In the interim while I get my act together and write about rafting, here are some pictures taken by a waterproof camera with Australian owners:
Days 17 to 27
And then I was alone. Well and truly by myself for the first time ever. Having been ill after our trek, I’d not spent much time with Ben and Drew on their last few days in Pokhara. They were returning to Kathmandu a few days before their flight home, but I had chosen to stay in Pokhara to write and reflect on the various adventures we’d adventured and experiences we’d experienced. And the fact that I was alone. A long way from home.
I’d been pretty nervous about the whole thing; especially as Ben is a considerably more experienced traveller than me (he’d never let me say he was ‘an experienced traveller’) and has some gusto and courage that either I haven’t yet developed or won’t. His descriptions of what he’d do with the time and freedom I have, were things that didn’t appeal to me; mostly because they scared me: they were too adventurous. The expectation on myself to be equally immersed in cultures and an interested and wandering spirit was intimidating. Although I realised it was an entirely self-inflicted expectation.
All alone in a foreign land
Adventurer, Explorer, Coward.
Waiting for bravery’s guiding hand,
Inspiration filtered or powdered.
Blood says no, brain says yes.
Formalities borne of a mould
To be tinkered and torn with a guess;
Moving away from the old.
By land, by sea, by air.
Immersed, entrenched, indifferent.
My momentary ailment.
Home is where the world isn’t;
But here is the world, not home.
This feeling, coupled with a very basic homesickness / fear of the unknown, was my underlying state as I said goodbye to the boys (while still a little ill) at 7am on Monday (3rd October, Day 19). I was very sorry to see them go. We’d had a lovely holiday, but I must continue this Quest alone. Although, I still don’t have a sword – perhaps I’m a mage or something: I can do a few card tricks.
I spent the next week sitting in cafés in front of Fewa Lake, writing down all of the previous week-or-so’s events. I’ve certainly found some sort of a calling: I’ve never been happier. I hope you enjoy reading this even a quarter of the amount I enjoy writing it.
However, sitting in a café writing does not make for interesting reading, so I’ll pick out some of the more enjoyable moments from my week on Lakeside.
As the boys and I had been spending most of our time together, we hadn’t got the full blast of Gopal and Indra’s (hotel managers) hospitality. Once the boys had left, however, I was welcomed in to their generous hearts like an old friend. We sat and talked over lunch some days, with coffee (sweet and black Nescafé) in the mornings and, on my last night, over a bottle of whiskey. We talked about Nepal and the UK, about charity work, and about poverty and corruption. By my last day I had seen a striking similarity between their relationship and mine with Ben: Gopal being the open-hearted Good Samaritan and Indra being the more cautious user of (his words) ‘micro-analysis’.
Gopal regaled me with stories of his good work, which included me meeting one of the beneficiaries of an educational bursary from the Mountain Trust, of which Gopal used to be president before he resigned due to corruption in the ranks. The chap I met is now top of his class, studying Computer Science at one of the best universities in Nepal. Gopal also told me how 95% of NGOs in Nepal are corrupt: fiddling accounts, pocketing income and employing family and friends to cover it all up. According to Gopal and Indra, there are orphanages looking for sponsors and donors that will pay women to get pregnant, then buy the baby from them. Any money donated to the orphanage or sponsorship for a particular child will not go to improving that child’s situation – happy children don’t make money.
How much of these stories is true, or how many, is something I’m unable to discern; but what is clear is that both Gopal and Indra are very good men, struggling to help other people in a country full of people trying to do the opposite.
Indra invited me to join his family to celebrate Dasain. I was welcomed in to his hime, ate with his family (a great honour, by many sources) and received tikka from the matriarch. Tikka is a mixture of red powder, rice and yoghurt that is stuck to your forehead as blessings are spoken to you. It should be given by someone older than you, so it was a further honour to be receiving it from the most senior member of the family.
Once the more formal procedure of honouring the guests (I shared this experience with two Japanese, friends of Indra’s brother) was complete, I was grateful to witness the rest of the family going through the ritual with more teasing and laughing, as deference and respect were humbly deflected and insisted upon in a battle of giggling wits.
This charming scene was interrupted as friends arrived, complete with garish red rice stuck to their foreheads, as the process goes on all day; families visiting friends and extended family to give and receive blessings. The more red paste you finish the day with (provided it hasn’t fallen off), the more friends and family you have. This I realised later in the day, having proudly worn my square inch of red around town, only to find acres of the stuff plastered across the full width of most foreheads. I felt like the girl who hit puberty last.
Sitting writing all day for a week is not a great way to meet people. Although apparently it does get one a reputation. The people I did meet (like almost everyone in Pokhara) were either about to go trekking or had just returned. Being a lone, inactive man for more than a couple of days is anomalous in Pokhara, especially as my reason for sitting in a café all day was that I was writing. Eventually I started responding that they did good coffee, which seemed to get a better response. But some would say they’d seen me and were curious; others would ask how my book was coming along; although most would stick to their groups and occasionally stare.
