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Published: August 8th 2009
Now here’s a thing that always puzzles me.
Back home in Cairns we have an excellent sea-front swimming lagoon, built to make up for the lack of a town-centre beach. Beside it runs an attractive boardwalk stretching the length of the Esplanade, backed by landscaped parkland and fronting the ocean. It’s a great place for a stroll, particularly at the sun’s rise or set, and large numbers of townsfolk turn out to do just that every day.
But here’s the funny bit.
For some reason, in order to do so, most of them feel the need to get dressed up.
Okay, let’s not get carried away here; we’re not exactly talking Ball-gowns or Black Tie.
Even so, ever since I was in nappies I’ve never felt the need to don special gear to put one foot in front of the other. In Cairns though, it’s different; in order to amble for up to two kilometres down a perfectly smooth wooden walkway, it appears vital to change into smart new Nike trainers, sports pants and some kind of running top.
The really keen then hit the road with tremendous gusto, arms pumping the air, setting a
cracking pace and managing to look pretty ridiculous into the bargain, but they’re in a distinct minority. Everyone else just lopes along gossiping and generally getting in folks’ way. Conversation towards the end of the ‘workout’ frequently turns to whether or not to buy an ice-cream on the way back to the car. This I repeatedly hear as I overtake them while strolling back from work at a distinctly moderate pace, still dressed as I was for breakfast that morning.
Halfway round the world in Nepal we were finally getting stuck into trekking with great zeal when we stumbled across the very same phenomenon.
A word, firstly, about what trekking is and is not.
First of all, what trekking assuredly is, is fabulous.
The north of Nepal is fantastically mountainous, the Himalayas extending in a band right across the top of the country. Eight of the world’s ten highest peaks lie in Nepal, including the greatest of them all, Mt Everest. And people actually live here, too, not right on the mountaintops, but in the valleys between them, which themselves can be surprisingly high. Many of the villages we stayed in were higher than all but
the very tallest mountains in other parts of the world.
What there are none of are roads. At least not what we’d call roads.
The highways here consist of the ancient pathways connecting village to village, sometimes stone-paved but just as often not, occasionally as wide as a lane, but mostly just a single-track path. You share the way with locals, buffalos and donkeys, but no motorised transport whatsoever; round here it really is still the only way to get about. Many of the donkeys, and even more of the locals, are carrying inconceivably heavy loads up the steepest of slopes, no matter what their age, leaving us feeling more than a tad feeble. I don’t doubt that many a local could carry a donkey up the slope should the impulse take him, and still not have it be the heaviest work of the week. One poor guy was slogging up to over 3000m to play a gig in a village with an entire drum kit on his back, before heading down again next morning. If I were him, I think I’d have learnt to play the flute instead.
On the other hand, what you do not
do while trekking, is climb any mountains.
They’re just way too high, the path instead following strictly the easiest way from A to B, which itself is often far from plain-sailing. ‘Because it’s there!’ for the Nepalese seems an excellent reason not to climb the mountain but to go around it. In our whole month of trekking I climbed only one hill and that not because it was very high, but because it gave an excellent view. Admittedly I did then give away my western roots by being stupid enough to climb it a second time, but in any case it was only a 45-minute hike from the village below.
Which makes it all the more surprising that virtually every other trekker we came across had blown a huge wad of cash on mountaineering gear.
We wore pretty much what we’d wear for a stroll down Cairns Esplanade, with the occasional addition of a fleece. Just in case things got properly nippy we’d also hired waterproof trousers and down-jackets, which we were lucky enough to have to wear precisely once, and then only briefly. Everyone else was decked out permanently head-to-foot like Sherpa Tensing. To a man
they sported the stoutest of hiking boots, which seem useful only for manufacturing particularly nasty blisters, of which there were many spectacular examples. Notably the Sherpas themselves donned merely T-shirts and light trousers, but many outdid even us by casually strolling around everywhere in their sandals.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting people should head off into the hills unprepared. You have to have the right gear with you, but you don't have to fry yourself wearing it all the time. Mountaineering gear, while all looking very pretty and shiny in the shop, is for climbing mountains, not pootling along paths, even if this could be described as Extreme Pootling.
And Extreme Pootling it certainly was.
The closet mountaineers didn’t seem to have grasped that while a North Face top and Berghaus trousers may look cool in the shop and keep you nice and warm, they don’t make your legs work any better. Perhaps if they’d tried a bit of walking before setting out, if only down to the Outdoor Adventures store to get their gear, they might have had some idea of what they were letting themselves in for. Fact is, things round here
weren’t quite as flat as the Cairns Esplanade.
It might also have helped not to bring with them everything but the kitchen sink. Fourteen different bikinis are probably not crucial for a fortnight’s break in Nepal, particularly if you’re a bloke. What really got my goat was that many a couple, on realising they were hopelessly overloaded, then hired a single local to carry all the stuff for them both, whom they then breathlessly followed, bleating they never imagined it would be this hard. Worst culprits of all were the big organised groups who’d fly straight in with god-knows how much stuff, probably including high altitude hair-gel (with ’glacial hold’) only to offload it straight onto a team of porters who run (yes, RUN!) on ahead, complete with all their camping gear and food so they can have it all cooked-up and waiting for them when their exhausted guests stroll in.
