Along the narrow streets that are enclosed by tall shop buildings, whose colourful merchandise spills out onto the roadway, flows a constant river of bodies. Some travelling more purposefully than others, but all with a certain stiffness and tension as they are continuously forced to stop, go, left, stop, right, accelerate, stop, go, in order to keep moving forward. The stream is constantly broken and then reshaped by a matchbox taxi, a battered minivan or a menacing motorbike, all of which push and shove and honk to within millimetres of the bodies inside, in order to find a way through.
The very real chance of being struck by any of these is dangerously high, but by far the most threatening are the motorbikes. Unlike in SE Asia, they are bulky, loud, powerful and are all fitted with very aggressive-looking bull-bars that protect the riders shins and knees, but threaten to cut short the life of those of anyone unlucky enough to get in their way. They emerge from alleyways and at speed, thrash a path through the stream, hoping the bodies hear the intimidating noise of the engine and stand clear.
This is Kathmandu.
The fat Nepali in the minivan had driven me to a hotel of his choosing and as I stood on the rooftop musing at the happenings below (a popular pastime among the locals), I was still in shock.
There had been no transition, no crossing of border areas in which opposing regions and countries and their cultures influence one another. My plane had bypassed all transitions and plonked me in the middle of this totally foreign environment where there are far more pedestrians than vehicles, cows roam at will, women dress in amazingly graceful, brightly coloured saris and men walk the streets hand in hand. One soon becomes accustomed to these masculine displays of affection about which there are absolutely no sexual overtones, but the sight of a soldier and a policeman in full uniform, taking a slow stroll, ones fingers entwined with the others, will never cease to turn my head.
I embraced the change and looked forward to tackling what I considered to be ‘phase 2’ of the tour; Southern Asia.
I was only in the smog-filled madhouse that is Kathmandu for a couple of days before departing for the mightiest of all mountain ranges, those which were formed 60 million years ago when the landmass that is India came crashing into China; The Himalaya.
I had decided to embark on the Annapurna Circuit. This 3-4 week trek is the most popular in Nepal due to the amazing scenery, which includes several of the worlds 14 8000+m peaks and many more over 7000m, as well as the cultural diversity of the Himalayan inhabitants. Fortunately however, I had arrived in Nepal very much out of season as the annual monsoon was threatening to break and obscure those all important views, meaning the crowds were still several months away.
Having never undertaken anything more adventurous than a short bushwalk, I was relieved that I was not going to have to tackle this trek alone. On my plane from Thailand had been a lean, blonde-haired Czech national named Jarda, whom I first saw walking around Bangkok International carrying a spear gun. He was as equally inexperienced and clueless as to what it took to climb to over 5000m and back down again, something I think we both took comfort in, so we decided to team up. As it turned out, we would prove to be a good match. Neither of us was in any rush and therefore did not mind sleeping in and taking the occasional day off to rest and recuperate. We both had a similar comfortable walking pace and he too thought that the best fuel for such a journey would be some fine Nepali hashish, cultivated in the very Himalayan mountains we were walking through.
With minimal preparation, we hopped on a minibus bound for our starting point of Besishahar. We had only made it about 30km however, when our bus, running low on fuel, could only find deserted service stations with empty bowsers. This sight is all too common right across Nepal due to severe fuel shortages. How the Nepalis manage to keep their gas-guzzling trucks, buses, jeeps and 500cc motorbikes running with petrol at 100Rs ($1.50) per litre when it is officially available and double that on the black market when it isn’t, is a mystery.
After an hour or so, our ‘replacement’ bus arrived. In reality, this was simply an already full bus that our driver had cut a deal with to take us the rest of the way. Since seats were in short supply, Jarda and I had little choice but to do the Nepali thing and climb up onto the roof where we made futile attempts to get comfortable on the metal luggage rack. As we were hurtled through the valley westwards, keeping a close eye on the overhead wires that seemed to shave the heads of the daring Nepalis who sat on the drivers’ cabin, the views of the enormous green mountains that cut sharply down to the river below, were spectacular.