I’d also been researching finding my way to Hong Kong by land. I wanted to hop over the border (and the Himalayas) to Tibet and then take a three-day train in an arc around the whole of China. Unfortunately, there are severe restrictions on tourism in Tibet. You have to join a (very expensive) pre-arranged group tour; you can’t deviate from that itinerary; and you must leave the area with the same people with whom you entered it. You have to get a group visa, whic eliminates any existing Chinese visa you may already have. And it’s either a long drive through the Himalayas, exceeding 5,000m above sea-level more than once, or a very expensive flight. All this compared to a relatively inexpensive flight to Hong Kong via Delhi. It’s easier in the other direction, so I’ll do that next time.
I’d fancied the idea of white water rafting since I’d first read about it in the Rough Guide back in the UK. I’d discussed it with Ben and Drew and, while there was some hesitation, we were still considering it while in Nepal. You may remember me getting quite excited about riding crashing torrents of death-water in an earlier post. We never ended up doing it, but I was still keen. I looked at the two- and three-day trips and then started reading about the nine- and ten-day expeditions. Having never done any white water before, I wasn’t sure about the longer trips; but one stood out: the nine-day expedition down the Sun Kosi (Golden River) was advertised as one of the top ten river expeditions in the world and is unique in Nepal, as it starts off easy and gets harder. Over a week of floating down a river through spectacular scenery and camping on white sandy beaches sounded blissful. Add in a pinch of adrenalin and the trip sounds perfect. I bit the bullet and paid up. I was to leave the next day.
Back at the hotel, I settled up but was short a few thousand rupees. I popped off to the cash machine, but it wouldn’t give me any money. Unsurprisingly a little worried, I checked on-line to find more than sufficient funds. Mentioning this to Indra, he said not to worry and that I could send him the money whenever. Clearly this friendship business was more than just good business.
The next morning, I popped back to the ATM, thinking the problem may well have been a withdrawal limit after stumping up a ton of cash for rafting. I was right and my panic was over. It was at this time (6.30am) that I realised I didn’t have a bus ticket to get me back to Kathmandu. Panic restored. I walked up to the rafting office and asked for my bus ticket. I was greeted with the acutely helpful response: “It’s nearly 7am, you should get going or you’ll miss the bus!”
Ticket in hand, I grabbed a taxi and rushed back to the hotel. I as greeted by Indra and Gopal, leisurely taking coffee. We sat for a while (a while that I was worried I would be late) and talked some more about Indian-Nepali international relations, until Gopal got out his Honda and I realised I was about to have my first ever motorbike ride in the road. On a Nepali road. Bother.
Hesitantly, I slung my 15kg rucksack across my back and my 2kg daysack across my chest, then placed myself carefully on the pillion seat of Gopal’s bike. He got a helmet. I didn’t.
With all 110kg of my weight settled precariously behind Gopal, we wobbled away on to the relatively busy streets of Pokhara. A smile briefly fractured my this-is-probably-not-a-good-idea grimace, as I remembered that the bus park wasn’t too far. I activated my recently acquired Avatar of Amygdala Absence, but it only half-worked. Especially as all I had to hold on to was the tiny handles tucked awkwardly under my buttocks; which would have been sufficient to balance me, were it not for my heavy rucksack pulling me backwards.
A bumpy, beepy ten minutes later, we arrived at the bus park and I gladly dismounted. Goodbyes and thankyous and promises of future contact and then I was on the tourist bus to Kathmandu. On the way here, we’d taken the Greenline bus, but this time I’d chosen to take the standard tourist bus ($3 instead of $18), as Drew and Ben had the week before. The only noticeable difference was that every seat was occupied. And there was no free lunch.
I surprised myself by filling the 7hr journey with just my thoughts: no book or music or entertainment of any kind. I didn’t sleep, I just sat and though about stuff. Having been given the middle seat of the back row, I had no trouble with legroom and I was now used to the bumpy ride. I was almost pleasant, in fact.
Returning to Kathmandu, which I’d been so glad to leave, was made worse by the place I’d chosen to stay. The rafting office that I was to report to was in Thamel, the tourist centre of Kathmandu. It, unlike Lakeside in Pokhara, had no delightful view to make up for the heaving hustle of head shops, hemp clothes and trekking equipment. Oh, and lots of sodding travel agents.
I found a basic, but alright hotel (the Karma Hotel for all you millennium bug hip hop fans) and then got to the rafting office at 6pm for my briefing. I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t already read or been told, but I did get to meet the other seven rafters. We all went our separate ways to reconvene at 7am the next day.
Having gone to bed at 3am, after being awake for 23 hours and trekking for 11 of them, I was surprised to wake at 6.30. Surprised until I realised that my window had no curtain and the light streaming in joined the noise of the village of Ghandruk buzzing in to life on the other side of it. I lay dozing until 7.30, when I stumbled out of my room to see the clouds clearing over snow-capped peaks, leaning over verdant green hills, dotted with Gurung houses.
We took a very lazy morning, drying our clothes in the sun and eating the most fantastic breakfast, before setting off at about 10am.
Our final day’s descent was shallow, winding and baking under an unobstructed mountain sun. It was glorious. We didn’t stop chatting all the way. Even when that way got steeper and we found ourselves descending another stone staircase.
Where we imagined was about half way down, we took a break for lunch. Brian and John quickly arrived, having left a good hour after us and maintained their super-human pace. We invited them to join us and the food took so long that we almost ran out of conversation. We waited an hour for noodle soup. Instant noodles at that. I got food poisoning from this place and they took an hour to serve instant fucking noodles.
