Hiking: The Poor Man’s Driving

The mighty Himalayas, the reason we came to Nepal in the first place, renowned the world over for their towering peaks and outstanding trekking routes. Our biggest problem was choosing one trek out of all the options available. Everything from small day hikes to 3-4 week expeditions – we decided on 8-10 days figuring that much hiking would test us enough while not monopolizing all our time in Nepal, or go beyond the number of times we would be excited about getting up at 6 am in freezing temperatures to step into a murky outhouse before embarking on a five hour hike with 500 metres of elevation gain. Oh, there I go, sugarcoating it again. We had heard the scenery would be all right, though. We then opted for the Annapurna Circuit over Everest Base Camp since by all reports it is a more diverse hike, and it still passes among 4 of the 10 highest mountains in the world, just not the highest. Now the real beauty of the circuit lies in the fact that it loosely follows a river all the way around the Annapurna Range and, even though there are no roads after the very start, it passes through a steady stream of small villages along the way where you can find food, accommodation and supplies. That means it isn’t necessary to carry a tent, stove, food or water filtration equipment, making our pack feel slightly less like a dead sheep on our back. We still needed to carry our sleeping bags, though, since the quality of available bedding was somewhat less appealing than a Bette Midler movie marathon. And, although we were only planning to do part of the route, up to Manang, that is still something like 100 km, which we were pretty certain would be more than enough to make us cry like a Cubs fan.

Rice terraces

Now, for some general info – food along the way was a pleasant surprise. From the travelogues Laynni had read is sounded like we’d be eating daal bhaat  (a local staple of rice, veg and lentil soup) three times a day. In fact, the food was very good, and the menus were large and diverse, although meat was scarce, and sketchy, enough for me to go vegetarian for about eight days straight, a personal record I’m sure, and the daal bhaat always seemed to be the most expensive item for some reason so we only actually ordered it a couple times. We were also quite impressed with the variety of food they managed to churn out when cooking over a single wood fire. Along the way we discovered the joys of Tibetan bread, kind of a cross between a doughnut and regular bread, usually hot off the stove, we had a lot of good fried potatoes, and I was able to satisfy my Snickers craving every day but one.

After the road ended on day one everything had to be hauled in by mule or on the back of a porter so the cost of food, especially packaged items, literally increased daily. By the end a Coke cost more than a whole meal in the cities. A bottle of water that goes for 20 rupees ($0.30) in Kathmandu increased in price by 10-20 rupees per day until we actually paid 160 in Humde on our last night. Luckily most of the higher villages had “safe water stations” where you could refill bottles, spending less and wasting less plastic as well (leaving just that much more to be inserted into Sly Stallone’s face).

Porter with New Yak Hotel in the distance

As for the porters, they were a spectacle unto themselves. Those hired for trekking usually carried two or three huge backpacks, almost as much as Andie takes for a weekend at the lake, all tied in one big bundle balanced on their back and secured only by a strap around their forehead. At least the trekking porters are regulated, though, while the freelance “commercial” porters seem to just carry as much as they can handle, from multiple boxes of Coke, to huge unwieldy pieces of farm equipment, to crates full of jostling live chickens. All by their forehead.

Anyway, our journey is now complete and so far it is holding up to the seemingly premature description Laynni gave it on about day five – the most amazing thing she’s done in her life. And for better or worse we find there were far too many noteworthy people, places and panoramas to write about all of them in detail. So instead we present to you:

“Dean and Laynni’s Definitive Guide To The Annapurna Circuit…Up To Manang.”

1. Vocabulary

Namaste (na-mah-stay): means hello, goodbye, good morning and, especially when spoken by a tourist, it can also be used as please, thank you, you’re welcome or “Do you have a pair of gloves I can borrow for I believe my spleen fell out on that last hill.”

Through the farmland

2. Accomodation

While the term “hotel” tends to be used rather loosely around these parts it was still comforting to know that we were always within an hour’s walk of a pair of hard wooden cots in a tiny wooden cell. Having an outhouse on the same floor as your room was the equivalent of “en suite bathroom”, and the walls were usually thin enough to hear the guy next door scratching his favourite haemorrhoid, but the bottom line is that it was a roof over your head and a rank squat toilet to brush your teeth over. And, really, what more can you expect for $2 / night?

Best View From Our Room: Northface Hotel, Jagat
Perched on the upper corner of both the hotel and the town we were treated to great vistas of the village, the river and the cliffs on the other side. We were also able to secretly monitor the comings and goings of our fellow trekkers while objectively critiquing their outfits, walking styles and buttock shapes. Laynni also found the binoculars came in handy whenever a closer look was required.