At one point, we were joined by no less than 30 excited kids who we ferried to the local soccer field. Before our bus came along they had been preparing to make the journey on the roof of a smaller vehicle, hugging each other for support over the bumps and around the bends, standing up!
By the time we arrived in Besishahar where the paved road ends, the 140km journey had taken nearly eight hours and I was so buggered that it felt as though I had cycled the whole way. We subsequently decided to take a rest day before the trek had even begun.
It was after only five minutes on the trail that I realised just how physically and mentally challenging walking for over three weeks was going to be. Already my back and shoulders ached, as they were unaccustomed to bearing the load of a 12kg backpack. Fortunately, this was just part of a ‘breaking in’ period that lasted only a few days and in any case, the amazing scenery and lowland mountain communities we passed through more than compensated for any pain experienced.
As we climbed day after day, there was a certain excitement surrounding our constant rise in altitude, knowing where we were to ultimately end up; 5,416m, where the oxygen content of the air is roughly half what it is at sea level and which they say is just about as high as one can get without the need for pick axes, crampons, ropes, porters and other expensive mountaineering equipment.
Indeed, in this the trekking capital of the world, one can reach these dizzying heights in relative comfort on such a ‘teahouse trek’ as we were on, so named because of the wide variety of teas available at the lodges that are passed every couple of hours or so. Whether it is mint, ginger, lemon, masala, Tibetan or rasta, nothing hits the spot like a hot tea in the mountains.
When we reached 3000m, the potential for altitude sickness became present. It was also about the point at which we had seemingly stepped back a few centuries to medieval times. All of the houses were sturdy, grey structures constructed solely of stone and dirt, built to withstand the furious winds and heavy snow loads brought by the harsh winters that force the inhabitants and their livestock to retreat to the warmer climes of the Kathmandu Valley for several months of the year.
In actual fact, we had entered the dry highlands area of the Himalaya, which is the home of people largely of Tibetan origin, displayed most prominently by the abundance of Buddhist prayer wheels, chortens, mani stones and colourful prayers flags, the last of which carry the mantras printed on them to the heavens as they flap in the wind.
In some villages, the catering to the tourist market is prominent as every second home along the ‘main drag’ has been converted into a ‘Guesthouse and Restaurant.’ Shop windows display trekking equipment and baked goods such as chocolate croissants and children greet trekkers with “Hello pen”, “One sweet” or more blatantly, “Give me money”, many of whom do not know exactly what they are saying, just that they are asking for something.
In other villages, life carries on as it has for generations; fields are plowed by powerful, muscular buffalos, water is collected from the local well and women carry firewood to be used as fuel for cooking and heating in rattan bamboo baskets.
Life in all though is extremely primitive since all supplies have to be brought in by either pack horses or human porters on the trail that, despite having been used for commercial trekking for over 30 years, maintains its ‘local route’ feel. Hundreds of similar paths used by goats, yaks, horses and villagers alike can be seen leading to even more remote settlements that make up some of the Himalayas 50 million inhabitants.
By this stage also, it was clear that we were well and truly entrenched in the Himalaya and it was awe-inspiring. No collection of photos can do it justice nor can all of the adjectives in Webster’s, adequately describe the landscapes we were walking through, so I shall just use one; huge.
There is no doubt that all of the geographical features, be it the snow-capped peaks, the steep scree slopes or the deep river valleys that have been carved through the rock over millions of years, can be found in other parts of the world, but in the Himalaya they are on an altogether different scale. Everything is huge.
It has been said that cultures that have evolved in mountainous regions invariably believe the mountains to be the home of the Gods or Gods themselves. I now understand how such a connection developed, for this truly is the place where heaven and earth meet and walking in the shadows of these 7000+m Gods is a spiritual experience indeed.
