it was a simple affair of finding our meals and lodgings along the way. We were able to recite the menu after a while. The hardest part was to order the next day’s breakfast immediately after dinner, just so we could have our breakfast on time.
Our guide was Aspur, a quiet good-looking man in his late twenties. Although his command of English is not good, he nonetheless made the effort to communicate with us and joined in our daily debriefing. We discovered he had a great affinity for mirrors – whenever there was one, he will be there. His assistant, Kanchha, is an affable chap in his early twenties. He is really easy-going and friendly, and taught us our Nepali phrases. But he was always trying to cheat in the card games we were forever playing to while away the time. And a nimble dancer too. Whenever time and space permitted, the guides and porters would break into song and dance after dinner. Great entertainment.
The challenge was to cross the Thorong La pass at 5416m. At such high altitude, the air is thinner than at sea level. It takes a while for the body to adjust to the new environment. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) strikes when the rate of ascent is too rapid for the body to cope. Symptoms vary from headache; loss of appetite to nausea and disorientation. It can even lead to death if symptoms are ignored and ascent continued. Most of us had not trekked at such high altitude before, so we set a leisurely pace and allowed sufficient time for acclimatization.
As we went higher, the paddy and corn fields were replaced by conifers parading the different hues of autumn, and more snowy peaks were visible. We were approaching the Annapurna range. Temperatures dropped and it was a constant fashion parade of putting on and taking off our warm clothing according to our activity level. At Pisang (3185m), a few of us came down with headache and fever. The decision to stay was made for us when it snowed heavily the next day. After 5 days of trekking, it was time for some R&R! We build a huge snowman and had snow fights with the porters and guides. It was a great workout and the exertion cured the ailments.
The following day dawned bright and sunny. Our spirits were rejuvenated both by the rest and the splendid sight before us. Everything was covered with 2 feet of snow, and it looked like a winter wonderland. We also found out that it was no fun trudging up and down the snow-covered slopes. At certain portions, it was slushy, slippery and shitty. We were also concerned about whether the pass would be accessible in 4 days’ time. It would be depressing to get to the pass, find it closed due to high snow and forced to backtrack down the same way. So we tried to get hold of news about the condition of the pass. That was the main conversation topic with every trekker and guide we met, especially those who had just come over the pass.
Even though we took walks on our rest days and trekked up to monasteries sitting on the hillsides to aid acclimatization. AMS continued to plague some members. And a few had developed a persistent cough due to the cold dry air. Morale was getting a little low, so we tried to lift our spirits with little indulgence here and there – more interesting card games with forfeits, hot showers, telling more jokes and ghost stories, and having delicious chocolate cakes and apple crumbles, Chatting with fellow trekkers eased our mind a little as we took comfort in the knowledge that we were not alone in our worries.
However, things got more depressing in Manang (3550m) with news of the death of 2 porters who had been attempting the pass. It was AMS. That was the turning point for one member of our group – he had been fighting a persistent headache and cough. As much as he wanted to push on to the pass, he had things in perspective and decided to turn back. So it was with a heavy heart that we parted ways with him and another member who had decided to turn back as well. We would meet in Pokhara.
As we ascended up to 4000m, we came across the body of a dead porter. The police were collecting donations to have the body carried down. No one wanted the job. It is taboo to carry a dead man.
By now, deaths from AMS had become very real. Most of our group was feeling the altitude, some with headaches more severe than others, but we tried to remain optimistic. Unfortunately, I was the next casualty. I came down with stomach flu. Unable to eat or drink, I subsequently developed a headache and became nauseous. The image of the dead porter kept flashing through my mind, and I finally made the decision to turn back, joined by another girl who had been having a splitting headache. What a waste; we were only 2 days from the pass.
The remaining 7 recovered somewhat from their headaches, and continued their ascent in clear weather. It was a little worrying as the weather for the last few days had been unstable, snowing on and off. They made it to Thorong Phedi (4430m) in good time to settle down for an early night. At 2.30am they would make the assault on Thorong La pass (5416m). Thorong Phedi was packed with trekkers by dinner time.
