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.