The remaining couple of hours of descent (really shallow) was never-ending. Our bodies battered, our minds already decided that the whole thing was over and our souls enriched by the experience, but really just wanting to be at a spa. Even the lithe. youthful waifs in our company were beginning to wilt.
We eventually got back to the point that, a few days earlier, I’d pointed out to Ben, “If we wanted to go the other way, we’d go that way.” We’d completed the loop. Just another couple of kilometres to Nayapul, where we’d been persuaded by the girls to ride on top of the local bus for NRS 100 instead of the NRS 1400 we’d planned for a taxi.
Exhausted in a way I’d never understood the word, we heaved ourselves up the steel frame ladder on to the top of the bus. If you’re ever in Nepal, ride on top of a local bus. You must do it.
Getting back in to Pokhara, we went our separate ways with promises of meeting for a drink later. Those plans were scuppered by my sudden desire to return to the hotel and engage in the helpless observation of the gladiatorial feast that ensued between my bowels and whichever devious bacteria had slipped past my dietary watchdog. I settled in for the 48-hour epic that was my wasted and tired body in a soul- and muscle-wrenching attempt to eradicate the scourge of hellfire from whichever orifice was rolled on the Dice of Digestion.
It rather took away from my rewarding satisfaction at completing probably the most physically and mentally gruelling four days of my life. With a lovely chap by my side.
Thank you Ben. And thank you Poon Hill.
The alarm went off at 4am (I heard it through the plywood wall) and the refreshing interchange of
“I feel like shit.”
prompted another 15 minutes’ kip.
We finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel, layered with thermal undies and equipped with torches, at about 4.45am. We were climbing from 2,890m to 3,210m in the dark.
The next hour was harder than expected, most likely due to sleepy metabolisms and no breakfast, but we didn’t find it as hard as some. When taking a break, the eerie sight of a caterpillar of head torches creeping a slow concertina procession up the hill was an oddly welcome distraction from the heels of the person in front, which was all you could see when walking.
The guidebook mentions the ‘stampede of sunrise seekers’, but it was difficult to imagine the full meaning of that phrase until we got to the top. The sheer number of people was staggering; and it quickly continued to fill up. A little stall sold hot black tea with mole-hills of sugar in it. The metal observation tower ached and screeched under the weight of its passengers and their cameras. Everyone had a camera: some on tripods, some against their faces and some, as is common these days, at 3/4 arm’s length, as if trying to get as far away from the reality of their subject as possible.
Were it not for the clouds, the view would have been mind-numbingly wonderful and awesome (I’m annoyed that those words don’t mean “filled me with wonder and awe” – perhaps I should say wonder full and awe full). As it was, the view was just your common-or-garden staggeringly breathtaking: as the sun rose behind us and illuminated the mountains hundreds of kilometres in front of us, a sense of unimaginable scale became momentarily imaginable. And then I saw a kilt.
Heathrow Man, as he had become known, was one of the many people we were surprised to see at 5am, 3km up into the Himalayas. It felt like everyone we’d seen or met over the last two weeks was here. But Heathrow Man was the only one in a kilt.
I first met Heathrow Man in the queue for check-in at an airport. I forget which. He (the only other person in the queue) asked if this was the flight to Delhi, which it was, and lo! our destinies were entwined. I next saw him on the plane; then in Delhi Arrivals security; then in Delhi Departures lounge; then sat leisurely in business class on the flight to Kathmandu; then on the streets of Boudha, more than once. Then I didn’t see him for the few days that we went east; but then I saw him in Pokhara, more than once. Then we didn’t see him while we were trekking; and now here he was, on Poon Hill. In a fucking kilt.
And I am really not making this up: he just walked in to the café I’ve been writing in for the past few days and sat down at the table across from me. I really want to talk to him, but I’m afraid I’ll break the spell: me and Heathrow Man, destined to always be in roughly the same place at roughly the same time, but never to know each other. I haven’t even made eye contact with him since he first graced me with his lilting Scottish serrated knife of a voice, back in Heathrow Terminal 4, all those aeons ago. The only thing I know about him, and ever want to know, is that in the cold damp pre-dawn hours of this day in late September 2011, Heathrow Man wore a kilt to climb a mountain called Poon Hill. In the dark. And he didn’t look very impressed with the view.
Once we’d managed to get our cameras to expose correctly for the dawn light on our faces and the bright sunshine reflecting off snow hundreds of kilometres away, Ben suggested we leave before everyone else, if only to jump the queue for the showers (of which there were two).
Once we got back to the hotel, we decided there was no point to showering, what with another eight hours of trekking ahead of us. We sat down (having already done a three-hour trek over 640 vertical metres) for breakfast at 7am. We’d already done a trek comparable to the World Peace Stupa; before breakfast. This was going to be a long day.
We took a very leisurely couple of hours for breakfast and packing, wanting to be as ready for the day ahead as we could. The first hour or so after our departure at 9am was a climb to the same height as Poon Hill, but not as steep. One would imagine this to be easier, but legs tired from a pre-breakfast hike and full packs completely outweighed the slight decrease in steepness. This was harder.
Our ascent was through a sea of yapping Chinese and loud, aggressive, staccato Russian – two large groups that, I mumbled to Ben, had turned the mountain Red.