All in all a real hark-back to colonialism at its best.
Generally the porters manage to get their own back by poisoning their guests at least once along the way.
Most astounding of all, though, was the widespread belief that to go trekking you must
first abandon millions of years of evolutionary development and go back to being quadrupedal, purchasing not only some foot-eating boots, but also a couple of shiny new walking-sticks to go with them.
Hiking Poles, they call them in marketing speak, but I’m not one for any of that crap.
Now it might just be me, but I suspect that if you’re really old enough to need a walking-stick you should probably be thinking twice about heading into the world’s highest mountains. And if you’re not that old, but somehow still stupid enough to have been conned into buying them anyway, really I think the same rules apply. Maybe you should think about a taking a stroll down the park with the Zimmer frame instead, feed the ducks, and then go for a nice lie down.
I can only assume the whole thing stems from some bizarre marketing-convention wager.
“Here’s a challenge for you! Take something useless we’d struggle to give away to pensioners, jazz it up a bit, slap on a price-tag and sell it off to youngsters, a hundred bucks a pop! An entire career there for the right
man, I’m telling ya!”
Luckily sales of Ever-Hold Disco Dentures and Playtex I-Pod Incontinence Girdles have yet to really take off. At least as far as I know... (I was wondering what you were all sitting there looking so smug about!)
These damned Day-Glo Nordic Hiking Poles, though, they’re all the rage.
Hoards of trekkers can now finish every day safe in the knowledge that they’ll have blisters on their thumbs to match those on their heels, and serene mountain silences have been drowned forever by a perpetual symphony of clickety-clacking. As if this wasn’t bad enough, their less evolutionarily-challenged cousins, unencumbered by prosthetic forelimbs, are constantly tripped as they speed their way past, wayward poles flying this way and that.
At the trip’s end, safe in the knowledge they’ll never need their stupid sticks again, they’re often ‘donated’ to their guides and porters, who proceed to chuck them straight in the bin where they belong.
Really, seriously, on every level, the whole thing’s a bit of a worry.
The porters and guides have no need for the poles. They and the locals, just going about their daily lives, must be amongst the fittest
Machhapuchre from Chomrong
Fishtail Mountain to you and me!
people on the planet.
Trekking in Nepal, while not quite climbing Everest, is far from easy.
Debbie and I covered over 300kms on our travels, not exactly Land’s End to John O’Groats, I’ll grant you, but then this isn’t what you’d call flat terrain. In total we climbed (and descended) over 12500m, about one-and-a-half Everests, and our high point, at 5416m, was almost two-thirds as high.
One of the reasons it’s so challenging is that the locals’ idea of the easiest way from A to B is often in fact just the shortest, i.e. a straight line, directly over whatever peaks and troughs happen to lie in the way. There’s none of this namby-pamby European traversing. It’s straight up, then straight down again, and then typically straight back up the other side, often walking continuously up steps cut into the mountainside. The terrain is so topographically challenging that the villages themselves are often built on steep slopes, with steps between the houses in place of paths.
On one ‘rest day’ we decided visit the hot-springs near Chomrong, which turned out to be down a flight of 1600 stairs. The springs themselves were absolutely fabulous, plunging from
Check Out Those Earrings!
thermal spa to icy cold river and back, but after our refreshing dip, we of course had to climb right back up again. Feeling a bit knackered after all this exertion, I decided to pop out to the shops to resupply, only to find even they were over 1000 steps away.
That was some pretty damn hardcore shopping, let me tell you, and all without a macchiato or cafe latte in sight.
The locals have a saying for the concept: Nepali Flat. It’s is a bit like a particularly volatile day on the stock-market. You might start and end at roughly the same level, but God-knows what peaks and troughs you’ll stumble through along the way. Now I come to think of it, Nepali Flat could be used as an good analogy for the course of many peoples’ lives.
At least this was true for the first part of our adventures, the arduous Ghandruk-Ghorepani loop, to which we tagged on for good measure the aforementioned side-trip to Chomrong. Ironically, as it’s the shortest trek option, many mistakenly take it for the easiest, which leads to a good many of the older and less fit setting out confidently
only to encounter an early trip to hell.
We wimped out of the full trip into the Annapurna Sanctuary this time, as we realised we hadn't initially brought enough warm clothing. Instead we returned to Pokhara to rest and resupply before hitting the trail again on the full 18-day Round Annapurna Trek (RAT), a loop which can be tackled either clockwise, or anticlockwise.
Really only a total idiot would go clockwise, as it includes a ridiculous climb less than halfway through which needs to be completed in a day. It’s strictly for certified half-wits and those cretins who like to prove they’re ‘different’, deliberately doing things the hard way just to mark themselves out from the crowd. Now perhaps some people who know me may be thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, that sounds a bit like you!’ but fortunately I had Debbie on hand to talk some reason, and we sensibly decided on the Anti-Clockwise RAT.
