|Beginning our six day trek|
|Reaching the highest point of our trek|
|Nepalese trekking steps|
It’s taken a week of rest from our trek through the lower villages of the Annapurna mountain range of Nepal for me to properly digest the adventure we experienced. When I first discussed with Sharon the six day trek before signing on with the offer from Sherpa Sarkee, we both had a bit of reservation the adventure might not challenge us physically and that it would be a soft touristy walk along rolling hills spending our evenings at quaint teahouses. Even as we left our base location of Pokhara for the hour drive to the trailhead, on our drive out of the city Sharon mentioned that the scheduled three hours of hiking would most likely be an easy short day. Oh how assumptions can be so wrong and become the bain of one’s expectations.
|See the "deadly" sink between the two doorways|
As I covered in my previous blog entry on Nepal, we took an hour flight from Kathmandu to the expedition base city of Pokhara. Our first day after getting our room assignment at the Hotel Meera, we walked along Lake Fewa watching the boats navigate to the other side or to the small temple island 100 yards off shore of a large reservoir the city hugs like a crescent. The pace of this city is much slower, though the methodology of driving reminds you you are still in Nepal. The hotel clerk recommended the restaurant Moondance for dinner, so we wondered down the main boulevard. To our surprise they served a real Greek salad with real lettuce greens and other delights. Somehow in Asia, the thought of having greens in your salad is a rare foreign thought. After dinner Sharon and I went through our duffel bags and consolidated all our necessary warm clothing and other sundries into a single duffel while the other we left at our hotel until our return from the trek. Our trekking guide, Dawa who met us at Katmandu airport traveled with us to Pokhara, was to meet us at our hotel the next morning at 8:30AM with a taxi and our porter Dawa. Both our companions were named Dawa because Buddhists name their children by the day of the week on which they were born. They were born on a Monday. I was born on a Saturday so my Buddhist name is Pimba.
|The surprise at the most unexpected times|
Within a few minutes of our meeting and making certain our gear was properly sorted, stored, and brought on board, our taxi driver used one hand to perform miraculous serpentine maneuvers and the other to freely sound his horn warning all those within blocks he was in route to our drop off point to begin our six day journey. The first half hour was mainly a congestion of every type of transport including livestock while the roadway was lined with haphazardly constructed vendor and service stalls after which we emerged into flat farm fields of rice, wheat and corn. The road began to wind upward into the mountains and within a few minutes we pulled off the road to what seemed like a few roadside stalls, but was in fact the plan of typical villages we would soon encounter. Climbing out of the taxi I could see below the roadway edge the rest of the small village with a single dirt road dividing the row of short single story buildings.
|Magical dancing for a good cause|
Everyone grabbed their packs and began our downhill walk through the village on the roadway (confirming our original suspicions). The road took a bend to the right but we dropped off the road onto a rough trail to the left and walked along farms and started our hike up. My eyes were quickly checking out all that I could absorb and not paying attention to my Canon camera in my right hand. I caught the zoom lever on my pocket and the camera spun out of my hand and skipped along a couple rocks on the ground. Ooops…this is not good. But a tribute to the strength of their products the camera is still working like a plow horse. We continued on enjoying the warm bright sunny day.
After an hour of our first introduction to the Nepalese stone step trails, Sharon and I realized this was not going to be a walk in the park.
