Walking The Himalayas

Before I crossed the bustling, semi forested no mans land from Banbasa to the Nepalese border patrol office in Bhimdatta, I joined the masses of locals taking a dip in the Sharda Mahakali river. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. It was nearly summertime. The fast flowing river felt deeply cleansing as it powered it’s way downstream. A fitting end to my four months in India. Nepali/Indian borders are porous which means both nationalities come and go, seemingly, as they please. This made the remote far western crossing a busy trade hub for the locals on both sides.

It took eight long days to reach Pokhara. I crossed a couple of national parks, witnessed a devastating forest fire, cycled in 40 degree heat, napped at roadside restaurants, crossed dozens of drybed rivers and consequently, sweated. A lot. The Mahendra Highway which cuts across the lowland plains of Nepal, east to west, is well paved (mostly) and features numerous towns of varying size along the way. At a guesthouse in Bhulubang I noticed when signing the guestbook that one Imran Khan had once stayed, on 14 November 2011, declaring, ‘Damn Know Yourself’ as his stated profession. It seemed more philosophical standpoint than day to day occupation but who could really say?

Shortly before the climb to Pokhara I met Patrick and Rachel; an American couple on their anniversary trip cycling around south east Asia and beyond as they did twenty years earlier when they first met one another on the road in New Zealand; it was a heart warming forty minutes to hear of love on the highway; it gave me hope to know that even solitary long distance cyclists could find romance on the road. On the afternoon that I eventually arrived by Phewa Lake in downtown Pokhara I met another pair of cyclists, this time a Polish couple, fresh from a jaunt around the Annapurna Circuit. Chris and Isabella had cycled the whole thing from Kathmandu, even crossing Thorung La, the famed 5,416m pass, with their bikes. I was hugely impressed. The excitable couple spent the rest of the afternoon, over a gigantic plate of sandwiches, convincing me that I could take the bike. However, I’d read a couple of stories about the circuit and decided that I would walk it, it is after all, one of the worlds best hiking trails.

The Annapurna Circuit
Besi Sahar to Ranipauwa
Ten days, full of ups and downs…

Besi Sahar to Bahundanda
781m to 1,383m
Six hours twenty

‘Three Set Forth’

The bus from Pokhara to the start of the Natural Annapurna Trekking Trail (NATT) was a riproaring 124km white knuckle ride. Quite how this bus full of tourists made it unscathed to this destination remains a minor miracle. The closest scrape involved a reckless motorbike overtaking on a blind bend into the path of an oncoming truck, causing an emergency stop that threw every passenger on the bus several feet into the air off their seats. For me, sat at the back in the centre (for the leg room), that meant a very big leap out of my seat into the aisle where I then crashed back to earth onto my lower back- just the spot where the bottom of my backpack would rest for the next ten days…

On the bus I met Ananda, a native New Yorker on a pre college (university) backpacking trip. At 19, Anandas choice to take on this hike was impressive. We decided to walk together from the start since everyone else on our bus had taken a jeep further up the trail – citing some nonsense about the road being dusty and seeing more of the best bits. After checking in with the checkpoint we got our TIMS (Trekkers Information Managnent System) cards stamped and armed with a map and Anandas trusty NATT book, we set forth. Almost immediately after the first bend in the road was a bridge crossing a drybed river leading up a very steep path towards some trees. Ananda believed this to be the correct route. Up we went. Six minutes later we stood at the top looking for the path. There wasn’t one. Maybe it’s not this bridge? Down we went. We asked a group of locals sat under a tree ‘where’s the trail start?’. They pointed over yonder. Ah, yes. The red and white painted signs. Got it! Off we go again. False start corrected in a timely fashion without too much embarrassment for the ‘world cyclist’ and his co pilot.

We crossed the bridge, the correct bridge, and marched off up the path into the trees. This was it. The start of the Annapurna Circuit. Amazing! Just then as we looked back along the path we saw a man gaining on us. Who was this Maverick? He wasn’t on our bus. Let’s find out. Maarten Van Doorn had taken a cab from Pokhara. And now he was marching purposefully towards the Brit and the Yank. ‘I’m from New Zealand but I have a Swiss passport. My name is Dutch’. That’s good enough for us, Ananda and I nodded. ‘You guys have a good pace- let’s walk together’ Maarten flattered us. Two were now three.

