We booked the “tourist” bus from Pokhara to the start of the Annapurna Circuit in Besisahar, but that isn’t what we got.
This turned out to be a good thing, of course. For one, I got to witness Michael’s reaction to an elderly Nepalese man who exhibited his idea of personal space by sitting in his lap and gesturing wildly and intrusively with his hands while in conversation with a fellow passenger. More importantly, however, it meant that we met Kristen and Jonathan. Kristen’s blonde head bobbed conspicuously a few rows in front of mine for the entirety of the five-hour, early-morning ride. I wondered if the only other foreigners on the bus were also starting the circuit that day and, indeed, it would turn out that they were.
We made the ill-fated booking for the bus through the owner of our hotel in Pokhara and two nights prior to our departure, while in that hotel trying to sleep, I was roused from bed by the sound of screaming. We were staying on the top floor of a place in Lakeside – what they call that strip of restaurants, bars, tea houses, “German bakeries” and trekking outfitters that line one of Nepal’s most striking lakes. Staying in one of Pokhara’s few tall structures meant that the roof deck outside our door offered a rare and perfect view of the lake, the surrounding hillsides, the snow peaks in the distance and the Shanti Stupa you can visit if you cross the lake by boat and commit yourself to a four-hour climb. Staying in the only room on the top floor, however, also meant that our door was adjacent to the apartment inhabited by the hotel owner, his brother, wife and three small children. The screaming we heard that night belonged to one of those children – a boy whose age I would guess to be ten or 11. Unable to ignore or disregard what sounded to me like genuine terror, I walked into the hallway and peered through the apartment’s open door. The boy’s uncle was beating him with a thick bamboo stick, striking him repeatedly on the hands and neck. Sensing my presence, the man turned to look at me and relented. The boy’s mother stood up, gave me a look that seemed to instruct me to mind my own business and shut the door in my face.
Our decision to raise this subject with the proprietor the next morning may have contributed to our fate of splurging for the shitty bus and boarding the even shittier one, but who knows.
Jonathan and Kristen, Canadians who had been traveling around Asia for nearly a year, became fast friends over a shared sense of humor regarding the crowded, mildewed bus ride and a lunch of tibetan bread and boiled eggs in Besisahar. It was clear that we would start the trek together and so it came to be that they were around to witness the scene I made when 30 minutes into the 11 day trek I got my shoelaces stuck together and fell into a mud pile, busting open a knee and landing flat on my face, with my giant pack increasing the weight of my falling mass. This act of grace would set the precedent for the many illnesses and ailments that I would collect, seemingly for sport, throughout the trek. These ranged from the absurd and inexplicable itchy ass syndrome I suffered – which was so extreme that at one point I ripped my pack apart in the middle of the day to find soap, new underwear and antibacterical cream (use your imagination) – to the severe cold that I woke with on day two and that would plague me for the entirety of our time there. Shin splints, a raw stomach and leach bites eventually added themselves to the list and it became a running joke for the other tourists and guides we befriended to ask me about my health any time we would encounter them on the trail.
A bit of background on the Annapurna Circuit…
It’s a hike. In Nepal.
I think the fact that it’s a hike that lasts for 10 to 17 days means you have to start referring to it as a trek, but, aside from the fact that the last day can very literally kill you (at least three trekkers per year die attempting it), it’s simply a very long and very beautiful hike. It starts in the lowlands in a town called Besisahar and continues on to reach its summit at a mountain pass called Thorung La, which sits 5,416 meters above sea level. If you, like me, have a limited understanding of the implications of altitude, let me just say that this is fucking high. Your body has access to about half the oxygen it normally does and you feel it.
We woke on this last day at 4:30 a.m., not merely with the exhaustion provoked by such an early morning, but with the cumulative exhaustion of the ten days that had come before. The day prior we had made it to the last stop before the pass, Thorong Phedi. This is touted as a “village” by guide books but it’s simply two tea houses, the existences of which are dependent entirely on the revenue generated by foreign trekkers. The “village” sits at about 4,500 meters, which means that once you get there you suffer from that contradictory experience of being absolutely freezing and becoming wickedly sunburned at the same time – a result of the high altitude chill combined with being closer to the sun than your body is accustomed. That morning, we made our first attempt to start the five-hour, 1,000 meter climb to the pass at 5 a.m. By 5:30 a.m., we found ourselves retreating back down to the tea house, having only gained about 100 meters. Twenty minutes into our climb, I collapsed in a heap on some rocks, thinking I might have to vomit or that I might pass out. Prior to my collapse, I was foolishly attempting to hide my symptoms from Michael, hoping they would go away. They didn’t. And when he realized the severity of my issues with the altitude, he wisely and generously insisted, amid absurd, choked protests from me (trying to explain to someone that you’re “fine” when you can barely speak isn’t very convincing), that we descend.
Acute mountain sickness.