Worst View From Our Room: New Tibetan, Pisang
Our tiny, murky window overlooked a glorious dirt hill generously decorated with rubbish and mysterious wet patches.

Friendliest Kids: Mountain View Resort, Bahundanda

Laynni taught a bunch of them how to play a card game where you need to find matching pairs. Naturally it wasn’t long before we were being consistently humbled by their spry young memories. We also tried to teach them how to shuffle but eventually had to give up because no matter how hard they tried their little hands just ended up “Jeannie-ing” the cards.

Some of the locals

Most Surprisingly Luxurious Item: Chame & Jagat
A sink. Who knew these were so hard to come by? Unfortunately the one in Jagat was right next to the eating area and seemed to be the favourite spot for locals to come for their morning hock ‘n spit . A bit of an appetite killer, that.

Best Hotel: New Yak, Braga
No sink, but an actual attached toilet, cement walls (as opposed to paper), very friendly proprietors, great food and, most importantly, a fireplace in the dining area.

Worst Hotel Experience: New Tibetan, Chame
Generally average, plus it had one of the only two sinks we saw, but it’s overall rating took a serious hit when we were driven from our room in the night by an overzealous family of rats who spent their time closely inspecting our stuff and using the ledge next to our heads as a freeway. When we realized that shining our lights at them was only making them glare at us angrily we knew our time was up. So I approached the hotel manager/owner at his cot on the kitchen floor:

“Yeah, um, our room is full of rats.”
“Rats?”
“Yeah, rats”
Blank stare. Crickets chirping.
“You want change room?”
“Will that help?”
“Yes”
“Then, yes, of course.”

Leaving us to wonder, just why the hell did they put us in that room in the first place?

Balmy nights

3. Bathrooms

When life is reduced to its more basic aspects the appeal of the toilet becomes a significant issue. With the exception of one particularly grotty Western toilet that we wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole we were strictly dealing with squat toilets, which Laynni has more or less mastered but which still severely tax my powers of balance, flexibility, and coordination. I won’t get any more graphic than that. As for showers, most places had solar powered hot showers, although I must admit that showering by candlelight was a bit new for us.

Best Bathroom View: New Yak, Braga
Although the window is cut to just below crotch level, which seemed a little unnecessary, it did allow for stupendous views of Annapurna II while taking care of business. That’s what you call high-altitude multitasking.

Best Bathroom Location: Potala, Tal
located high on stilts just off the upper rooms this basic wooden stall featured large diamond and moon-shaped holes on either side allowing the prevailing breeze to freshen things naturally. And if you were to duck you’d not only catch a glimpse of a distant waterfall but also avoid hitting your head on the 5 foot high roof.

Worst Bathroom Location: Mountain View, Bahundanda
A large picture window looks down on you from the children’s play area. ‘Nuff said.

Nastiest Bathroom: New Tibetan, Pisang

Rank odour, sporadic water, no light and doors that won’t close. No reason to linger over a Victoria’s Secret catalogue here.

Le Toilette

Least Logical Bathroom: ?, Syange
A couple from New Zealand told us how they woke up in the night and realized they were locked into their area of the hotel, which unfortunately did not include the toilet. Seriously regretting that last pot of tea they spent the night peeing into used water bottles.

4. Villages

Maybe the best part of the trek was passing through all the quiet little villages along the way. There are no roads, only footpaths where supplies are hauled up by mule or on the back of a porter. A few of the villages didn’t even have electricity, although most get power for at least a few unpredictable hours each day. The people are accustomed to tourists passing through without being jaded, and just spending time around here makes you feel like they stopped the clock in 1957.

Friendliest: Braga/Jagat
The locals in both these towns were particularly laid back, always going out of their way to be helpful, like little brown Walmart greeters.

Jagat

Least Friendly: Pisang
Out of every 10 people we came across in this rough little place, 9 seemed to be young guys comfortably surrounded by cronies and sporting a permanent arrogant smirk. One of the few exceptions was the woman wildly beating her small child in the middle of the street. This gem of a town also takes the prizes for coldest, windiest and overall dreariest.

Best Name: Bhulebhule
Pronounced “boolay-boolay”, supposedly after the sound of the river. In my opinion, however, it sounds more like a drunken rendering of an old 60’s song by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. Bet you’re singing it right now.

Most Medieval: Ghyaru

Protected by its remote location 500 metres straight up the side of a mountain, this great little place is a charming maze of mud and stone houses and had some of the best views of the entire trip.