Bahundanda to Tal
1,383m to 1,756m
Nine hours forty

‘Mixed Fried Potatoes’

Like the three little bears we ate porridge with apple then struck out for day two of our Himalayan odyssey. By lunchtime my hips were less than straight. I’d popped out a hip flexor and was having to walk like Mr Wobble from Noddy. It was agony. By the end of the day I decided that if it persisted, I would come off the mountain and return to Pokhara. It was a bleak and sobering thought so early on in the trek.

In the late afternoon it began to rain, at first lightly, then heavily. We’d caught up with the ‘bus wankers’ and took great pleasure in telling them how awesome the walk on the NATT had been. No dusty road for the self dubbed ‘Dream Team’. At lunch Maarten introduced us to our secret weapon – Mixed Fried Potatoes – this powerful combination of potatoes fried with chopped potatoes and potatoes chopped in half would be our staple for the next NINE meals. For three days straight we gorged on MFP. It was carbtastic. It was fried. It was potato.

That evening in Tal we shared travel stories over a pot of ginger lemon honey tea served in giant flasks accompanied by mixed fried potatoes. We were invincible. Life was good. Potatoes were the BEST. Sated, hydrated and sleepy, the three slightly pot-ato bellied bears went to bed. It had been a good day.

Tal to Chame
1,756m to 2,673m
11 hours 50 minutes

‘Getting A Wriggle On’

On the morning of May sixth, after a substantial plate of mixed fried potatoes, we set off on what would be our longest day. I’d created a sense of urgency among the group by outlining the fact that I had a flight out of Kathmandu on 21st May, thus giving us incentive to walk quickly in these early stages of the trail. Making up distance in this way here in the lower parts of the hike meant that we were by the end of the day, a days march ahead of our proposed schedule. This was good news. Weather permitting and provided we acclimatise sufficiently during the next few days we would cross the pass successfully and I could get down off the mountain in time to cycle to Kathmandu in readiness for my flight to Almaty.

I should mention here that the flight is necessary because Pakistan and Tibet are closed to me. A visa for Pakistan must be obtained in the UK. Independent travel in Tibet is prohibited by Chinese law. The challenge to obtain these permissions had been overwhelming, necessitating the flight. The upside is that I get to visit Kazakhstan as part of my route west.

We ended the day tired but happy. We’d covered a lot of ground and could resume a more regular pace for the remaining days. Our heroics to reach Chame had given us confidence not only that were we in great shape but importantly that we could cross without a hitch. It was an important milestone for the Dream Team. We celebrated with a plate of mixed fried potatoes and a huge flask of tea. We’d earned it!

Chame to Upper Pisang
2,673m to 3,661m
Nine hours ten

‘Pisang in the Wind’

Upper Pisang is the higher of two possible routes on the NATT. The incentive to choose this higher, longer and perhaps tougher day is that previous hikers opting to stay the night in Upper Pisang have suffered less symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Simply, a night in Upper Pisang is good for acclimatisation.

It was a pleasing days walk. A big day in terms of altitude gain and accordingly one of the most stunningly scenic. The views of Annapurna II were phenomenal. The sun blessed peaks glimmered with neon orange, fluorescent pinks and striking yellows like a line of triangular glitterballs high above our heads. A stark and welcome contrast from the deep, green, rocky valley through which we ascended. The landscape here had altered dramatically from the previous day; grassy meadows punctuated with small holdings, lost sheep and a vast new plethora of trees presented themselves in this higher plane.

