Annapurna Circuit part 2: 'Sledging' at 5000m, lunch with the WI and teashop wars

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April 4th 2014
Published: April 4th 2014
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The daily dilema of whether to get up and set off, hoping to find breakfast in the next village, or eat before leaving, usually whilst sat in several layers of clothes, teeth chattering over a cup of tea - such are the challenges faced when trekking! Initially I'd opted for the 'food now' option over the great unknown but at higher altitudes with the mornings cooler it was becoming less appealing. So on Day 5 I followed the Germans lead, whom I'd had serious breakfast envy of the previous day when I passed them sat in the sunshine tucking into porridge, and headed straight off. It meant I saw the first sun hitting the snowy peaks above and then, because the breakfast detour put me on a smaller path, went through Thanchok. Winding narrow stone lanes no more than a metre wide in places with oxen being led from enclosures in the village to surrounding fields where they were set to work pulling ploughs. Corn cobs hung from roofs of wooden houses, metal bowls washed at the communal tap sat shimmering in the sunshine and clothes lay drying over fences.There were a few lodges but it felt like the least touristy village I'd been through. The highlight of the day was in the afternoon though - a detour away from the road and river, up through a forest. Pine needles covered the path, many dried and a lovely reddish colour, making it soft and spongy to walk on with a smell that was amazing.

I'd considered staying in Bhratang, described in the guide book as set among apple orchards. Ok so I knew it wasn't apple season but I thought it might be nice... what I hadn't expected was a ghost town surrounding the single remaining 'living building'. I found front doors behind which the rest of the building had crumbled, shells of buildings with no roof and a few that were less delapitaded being used for storage - it felt like one day everyone just upped and left. A sudden loud cracking sound had us all look up to see an avalanche begin on the slopes opposite. I stood mesmarised with the locals until one disappeared into a hut to reappear with a five foot long saw. And about then we decided there was enough time to reach the next town before sun down, depending on which of the 1.5-4 hour estimates from different guide books you believed!!!

Day 6 - I woke in Dhikur Pokhara, somewhere I hadn't read up on before arriving - this was very much a make it up as I went approach to planning! And this was another day that didn't quite go to 'plan'. I'd breached the 3000m mark, having climbed 1200m over the preceding days (although as it involved a fair bit of Nepali flat - some up, some down, some more up, I'm claiming more), and I was feeling the going tougher. Then came 90mins of steep switch backs up to Ghyaru (3670m). I'd read you passed 14 sets of telegraph poles before the top, so was totally demoralised to look back sweating and tired in the brutal sun to realise I'd barely reached 5 - I should have skipped that page! The views from the top were amazing though, with Annapurna II (7937m) and IV (7525m) seeming close enough to touch and the horizon one expanse of mountains. Stopping at the first building in the village, a tea shop... with rooms..., I got a strange feeling of deja vu and decided to call it a day and stay looking the view.

The village was similar to another, Upper Pisang, I'd passed with high grey stone walls punctuated with a few small windows, flat roofs decorated with prayer flags and some with impossibly small doors that I don't believe anyone could actually get through. Few families lived here now (apparently 60-70 people) so many were unoccupied, the walls starting to fall in. Yesterday had been the first with snow patches on the path rather than distant peaks and here I found myself negotiating steep narrow lanes with snow that had long since been compacted into a nice slippery surface, usually with a pile of animal dung nearby waiting for the unwary.

Did I want to go for tea at her sisters? Or at least I thought that's what the tea shop lady (who spoke little English) had asked as I duely trotted after her. Through one of the undersized doors, into a straw covered courtyard where animals were kept at night and up a rickety wooden ladder to the family area. Later, tea drunk it was time to go, in case there were more tourists was I think the rationale, except 'we' got distracted and took a detour to the local WI - 6 women sat discussing lord knows what, some of which was rather animated, tucking into freshly cooked baby potatoes which we peeled the skins from whilst hot and dipped in dried chilli. Delicious! A few rooftops away the local men's club seemed to be doing something similar with much heckling between the two groups.