Sleep was difficult, due in part to the cold and excitement, and the fact that it was the group’s first time sleeping in a dormitory to the accompaniment of multiple snoring tunes. The good weather held, and at 3am they set off into the freezing darkness in ankle-deep snow. Bundled in their down jackets, breathing became laboured as they trudged up steep slopes. Despite the exertion, it was freezing (-10 degree C) and even short water breaks made them shiver uncontrollably. Just before dawn, they came upon a little hut on a ridge. Hot tea was served and they gulped down the best cup of tea they ever had in their life. Dawn broke and they were treated to a fantastic panorama – warm rays peeped through the clouds on one side and threw their orange glow on the snow-capped peaks on the other side, splashing the sky with different hues of orange and blue.
Chortens marked the pass and colourful prayer flags flapped in the wind. There was a carnival-like atmosphere as people walked around with incredible smiles on their faces, taking in the spectacular view of the summits of the Annapurna and Thorong Peak. The group reached the pass at 9am. Some made it despite a bad cough, while for others it was a case of mind over body – just grit your teeth and put one foot mechanically in front of the other. Another was thankful that Aspur was with her all the way, pushing her from behind when her legs wouldn’t move anymore. Of course there was also our leader who seems totally unaffected by the altitude. It was a great feeling of relief for all and the cold probably number any exhilaration they might have felt. They stayed only long enough to shoot some photos and take in the contrasting views – the magnificent Himalayan scenes on Thorong Phedi side and the arid, Tibet-like landscape on the Muktinath side.
It was no easy task descending the slippery trail. Even those who looked sure-footed took a few tumbles, and muddy or torn wind pants were the order of the day. One even spilled some blood when he slipped and scrapped his shin on a rock. And to think the porters made it across the pass with their loads. Incredible.
When the group finally checked in for the night, they treated themselves to a much needed hot showers and good food, and celebrated with a bottle of Hennessy. The next day was spent doing laundry and paying a visit to the holy village of Muktinath. It houses a Buddhist monastery and a pagoda-like Hindu temple, and it is here that the Buddhists and Hindus make their pilgrimage. The rest of the day was spent shopping and roaming the streets. It was the Deepavali celebrations, and groups of students led by their teachers went from door to door performing songs and dance for donations for expanding their school.
The trek down crossed the harshest, wildest and most spectacular part of the Kali Gandaki valley. Nestled between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, two 8000-metre peaks, it is one of the deepest river canyons in the world. There was a perpetual headwind up the arid and desert-like valley surrounded by brown mountains and snowy peaks. Everyone spotted a frozen mop-like hairstyle by the end of each day’s walk. The trail led them along the river, pass vertical rock walls and through many towns – bustling Jomsom with its hotels and restaurants and airport, Marpha with its apple and apricot produce (including brandy).
After Ghasa (2000m), the terrain reverted back to the pine and conifer forests, and the wind stopped. On this side of the pass, the lodgings are plentiful with food amenities – dining rooms with glass panels for walls and roofs to look up into the starry night, alfresco dining amidst the autumn blooms. Some hotels even boast of flush toilets (this is a luxury considering it lucky to get a clean wooden hut with 2 planks over a hole dug in the ground).
With abundant supplies of provisions, a proper celebration was in order to coincide with Deepavali (it can last for as many as 4 days in Nepal), and a sheep was slaughtered for the occasion. It was the first time on the trek that so much meat was available. The group was joined by 3 trekkers from France, and as usual, the guides and we got acquainted with the villagers and their children and experienced their warm hospitality. These hardy people are poor and uneducated, but they possessed an extraordinary strength and serenity grounded in religion, community, family and self-sufficiency. We were then off for a rafting trip down the Trisuli River, shooting rapids with names like Monsoon, Lady’s Delight and Double Tackle. Camping on the riverbank and dining under the stars was a long way from the freezing nights in the mountains. In the meanwhile, Azme and Teck Wah had gone on the short trek up Ghorepani and Poon Hill, and they had experienced the same kind of warm hospitality of the endearing mountain folks. Teck Wah managed to terrorise the Tibetan craft peddlers with his hard bargaining. One was so exasperated that he told Teck Wah to try again at 5am the next morning.
I am glad the group bonded so well in those 21-days. This is one trip I think everyone will remember for a long time to come, and each will have their personal stories of self-discovery and insights gained to relate.