|The collection plate for an evening of pure enjoyment|
As promised, roughly three hours after leaving the roadside village of Nayapul, we made our last upward steps into a very small village of Tirkhedunga and settled into the Sushma Guesthouse where I asked for a room with a view and my request was granted. Our view out the single 2’ x 3’ window afforded us a view of the village pathways and the lush green terraced farm fields. Once we unpacked and got comfortable in our 2 twin bed suite with the WC at the end of the balcony and the shower downstairs, we both ventured to clean up for dinner. Even though every guesthouse proudly brands their advertising banners and sign boards with hot showers, truth be known, most of these places use the solar method of hot water and without a good amount of sunshine each day, the water is on the side of not freezing but certainly not even warm. In this case one of the young ladies didn’t find it necessary to fire up the backup boiler even though Sharon and I were sporting towels in the direction of the shower, the light didn’t turn on in her head until after we complained to our guide and he came back to us to inform us the water will be hot now….now that we already showered. We dressed and went to the dining room with a fantastic view of the steep fertile valley. The menus as we found out in a couple days on the trek are standard, pretty much the same in all the guesthouses. I only guess the standardization keeps things pretty simple in ordering of supplies, packing them in by mule, and training of cooks. They all learn the same combination of rice, curry, noodles, and once in a while a variation from the former that can really be a walk on the wild side. I can’t remember what we ate but I can say it was really good because I was extremely hungry. The plus at these places is they all have cold Kathmandu Beer, a pilsner with great taste. We were almost done with our feast when our guide stopped by to go over what to expect the next day, especially the next morning. He quietly explained that one of the stretches involved 3000 steep stairs we’ll scale but it will provide us the first view of the tall snow covered peaks. Sharon and I raised our eyebrows, looked at each other concluding “It’s only like 3 Bisbee Stair Climbs” back to back, except as we found out there was no break just up. Once Dawa delivered his message, there isn’t much to do after eating other than reading so we retired to our room, read a bit and drifted off into dreamland.
After a nice hot breakfast, a couple cups of coffee, and stock up on water, we began our ascension of stairs. About halfway through the 3000 step segment, we decided to rest on a resting wall, one of many designed to help you remove your pack and rest your weary legs, a couple about our age were already in the rest mode and when I removed my pack they happened to view the Burningman patch sewn to the top flap. I spied the San Francisco Giants hat on the gentleman so I asked if he was from the bay area and confirmed that he was. He asked about Burningman and at first I didn’t connect his question to my patch but Sharon and I affirmed that we are burners and after introducing each other discovered Jane and John are deeply involved in the Burningman organization and assist in the planning of the event. Hokey smoke what a small world. Meeting people in the remote area of Nepal who are like family you never met. Later on we would randomly run into these folks again, at the Dream Garden back in Kathmandu where we had a better opportunity to shoot the shit for two fun hours.
Shortly after resting, we viewed our first snow covered mountain peak for a couple minutes before it became enshrouded in clouds. Within a half hour we crested the 3000 stairs only to discover more stairs but these all were not in secession. The remaining thousands of stairs were in sets of hundreds, not thousands. That type of reassurance kept us motivated for the rest of the four hours. Keep in mind we are not only becoming pretty damned exhausted from the stairs but the lack of oxygen is a factor as well. I quickly noticed the sherpas and guides performing what I labeled as the Nepalese shuffle. These guys don’t stop but they are like a diesel truck, always moving very slowly and then slower. I certainly didn’t have a problem with that but in the ultra slow mode my heart was pounding and my knees were audibly crying uncle. After seven hours, multiple stops for tea, bottles of oxygen, and lunch, we reached the outskirts of Ghorepani. I use the term outskirts because we passed many guesthouses, all with placards boasting wonderful amenities but Sherpa Dawa had something else in mind. We finally walked to the peak of the center of the village when Dawa signaled a left turn where we looked up to more steep stairs. I looked longingly to the number of doorways I was within a dozen level steps but our guide insisted on us following him up and up again til we came to the “New Mountain View” guesthouse.
The last little hurrah up the stairs took it’s toll on my left knee. I’ve never had knee trouble ever but I felt the strain and I knew from this point on I would have to develop some way of compensating to move forward.
For now we made it to today’s destination and the rough hewn lobby had an oversized potbelly stove fired up to warm our now freezing bodies. The weather had begun to drop below freezing. We walked “up more stairs” to our room which was a corner room with a spectacular view of snow covered mountains surrounding the village. The down side is there is no heat in guesthouses except in the main lobby (sometimes). Also with all guesthouses, primary power is limited to only so many hours a day so you always have your headlamp ready in case you are in mid stream in the toilet. The really good news is we had a great hot shower to warm the body and relax the muscles. Then downstairs to order off the standard menu, hang around a few minutes for Dawa to brief us on tomorrows assent to Poon Hill.
