NEPAL: Annapurna Circuit PART 2 of 2
The second half (final 11 days) of my trek around the Annapurna mountain range.
Over the first 13 days, the trail had meandered through valleys and over Nepali "hills" (mountains anywhere else in the world). As Tanya, Bhola and I made our way towards the snow-capped mountains in the distance, we slowly acclimatized to the higher elevations and colder weather. We reached the top of the "highest pass in the world" -- Thorung La. At this altitude there is approximately 50% of the atmospheric pressure of sea level, so your body has to do a lot of compensating to keep one alive.
We hit the peak by 10:30AM and began down the other side. The freezing cold of the morning gave way to warm sunlight, but also an extremely long, steep and icy descent to Muktinath. Above is a photo of Tanya and Bhola inching their way down one of the "easy" parts ("easy" meaning "not solid ice"). We heard stories of many injuries on the ice and despite extreme care, we all slipped and fell during the day. By around 1:00PM I was exhausted and constantly fantasizing about having a pair of skis to just finish off the mountain. After a chocolate bar, I got inspired and developed a rudimentary technique by which I could "ski" on the ice in my boots. I would just squat down (balanced on one foot), then attempt to control myself with the other foot outstretched in front of me and two sticks in my hands. (Note: I was still wearing my full pack with all gear). I began to fly straight down the mountain -- past the other trekkers, at times kicking up large clouds of snow as I attempted to slow to a reasonable speed (sometimes unsuccessfully). It was a little stupid, but really fun and oh so satisfying after hours of slow side stepping in the snow.
At the bottom, an unexpected oasis of warm food (cooked using a solar heating dish) and drinks appeared. I replenished my strength with pumpkin soup and tea. This photo was taken on the last easy hour down to Muktinath -- but doesn't begin to capture the magnificence of this valley with its dramatic desert cliffs below a huge expanse of snow capped Himilaya. Such a wonderful reward after one of the most difficult days of my life.
Oh, if you look close, you will see the duct tape that saved my sunglasses (and hence my eyes from serious risk of snow blindness). We all had horrible luck with with sunglasses -- destroying 5 pairs in 2 days (probably brittle from the cold???). Duct tape is really Man's best friend.
After a calm "rest day" in Muktinath, we hiked on south-west with fresh laundry and renewed spirit. At this point we had entered Lower Mustang, the southern part of the arid Tibet-like kingdom within Nepal. Mustang (Moo-Stahng) apparently has nothing to do with the car or horses of the same name : ). It was amazing to walk from the icy snow-covered mountains down to what for all purposes was a desert in one day!
The next day wasn't too exciting as we had gone through a slightly featureless and touristy area (Jomsom was airport accessible). Blisters exploded on the bottoms of both of my feet for the first time in the trek (walking on rounded rocks). But it wasn't so bad -- we had wonderful deserts, drinks and dried snacks made form local apples in Marpha and finally made it down to Tatopani (meaning "Hot Water"). There we enjoyed the riverside hot springs and regrouped with many people we had met on the trek. The view of the Dhalaugiri peak at sunset was breathtaking.
From Tatopani, Bhola got to a phone and found out he had to rush back to Kathmandu for family reasons. Tanya and I hiked on the next day before stopping for tea in a little farming village named Birauta. I had already made up my mind that I wanted to stay someplace really random that night, and after playing with some kids and taking in the view of the terraced valley, I decided this was the place. Tanya went on to a larger town several hours further.
I stayed with this family in their spare room. The eldest daughter is depicted in this photo cooking up Dhal Baat for lunch. She made amazingly delicate food from scratch just sitting there on the floor. I got to work on my Nepali and she on her English. At night I sat with the kids as they did their homework by candlelight. At one point they exclaimed "Jum Jum!" (lets go!) and I was led by an excited 4 and 8 year old out into the pitch dark woods behind their home. In the distance we could hear carolers making their way around the village: blessing each house with the traditional songs called Dauseray (part of the Tihar Festival where brothers honor their sisters). The three of us ran up the hill and I discovered that it was time to milk several huge water buffalo by moonlight. The boys wouldn't let me do any more than hold the old fading flashlight -- the buffalo didn't seem to like strangers.
I'll fast-forward through the last part of the trip... The next morning I hiked out at 6:00 am towards Ghorapani, avoided the Maoist rebels, and the next day randomly met up with Tanya again. We took an unusual route back to the warmer lowlands and finally caught a crusty, crowded-with-nice-people public bus to Pokara. It was an amazing journey and even after 24 days, I was sad to see it end.
Apparently Pokara is one of the finest places in the world to Paraglide. I had missed my opportunity to do so my first time there because of the horrible weather. But this time, full of excitement from the trek, I signed up immediately, and the next day was off. It was a tandem flight with Ilya, my zen-cool Russian "pilot". We drove for half an hour up a steep mountain overlooking the city, then walked to a small, steep patch of grass leading to a cliff. Ilya asked how much I weighed, hooked on my harness to his, then said "When I say walk... you walk off cliff." We waited about 30 seconds for a breeze to sweep by then he said "walk" and I did... right off the cliff!
Seconds later we were lifted straight into the air by the parachute and were gliding with our feet dangling over the trees. It was wonderful...
I took this photo of another paraglider as we spiralled around in a thermal updraft which eventually deposited us into the clouds. Just like the eagles we saw above, we could just drift along using nothing but the naturally rising hot air to stay up. Ilya quietly hummed a very familiar Buddhist mantra as we glided -- Om mani padme hum.
After relaxing in Pokara, we went to Kathmandu. We've been here exploring Kathmandu and the surrounding valley for the past 2 weeks. So many enchanted medieval cities with twisted cobblestone alleys, Buddhist/Hindu temples that are simultaneously extravagant in their details and simple yet powerful in their construction. Of course there have been dozens of great people we have met on the way.
Unfortunately, I am exhausted with all this emailing for now, so you may or may not get pictures of Kathmandu : )
|See the first email from Nepal | Additional pics from Nepal|