Annapurna Trekking: The day I was done

Day 12: Dobato to Ghandruk (The last day)

We froze all night in our thin walled little room at the lodge in Dobato. I was fully dressed, in my sleep sack, sleeping bag, and heavy wool blanket over everything, and still never got warm.

The cold can get you going in the morning, and once I got up the courage to crawl out of my ineffectively warm cocoon and  put my feet on the icy floor, I was up and ready to go check out those spectacular mountain views we had heard so much about.  

They didn’t lie.  There, right before us, in a perfect arc, stood gleaming white mountain faces, reflecting the morning sun with fiery shades of orange and gold.  Sharp against the deep blue sky, and accentuated by cloud cover below us, it was yet another sight that stuns you into silence at the enormity and beauty of the natural world.

With the crisp clean air filling your lungs, and beauty that only exists on Instagram, you realise just how much we, humans, have changed our world around us.  Of course we need shelter, medicines, protection, and opportunities, but I’m grateful that some places like this — unblemished, and standing so spectacularly beautiful, just as they have done for eons — still exist in the world, and I’m humbled that I’ve had a chance to stand within it.

Mark had the strength of mind to will himself out of bed before dawn and make the difficult half hour walk further up the hill to Mulde Point to see the sunrise, and unobstructed views of the mountains.  The photos he came back with are unbelieveably beautiful.  You can feel the serenity in the pictures – with only a handful of people around, it made Poon Hill look like the poor cousin of spectacular sunrises.

Wandering around in wonder / freezing your tail off triggers your stomach to send tempting signals to your brain about how nice it would be to have warmth and love in your belly.  So after a warm breakfast in a cold room, a little morning reading for Austin, and heartfelt goodbyes to the trekkers and guides we had met the night before, we started the trek downhill toward Ghorepani – our gateway out of the Annapurnas.

The trek wasn’t that difficult, and we again were treated to some amazingly diverse scenery as we descended. This time it was high plains grasslands at over 3000m, and more wicked rhododendron forests.  We descended quickly into a deep valley with steep grassy hills on either side, and with each ravine we passed through, we were reminded of just how high we still were.  

The changing landscape was beautiful, and walking through high valley floors and dense forests, we felt protected and calm.  But I was done. DONE.

I managed to find a grumpy mood, and couldn’t shake myself of it until Austin started picking up on it and became grumpy himself.  Cue horrible mom-guilt for letting my bad attitude rub off onto my son, and to hear him grumbling the same (inappropriate for kids) grumps that I had been muttering for an hour.  There was only one thing to do.  I pulled up my mom britches, willed away the outer layers of my bad attitude, and worked hard to coax my little boy out of my bad mood.  Helping someone else see the bright side of things has a remarkable effect on your own mood, and soon, we were both out of it — just about the time we were coming out of the thick forest, and could finally see the literal light at the end of the tunnel!

We made it to Tadapani for lunch, just as it started hailing — second time lucky on the only two times we found rain through the entire trek!

Most lodges don’t crank up the fire until the evening when the trekkers start arrviving, but this one had it working already, and I will tell you, it was hard — so hard — to pack up our stuff and leave that warm comfortable room after our lunch to head back out in the rain. But we donned our waterproof gear, and learned that Austin’s pack didn’t come with a rain cover. (Definitely should have checked that before we left!).  I tied my rain jacket over his pack, and the result resembled a little yoda wandering through the forest ahead of us.  We coudn’t see his legs, and it obscured half of his arms from view, and his little waddle became clear when he was one amorphous blob of yellow.  Hilarity ensued, and my grumpy mood was lifted once and for all.

The rest of the trek was in thick rainforest, which gave us wonderful shelter from the rain, and the tinkle of the raindrops on the leaves high above us was a nice song to walk along to.  

Our final 2.5 hours to Ghandruk felt like a lifetime, and once we got there, we still weren’t there. We passed a couple of high lodges on what we thought was the outskirts of town, so we kept on walking, our minds deciding that we had arrived. After 15 more minutes of walking, we came to a sign that said “Welcome to Ghandruk”, so we thought we were there. It had a hand drawn map, and we headed toward what looked like a concentration of lodges.