We slept easily that night. Like the three bears, we shared a room, each bear with his own bed to sleep in. It was from this fairytale slumber that we were abruptly woken by the sounds of a wounded Goldielocks howling at the moon. The disturbing sound coming from directly outside our warm, cosy, sleepy sanctuary. I ignored the scene, hoping it would stop or someone else would take responsibility. I was under no circumstances leaving my bed. Maarten did the honourable thing; shuffling outside to see what the fuss was about; it was a man, hideously drunk and similarly injured, as if he’d fallen face first down the many flights of very steep stone steps leading to Upper Pisang. At first Maarten tried to move the drunk on with sharp words: ‘people are trying to sleep, buddy’. No reply. Just increased wailing. Harrowing, ungodly wailing. It was now 1am. Something had to be done. Maarten returned to the room to arm himself with a bucket of water. It was minus a few degrees outside. A bucket of cold water would either move the man on or freeze him to death. Either way he’d be silenced which was a good thing. While Maarten was preparing the motivational bucket of water, a very Good Samaritan had slipped outside and was slowly encouraging the inebriated wretch into the lower floor of the cabin. The man would not be getting the ice cold splash down from Maarten. Eventually the drunk man left but not before waking the entire village.

Upper Pisang to Manang
3,661m to 3,572m
Eight hours seventeen

‘Man-ang that’s good!’

Manang is a mandatory rest day. Spending two nights here encourages acclimatisation. All guide books insist on it. With the happy thought of a day off and a splurge in one of the many German bakeries to keep moral up, the walk was delightful. The scenery too matched our high spirits. First following the trail through thick alpine forest, then uphill into open pasture and hordes of bleating goats, then over the tiny eddies of mountain rivers yet to join the main current, then the dusty, rocky road in sight of the false beacon of a nearby abandoned hamlet, then past Bhraga and the crazy guy doing gravity ball, before way up ahead the real Manang took shape. Endless variety is what summed up our trek on day four.

We checked into the Yak hotel, not just for the promise of a yak burger and not before dragging an exhausted Ananda the length of the town and back to recce the accommodation options. We chose the Yak hotel because it was the only place with rooms for the three of us. Manang is something of a bottleneck since the rest day gives slower walkers the chance to catch up therefore bookings are taken in advance for many hotels. Showered and changed we were ready to taste the yak. After four months of near vegetarianism in India it was a meaty delight. Even Maarten, a lifelong veggie, gave it the thumbs up ‘Man-ang that’s good!’ he cried after his meal, continuing our witty pun based banter as he wolfed down the final morsel. You really can’t beat burger and chips at 3,572m. All washed down with yet another gallon flask of tea. We were living it up like George and Steven at Club Tropicana. Except the drinks were not free. Tea was $21 a flask.

Predictably, our rest day was spent resting. We ate like savages all day at the bakery, quaffed even more tea and read books. Ananda bought a raincoat, since she was perhaps one of the only people on the circuit on the cusp of monsoon season, to not have one. We nearly went to a movie (there are three ‘movie theatres’ in Manang) but couldn’t be bothered to move from the bakery. A successful day indeed.

Manang to Letdar
3,752m to 4,231m
Four hours

‘Live and Letdar’

When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did, you know you did you know you did)
But if this ever-changing world in which we’re living
Makes you give in and cry.

A short day for a short climb. The walk up to Letdar was a breeze. Before we even realised where we were at, we were in Letdar. The Bond theme tune as sung by Sir Paul McCartney beaming all over my brain throughout this day made for a sprightly accompaniment. You can’t really climb any higher since 500m altitude gain is the recommended limit, and we’d done that. So we played cards and went to bed early.

Letdar to Thorung Pedi
4,231m to 4,823m
Seven kilometres
Two hours twenty

‘Let’s Stick Together’

It’s possible from Letdar to cross the pass in one epic day. We were keen but when Maarten reported waking in the night with chest pains and breathlessness we changed our plan. In the two hours twenty minutes up to Thorung Pedi both Ananda and Maarten were showing signs of fatigue. It was a tiring trek; the thin air was taking its toll on everyone; but we would stick together and cross as a team.

Our new plan then was to drop our kit then head up to High Camp for lunch, thus aiding our acclimatisation; climb high, sleep low; probably could be the best advice you can follow if you ask me. Climbing the 200 odd metres up knowing we would not only walk back down after lunch but also back up again in the morning felt quite perverse. Other hikers too were surprised; the rest lugged up their bags to spend the night; it was only later that we saw a small group of speed walking Spaniards had had to descend due to signs of AMS. The Dream Team as per were leading the way.

