SHOULD HAVE BEEN POSTED NOVEMBER 11, 2011
I write this entry in the Snowman Cafe, a Kathmandu institution on the perpetually hippy-infested “Freak Street.” The Snowman Cafe is famous for it's chocolate cake, so Katie and I have been spending a lot of time here in the last week or so.
Tomorrow morning, I leave the comforts of Kathmandu to begin the month-or-so long journey from Jiri, a town known for being a trail head, to Everest Base Camp, located at a lung-busting 5545 meters (18,187 feet) above sea level, and then on to Lukla, a town known for it's airport, the deadliest in the world. There, I'll board a plane a fly back to Kathmandu. I should once again be able to enjoy the luxuries of free electricity, warmth, internet availability, chocolate cake at the Snowman Cafe, and Tiger Balm salesmen sometime in early December. So there won't be any more entries for a month or so.
I've been in Nepal for 2 months exactly, and it's been amazing. I've had more adventures than I can count, but one of the biggest was Katie and my having “finished” the Annapurna circuit. The reason for the quotes will be apparent by the end of the story.
On Thursday, October 13th, Katie and I boarded a bus to Besi Sahar, where the Annapurna Circuit, a 20 or so day, 300 kilometer trek, begins. The bus ride was one of the most uncomfortable and terrifying experiences of my life. Seriously. Ugh. But then, after a little bit of last-minute Nepali-government related paperwork, we were on the trail.
The first few days involved walking up an almost tropical canyon with 1000-foot cliffs rising sharply on both sides. We must have walked past several hundred waterfalls cascading down the tropical cliff faces. The lodging was impressive, with many teahouses at these lower elevations offering such luxuries as free in-room electricity and hot showers. And the prices here were … well, less impressive than the 1000-foot cliffs, but pretty impressive. A room would typically cost 100 Rupees (about $1.33), and dinner and breakfast cost something like $7-8 per person. We would typically be in bed by 9pm, and up by 7, usually getting on the trail by 9. The temperature during the day at these sub-2000 meter elevations was pleasant, and if anything, a bit warm for trekking with big, heavy backpacks, but we didn't see any rain, and it was generally sunny. Katie and I would sometimes walk together, sometimes separately, and although we met a few other trekkers, we didn't really make any friends during the first few days on the trail. By October 17th, our fourth day on the trail, we'd gone up in elevation from 830 to 2640 meters, and the thinner air was making itself apparent, especially during sustained uphill sections.
As the elevation increased, the temperatures dropped, and soon, Katie found herself wearing all the clothes she had brought with her on a nightly basis. Almost as rapidly as the temperatures dropped, the prices rose. A milk tea that cost 10 Rupees in Besi Sahar suddenly cost 70. Room rates, fortunately, stayed near the 100 Rupee mark for the majority of the Annapurna Circuit.
On the 18th, Katie and I met some people that would end up becoming good friends. It's amazing how a shared, challenging activity can bring people together. 29 year-old Emre, from Turkey, was in the middle of his first year abroad – he intends to travel for four years. 21 year-old Wendy, from Belgium, was on month two of a planned year-long round the world trip. And 25 year-olds Christy and Natalie are from Alaska, so I'm jealous. We walked together a few days, and shared an “acclimatization day” or two in Manang, at 3500 meters.
In Manang, population probably 200, Katie and I got silly-drunk on 25 Rupee rahksi (Nepali moonshine) and watched “City of God” in a tin-roofed “movie theater” adorned with yak-fur covered benches. When we emerged from the movie theater, the first snow of the season was falling in heavy, wet flakes. We did the 20-minute walk home in the dark, through fields filled with glowing-devil-eyes yaks, and discussed our chances of surviving the night when it had such a horror-movie feel.
The scenery at this elevation was varied, but vastly different from the almost-tropical atmosphere of the lower elevations. A 30-minute stretch of walking could see you through a pine forest, across a 100 meter gorge on an Indiana Jones style rope bridge (but usually made of cables), and staring slack-jawed at any of the 8,000 meter peaks that dot the Annapurna range. Or maybe you'd see an avalanche. Katie and I saw 2.