The shy Buddhist guide made his appearance and saw that I was really favoring my left knee as I descended the stairs from our room earlier and asked how I was. Sharon reassured him I would be ready in the morning for us to reach our highest point on the trek. Of course I agreed with Sharon. He then went on to explain we are going to see the sunrise over the Annapurna mountains but to do that we need to leave the hotel no later than 5:30 AM and the trail is steep but in good condition and since we will be rising 1500 ft. in 45 minutes, we must go slowly. No problem here Mr. Sherpa I thought reaching down to massage my left knee. He reminded us to bring our headlamps before disappearing as quickly as he appeared.
We breathed our last breath of warm air and I creatively hopped up the two flights of stairs to our freezer suite with a great view and no insulation. I hobbled down the hall to shake the dew off the lily, hopefully not having to return until late morning. Before sliding into our silk sleep sacks (the slumber prophylactic, a third world country and New York City requirement ) Sharon pulled out the wonder drug Arnica gel (the naturalist steroid treatment) and smeared it over both my knees. I let it dry a bit and slid into the sack. Within seconds I was a million dream years away from the freezing environs of Ghorepani.
5AM came way too soon but I was excited about getting up Poon Hill though my body gave a little resistance, as soon as my motor fired and the crank shaft had a few RPM’s, I knew Poon Hill would have gained another name to it’s visitor ledger. I walked out the front door of the hotel to be greeted by Dawa the porter (this guy I grew to love but that’s a whole different segment) flashed his timid smile behind the foggy breath we shared. A spattering of other hikers walked by as Dawa signaled for me to go ahead because Sharon had got a head start with Dawa the guide. I fired up the head lamp and followed the pack of other trekkers to the summit of Poon Hill for the religious rising of the sun.
The steps view by the light of my head didn’t seem too bad and my knee was providing full cooperation so I was making pretty good time and within 10 minutes I had caught up with Sharon. We then synchronized our steps and did the Nepalese shuffled to the top and reached the summit before old Sol made his own summit.
The top of Poon Hill was quietly buzzing with anticipation of the sunrise. Two structures graced the top. Once being a galvanized steel girder watchtower similar to those used by our US Forest Service and the other building a tea house made from found materials and blue tarps. The tea house suited my purpose better than the tower. Now the main event was about to happen, within minutes the laser like beam broke through the mountain passes casting upon the walls a wide variation of red color to contrast with the icy gray blue of the predawn snow blankets of the slumbering Annapurna mountains. They seemed to sleep in because the sun hid behind the clouds like a snooze alarm.
The amassment of cameras rapid fired with the minds behind the lens trying to capture these moments with all the aesthetic gusto these shutterbugs can muster. I was part of the pack but hung back and took in my surroundings and left the obvious for others. The ice that hung on the browned tall weeds, the layer of frost on the stone walls, or the weather worn Buddhist prayer flags waving to all gods. I openly gave thanks to our creator for this blessing, this moment, my good fortune.
I was hunted down by my party because it was time to descend for we still had five hours to the next village after breakfast but before we descended Sharon had to place a beautiful glass bead in an offering nook within one of the low stone columns. The nooks are triangular holes with about 12” sides where people place offerings. Here we will place the bead made by Kate Drew Wilkerson of Bisbee. Kate gave Sharon a hand full of these beads to place in special settings around the world or to gift to special people that inspire mankind. This being placed, a photo recording the placement done, we returned to our hotel for a hot breakfast, packed up, and returned to the trail. We stepped down the huge blocks of stone leading into the town center and I had in my head of a day going down hill since we reached the summit of our trek. Instead of turning left and going down hill, guide Dawa pointed straight ahead up a constant grade that lasted a couple hours until we reached a forested pinnacle and the trail became a moist jungle sending out a scent of decaying leaves and rich organic matter. Then one more long assent and we reached the extremely remote rough looking village of Tadapani and walked directly up to Pepto-Bismol pink Hotel Superview. This guesthouse proved to be our biggest challenge to accept for human habitation but the weather was turning worse than Ghorepani and the other four options in this small town didn’t show any improvement. We went to our room and it had the standard two twin beds (Sharon and I called each other Rob and Laura Petrie now), a toilet down the hall which had a unique water feature, it’s own lake you wade to the throne, a single sink down stairs across the courtyard and the shower next to it. These delightful basic porcelain attributes were shared by 30 tired, beat trekkers. As I mentioned the weather turned for the worst and by the time we got settled, a large group of French and Italians strolled in and were frantically trying to figure out how to get all them in the few rooms available…and then the rains came. The heavens above saw it fit to dump down on this crowd of dissatisfaction and they quickly resolved their issues while Sharon and I were in our sleep sacks shivering until our bodies warmed our personal pocket of space. While I was drifting on and off from sleep and letting my knee rest, Sharon went downstairs and helped in the kitchen and in return found out they had popcorn (it’s like heroin to Sharon) brought some freshly popped corn to my bedside. She asked why I’m not out of my bag and I told her I couldn’t , didn’t want to, didn’t feel like it and any other excuse for me to stay in my warm comfy cocoon. Eventually I got up about 4:PM after spending a couple hours in bed, and went downstairs to the dining area to join the boisterous goings on with the French and Italian group. Well Sharon and I didn’t join them other than taking a table in the corner where we pulled out a deck of cards and drank tea until our dinner arrived.
