Day 9: Khopra to Chistibang: 4.5 hours, 650m elevation loss
What goes up must also come down, and after a freezing night in the community lodge at Khopra, some spectacular sunrise photos, and a rough idea of the trail we wanted to take, we set off, aiming for a village that wasn’t on our map, on a trail that was only a red dotted line.
We had another mutinous Austin on our hand for at least half an hour he woudn’t budge out of the surrounds of the lodge. We were still on the main trail for this part, but okay, it was a narrow trail along an exposed ridge, and yeah, I know why he was scared. But the clouds were all around us, so its not like you could see straight down or anything.
We coaxed each and every step out of him, one by one, for a good 15 minutes before I got the brilliant idea of trying to convince him to sing. Unfortunately, my brain on altitude could only come up with the “Let it go” song from Frozen, which he deemed too girly to sing and made me stop. It just so happens that I know every word to that song because he sang it on repeat for two solid years, and even cried buckets because he had to go to a Frozen party as the prince and not as Ana.
The next best thing I could come up to sing with was 99 bottles of beer on the wall, and I wish to god I could have thought of absolutely anything else. But it worked, and the more I sang, the more willingly he walked. We made it all the way through that song, substituting things like buckets of Fanta and sour candy for the beer — whatever he wanted, I went with it.
After an hour of that, we hit the point where our “high” trail veered off from the main trail, and things went south pretty quickly. We had read about this part of the trail being newer, so it wasn’t on all the maps, and there wsan’t a lot of information about it. But it would in theory save us another major climbing day up to an altitude we wern’t comfortable taking Austin, and would get us down toward the end our our trek a day faster than if we had taken the long way around.
A guy on the internet had written about it – that’s how we knew it was okay. He said to take the high trail even though the blazes were crossed out with big NO written across them. No need to take the pesky low trail – take the high trail. It will be FINE. Ignore the big NO written on ALL of the boulders.
So, based on the advice of Internet Guy, our little family took the high trail. We could see that the trail had been travelled recently, but wasn’t maintained, and was a narrow footpath obscured by bushy grasses, on a steep exposed ridge. It was tough going, and only got tougher. After about half an hour, it had become clear we were way out of our depth, and sat down on a scree field to reassess.
In the smartest move of the day, we decided to turn back, change our overall plan, and take the main trail down, down, down, but not before we managed to lose the trail we had just followed to get us into that situation, and got ourselves lost on the way back to the main trail.
The path was so obscure, we lost it several times, and in the end, lost an hour and a quarter off our day on really difficult and bloody scary terrain. When we got back to the chorten of bad decisions, I lodged my feelings about the whole situation at Mark right in front of a sleeping shepherd, who had the good manners to know when a wife was dressing down her husband, and he laid there like the dead.
With that out of the way, we took the main trail down, down, down a gravelly and very steep path where we slipped and slided relentlessly — and this was the safer trail! We each had at least one good tumble, and Austin became expert at falling onto his bum. He was wearing a pair of tights that had stretched out a bit, and kept falling off the back of his bum. We’d be walking along, and there was his exposed bum, jumping from rock to rock. It kept the mood light, and Austin told me everything I’d ever want to know and more about mine craft while we picked our way down that mountain.
We were now on the other side from the spectacular white mountains, but were treated to some magnificent views of waterfalls crashing down the mountains across the valley. I wanted so badly to take a zip line across and get up close. Even from miles away, we could hear the roar of those waterfalls as they took dives down thousands of feet of mountain.
Our revised plan was to take a lunch break at Chistibang, and arrived at one of the two lodges there just as it started raining and then properly hailing. Coming down a mountain is brutal on the feet and knees, and mine were shouting at me by the time we arrived at lunch. Given the weather, our unfortunate detour, and the fact that we had an 8 hour climb the day before with no rest, we decided to call it at day at our lunch spot, and booked into the simplest, yet cleanest of the mountain lodges we stayed in. It even had a western toilet (BONUS!).
I’ll tell you more about the squat toilets I’ve now become intimately acquainted with on another day, but let’s just say that after a horribly unfortunate incident with one in Italy, I’m now the master of the squat toilet. Famous last words, I’m sure.
With time to get some school in, successfully making a dumb decision and then not dying, and reaching the lodge 3 minutes before it started hailing, I am calling it — today is a good day!
Day 10: Chistibang to Dobato (4 hours, a little bit down, a little bit up, a little bit flat)
Today was an almost magical day of trekking and possibly my favourite so far. I wasn’t really looking forward to it, as we had a 600m descent and then another 1000m climb. Those have been pretty tough in the past, and I was a little bitter about having to go down to go back up.
We left our lodge with frost on the ground and the sun shining. Gone were the brutal rocky downhill slides of the previous day’s descent, and we immediately entered yet another rhodedendron forest, but the difference this time was the soft undulating earthen path that carried us most of the way through the day. The path was a welcome break for the apparatus of the lower extremities. Coming down those rocky paths is just brutal on the feet and knees, and the day before had nearly broken us all.
The trees in the forest were huge and old, some bigger around than the armspan of three men. There were massive boulders the size of a house that had tumbled down the hill at some point, and one had been inexplicably stopped in its tracks by a tall straight tree.