The villages at these higher elevations were Tibetan in style, which basically means all of the buildings were constructed entirely of stone, and if they were heated, it was with wood- or yak shit-burning stoves. They were absolutely beautiful. Walking through some of these villages evoked a feeling of stepping a few hundred years back in time … at least until you spotted a NepalTV satellite dish. But if you did see a NepalTV satellite dish, that implied that it was carried in on the back of a person or a donkey. No roads reach these higher elevations, so literally everything in these towns is carried in by people and donkeys. Katie and I caught a few sunrises and sunsets from scenic viewpoints along the trek, and some of them were simply stunning. Pictures won't be up for a while, sorry.
On the night of October 24th, Katie and I slept at Thorong Pedi, a “town” that consists of a huge, 200+ bed teahouse and some donkeys that must hate their freezing-cold lives. It's at 4540 meters above sea level (14,891 feet), which means it's cold AND hard to breathe! Surprisingly, I slept well on this particular night. The next day, almost everyone Katie and I talked to had not been able to sleep well because of the thin air.
On October 25th, Katie and I arose at the crack of 3:43 AM in order to make it to our 4 AM breakfast. Why, oh why would we actually choose to get up at such an absurd hour? Because on this day, we were to cross Thorong La (Thorong Pass), about a thousand meters above Thorong Pedi at 5416 meters (17,764 feet) above sea level. It was hard, but nothing compared to what we had built it up to be in our minds. Katie crested the pass at 9:30, and I did the same half an hour later. We had some celebratory whiskey and took a buttload of pictures with Wendy, Christy, Natalie, Adam, Merida, Ido and Tal … we'd made some more friends by this point.
And then there was the descent. It went on. And on. And on. And on. And then, at 3:15 pm, we found ourselves in the lobby of the Hotel Bob Marley, in Muktinath. At 3800 meters, the air felt amazing in both its relative warmth and thickness. After 4 days without a shower, the hot shower at Hotel Bob Marley was one of the best things to ever happen ever. We celebrated with all our friends by throwing more money away on Everest Beer and Bagpiper Whiskey than we'd spent on alcohol for the preceding 2 weeks. Katie and I spent another day in Muktinath, and then continued down. From this point on, the circuit would gradually decrease in elevation, and go through a similar transition in scenery that had happened on the first half of the trek, but in reverse. At the higher elevations on this side of Thorong La, though, the scenery was completely new. I'd never seen anything like it before. It was like a dry, dusty desert surrounded by the unimaginably tall and beautiful Himalayas. I guess it wasn't like that, it was that.
A few days later, Katie and I found ourselves reunited with Adam and Merida, 2 new American friends (and our doppelgangers) who work 9 months of the year in Australia, and travel 3 months a year in Asia. Together, we walked as far as Marpha, where I got sick. Again. Hooray. On the 29th, we got on a bus (a road runs along the section of the circuit that lies West of Thorong La) and rode a few hours to Tatopani, where we hoped the hot springs and decreased elevation would help me recover quickly. This was not to be the case. I self-diagnosed myself with strep throat, and with help from antibiotics, cakes and candy bars aplenty, I recovered. A little bit, anyways. But not enough to have a happy Halloween. In fact, years from now, I think I'll remember this as the lamest Halloween of my life. I went to bed at 4 in the afternoon.
The next day was a memory that I wish I could forget. Katie and I spent November 1st on a series of buses. It sucked. Katie sat next to a Nepali guy who prayed the whole ride. I almost did too. It was weird. And then we were back in Pokhara.
I spent a week or so there, and a week or so in Kathmandu. Almost every night since finishing the trek has been one of our new friends' last nights in town, so every night has been a going-away party. And I'm all partied out. Good timing, since there won't be any of that going on for a while.
Wish me luck!