Oh yes about dinner….in these guesthouses you order your dinner by writing down what you wish for from the “standard” menu (I got to the point I had the menu memorized) on a small guest pad, write down your room number, and put down what time you’d like to eat. The time is rarely honored but it’s a nice touch. Like everything I experience, it’s always the worst that offers up the best. This bent up philosophy always catches me off guard but in this instance of freezing temps, crappy room, impossible shower and toilets, and all around dismal setting, when in back of this decrepit complex the clouds drifted away from the mountains like the curtains parting for a theatre performance leaving a display of massive shards of stone jetting to the stratosphere. The lighting engineer began to do his thing and the sunset was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.
For a half hour everyone exited the dining room and stood silent on the edge of this saddle forgetting their cold and discomfort. God dropped a beauty balm on this village.
Before bed, Sharon walked downstairs, crossed the courtyard to the other building and stood before the outside sink in the freezing early evening only to realize she forgot the drinking water to rinse her mouth after brushing her teeth. I can only attribute the freezing temps numbing the mind for her to logically think that since it rained so hard for so long that the large black water catchment tanks had to have fresh clean mountain water to rinse her mouth. Oh how wrong that logic was.
The next morning we left Tadapani and the Superview to begin our downhill trek through the dense jungle trails lined with giant moss covered trees reaching over us and fiddle ferns popping up through the layers of moldy ground cover. Creative waterfalls stop me at every other turn and then the trees began to shake. High up on the left side of the canyon through the dense vegetation we see monkeys. Lots of big monkeys scrambling up vines and stepping stealth like on the avenues of tree limbs. What a great environ for these creatures to exist. The skies turned black, the air became dense, the moisture in the air strong, and the clouds let go. Fortunately we had just arrived at a small teahouse when the storm struck. We ducked into this refuge, ordered tea and taught Dawa the guide how to play our favorite card game “Shithead”. He was a very quick study and we had a good time until the rains let up about 30 minutes later.
Back on the trail we arrived into a sizeable village with a nice restaurant for lunch called Hotel Madrid. While waiting for lunch Dawa the guide pointed across the valley a small white speck saying that was where we were to spend the night. We had been hiking for almost four hours and I could not believe what he was saying. Going there meant dropping deep into a gorge, crossing a major river by foot bridge and walking up more than two thousand rain soaked irregular stone steps.
At first I thought he was joking but after lunch we headed that way. I didn’t tell Sharon but she found out and was definitely concerned because she was beginning to feel achy and her stomach was beginning to act up. Never the less, we continued down into the river valley. I was getting exhausted by the amount of concentration it takes to step down on very wet slippery steps and Sharon was feeling it plus her illness coming on. By the time we arrived at a guesthouse at the bottom where we sought refuge once again because of the rain, Sharon was beginning to voice her concern about continuing on when we could just stay the night here at this nice little place. This made Dawa the guide concerned because we would be starting out with a large deficit the next day. I ordered a Coke which is rare for me but I could see both Sharon and I could use a little pick me up and after finishing our soft drink was agreed to try and tackle this straight up 2500 step climb to the village of Ghandrunk.