Day 7 began with more 'Nepali flat' which I was fast despising. Descriptions like a 'long hard climb' set expectations. 'Contouring' conjours up something rather more gentile - I guess it could have been were it not for the altitude and 12kg but.... :-( Anyway after breakfast with sunning views of Annapurna III (could no one come up with original names!?) the path ascended to the local football pitch, barely a scrub of land with a few posts but at 3660m my money would be on the home team!

I have this slight phobia related to falling - fine with heights but not the falling part. So the steep zigzag path down to Julu that seemed to be part black ice, part mud, part scree with the promise of a 200m fall bounced between trees did not fill me with joy. As I found myself clinging to a slowly crumbling muddy surface I swore I'd buy myself a set of walking poles in Manag - perhaps a saftely blanket that would have been useless in the current situation but it gave me something else to think about!

Julu, small and deserted with everyone out in the fields, and the walk to Manang were lovely. As I tend to spend too much time looking at my feet when I walk (I can trip over thin air) I'd been taking advantage of my role as tourist, guide and porter and the fact that I was on my own time. The routine went along the lines of step 1) find a suitable location - view essential, under pine tree on a bed of pine needles preferable, step 2) put rucksack down and position as a pillow, step 3) lie down and relax. I was getting quite adept at it and it featured several time during the afternoon!

Manang, at 3540m, is where you see many of the people you've met along the way as it's recommended to spend at least one night there acclimatising. So I chatted to the German couple, the Italian couple, team Malaysia, team Israel, the English girls, etc etc, oh and drank lots of Nepali coffee and ate lots of cake ;-) I also bought my promised trekking poles, which looked remarkably similar to the ones currently lying on the boot of my car which I'd talked myself out of packing... perhaps not quite as authentic though!

I'd wanted to take the route up via Tilicho lake but reports from more experienced people said it was knee deep in snow and they'd turned back. So day 10 saw me leaving the coffee shops behind and taking the standard route instead. It was a beautiful if eery morning as we left town, peaceful with blue sky and sunshine but with everything white from the snowstorm yesterday. There were points where I'd find myself walking over rocky surfaces but mostly the way was covered in snow. The views were stunning, I had a Mexican standoff with a group of yaks which was hilarious (neither of us were moving off that path) and I was surprised how well I was managng given the altitude... until the last hour when my legs became like lead and went on strike - I wouldn't mind but it wasn't even a steep part!! But I'd made it to 4200m.

Peering out the window from my sleeping bag at 6am on day 11 I saw fresh snow had covered the 'path' again. It was freezing as I set off, the route winding its way up before descending to a small wooden bridge and the river below... Umm except I thought the guide book said cross at the suspension bridge?? We'd chatted to a guide who'd said this path was easier. I'm not sure if the choice was down to ease so much as the latest round of teashop wars which we learnt of from a lady clearing the path ahead. It happened that this (cleared) path took you right by her tea shop, bypassing the competition who were 'bad' people..... I never did discover what they'd done though

After a warming cup of tea we moved out of the snow and through the 'rockfall area'. Lovely. The path was fine but every clattering noise had you looking up hoping nothing big was coming your way! I only saw a few pebbles but others had fist sized rocks bounce by them. The end of the day fast descended into a mental game of 10 steps forward and break. This was the climb up to High Camp - a 500m ascent taking you up to 4925m in an hour or so. Steep and altitude after 5 hours of hiking already = not much fun so I was ecstatic to see a German guy I'd walked with frantically waving his walking poles at me from the ridge above to indicate we'd made it! A quick jump for joy and then back to 10 steps....