At the rest point that marked what looked like the top, I began to feel a little vertiginous for the first time. As we progressed across the rising ridge, this was not a feeling that left me until we got back in to the jungle; mainly because the track was thin, my legs were tired, my pack set me off-balance and the clouds occasionally would suddenly clear, exposing a 1,500m drop through dense undergrowth into a rocky ravine. Ben was caught slightly off-guard when his regular trill of
“How we doing, buddy?”
was met with a matter-of-fact
“Really not happy: quite terrified… Let’s just keep going.”
In the forest we finally started going down; and the roles reversed. On our descent from Poon Hill, I’d discovered that Ben came down hard and jarring on his front foot, as he transferred his weight forward with each step – as you do when walking on the flat or ascending. I suggested he try keeping his weight on the back leg and bending it in a kind of in-the-middle-of-sitting-down-cross-legged-my-trousers-have-ripped-and-I’m-not-wearing-any-knickers way. He quickly saw the advantage of lowering his centre of gravity into the hill and we saved him a lot of knee pain.
While we’d found a way to give Ben some knee-relief, that didn’t mean he was happy with the whole process. I was now the fast one, employing years of delighted youth, skipping across Mediterranean boulders, rock-formations and stones in flip-flops, sure-footed as Billy Goat the Superglue Salesman.
Ben’s superior strength and fitness meant he could bear the punishment a slow descent has on your legs; a skipping, trotting, jogging approach is much easier on the muscles and joints – but also more dangerous. The steps were wet and he rightly feared that skipping down was more likely to kill or seriously maim, him if he slipped. Stupidly, I felt no such fear, so had a lovely time skipping down through astonishingly beautiful scenery, decidedly oblivious of the horror that would befall me if I fell.
The descent got steeper and steeper until it was almost vertical. We pitied those coming up the other way, who had to suffer steps that were waist-high for some. And then it started raining; out of nowhere came rain like someone had just emptied a lake out of the sky.
I slowed down. Ben slowed down. I didn’t slow down as much as Ben. Our exhaustion caused a little bickering – just a little – but we both noticed. Here is another reason why I was fortunate to be with Ben: we both instantly recognized what was going on and stopped to marvel at the scenery. We had descended about half way into an incredibly deep river gorge, the sight of which, when we looked back up, was superbly restorative. It was beautiful and, as we were now getting used to, beautiful in a way quite unlike anything we’d already seen.
Everywhere you look in Nepal (at the natural scenes) is magnificently beautiful, but each new place is completely unlike any of the previous. As we took stock of this new beauty, our spirits raised enough for us to continue joking and laughing and we quickly arrived at the bottom of the gorge.
We settled in for a decent break, but quickly realised we were running short on time. Almost everyone else was finishing their day in Tadapani, but we had decided to break the back of the descent today, to give us an easier time tomorrow, our final day: we were going another 2-3 hours further than everyone else. If it was another 2 hours to Tadapani, we’d be getting in to Ghandruk (assuming an hour for lunch) just before nightfall. We decided to shove some Snickers down us and charge on, aiming to get to Tadapani for 2.30pm, giving us some leeway for lunch and the final descent to Ghandruk.
We set off across the levelled-out river bed, crossing the river back and forth, before returning to the now familiar track-through-jungle-on-side-of-mountain. It was so familiar that I absent-mindedly took us on a wrong turn and nearly got us both killed.
The path I’d chosen (although I really didn’t see another path) got thinner and thinner, until the vegetation on both sides was touching our boots. The steps over exposed roots of trees became much bigger; we sometimes had to actually jump down. Then we had to walk over a slippery fallen tree and avoid puddles of mud that we had no idea the depth of. All of this with a few inches slip to the right being an unending fall to our inevitable death. Imagine being unsure of your footing in a jungle. Now tilt that jungle 80 degrees to the right and put it so high that the clouds seem a long way down. It was like that. Except it was real.
We’d pretty much decided we’d gone the wrong way when we saw, 20m above us, people walking along the proper path. They cheerfully waved at us and my terror mixed with embarrassment and muted the cry for help that was slowly building in my gut. I saw that our animal track, or whatever it was, went up a fair bit ahead and decided that we’d have to climb the rest, expecting that the proper path would sensibly remain level.
With our hearts firmly grasped between our teeth, we gave it all hell and charged vertically up, brushing through dense, wet undergrowth – fuck leeches, I want to live! Without the slightest mishap we had found our way back to the well-worn, flat, wide track and saved ourselves from a silent tumbling death. Being English, we said “That was scary” and set off marching again, fearful of being late. I’m glad we did, because had we stopped to take stock (as I’m uncomfortably doing now), I’m sure we’d have had some difficulty continuing. It was utterly, completely terrifying.
Our path went down again, down the side of another valley and, at the bottom, Oh fuck. More stairs. it inevitably went back up the other side. For me, this ascent was no different from any of the other thousands and thousands of steps up which I’d dragged my wilting body over the previous couple of days: just put one painful leg on the next step and heave. For Ben, the pounding descent he’d suffered for most of the day had taken its toll, so he now also found it really tough. He blamed it on the cigarette he’d had just before the ascent (despite my warnings, tut tut), but I think that’s giving the cigarette too much credit. Thoroughly exhausted, we rested half way up; both assuming the pray-heavens-open-and-consume-me position, leaning against our packs.