The night was long. Long enough to eat dinner and read an entire book. The bleakest fucker of a novel you ever saw. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. A prize winner from 2011. I saw many similarities in the vain endeavour of the old man but equally joy in the fate and ultimate deliverance of the boy in my own journey. Cycling from Vietnam to England in 2016 may not be the apocalypse but sometimes, sometimes on a bad day, I wonder.

Thorung Pedi to Ranipauwa
4,823m to 5,416m to 3,712m
Eight hours thirty

‘Summit day’

By now Ananda, Maarten and I were fairly well acquainted. Ten days together had brought us closer. We were a team. The Dream Team. We set off at first light for the summit. We already knew what the first 200m of climb looked like, both ways, the only difference today was a herd of wild deer that were pottering about above us dislodging huge lumps of shingle rock that came flying towards us in the early morning sunlight. A menacing yet beautiful sight I was grateful for. Thankfully, no one was hurt. A helicopter off the mountain was not part of our planned itinerary.

Beyond High Camp far in the distance behind a handful of switchbacks was the pass. Edging ever nearer, we clicked up the kilometres at a snails pace, mustering all our energy reserves to put one foot in front of the other and straighten our legs. The mountain hikers energy efficient technique. Happily, by now my pack was four kilos lighter, having eaten the bulk of the optimistic haul of trail mix I’d prepared in Pokhara. Long distance cyclists know their priorities. Food first, things later.

As I arrived at the pass I caught up with a group from High Camp. The girls from Chile, Germany and Spain were part topless with their midriffs bearing the legend ‘James, you’re the man!’. That’s not quite true. The words were actually: Thorung La Pass 5,416m, neatly written across four superbly toned tummies. I was ever so chuffed nonetheless to see such a thing. A sight for sore eyes. Thanks ladies. Soon afterwards Maarten joined the fun, taking some excellent photos of the gang. Then a little while later, the indefatigable Ananda. The Dream Team trio had done it.

Bob Marley Hotel

The walk down to Muktinath is savage; brutal on the ankles, knees and hips; it’s even harder than the walk up. Muktinath is the holiest site in Nepal, the coming together of the four signs: Earth, Air, Fire and Water; therefore is a pilgrimage destination for Hindu and Buddhist alike. Situated in Lower Mustang, the Tibetan influence is obvious. It’s a very special place. Maarten stayed on a day to take portrait photos of the many and varied pilgrims and locals.

Amidst all this religion is the Bob Marley Hotel. The equivalent pilgrimage site for tired and hungry trekkers. Serving up hot food and hotter showers, this joint was solid sold out. Beers were drunk, spliffs were smoked and records were played; a big night to celebrate a superb ten days on the circuit; a fitting way to end the trek- tomorrow the Dream Team would disband.

Ranipauwa to Jomsom
3,712m to 2,743m
Two hours fifteen
Bus: 710 Nepali Rupee

‘Straight outta Jomsom’

Possibly the most expensive journey per kilometre in Asia is the bus from Ranipauwa to Jomsom. I was fast running out of time and more quickly cash; the higher you go on the circuit, the more stuff costs; I’d already subbed $100 from Maarten to get me round and I was down to my last few dollars- enough to get me off the mountain back to Pokhara if I kept moving. Hence paying this extortionate bus fare.

I was joined by my two French buddies, Martin and Jacques- they had similarly pressing flight deadlines out of Kathmandu. We arrived in Jomsom relatively unscathed. But there was frustrating news. The direct bus to Pokhara had already left and was booked up for the next three days. Time we didn’t have. Cash we couldn’t afford to spend. What to do. I toyed with the idea of the 30 minute flight next morning but on reaching the ATM and being declined (it didn’t take Mastercard), the idea waned.

Finally we found a bus that would get us to Beni, with the promise of a connection the same day to Pokhara. A twelve hour mega bus. A total fucking ordeal. But necessary. Straight outta Jomsom in two easy steps. And right down to my last dollar. As the bus rolled into Pokhara late evening a new team was born; the three musketeers; and a plot for a new journey: escape to Kathmandu and midnight flights.

If you’ve got this far you really should check out ‘Walking The Himalyas‘ by Levison Wood.  It’s a great book.