Friday, November 6, 2009

Annapurna Circuit Trek - Days 6-8

DAY 6: October 24, 2009. From Pisang (3200m) to Manang (3540m)

Today was without a doubt one of the best days of my entire life. I have never been to such an awe-inspiring, special, beautiful place. We climbed so high that it almost felt as if I could touch the mountains. I have never been to a place where I felt so open, so free, and so high. Perhaps it goes without saying that neither words nor pictures could ever really do this experience justice. It's simply a place one has to experience for his or herself. It is a place that everyone should attempt to visit in their lifetime.

As I write this, I am sitting at a warm corner of the rather nice Hotel Yak, which is a rather large hotel in the very interesting town of Manang. I just came down from the roof of the lodge, where we watched local cowboys race their horeses through the main drag of town. In fact, it's the only road (pure dirt, no gravel here) in the entire town. Manang has a marvelous wild west vibe that is somehow both cinematic and authentic. I'm really happy to be where I am right now, but let me go back to the beginning.

I woke up this morning feeling absolutely dreadful. My ear was still clogged and my throat was immensely sore as a result of the harsh air, which has become increasingly cold and dry. Getting out of my sleeping bag and into the frigid air was a miserable experience, but I pulled myself together, packed our sack up, got dressed, and had some breakfast. The breakfast consisted of some Tsampa porridge with apple, as well as a buckwhat pancake and a boiled egg. Tsampa is some type of whole wheat grain, and the porridge, despite its rather gooey consistency, was quite hearty and delicious. As my Austrian friend Peter put it, "Power slime!"

Now, there are two routes from Pisang to Manang. The low route follows the bottom of the valley and only takes three hours. Compared to previous days, that's a breeze of a day. The high route takes six to seven hours but climbs high above the valley and offers what many people believe to be the best mountain views of the entire trek. The high route also rises to nearly 4,000 meters, before descending back down to Manang, which is at 3540m. This spike in elevation is considered to be very healthy because it helps with the process of acclimatization. If a person goes into the mountains too quickly, they can get very sick and even die. But if you ease into it, there is often no problem. Anyways, in case it wasn't obvious, we took the high route, and boy was it worth it.

The day began with about 45 minutes of a slow ascent through a nice wooded area. We passed two beautiful lakes. One was crystal clear, and the other had an interesting green hue. We also crossed several streams and the water up here was some of the clearest water I have ever seen. It was if the stones beneath the water were popping out in front of me.

Eventually, we made it to a nice maniwall, which is a Buddhist prayer wall made of sacred engraved stones. The entire Manang region is inhabited by a Tibetan-like people and Buddhism is pretty much the only religion in these parts. This prayer wall marked the base of what I would soon find out to be the most challenging hill climb I have ever endured.

photo by mimi.

For 2 to 3 hours, we zigzagged up the steep side of the valley. Very quickly we left the wooded area behind us as we climbed up into an arid, desert-like environment. Opposite of the ascent lay the massive Annapurna II, which is an astounding 7937 meters tall. As we climbed and climbed, it felt as if we were getting closer and closer to the mountain itself. This was when I learned that my eyes can play tricks on me when it comes to the mountains. They are so big, and heights are so hard to judge, that I often felt much higher up than I actually was.

Finally, after many breaks and wipes of the brow, we made it to the small village of Ghyaru, which contained a large Stupa. From the Stupa, we had utterly indescribably views of the surrounding mountains. Luckily, there wasn't a single cloud in the sky, and I loved tracing my vision along the line where the white peaks of the mountains met the deep blue of the sky. Pictures don't come even close to fully capturing the enormity of these mountains, but Mimi and I did our best. 


The town itself was also remarkable in that it was made entirely of stones. This gave it a primitive aura. The local people looked quite worn by the sun, and you could tell that the village was not particularly prosperous. After walking through the village, we continued along a path that snaked further up the side of the valley. This eventually led us to the highest point of the day: a vista point that nearly brought me to tears. The clarity of the sky and mountains was something I never knew existed on this earth. The sun was beating down on me, but the winds from the mountains simultaneously cooled me down. We spent quite some time here and it was great to simply sit and soak up the mountains. I felt very happy at this moment and I hope that in the coming days we will be able to visit more places such as this.

The rest of the day's trek was nearly all downhill. The environment at this point totally caught me offguard. As we descended back down into the valley, I realized that we were without a doubt in the middle of a desert. Well, there was the occasional stream of water, but the air was dry, the plants were sparse, and the hillsides were composed of rocks that reminded me of the more barren parts of Utah or Arizona.