Day 12, the day of the highest point on the route - Thorung La Pass at 5416m! It didn't start well - wrong choice of breakfast left me feeling yewk so I started late, it wasn't 30 mins before I'd gone over just below the ridge of a steep slope and I watched footprints of people not 100m in front of me constantly obliterated by the wind. There was a slight sense of humour failure whilst I considered turning back and trying tomorrow, but then it was back to the 10 steps.. I did however adopt a modification of the lazing on pine needles routine at several points during the day - with no rocks to sit on for a break I found my rucksack made a great seat. And it meant I had time to appreciate the scenery fully as for me the best view always seemed to be the ones behind - snowy crators and peaks broken with an ocassional expanse of black, blue sky above and the most amazing clouds. I also found a new use for my walking poles - prodding footprints on the path in front as just because someone else had stepped there didn't mean it wouldn't give way and you find yourself knee deep in snow!

The guide book said there were many false summits and it wasn't wrong - a number of times I was sure this was it, only to see another expanse of white span out in front of me. But finally I made it and we had the place to ourselves, well us and the tea shop man! I'd not drunk any alcohol on the trek - the new healthy me! Except I'd replaced one vice with another - tea... with 3 sugars. The last time I had sugar in tea I was about 10 and whilst I haven't done the calorie comparison I do wonder if..... anyway needless to say we celebrated with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

So after 12 days of walking up I was about to drop 2000m in an afternoon. The test of the walking poles!!!! The first part was on soft new snow but as we descended it changed to the harder, icier type. I stopped counting after I fell for the 5th time. The wind was brutal, whipping snow into your face hard enough that it stung and making moving forward tough. When the wind eventually dropped the cloud rolled in - one minute I'd see the others spread out along the path in front of me, the next they were gone and we were reduced to calling out 'hello, I can't see you'.

We'd seen tracks where people had opted to take the fast route down. Out of the cloud and fed up with fighting to stay upright I found a new use for my walking poles as a brake and rudder! Basically sit and slide! Once the others had finished laughing as I hurtled passed they soon followed suit. There were many things I'd expected on this trek but sledging, minus the sledge, was not one of them. It got more challenging as we went lower, the ice was harder and there were rocks to dodge as it got thinner, but despite the bruises I could still feel days later it was a lot of fun.

It was clear that we'd be pushing it to make the next town, Muktinath, in daylight and whilst we all had head lamps we were hoping to stay in what the guide book said were five 'seasonal tea houses' an hour before. We arrived to find the first one, two, three all padlocked and I started to wonder how hard it would be to break in... They were wooden buildings, a small lock, it'd been a long day..... Fortunately though the fourth was open so I didn't need to develop ermm any new skills! Although basic it was run by a lovely lady who couldn't be more accommodating. And finishing here, rather than in town given the small iaolated places we'd spent the last few nights was perfect.

I never made it to Muktinath - the others were planning to negotiate a Jeep back to Pokhara but I had a few more days left walking in me and headed off on a path before we hit town towards the village of Kagbeni. The route was mostly road, although in 5 hours I saw 2 push bikes, a group of villagers walking and no motorised vehicles whatsoever. There were several small villages on the way, one where most buildings had striking stripy walls, but the destination was the most stunning. Lush green terraced fields surrounded the village which sat on the edge of the Kali Gandaki river, where the river bed was over 10 times wider than the river itself!

I spent the next day just relaxing around Kagbeni and walking up the river bed to the village on the opposite bank. There was a small monastery with a single monk, perched on the hill top above, the views both ways along the valley were stunning and quite unlike those on the otherside of the pass. We managed to find a tea shop amongst the 20 buildings in town, well, the kitchen of a lady we asked. Several of the villages older men were there tucking into the local spirit wine, but we stuck with the tea. We did find out why so many of the young trees in the village had their trunks wrapped in cloth though - donkey protection!! There were 8 or so of them roaming the village and never mind the trees they made such a racket - even up at the monastery you could hear their baying!

There was one final walk to Jomsom where it was decision time... to walk for another 5 days or call it a day and jeep it down. In the end I went for the jeep - I'd had an amazing two weeks trekking but there were other parts of Nepal I wanted to see and short of changing my flights...... just not enough time to do everything!

Next up, travelling with my imaginary friends...!

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5th April 2014
Day 10

Very cool. :)

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