After more bloody stairs, we reached Tadapani and settled in for some lunch, well-deserved. We’d arrived half an hour early, but still managed to instantly find some people to moan at in the cynical tones of one who’s given up on the joy and simply lives for the experience to continue to its bitter end. Luckily, the British are good at cynicism and our new companions fell about laughing. Tori, 21, and Kelsey, 18, were sisters from Colorado, having now been in Nepal for four months, staying with a Nepali family and proficient with the local lingo. They were so entertained by these two sweaty, deflated, whingeing Brits that they checked out of the room they’d checked in to only an hour before in order to join us for the rest of our trek. While we were worried they’d be much faster than us and that we’d hold them back, the idea of two bundles of youthful female energy keeping us company seemed as good a morale booster as any. If they turned out to be really dull, we could blame their demise on the bears or tigers or snakes or monkeys that reside in the jungle we entered with them; past a sign warning us not to walk in the jungle alone.
The girls were a dynamic duo of delightful liberal American teenage brilliance. I was humbled by their level-headed and immersive experience of Nepal; finding them an inspiration, especially as my admiration was amplified by their youth. They were fun, interesting and intelligent; were joyful company on the descent through yet another kind of beautiful scenery; and were too young for sexuality to intrude into the blossoming friendship. Not that my imagination was, at the time, considering thoughts any more adventurous than “I hope there aren’t any more bloody steps”. Which there were.
As we arrived in Ghandruk (we knew we had, because a delightfully incongruous map suddenly appeared, all Cheshire Cat smile) there was a meticulously crafted flight of 500 steps (someone counted). This was immaculately regular (as it led up to a temple) and we found that trotting down was the only way to overcome the distinct lack of any sliver of strength or stamina remaining in our legs. In the photo, notice that the stairs go down, but the town is up. We had to go back up again. Up more stairs.
Settling to the first guest house we came across, the girls quickly made friends with the owners (in Nepali) and we settled in to a really lovely set of rooms. The only other guests being two early thirties Irishmen, Brian and John, who had shot past us on the descent from Tadapani, practically running all the way.
Our four new companions (we’d left the old ones back in Tadapani) were a real highlight to the trek. The six of us nattered all night, ate at a single table with the Nepali family, played Shithead for hours and retired to the balcony outside our rooms to drink and talk into the night. Ben and I made the mistake of continuing this revelry until 3am.
We’d been awake for 23 hours, 11 of which we’d been trekking.
After The Staircase of Death the day before, our second day of trekking beginning with more sodding stairs was reasonably demoralising. I’m sure I’d made the quip about my first property purchase being a fucking bungalow about fifteen times by this point; but I made it again. We had, however, been told that this day would be much easier and we’d seen the worst of it already.
The trail did level out somewhat and we ploughed on. When we weren’t climbing steps I was absolutely fine and we marched on, overtaking groups quite often. When we were climbing steps, those groups would trickle back past us; a nightmare for morale, but one I kept in check. Ben’s encouragement, though I could see he was beginning to flag too, was invaluable.
We’d turned down an offer in Pokhara of one of the girls we’d met to join us, on the grounds that this was likely to be the last time Ben and I saw each other for some time; and we’d have the opportunity to talk. However, we hadn’t said a single word that wasn’t trek-related in over 24 hours and weren’t to for almost the entire trip. This was really tough for us both.
I remember surprisingly little of the trek on this day. I can only assume that I had settled in to a zen-packhorse trance and had disengaged less vital parts of my brain – like those that experience or remember. We had reached the jungle however (at about 1,800m above sea-level) and Ben’s previous experience with leeches (ask him) made us fastidious in protecting ourselves. We’d even brought half a kilo of salt. We didn’t get any leeches: it was far too sunny.
About two thirds of the way up, I felt sick and had a headache that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much water I drank. Worried about altitude sickness, I asked for us to stop and we settled in for lunch. It turned out simply to be exertion, but my over-cautiousness included my first ever foray into the wonder that is garlic soup – a remedy for altitude due to its vasodilating properties. You must have garlic soup (with a little tomato), it is quite delicious.
Learning from our trek to Nagarkot not to pay much attention to how long people say things will take, we set off for the remaining anywhere-from-an-hour-to-three-hours to Ghorepani. We made good time, having found a rhythm we could maintain. A rhythm that would serve us well the next day.
Arriving in Ghorepani was a relief; countered somewhat by the knowledge that we were actually going to Upper Ghorepani and the sight of another snaking, seemingly never-ending fucking staircase. “One last push.” At least the umpteenth time Ben had said it that day, but it felt a little more graspable this time.
At the top, we checked in with the police (a Gurkha called Ben) and went to find the Sunny Hotel, which had been recommended to us. Another two plywood rooms for NRS 50 (about 40p) and the odd experience of showering in the dark (power cut) set us up for an afternoon of sitting at a table too exhausted to even discuss the day’s events.
Something that is particularly odd about trekking is the end of the day. We’d set off at 9am and here, after a long, hard day’s trekking, we were sat at 3pm, quite ready for bed. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. While we were planning on getting up at 4am to catch the sunrise, we still had hours before a sensible bed-time. So we sat and we chatter a little with the Germans and the Scot and a new British couple, Nick and Amy, project manager and vet, who were very easy to get on with. As the afternoon ploughed on, the clouds began to clear and we got our first sight of the spectacular view. Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest mountain, began to peek through the clouds and suddenly our end of the restaurant (the window end) became the place to be.