The funny thing was that despite the burning sun and the desert scenery, a quick look up in nearly any direction revealed towering mountain peaks. I kept wondering, how could the snow be so close to us and not melt? It's so hot down here! It was then that I realized that the snow wasn't even that close. It was just that the mountains are so huge and towering that they feel much closer than they really are.

As we walked towards Manang, I truly felt like I was in the wild west. It was an unmistakable sensation, and when a Nepali man sporting a veritable cowboy hat blazed past us on his horse, all I could do was laugh. For the millionth time this week, I asked myself the same questions once again: "How did I get here? Where am I? Is this for real?"

I am very happy to be where I am right now. And I want nothing more than to share this place - the villages, the people, the landscapes - with my friends and family. Nepal is an amazing place and I am actually at a loss for words. I just don't know what to say. I love it here!

DAY 7: October 25, 2009. Acclimatization Day in Manang

Today we spent a second day in the wonderful and charming town of Manang. It is strongly advised that all trekkers spend two nights in Manang to help with the process of acclimatization. As I wrote before, if you go too high too fast, you can get very, very sick. Traditionally, we are supposed to do a day hike on the second day in Manang that goes high in elevation. By "hiking high and sleeping low," we can become comfortable with the altitude much more quickly.

So we spent the morning doing an excellent but challenging hike that brought us back up to 4,000 meters. The trail was quite obvious so Dahn (who is already well acclimatized from 12 years of trekking) stayed at the lodge while Mimi and I went out on our own. Our Austrian friends decided forgo the second day in Manang, so we said goodbye to them in the morning. The plan is to meet up with them again in three days in a town called Muktinath, but I don't know if this will actually happen. I hope it does though because they are excellent trekking mates.

The morning hike basically took us up the side of the valley much in the same way as the day before. The steep zigzagging path was quite tiring, but we were rewarded at the top with even more stunning views of the surrounding mountains. I can't stress enough that b by being closer to the mountains, they seem so much more tangible and dominating. The mountains are so big that they can play tricks with your eyes. Sometimes it seems that we are in striking distance of the snow line. In reality, it's another 2,000 meters up. The mountains are so big that they often seem so much closer than they really are. A towering peak that seems a short hike away might really be six or seven miles away.

We didn't feel sick at all during the hike, so I think we will be OK in terms of the upcoming increase in altitude. We will still take it slow tomorrow and see how we feel at lunchtime, but if all goes according to plan, we will spend tomorrow night in Thorung Phedi, which is at around 4500 m. We will then get up super early the next morning and go over the Thorung La Pass, which at 5416 meters is the highest pass in the world that doesn't require mountaineering gear. If at any point we start to feel sick, we will retreat downhill until we are properly acclimatized.

Thorung La is supposed to be very challenging and somewhat miserable. The reason we have to leave at 3 or 4 in the morning is because at about 10 am the winds become so intense that it becomes unbearable. I think that many people like to overhype the extremity of Thorung La. It is a constant topic of conversation in the lodges among trekkers. At the same time, a few people die each year while attempting to cross the pass. These deaths are usually the result of under equipped porters who cannot bear the cold, or moronic trekkers who attempt the pass with out sufficient acclimatization. Forunately for us, our porter Ramji has gloves, a hat, boots and a jacket, and we are not morons. I think we will be just fine.

Anyways, I got a little bit ahead of myself. We got back fro mthe hike at about noon and had a good lunch of Dal Baht and Veg. Momos. Dal Baht is the national food of Nepal and consists of rice, lentil soup, and potato curry. If you are really lucky, you might get a green veggie, a piece of papad (thin crispy bread with peppercorns), or some pickled radishes or chilis. I've been eating Dal Baht for either lunch or dinner everyday so far on the trek. I feel it is my duty, as 80% of all Nepalis eat Dal Baht every single day for their entire life. I'm not quite ready to eat it with my bare hands as the Nepalis do, but I'm doing my best to eat the local food.

The food on the trek has often been quite simple, but sometimes we get a very delicious meal. Every lodge basically has the exact same menu, which consists of different versions of stir-fried noodles, rice or potatoes. Throw Dal Baht or some Momos (Tibetan dumplings) into the mix, and you can get a pretty decent variety of food. Occasionally, a menu will bust out with a curveball, such as the "lasagna" I had a few nights ago. This travesty of a dish consisted of fat Chinese noodles mixed with bitter greens, which was then drenched in a bizarre sauce vaguely remniscent of Thousand Island dressing. Dahn had warned us not to waste food, so I did my best to eat it all. I can't really complain though when I factor in the fact that I'm a six day walk from the nearest road suitable for automobiles. I'm surprised that the people here even know was lasagna is! And besids, sometimes the good as really quite delicious, such as the Dal Baht I had for lunch.