We walked in the shelter of the forest for over an hour, and after a while, I realised that this was the first morning Austin had strapped on his pack and just started trekking without a single hesitation or complaint. He was leaping down the track, chattering away about Minecraft to anyone who would listen.
He loves Minecraft, and I have to be honest, I have found his trying to tell me about it so very dull in the past. There was always something more interesting to do than listen to him talk about Minecraft…even if it was cleaning the toilet…I always found something else to be doing. But when you have a four hour walk in front of you, and your kid wants to talk about Minecraft, you listen.
I listened and learned just how passionate he is about building, architecture, and pushing the boundaries of his creativity through designing and building. I wish I had slowed down to do this before now….while we were still back in our normal life — but I’m grateful we had the time now, and I chose to listen while rambled on about the intricacies of building with digital blocks.
The outcome of it is that we have designed my virtual mountain house and Mark’s log cabin, and our little Minecraft builder will be building them post haste once we get back to Kathmandu and his iPad where Minecraft is loaded.
The sound of rushing water started growing louder, and I realised we were walking around the back part of the valley and were getting closer to those amazing waterfalls we had seen the day before. We came down a little hill to find a rickety little wooden bridge across a rushing waterfall. It was exhilarating to stand in the middle of that bridge and feel the water rushing down the mountain, knowing that below us, out of sight, it dropped hundreds of metres down the mountain.
I let out a huge whoo hoo! It just had to come out. It was amazing standing there in the middle of one of nature’s very coolest tricks.
The forest was the perfect opportunity to hold an impromptu science lesson about the lifecycle of the forest. We were clearly in a very old forest, and the entire cycle of life, death and fertilisation was right there over our heads, on the path beneath our feet, and everywhere we could see.
We started out talking about the tiny baby trees trying to make it in the world, and the resources they need in order to make it to maturity to then seed the forest. The decomposing forest floor underfoot, and plenty of rotting fallen trees, home to mosses, ferns, insects, and god knows what else underneath was an object lesson in plant and bug life nutrition. We ended the lesson with a philosophical discussion about how even in death, the earth creates life, and the cycle keeps going and going. We concluded it’s a bit like teamwork, and then went on to talk about parasites (moss) and hosts (trees), but we’ll go deeper into that lesson on another day.
Austin really seemed to engage with the lesson, and it was a relief to be doing his lessons without chaining him to a workbook or sentence writing. The lesson came alive (literally) in our surroundings, and when I had him teach it back to Mark, he had clearly gotten every bit of it.
Once we came out of the forest, we could see all the way out over the lower mountains and the deep deep valleys below. We were so high above them now — nearly 4000m — that even the big villages we had climbed up to days before looked tiny. It’s late October, and the autumn foliage was starting to come out at higher altitudes. In amongst the trees, we could see out to greens, yellows, oranges and reds across the mountains.
We crossed two more waterfalls, and that alone would have made my day. During our lunch break high on the mountainside at Bayeli, I watched two eagles floating on the updraft, hunting for their food. Before August of this year, I had only seen an eagle once, in Colorado, when it swooped low down through a frozen creek bed, just before a giant labrador knocked me over in the snow and voilated my dignity for far longer than I care to admit.
Austin and I got to watch sea eagles fishing in Norway, and here, in the high Annapurnas, we saw about a dozen. They are amazing creatures to watch. They are huge and powerful, with a unique set of skills that means they will win every rumble they choose to get in to.
Their wingspan is bigger than you can even imagine, and the distinctive feathers, splayed out on their tips like fingers, look almost human. Floating in the wind, they appear to be able to stop mid air before diving straight down at speed, huge talons out, ready to grab their prey and fly away. Eagles have a way of making a person feel very small, but being above the eagles, and having gotten there on your own two feet…well, that starts to stray into existential territory.
We continued on until we came to the ridge of the mountain, and that’s where things got freaky. We walked along the top of that ridge with the mountain falling away into grass and rocks on either side. We were above the top of the trees, and the clouds were rolling in beneath us. We went up and down over and through one gully after another on the top of that ridge, only a dozen feet in front of us visible through the cloud, not knowing what we’d find. It was some of the coolest landscape we had passed on the entire trek, with boulders, gnarly trees and deep grasses falling away on all sides.
Eventually, our final village for the day became visible — Dobato. This unfortunately named village had me singing Mister Robato all day long in my head. Our lodge was run by a gregarious family with a darling toddler, but most importantly they had a hot gas heated shower.
My last shower had been two days previous, courtesy of a warm bucket of water that I had to splash onto the important bits while freezing otherwise. I couldn’t face a freezing shower the night before, and by the time we reached the lodge in Dobato, I was fairly rancid.
The water pressure was barely enough to keep one side of your body wet and warm while the other side froze, but I didn’t care. I was getting clean, and not turning into a popsicle in the process.
The lodge had large windows facing what we were told to be the “best views in the Annapurnas”, but being socked in by cloud, we couldn’t see anything. That’s okay…I like the foggy mist…it helps keep the magic in the day.