It was about this time that Ben and I realised we were one of very few (if not the only) groups to have neither guide nor porter. We also had much heavier packs than most. Our having kept up with these people buoyed us for the next day. We were going to need it.
As the evening drew in, we joined an intense game of Shithead (with new rules) with Kat and Limor. Kat (a North London Irish rose) had met Limor (a late-twenties ball of Israeli energy, with a Bachelor’s in Electrochemical Engineering and embarking on a Master’s in Neuroscience) while on the full Annapurna Circuit; of which they were now in their closing days. These girls took cards very seriously, which was a delight for Ben (hugely competitive) and me (lover of games and cards).
We got to bed early, although not as early as we’d have liked, and Ben bravely volunteered as timekeeper (the one mobile phone alarm clock) and so the responsibility of waking us up at 4am to trek for over an hour from 2,890m to 3,210m in the dark.
Confident that Drew would be happy by himself, shopping, drinking, sunning himself and getting a Swedish massage, while Ben and I pushed ourselves through four days of self-inflicted endurance torture, we’d settled on the Poon Hill trek (usually five days, but as Tempa T says “Go hard or go home”).
Leaving some stuff with Drew, but not too much, we set off in a pre-booked taxi 80km west to Naypul. Two hours of bumpy mountain road later, we found ourselves in what was apparently Nayapul: a few shacks on the side of the road selling water, snacks and hot food. We were expecting more, as it is the beginning of one of the most trekked routes in the Annapurna region.
After some brief faffing with kit, we set off in to the unknown: two intrepid explorers (we had special I’m-not-using-a-guide-because-I’m-a-hardcore-LAD documentation – ironically called FIT: Free Individual Trekker) ready for anything the Himalayas could throw at us.
The first thing thrown at us was an enormous landslide blocking the only path. It slowly dawned on us that we’d have to climb over it; which we did with some delicacy. By the fourth landslide, we were practically skipping across like seasoned mountain goats.
Speaking of goats, over the next four days we were to pass lots of goats, hundreds at a time, coming down from the restricted area of Mustang on the Tibetan border. They were all being brought to Pokhara to be loaded on to trucks and distributed across the country to be sacrificed for the festival of Dasain. We saw thousands and thousands of goats. Each one fetches upwards of NRS 7,000 ($90) and will likely not even be eaten, as Nepali Hindus (especially high caste) are predominantly vegetarian.
We had set off at quite a pace. I think we were both of a similar mindset: this trip’s only four days long, so I’m going to make the most of it, no matter how much it hurts. As we started climbing steps, however, it became clear that Ben’s gym attendance was more regular than his modesty would let on; and my occasional game of squash just wasn’t cutting it. And so began Ben’s saintly patience in the face of my demonic auto-torture. As we crossed beautiful gorges and regularly passed heavenly streams, waterfalls and rivers (and, of course, more goats) we also started climbing lots more steps – a few at first, then they grew into flights and soon I was really struggling.
I’ve never been a great fan of stairs; but my relationship with them was considerably altered in late 2002, when my cardiac consultant told me I absolutely must not climb stairs. I’d had an influenza-induced acute myocardial infarction (the flu gave me a heart attack) and my three-month recovery was essentially “Don’t do anything. But especially don’t go up stairs.” I followed Doctor’s Orders to the letter (I’m a sucker for a buxom consultant) and my heart recovered, better than it had been originally, but I’ve always remained slightly wary of stairs.
So, when we arrived at the base of what one happy trekker termed The Staircase of Death, still tired from the kindly placed practice flights we’d just surmounted, I was less than enthusiastic. The stairs up to Ulleri, where we were planning to stay, number 3,280 without a break. The staircase up the inside of the Empire State Building (which has breaks every floor) to the 102nd floor observatory has only 1,860 steps. The tallest structure in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, has a pitiful 2,909 steps over 160 floors. And I’m fat, unfit and chose to carry a heavy pack.
The further we went, the more often I had to stop. I waxed and waned through immovable determination, utter exhaustion and zen-like delirium. At times, I’d take 15 steps before sitting and leaning back against my pack, head dropped back and body limp. Other times I’d push really hard, just to remind myself that, no matter how much my body was telling me otherwise, I still had lots left in the reserve tanks; those times I’d stop with a wail or an animal groan. I think I may have worried Ben on a few of those occasions.
I eventually broke through a wall and began to simply plod along, but without the need to stop so often. This relative respite gave me the opportunity to reflect on my situation and three things occurred to me: (i) Ben was right, I wouldn’t rather have been doing this with anyone else: we’re one hell of a team and I’d go anywhere and do anything with him; (ii) regardless of the pain and the disappointment in myself for not being stronger, I felt in control: I knew exactly how much I could give, how much to give and how much I was benefiting from the experience; and (iii) I hope tomorrow isn’t bloody like this.
We finally got to Ulleri and checked in to the plywood boxes that serve as rooms in these hills. A surprisingly decent shower and change into comfy clothes and we sat for supper among other groups of trekkers. Ben exclaimed that he’d never seen me so deflated. I couldn’t remember being so exhausted. I was almost vacant. We joked with the others about how difficult it was, which bits were the worst and how much it hurt. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but we’d be spending every evening with these people, as each stop is fairly predetermined.