On the basis of local recommendations, Jarda and I had decided to make the side trip to Tilicho Tal, which at just under 5000m is the highest lake in the world and the source of the Marsyangdi Khola, the river we had been following since the start of the trek. The route to the base camp for the lake involved the crossing of a 4,600m pass.
Between 3000 and 4000 metres above sea level, it was difficult to ascertain as to whether the change in the ‘feel’ of the air and our bodies was due to the altitude or the number of spliffs smoked over the past two weeks. Above 4000m however, there was no doubting it; the air was crisp, sharp and for want of a better word, thin. Walking became much more of an effort, as a single breath was required for every one or two steps and a regular breathing pattern had to be strictly maintained. If I broke my pattern even just to lick my severely chapped lips, I would find myself gasping for five or six quick breaths to catch up. Mental activity decreased and the deep thought that walking had been so conducive to ceased, to a point where my mind could do little more than ‘say’ what it saw – ‘rock, stick, yak-shit, rock……….’ For some reason, I spent a good half an hour trying to work out what 17 multiplied by 6 was and even then I got it wrong. I think the answer I came up with was ‘rock yak-shit.’
Upon arrival at the pass, we were surprised to find ourselves at the top of an extremely steep slope of loose scree with the base camp no less than 500 metres directly below us. My first thought was, ‘Yes! Here comes fun!’
However, there were tracks that traversed back and forth, across and down the slope and several fellow trekkers began to slowly and patiently descend along them. This made no sense to me or my sense of adventure and I decided that I would have to lead the way in employing an alternate method of descent. I turned my body so that I was facing directly down the mountain and just ran. I was immediately surprised both by how much speed I was able to attain, but also how much control I had as I carved my way through the scree in the same way a skier carves through powder.
The other trekkers were also surprised as I shot past them, but they clearly liked the idea, for they too were soon kicking up dust and sending waves of mini-avalanches down the mountain with huge grins on their faces.
As it turns out, a poster at the base camp showed that one could pay for this experience, known as the ‘Donkey Monkey,’ which I assume is a reference to the form of transport to the top of the mountain as well as the animal the person resembles as they run down it with arms and legs flailing all over the place.
In contrast to what it was supposed to be like at this time of year, the weather had been fantastic with at least several hours of blue, sunny skies on most days and very little rain. What every trekker really hopes for though, is good weather at those key moments of height and views. So when we awoke the following morning in preparation for our ascent to Tilicho and saw a flawlessly clear sky in all directions, we were ecstatic. The climb was arduous and, forced by the altitude to take steps of little more than half a shoe-length, gruelingly slow, but the views of the valley from which we had come, the snow covered lake and the surrounding peaks were perhaps the best of the entire trek. Plus of course, there was the satisfaction that we had visited the highest lake on the planet.
After half an hour of enjoying the spectacle in the icy winds, I developed a dull headache and a couple of other trekkers were beginning to feel the effects of the lack of oxygen also. It was time to go, but the experience would prove to be good preparation for what was to come.
After Tilicho, our twosome became a foursome when we joined forces with two other like-minded trekkers in Paul and Gideon. What ensued were many entertaining nights of charas-fuelled, high altitude, Texas Hold ‘Em, including one on a snowy evening at the Thorung La High Camp, which at 4,900m, sits just 500m below the pass.
By this stage, it seems that my body had performed one of its many amazing and still not fully understood functions; that of acclimatisation.
Subsequently, the walk to the pass the following morning, when we were again blessed with gorgeous weather, was not too strenuous. We were greeted at the top by a plethora of prayer flags draped around a sign congratulating us on ascending the highest pass in the world.
And as if we weren’t high enough already, true to our groups form, we partook in a sizeable chillum to celebrate our achievement and that took us above Everest!
There was little time for reflection however, for the mid-morning clouds were beginning to move in threateningly and as every mountaineer knows, half the challenge is getting back down again.