Monday, October 31, 2011

Around Annapurna

We did it! We hiked 21 days around the entire Annapurna Curcuit and absolutely loved it. Such an adventure has its ups and downs, of course, quite literally. We trekked from 860m up to 5430m, back down 1000m and then back up again to 3048m and down again to 1012m. And that is just the major climbs, not including any of the endless ups and downs along the way. For us, it was a major accomplishment. We hiked 211km in total, carrying all of our own stuff, managing not to get lost, anger a yak (that we know of), or fall off a cliff. Phew.

One of the most amazing things about the Annapurna Circuit is that not only is the landscape overwhelmingly superb, but the scenery is so diverse that every day you are hiking through (up and over) different terrain. We started off on Sept 25th, the very beginning of the short ideal trekking season which runs through October and November. The day before we left, and all night, it poured and poured. The world weather is changing, as we all know. 'Usually' by the end of September, the skies should be clear blue and the rain long gone. Anyways, needless to say, we were a little worried. Tramping through the mud on slippery trails would be very little fun. Probably, it would suck.

Thankfully, the rain itself wasn't an issue at all. Really, what the rain meant to us, we discovered, was leeches. Totally gross, slimy, stupid, sneaky, little, black, leech-y leeches. And suddenly, our relationship shifted to a whole new level. Survival. Picking leeches off each other. Ok, well maybe this isn't exactly how it went. Maybe it went more like this:

K: Ok, let me check you for leeches, again. (This occurred approx. every 5 minutes- every time after crossing a flooded area of the path. I was obsessed)
J: (who is wearing flip-flops- sighs) Fine. (And he dutifully lifts up his pantalon legs and twists his ankles around until either, I've declared my inspection is complete, or I've spotted one of the little buggers)
K: (GASP) There's one! Gross! Get it GET it! GET IT!!!!! (I would shriek, waving my arms like a chicken trying to fly and hopping around in a circle splashing the leech infested water everywhere. Essentially just being completely unhelpful. 'EWWWW! SO gross!' (I, needless to say, did none of the 'leech extracting' myself. I was more like the fog horn, alerting to the trouble.
Even worse was the couple of times that a nasty little slime-ball somehow found his way inside my shoes and was attempting to steal my blood through my sock. This seems completely unfair. Leeches should not be able to penetrate Goretex shoes. But they did. If I was freaking out because a leech was trying to suck my husband's feet dry, you can imagine I was a tad bit more, I'll say, "enthusiastic" when they started kissing my own precious toesie woesies. The most I could manage was ripping my sock off and throwing it at Jonathan to deal with the blood sucker. (J: If I had a choice, I think I would choose the leech over those socks!)

There are so many highlights from the trek. We loved being up with the sun and watching the spectacular show of its first rays basking the mountain peaks in a sublime gold. We loved being the first ones out on the trail every morning, cherishing the quiet mountain stillness that we had all to ourselves. We loved the daily exercise, how great it felt when we reached the top of whatever daily climb we accomplished, the friendly locals, and of course, the spectacular, ever changing Himalayan scenery. We loved staying in the smaller towns enroute as opposed to following the suggested hiking itinerary in the popular guidebooks, and ending up where everyone else did every night. Not only were we almost always rewarded with cheaper prices, but usually friendlier locals, hotel owners and fellow trekkers. Plus, it meant that there were far fewer people starting their day's trek from where we were and we were much less likely to be caught up in the middle of a trekking tour group, or whatever demographic that you would appreciate avoiding for that matter (If you've hiked in Nepal- you know what I mean).