Over the next few days we’d get to know the Scottish woman who, travelling by herself, found any and all opportunities to engage people in her subjective monologue of a conversation. We’d spend some time talking to the two Aryan Germans, probably in their late-thirties and, if they weren’t gay, then their matching (sorry, identical) kit, fit bodies and mincing glances and Ben and me (who are often mistaken for a couple) were a jolly good attempt at pretending. Later, we met James and Lisa, an English pair (not couple) with a bright, fun sense of humour and some new rules for the card game familiar (I suspect) to all travellers – Shithead.
Briefly, Shithead is the game that spawned Uno and it involves specific cards producing specific outcomes. What those cards are and what they do being determined at the setting of the game. This sharing of new rules is a marvellous way to begin meeting people. “Ah, no we play that 3s are invisible and 4s reverse the direction of play, but you can’t play a 10 on a 7.”
Oddly, we managed to stay up relatively late (having arrived in Ulleri at about 5pm) and went to bed exhausted. I returned to my room to find The Beast of Bodmin Moor engaged in the somnoramble of a hippopotamus slowly choking on a dead dog in the ‘room’ next to mine. By which I mean on the other side of the 3mm plywood ‘wall’. Even after I put in my earplugs, his (or her!) eulogy to long-forgotten peaceful rest echoed through my brain. I was fortunate enough to be two-Empire-State-Buildings-exhausted.
Preparing for our big, proper trek, we had to get two pieces of paperwork: an entry permit to the Annapurna National Park and a TIMS card (Trekkers’ Information Management System). We discussed prices with a local hotel/restaurant/travel agent and went to get some passport photos. As we were about to hand over the cash for our permits, we paused. Ben and I, while having had some experience hiking, trekking, walking, etc., are certainly no experts and had had no physical training at all. Drew, who struggled with his first ever trek just days before, was signing up with us for a week of hard, high-altitude endurance – none of us with the slightest idea of what that involved. Perhaps we were taking things too fast.
We decided (very sensibly, with hindsight) to postpone our trek until we’d done some more manageable peaks. Across the lake, atop a local hill, sat the World Peace Stupa, a half day’s walk up about 700m. We thought we’d tackle that small summit first.
We set off the next morning with daysacks and a half-planned route on our local map. We walked south to the dam at the bottom of the lake, crossed over the river below it on a rickety wooden suspension bridge, straight out of Indiana Jones, and set off along the treeline south of the forest that draped the hill we were to climb.
As we walked along, nattering away, we came across a lone young German chap, who asked us the way to the stupa. A short while later, we came across an army post and were warned of bandits in the forests above us, with guns and knives and ambush tactics. Don’t travel alone, we were warned. At this point, the young German came up and we relayed the worrying message, inviting him to join us.
Lucas is fresh out of school, on a 12-month gap year world trip, before returning to study what we eventually deciphered as Grounds-keeping Management (to join his father’s business) at university. As we walked (away from the forest and towards the main road), I asked him about his trip and it turned out he was planning to go next to Australia, via Hong Kong, exactly as I am. At the same time, no less. Quickly agreeing the possibility of travelling together, we continued across reasonably neglected farmland, under Ben and his map’s direction, until we reached Devi’s Fall – a stop we had planned along the way.
I’d expected a waterfall of great height and beauty. We were instead presented with a very powerful small river, dropping in twists and turns into a cavernous underground chamber. The force of the water charging its way through this helter-skelter tunnel drop was phenomenal; thousands, if not millions, of gallons of mountain water barging its way past itself in a monstrous effort to be the first to the bottom.
Some dutiful admiration of its might and terrible splendour, some photos, some videos and then off to the stupa. Just as it started to rain. Luckily, the rain was apathetic that morning and we were soon at the base of the steep dirt road to the stupa, in blazing sunshine.
Lucas, fresh out of school and an ex badminton player, strode on in his trainers and shorts, while the three Englishmen struggled up a steep but drivable track in completely inappropriate clothing for the weather and grade of climb. We later came to some steps and the top of these completed a good hour and half of climbing to this perched pagoda. It was clear that Drew wasn’t having a great time and we three began to slowly formulate the idea that trekking might not be Drew’s thing. The helipad at the top of the hill didn’t exactly make the whole thing easier for any of us.
While the stupa wasn’t much, the view of Pokhara was.
We hadn’t realised how big it was; nor the lake. This also being the first clear day we’d had for a week or so, the mountains behind were stunning too.
We met some people at the top who told us about a shorter trek to the west of where we were planning (and a much, much shorter taxi ride), called the Poon Hill trek, after the viewpoint one reaches at its zenith. We’d had a look at this trek before we’d left the UK and were assured it was well worth the effort – over 3,000 steps at one part.
We agreed to all meet for a drink that evening, as they had come up the other side of the hill and were going down the way we’d come up. As we set off to follow their ascent back down, we were looking forward to getting to the bottom, where we’d be ferried across the lake, back to our hotel – a dreamy way to end a lovely day.
Unfortunately, between us and the lake were a lot of uneven, steep and still wet and slippery stone steps. The sun hadn’t broken through the tree canopy of the forest to dry them out. We were all instantly set to tiptoeing our way down at a snail’s pace (all except Lucas, whose soft-rubber-soled trainers had superior grip over our rugged, but hard-soled boots).