It can happen above 3,000 meters and, if your symptoms become bad enough, your only recourse is to descend immediately. Symptoms include weakness, nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion and dizziness. If you don’t descend, fluid will begin to seep out of your blood cells, most likely in your brain, you’ll slip into a coma and death is certain within hours if someone doesn’t carry you back down.
Our second attempt that morning was 20 minutes later. I could walk in a straight line – the litmus test for whether or not you’re in real trouble – and we determined that as long as we could get over the pass in one day, everything would be alright. If I could start descending on the other side that day, without going to sleep, the symptoms might be painful but the affliction wouldn’t kill me.
We started again. It was still dark out but the snow-white glacier in the distance reflected just enough light that we didn’t need our headlamps. I took slow, methodical steps and made it maybe 200 meters before collapsing again. I couldn’t do it. My body won the fight with my mind and I sat in a steep pile of rocks as Michael and I divided up our bags in the moonlight. We put as much weight into mine as we could and determined that he would go on while I went back to try to hire a horse to ride up to the pass. We had a porter with us at this point – for most of the trek we carried all of our belongings on our own backs – but we hired a local named Tongrama for the last, brutal leg. He slung my heavy bag onto his back and I insisted on walking in front of him so that he wouldn’t see me cry. I was disappointed and furious with my body, but too anxious to be off the mountain to spend another day hunkering down in Thorung Phedi hoping, perhaps vainly, that I would acclimatize. Despite its unnerving beauty and the deliciousness of its remoteness, it’s an unpleasant place to be. The air is thin, the sun is ruthless and there isn’t any escape from the cold.
An hour later, I paid Tongrama what we owed him, said my goodbyes, strapped my pack to my back and pulled myself onto the back of a brown horse to try a third time. This time, using the horse’s energy instead of my own and swallowing a mouthful of pride, the headache and nausea were bearable and we ascended. Halfway up I stopped at a small hut – the only one that exists until well on the other side of the pass – for a cup of tea. The only three humans visible for what seemed like an eternity were myself, the proprietor of the hut and a British trekker I hadn’t seen since our first morning on the trail when we happened to have breakfast together. We found out, strangely, that we had both just quit full time jobs to pursue the idea of making custom furniture – he in London and I in New York. We then sat and shared a silence more complete and full than any I’ve ever experienced. When there isn’t any wind, and when you’re too high up for many animals to survive, the top of a mountain is quieter than any other place on earth.
Going faster on a horse than a person can on foot, I caught up to Michael just as he reached the pass. We lingered just long enough for a few pictures before descending aggressively. At certain points, he was literally jogging down the trail – a feat I considered mind blowing given how he spent the previous five hours, but he was running on adrenaline and snickers bars. I hurried along behind on foot, feeling a bit healthier and having left the horse with the guide who was to take him back down. Three hours later we emerged from the desert remoteness of the mountains into a green valley and soon after, to the town of Muktinath, where we had decided our trek would end. You can continue on along the other side of the pass for a few days but that piece of the land has been scarred by a road that, though useful in some ways, has robbed the landscape of much of its natural beauty, as well as the tea house proprietors on that side of many of their customers.
A word about the tea house proprietors…
Aside from the fact that during our ten days in the mountains I saw more natural beauty than I have at any other time in my life, one of the truly beautiful things about this trek is that you aren’t just walking through the wilderness…you’re also walking through people’s lives. The tea houses you come to to eat, sleep and share tales with other travelers at the end of each day aren’t just lodges, they are also these people’s homes. The kitchens where they prepare the dal bhat you’ll eat at the end of each day – a meal of curried vegetables, rice, lentils and pickles – are the kitchens in which they prepare their own meals. The people bringing tea and food to trekkers are families, often children, and everyone in the family – from small children to the elderly – pitches in to cook, clean, harvest crops or take care of infants. I have walked into a tea house in the middle of the day to discover that the proprietors are in a field behind the structure, working their land, and that the only human presence in the house is a sleeping baby, tenderly placed in the middle of the room on layered blankets.
Something Jonathan said to me as we walked together a few days into the trek stuck with me. He said that everyone always talks about how small the world is and how technology keeps shrinking it, but that the more he travels and the more he sees, the more he realizes that it’s enormous, that the scope of people you’ll meet if you keep exploring is vast and that there will never be enough time to experience it all. I think as I walked through the circuit I came to a middle ground regarding that statement. Yes, the people who call the mountains their home and I are worlds apart, separated by cultures that couldn’t be more different. But I also saw mischievous kids being kids – exactly as they would in the west. I saw grandparents tenderly scolding them and workers sharing a smoke and a beer after a long day, sitting in solidarity and taking comfort in their shared lives. And, though the world is vast and Jonathan is right, I take some comfort in the fact that no matter where you go, the humanity you share with the people you encounter along the way is recognizable and pure and beautiful.