When we weren't trying our best to avoid all other Westerners, we actually met some pretty fantastic people. Topping our list are Michael and Amy, a couple of Brooklyn-ers whom we coincidentally started the trek with, and then continued to meet up with often enough over the next week that every time we saw them it was like running into old friends. 'The Foursome', as named by us, an enthusiastic and fun group consisting of a couple of Brits, a Torontonian and a German, Martina, a wonderful Swiss woman we had the pleasure of hiking with for a couple of days, our Aussie couple, Marc and Claire, who we loved chatting with, and Dima and Tamara, a friendly Israeli couple that we once saved from hiking down a no-longer-usable path were also all great folks that we hooked up with along the way. (Two side notes. One: For the ridiculous 'conservation' fees Nepal charged they really could have put up a sign up at that path junction and Two: We met more than a couple really friendly Israelis- surprising, but true story).

While trekking we saw so many amazing things. Of course, the mountains were stupendous, but we also loved catching a glimpse of the mountain village life. The further we hiked away from the road, the less kids begged for 'sweets' and 'school pens' (annoying) and the more people were friendly and welcoming just because it was their nature, not because they were hoping for a handout. We passed porters carrying enormous loads through the mountains, shockingly some even bigger than the backpacks that tourists had their porters carting around. We saw Nepali porters carrying loads as big as refrigerators on their backs! Women too- transporting ginormous baskets of hay or produce that looked to be bigger than they were.

We ate dahl baht almost every day. Dahl Bhat (24 Hour Power, a t-shirt read) is supposed to be what the locals eat. Dhal Bhat is 'bottomess' meaning, they will serve you continuous portions of rice, dahl and curried vegetable until you can longer cram another grain of rice into your mouth. Tourists, of course, are only allotted two servings and then the food magically 'runs out.' Except of course, the person at the next table is getting served their dahl at that exact same moment as the server claims all the food to be gone. And, although it is probably true that dahl baht is the local food, I highly doubt that locals pay the ridiculously inflated prices for their (unlimited) servings that we (two serving) foreigners do. There are signs everywhere that say N.E.P.A.L= Never Ending Peace And Love, as an acronym for their country. Three weeks hiking around Annapurna and we made up our own (slightly more cynical) version. N.E.P.A.L = Nice Except Prices Are Ludicrous. Anyways, all the complaining aside, the food was always very tastey and filling, and really, even if I tried I probably couldn't have eaten more than two portions of dahl bhat anyways....

Another interesting tidbit that I discovered is that I am married to a donkey. Again, surprising, yet true, story. No matter the incline, no matter the elevation, how many hours we had been hiking, how long it had been since breakfast, how hot it was, how cold it was, how many leeches were taking a free ride- J just kept on trekking- consistent and constant- just like the pack donkeys we passed (ok, usually they passed us) on the path. (Side note: There was one pack of donkeys that we actually were quicker than. Before we realized this, we stopped and let the pack pass us only to discover that we were then riding right behind its caboose donkey. Jonathan's allergy thing aside, this probably wouldn't have been too problematic; except that is, for one thing: the caboose donkey was the fartiest steed in the whole Annapurna. Eventually J said we had to hang back because his throat started to feel a bit closed. If you ask me, though, I really think he just wanted to distance himself from Donkey's nerve gas.) This was never more evident on the morning we hiked up and over 'the Pass.' 'The Pass' is the event of the Annapurna trek. Trekkers fret about it for days and have nightmares about it afterwards. Really, its quite a big deal. (For everyone except my donkey husband). People have died trying to cross the pass (J: Its true, but it is people making very silly and very avoidable decisions). First, you start the morning off at about 4400m. That's high. Its cold, the sun isn't over the mountains yet. There is very little oxygen and you are hiking up- pretty much straight up, for 1000m. A whole kilometer up! Generally, at this altitude you can only safely gain between 300-500m in elevation per day. Trying to gain more altitude than this in a single day is really, really dangerous because your body can't acclimatize properly, your brain enlarges, fluid fills your lungs and blah blah blah, you die. I know all this because I went to the 'Acclimatization Talk' high up in Manang and volunteer American Dr. Dreamy, ahem, I mean Dr. Noah told me so. But, this gain of 1000m is ok because you hike up and then right back down the other side. But still, some people have serious and sometimes fatal reactions to this type of elevation gain. Aren't you glad you didn't know all this before we did the trek, Moms and Dads?