Poor Andrew Cameron. Drew, the bringer of rain and natural disaster; the young Englishman baptised in rapid 1,000m ascents and bruised from slippery stone steps; poor Drew slipped again. This one sounded more serious and I briefly wondered whether we’d have to send our new friend skipping off in his Adidas pumps to get help. Luckily for all of us, except maybe Drew, Drew’s utter refusal to give up, even in the face of a situation that would have likely terrified me, got him back on his feet; and after some painkillers and the production of a telescopic walking pole, we were off again. Slower this time.
The tortuous descent levelled out about half way down and we stopped for a snack and to soak up the astonishing view. We were joined by a group of Chinese and I reflected on how lovely it was to hear Mandarin (having learned it for a year), rather than the Cantonese we hear in London. I find it a much prettier dialect, full of swooshing sibilant consonants and soft kissing vowels. It can be spoken brashly, of course, but these folks sounded quite northern (the pronunciation is based on the Beijing dialect, Beijing meaning northern capital). I passed my reflections on to them (not in Chinese) and they may well have been flattered, had they not been so intent on taking pictures of themselves and a stray dog, and themselves with the stray dog.
I was going to write an entire post about my experience of the Chinese on holiday in what is their neighbouring country, but I realised it would just end up as a narrow-minded xenophobic rant. Instead, I will simply say that the recently very affluent Chinese middle class on holiday are not great ambassadors for their country. They are sometimes terribly funny, however: particularly when dressed for deep penetration of some desert military compound while at 2,000m in the Himalayas. With the obligatory six tonnes of high-tech camera equipment required to take pictures of each other flashing peace signs with coquettishly cocked heads at unnecessarily super-ultra high definition. See? It’s easy to get carried away. (If there’s enough demand, I’ll write the whole post, uncensored.)
We met an English couple, Hannah a doctor and Tom a teacher, based in Sheffield, who offered to share the cost of the boat back across the lake and off we set again; Drew somewhat restored, but still clearly not having a good time. And I don’t blame him.
Going down steps, I’m sure you know if you’ve had any experience beyond indoor staircases, is very tough on the knees and thighs. Ben and I were later to learn from sherpas that the best thing for your legs is to trot or skip down. While this is more dangerous, it’s also faster and you’re not using lots of energy stopping your entire bodyweight on each step. Nor are you sending shuddering shockwaves through your knees. None of us were brave enough to skip.
We reached the bottom and hopped in to boats. On the way, the sun set in such a manner that almost wounded me it was so beautiful. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but you’ll get some idea (I recommend full screen).
We got back in time for a quick turnaround before straight out for drinks with the group we’d met at the stupa. We arrived a little early, or late, we weren’t sure, and took advantage of Happy Hour at the Lemon Tree.
Lucas joined us and we spoke some more about trekking, deciding, with much checking and double-checking, that it might be an idea for Ben and me to do a short trek by ourselves and let Drew enjoy his Christmas present from Ben – an hour and a half’s Swedish massage. We left the decision proper for the next day and in a moment’s pause I was less than subtle about seeing a uniquely stunning girl walk past. My reaction was so mouth-agape that my companions all turned in unison to stare. Our entire table gawped at this Scandinavian beauty, just as she turned her soft gaze upon us mere mortals. Clearly, we had all buggered that up instantly. But the girl and her equally tall, blonde, good-looking friend came straight in the bar and sat two tables from us. Ben goaded me on with talk of my MojoQuest and dared me to talk to them. I left the table as calls of “Now boys, watch the master at work!” echoed behind me. Much too loudly. I was surely at the foot of an insurmountable peak. Probably with lots of slippery stone steps ahead of me.
If you put any faith in The Game: I opened this two-set with a basic hook and made sure to neg the stunner and peacock with positive anchoring gestures, affirming my AM status among the group.
What actually happened was I just said hello and asked them if they’d like to join us. They did without hesitation.
Had we been in a London bar I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have even got the time of day, but they were abroad, alone and looking for something to do. And they’d seen and heard Ben, who’s tall, dark, handsome, rich, powerful and has a voracious sexual appetite. Or is that Drew?
We finally caught up with the group from the stupa and quickly moved on to a bar we were promised would close only once we’d left – even though licences in Nepal only last until 10pm. All of them.
The night deteriorated into drunken card games and boring interchanges about the nature of each person’s travel arrangements; while people played pool in the background and some chaps decided arm wrestling was the way to settle some dispute. I’ve been in some dives before and this one certainly wasn’t the worst, but it held its own.
I’ve never worked out how these things happen, but I ended up talking alone with the stunning Danish-Balinese girl. She taught me how to say “Good night, sleep well, see you in the morning” in Danish and complimented me, astonished, on my pronunciation. It didn’t occur to me to say how I was just mimicking her, so it must be her good pronunciation, but then my heart (or any other part of me) wasn’t in the conversation at all.
We called it a night and found we were drunker than expected. Tomorrow was likely to be a slow day.
It was. So slow that we almost missed the deadline to get our trekking permits. It was only by some great stroke of luck that we were able to get our applications in on time. But I’ll let Ben tell you the story of the stray photographs, the unsigned waiver form and the mixed up final documents.