Despite being both longer and higher than our previous sortie, it was actually much easier due to its less saw-tooth profile. It also proved if anything even more spectacular, and the first 10 days passed in a long gradual happy climb
from tea-house to tea-house (the local term for hostel), every day with a different view more spellbinding than the last.
The tea houses were a great place to socialise with your fellow trekkers, who, despite the sticks, turned out to be great company and not so stupid after all, with many a walker’s tale to entertain you from all round the globe.
The only possible gripe was over the food.
Nepal generally is very much like India only 10 times better.
Unfortunately the exception is the food, which is 100 times worse.
India serves up excellent dishes almost without number, while Nepal offers up just the one, Dhal Bhat.
It’s a basic lentil curry, eaten by the millions for breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days a year. We weren’t there for a leap year, so I can’t vouch for what happens come February 29th, but I’m guessing its Dhal Bhat again.
The best thing to be said about Dhal Bhat is that you get a never-ending portion, your plate constantly replenished upon completion. Unfortunately, that could also be said to be the worst thing. Really I think it should be called Dull Bhat.
High Altitude Guinea Pig!
Or could it be the Anti-Clockwise Rat?
The hardcore connoisseurs rhapsodise over the best Dhal Bhat they ever had, but for me even the best would be beaten by the worst of Indian curries.
Fortunately, realising that many other trekkers felt the same, the tea-houses laid on a basic range of foreign grub, principally the stalwart dishes of Mexican, Chinese and Italian cuisine, which kept us going along the way. Having said that, maybe we should have stuck to Dhal Bhat, as the locals’ boundless energy suggested it must contain a good sprinkling of caffeine, taurine and guarana, with possibly just a pinch of anabolic steroids.
The further you went up the Annapurna Trail the further you left the real world behind. Even the locals’ faces changed, slowly morphing from Nepali to Tibetan in the higher reaches due to a large influx of displaced refugees over the last half-century. Fortunately they’ve found a home from home and have made the land their own, their amazing culture still very much alive and well, sporting endless smiles on their unfeasibly wizened faces.
Something else happens the higher you go too.
The scenery gets more and more breathtaking, until suddenly you hit the wall and
realise your breath has vanished altogether, just disappeared clean into thin air. You’re left wheezing like an old man even on the gentlest of slopes, wearing the kind of face which suggests that your Playtex Incontinence Girdle may finally have sprung a leak.
Acute Mountain Sickness can hit anywhere over 3000m, and predictably struck me at around 3001. I was left a wreck, hyperventilating by the wayside, to be passed by those I’d strode confidently by only minutes earlier.
“Bet you wish you’d bought some Hiking Poles now, don’t ya pal!”
Carry on and you risk progressing to Pulmonary Oedema, your body fluids emptying into your lungs and drowning you from the inside. Nice! From there you move on rapidly to Hypocapnia, Coma and Death, which tends to spoil even the finest day’s walk. Luckily, if you catch it soon enough, the only medicine needed is rest. And if you don’t, at least there’s a hell of a nice view from the hearse.
Fortunately I recovered swiftly, and the next few hundred vertical metres saw everyone else succumb one by one. I repassed them now, once again back to my full strength, regretting never having gone
for that “SUCKERS!” tattoo on my forehead. Irritatingly the only person on the whole mountain who seemed totally immune was Debbie. She was still prancing around happily at 5000m like some frisky Snow Leopard, and by now in serious danger of suffering death by 1000 sharpened poles. As luck would have it at 5200m, just short of our target, someone flicked the switch on her electromagnetic boots and she found her feet glued to the floor just like rest of us.
At 5416m, all going well, you finally reach the Thorung-La pass, and I’m glad to say that, unlike a couple of folk helicoptered out that morning, and one other guy who took the distinctly less glam option down on a donkey, we made it through safe and sound. It was quite literally the high-point of our travels and fully lived up to the billing, with fabulous views way out over the legendary Mustang region, a Tibetan land that time forgot frequented only by monks, lamas and Brad Pitt. Even more amazingly, there was a little bloke at the top selling teas at this early hour... now there’s a man who’s going straight to heaven, no questions asked!
Such was the exhilaration that you forgot for a minute that you were only half way round and still had another eight days to go, including another killer 3000m climb, by which time the legs had well and truly gone to jelly.
We finally wobbled back into Pokhara after a total of 27 days on the road, wearing smiles from ear to ear. For years I’d been hearing other travellers’ tales of how great these hills were and finally we’d been out and done it, and found it every bit as gorgeous as we’d imagined. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, but I know we’d better be quick.
As with so many other things the golden age is coming to an end. They’re finally ploughing a proper road through from each end with all too predictable effects, and this little untouched wilderness will soon be no more.
Still there’ll always be sections too steep for the roads to reach. And there’ll always be Everest.
You know you want to.
And if you don’t, there’s always Cairns Esplanade.
With or without the ice-cream.
Sure beats Dhal Bhat!
So go on, what
you waiting for?
Just Do It!
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