From Ghyaru

Most Kids Riding Sticks:
Chame
Large posses of grubby little kids roamed the village mounted on long thin sticks with tiny little reins attached to one end, alternately keeping the peace and throwing rocks at mules. Namaste, pilgrim.

5. On The Trail

Overall the trail was very easy to follow and generally in pretty good shape, although the odd section would be broken by some water or a recent landslide. The variety was amazing, whether you’re talking about the view, surrounding, climate, people or number of mules. The one constant was that it was all uphill. We started at 820 metres above sea level in Besisahar and eventually peaked at about 3,800 metres (12,000 feet) between Ghyaru and Ngawal. Of course, every day also included several random downhills, which only served to make you dread the additional uphill that was sure to follow. And as the altitude increased the hills winded us faster and faster, countless times leaving us standing at the corner of a switchback, hands on our hips as we gaped at some incredible view, panting like a fat man trying to get full value out of his last Viagra.

Most Crowded: Chame – Pisang

This seemed to be where a lot of people on different schedules converged and we spent most of the five hour hike edging past slow tour groups and leapfrogging with about 10 other individual trekkers every time someone stopped for a break. It was like a NASCAR race, except shorter and a few people actually got passed.

Gaining on the crowd

Most Mules: Jagat – Chamje

We ran into the first group about five minutes out and for the next two hours we slowly maneuvered our way in and around stubborn, reeking mules with very little respect for personal space. Even more disastrous was when I discovered that three feet was not far enough away to avoid the splatter of runny mule shit.

Hello again, nemesis

Most Cars: Ten-Way Tie
None. Going from chaotic Kathmandu to the silence of the mountains was like a nice hot bath after a long day of midget mud wrestling.

Most Effective Trail Marker: Two-Way Tie
Mule feces and huge, frightening gobs of porter spit.

Steepest Climb: Lower Pisang – Ghyara
Up 500 metres in an hour. Grunting, panting, swearing. Peering up, peering down, shaking head. By the time we were done even my calves, which have in the past been favourably compared to plump hot dog buns, were screaming in agony.

Best Views: Ghyaru – Ngawal

Jaw-dropping mountain scenery in all directions. Well worth the climb, and probably the highlight of our entire trek. The only downside was having to watch our step on the precarious path since with all the stunning views we were having a harder time concentrating than a gay clown stuffed into a mini-car.

Ghyaru-Ngawal trail - 3,800 metres

Worst View:
Just outside Chame
A dead horse lay on the side of the road with an ecstatic dog frantically tugging out its entrails. A second dog further down was trying to smile innocently but its blood-covered face wasn’t fooling anyone.

Most Erotic: Koto Qupar – Chame

It was here where we rounded a corner and caught our first full look at one of the big peaks, causing Laynni to gasp in alarm, her voice husky as she whispered, “That’s not just the tip…”. We stopped numerous times after that to gaze at it reverentially like a female golfer admiring Jodie Foster’s knuckles.

No longer "just the tip"

6. Top 5 Laynnisms

Impressed with herself after a particularly hard climb:
“Aren’t you glad I’ve got short powerful legs? I’m like a pony!”
My reply, “Yeah, who needs a thoroughbred?” met with mixed results.

To me as she happily gazed at the surrounding mountains:
“I think I love you more in this country.”

Starting our first uphill the day after the Ghyaru climb:
“Maybe I’ve worked my ass as hard as it’s willing to be worked.”

Lamenting the cold:
“Do you think I’d stay warmer if I grew a huge 70’s bush?”

Reading the quotes I’d written down:
“I tell you, I am funny!”

One of many breaks

8. Miscellaneous Awards

Most Disturbing Noise
When, at Laynni’s suggestion, we did jumping jacks in our room to warm up before going to bed. Considering that the walls were so thin I could hear the guy next door blinking I’d guess he had a very unwholesome image of what we were up to.

Most Generous Offer
Laynni was trying desperately to stay awake until at least 8:30pm so I offered to let her pass the time by fondling me….anywhere. She passed but, frankly, I think she regrets it to this day.

Most Baffling Packer
Starting at 6am in Pisang we were treated to a full 45 minutes of the soothing sounds of plastic being crinkled and uncrinkled as the French woman next door … ever … so … slowly … packed her gear into either a circus tent or 93 individual Safeway bags.

And anyone reading this that may actually be planning to hike in the Annapurna area that would like some more useful info check out this entry on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree:

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=1689138

Now just to finish off with one of the many confusingly random posters we saw in the guesthouses along the way:

One today is worth two tomorrow,
We are all in it together.

If anyone can shed some light on how these two things fit together please let us know.

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