Boy, I keep getting sidetracked! After lunch we sat out in the windy sun and read our books. I am currently reading a Kurt Vonnegut book called Galapagos. As many of his books are, it's quite silly but enjoyable to read. We then walked around Manang for a bit, caved in, and had a delicious slice of fresh carrot cake at a bakery down the road from our lodge. The local population in Manang have historically been traders, and they sure have mastered the art of providing exactly what a Western trekker needs after they've been on the trail for about a week.

As we walked back towards the lodge, we heard in the distance a large group of Nepalis singing a song. It was a very peaceful melody and had a distinctly Native American tonal quality to it. As we turned the corner off the main drag, we discovered that all the singing men were actually on horses. As corny as this is to say, we had stumbled upon a completely authentic cultural tradition.

All of the horses were occupied by the young, fit men of Manang. They wore a bizarrre combination of traditional yak wool garments, pro-wrestling t-shirts, and baseball caps and cowboy hats.

Surrounding the men were the women, children and elderly. As one man on a horse banged a large drum to a slow simple beat, the horsemen sang the same two or three melodies over and over again. As they sang, they passed around a container of yak butter, so that each man could ceremoniously put a dollop of butter on the back of us head. This apparently brings good luck.

This went on for at least 30 minutes and probably longer. Although there were some other trekkers watching the ceremony, I felt the Nepalis were not putting on a show for the tourists. It felt like they had been doing this for generations and would have been doing it regardless of whether the "Annapurna Circuit Trek" existed or not.

The funny thing was that I wasn't even sure what the ceremony was in preparation for. The night before we had seen these same men riding their horses back and forth down the main drag of town. It wasn't exactly a race, but they would go quite fast and there was an element of competition and showboating.

After the horseman road off, the town was quiet for maybe an hour. Slowly, people -- locals and trekkers alike -- began lining up along the main drag, staking out a good spot. Many people watched from the roofs of the lodges, as we had done the night before. Finally, after a long wait, the horses came back into town and proceeded to race back and forth. It was great fun to watch, especially as the sun set behind the mountains.


Manang is an amazing town. Its people seem to be poor but industrious and clever. The shops here are quite good and the town definitely feels more prosperous than some of the other villages we've stayed in. The Himalayas are an amazing people, if not for the mountains, then for bizarre, wild west towns such as Manang.

DAY 8: October 26, 2009. From Manang (3540m) to Thorung Phedi (4450m)

I can no longer feel my legs. I haven't eaten in 27 hours. Mimi collapsed from exhaustion and our guide Dahn was eaten by a yak. But I must carry on in their name.

Just kidding! I still have my legs. That being said, I am in probably the most extreme location I have ever been to. We are at Thorung Phedi, which clocks in at an impressive 4540 meters. The town consists solely of two lodges that can sleep up to 200 trekkers. Other than a restaurant, a bakery and a safe drinking water station, there is literally nothing else here. Everything is solar powered and the lodges close permanently during the winter, as it is impossible to cross Thorung La at this time. In other words, this is a base camp, not a village.

The landscape here is stark and barren. We are actually at eye level with the snow and surrounding by massive mountains. The mood here is understandably somewhat somber. Everyone here has just spent the day trekking through some very cold, desolate terrain to get here. Everyone here, including myself, is probably battling a mild to severe headache induced by the high altitude. On top of that, everyone here has to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and climb another 1000 meters to the top of the pass. For the reasons, no one is playing Yatzee tonight. People here are quiet and subdued.

We took our time today because of altitude. Technically, we skipped one night of acclimatization, but neither of us felt sick or dizzy, so we forged ahead to Thorung Phedi, where we are now. Throughout the day, I battled with a mild headache. When this happened, we would take a short break and the headache would gradually fade away. I think that the two previous days of high hiking really helped us get used to the air and enabled us to make it up here smoothly.

There are no trees up this high. We surpassed the tree line early this morning and now there are only shrubs and the occasional wandering yak. Like the previous two days, the air today was cold and dry, only even more so. I can't help but feel that if the mountains and snow weren't here, we'd be in the middle of a desert.


Well, I don't really have anything else to report. Oh yeah, today marked the first day that Dahn scored us a room with a private bathroom. It's just a grim as any other bathroom I've used in the past week, but hey, at least its ours.

Tomorrow will be a very long, challenging, and in all likelyhood, miserable day. Hopefully we can get some good views at the top and the wind won't be too bad. I haven't seen a single cloud in about four days so I think we'll be OK. Dahn has promised us that we'll be fine and that we can celebrate tomorrow night in Muktinath with some candy bars and local apple brandy. Can't wait!

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