Anyways, for the big day, you have to start early because the actual pass, at about 5400m, is really cold, and ferocious winds picks up around 10am, making it very uncomfortable. It takes most people between four and six hours to make the ascent. (If it weren't for J's sense of responsibility to me, being his (slow) wife and all, he probably would have been at the top in two hours. (Side note: How can someone who is SO slow at pretty much everything else be this quick at hiking up mountains?) We were, for the first time on the trek, the absolute last ones fed and out of the guesthouse. It was 6am. Most were on the path by 5-530am- when it was still dark! I have no idea how they did that because it was so, so cold when it was light out at 6:00. My bag was empty- I had every single piece of clothing I had brought with me on, including my sarong as a second scarf and three pairs of socks- and I still couldn't feel my toes until the sun finally (rays straight from on high, it felt like) came over the mountains and de-thawed me (J: Is it just me or does de-thaw imply re-freezing?). J, hiked up like he was on a Sunday stroll. I gasped for oxygen and pushed forward, each laborious step with no small amount of effort. Turns out its hard to hike uphill when you can't breathe. For me, and most other normal human beings. We hadn't even been on the trail for five minutes when we saw our first casualty. A middle age woman, flat on her back, first-aiders fumbling around her with oxygen tanks. Her porter was running around trying to calm everyone down by handing out free 'medicine.' His medicine turned out to be cloves of garlic, (haha-kinda funny, right? Is it rude that I laughed?) which locals say prevent mountain sickness, (or something). Apparently this lady didn't have enough garlic soup for brekky. Either way, I figured I didn't need garlic breath in addition to my gasping and (probably) blue frost-bitten toes, so I declined. After a good stop and stare, J, of course, just kept on trekking. The lady's husband decided that since she couldn't walk over the pass that they would just hire a horse to go over. The first of many stupid decisions we witnessed that day. The scenery on our way up the pass was just incredible. If I didn't have to stop and rest every ten minutes, (and take pictures) J probably would have just kept on trekking right past it all. Thankfully for him I am a high maintenance hiker (J: this is a considerable understatement).

I felt completely elated when we finally reached the pass. Despite being stuck with a break-happy wife, we still passed almost everyone on the way up and made it in under four hours. I was on cloud nine-and we were high enough to actually be on a cloud, so it worked out pretty well. We did it! I danced around a bit and took a hundred photos, completely ignoring the wind that had already started to howl. J, of course, was ready to keep on trekking. That lil' donkey of mine.

My favourite thing about the Annapurna was that every day we had new and exciting scenery to look forward to. The trek started in the lush rice terraces down a bamboo lined path laden with waterfalls and transformed into alpine forests and distant peaks and then really close peaks then barren, dusty desert scenery then a vibrant colourful autumnal valley and finally back to steep hills lined with rice paddies and tropical jungle landscape complete with rascal monkeys. Just amazing. And then, as if the last twenty-one days of hiking through all this wasn't adventure enough for us, I persuaded J to ride on the rooftop of the bus with me from the trek's end all the way back to the city. I can't imagine a better way to end the trek than watching the snow capped mountains and verdant green valleys drift further and further away from our breezy, bumpy, fresh and perhaps slightly dangerous vantage point.


Parentals said...

Wow - an 'adventure' within an adventure! Adam was here last night as we read your blog and he was very impressed Kristen as to how much your climbing skills have advanced since venturing with him last Oct. in BC. Usually pictures can't do justice to what we see.... but your pics are amazing so I'm sure the reality was even more spectacular.
love MOM

Joel and Sonia said...

Wow....that brings back some memories. Fabulous pictures -- I could be up for that but I don't think I could convince Sonia.

High mountains + cold air = Not for Sonia

Gina said...

I'm reading a book right now that takes place in Nepal, and thought to myself today "I wonder/can't remember if J&K have been to/are going to Nepal"... so I checked the blog and there you were! Cool!