Sharon being the counter she is actually counted the steps and at each 100 stair milestone announced the number…500…..800….1000….1200…1500…1900….2000 and soon we were in the village but the steps continued…2100… and the guesthouse was in sight…2121..and we stopped being greeted by three smiling pretty girls on the porch of the Hungry Eye guesthouse. It was 12 more stairs up to our room, number 2, but using the lock and key for room number 1…..these number things fascinate Sharon.
After getting to our room, Sharon confided she was really sick and went directly to bed. We ate very little that night and in the middle of the night the deadly effects of the mountain waters of the Superview Hotel in Tadapani the night before shook her body and delivered its devastating blow commanding her body to evacuate everything everywhere. I could only stand by in the chilly night air on the balcony waiting for her to emerge from the WC. She exited shaking and a bit scared. I reassured her this is a classic case of food or water poisoning and it must run its course but you will be fine after 24 hours. Unfortunately we are scheduled to trek at 8AM so you might not be 100%.
The next morning we packed up with Sharon not well. The effects of this poisoning move from stomach cramps, the shakes, to headache and that last effect Sharon was experiencing full on. We took to the trail slowly but there were times I was really worried and began to run through my head the “what if’s” list as to what to do in the event she collapses. Just about noon we reached a village and stopped for lunch. As the travel gods would have it, the little outdoor restaurant had a thatched roof eating area with a day bed on one side. Sharon laid down and was out. Dawa our porter got a pillow and then we sat and had a long lunch while the skies once again brought down the rain. While sitting under the cover and enjoying some nice soup, I looked at a large banner stretched across the walkway through the village. It announced a new government program rid this village of its “Deadly” drinking water. I am not kidding…the sign described the water in this village as deadly.
In a couple hours the sky cleared and I woke Sharon and discovered the sleep relieved her headache. With my knee feeling 80% and Sharon feeling about the same we made time to our last village on the trek, Pothana. The trek this day was a nice trail and soon we stood in front of the lovely Hotel Yama, one of the best places to stay on our trek. The showers were hot, the room clean, and food was very tasty.
At dinner we were asked to come by later to join in the dance and music festivities of The Mother Group. Since we both were happy to be feeling much better it was only fitting to celebrate with these kind locals. About 7PM we arrived in the small dining room where they set a single long line of tables with chairs placed side by side against the wall. Only a handful of people started with the music and dance and soon the room began to fill with local town folk with a couple other visitors and us lined up at the table like the Last Supper. First we were each honored with a fresh flower lei. Then both woman and men danced but then came the call for Sharon to dance and then I was summoned to perform some of my folk moves for this naive native crowd. My sacred steps gleaned from many different world tribes all brought together dazzled the entire audience. My dance partner soon conceded and I continued with a solo piece until I was in a frenzy and finally quit because I entered into a trance. (ok, exaggerating a bit here.) About three quarters through the mini fest the lights dimmed or doused and a candle lit platter was lit much like a birthday offering but this was clearly an offering plate for the community. I looked at this dedicated crowd of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and realized this is where my charity belongs. I placed a large bill on the plate and the crowd was very enthusiastic with their show of thanks. Then others joined to put what they could on the plate. The Mothers Group provide direct help to the community with anyone dipping into the pot. These groups are in about every Nepalese village and they maintain their traditions through music and dance and also raise support for the community.
The music continued and one older woman took the floor and a wonderful phenomena occurred. This old folded over woman on the floor emerged as a fluid butterfly as she danced and her smile radiated a halo cast about her head. She magically moved her body and her dupoty to the traditional rhythms’ of the drums, chants from the choir of ladies in the corner and the light interspersed sounds of strings from the unusual instruments on the opposite side of the room. They did it…they pulled out the big weapon and I pulled out more notes from my pocket to reward the beauty, the heart felt love in the room. By the time 9PM came Sharon and I excused ourselves and left feeling 100% ready to return to Pokhara the next day.