We turned down the low path into town that ended up being a steep downhill (or uphill) path to a small Buddhist temple, and a 665 step, straight as an arrow stone staircase down from the temple to “still not Ghorepani”. 

A nice little old farmer pointed us the way to Ghandruk – now UP a stone staircase, following the tails (and excrement) of five of his most sacred cows.  By this point, we were all done….but we weren’t done.

We wandered around a bit until we came to two lodges on the edge of town, but the sign told us there were at least 25 in the village, so we kept on walking, thinking we’d find “town” and perhaps an ATM. It’s cash only in the mountains, and we were down to our last few days of resources. With no banks, no cash machines, and intermittent power and internet service, nobody takes cards — we had no way of replenishing the supply.

We walked through a twisting and turning maze of neat stone houses, with wooden terraces where ears of corn were hung out to dry for the winter.  A gang of little boys started following us, fascinated by Austin with his mop of shaggy blonde hair and carrying his own pack.   Everyone wanted to know how heavy his pack was – all through the trek, people marvelled at a little boy, doing his own work, when so many opted to have their burdens carried by a porter.  His pack wasn’t heavy.  It carried exactly two sleeping bags, a koala and a bunny.  But we wanted him to learn the lessons of playing his part in sharing the load, and his full but light pack did the job.

We wandered through the low part of town until we came to fields of rice terraces.  Agriculture generally means you’ve found the end of town, so, bewildered, we turned back, and went to the Shangri La lodge, the first one we had passed.

It was quaint, painted white brick, with decorative brown woodwork, and a long porch that ran down the length of the building on both floors.  It formed an L-shape around an open courtyard, and framed sensational views of Maccupuchare, the “fish tail” straight ahead.  It was traditional, adorable, and most importantly, the cleanest lodge we’d visited in Nepal.

The proprietress was a shrewed businesswoman, and when Mark enquired about exchanging GBP to Rupees, she jumped on it. They settled on a price, and we were set.  Money acquired, we settled in.  Dinner was a fantastic meal of Dal Bhat at a large communal dining table under which was home mama cat and her tiny little kittens.  Austin became obsessed, and while I was fully grossed out that he was rolling around under a table with cats, cat hair, cat pee, probably cat fleas, and becoming basically a cat, I let it go, and let him do it — and then gave him a good scrubbing in the shower.  

He also endeared himself to some Chinese tourists who shared the table, were fully amused by his antics with the cats.  So much so, and without any English, gave him a gift of a pen light, which provided much more entertainment with the cats.  We also met a girl from London who is trekking for 6 months, and had a lovely chat over dinner, and picked up a valuable tip for a better mapping app.  The lodges are so wonderful for this simple fact — people coming together to socialise and support one another.  There are too many reasons to list why I prefer tea house treks to camping treks, but this has to be the biggest one.

We slept hard that night, but next morning I woke up with a stonking head and chest cold – probably the result of sleeping cold the night before.  I felt miserable, but was determined not to let it slow me down.  We walked until we did find the actual town further along the rice terraces where we had turned back the day before.  But feeling myself sinking quickly, I went back to our room to spend the rest of the day blissed out on cold medicine in my sleeping bag.

Not sure what Mark and Austin got up to, but in the mean time, Mark decided he wanted to keep trekking for another two days down to Landruk and Australian Camp, and out through Dhampus. Me being D-O-N-E and now sick, proposed that Austin and I hike down to the bus in the morning (1.5 hour walk) and head to a lakeside retreat in Pokhara to wait for him. And that’s what we did.

Day 13: Ghandruk to Kimche and then the OMG bus to Pokhara

Bolstered by a day (and night) of almost unbroken sleep and loads of cold medicine, we hiked down to Kimche where the buses all congregate to take people down from the mountains.  The little town was chaos.  It was a holiday weekend, and the place was bursting with weekend holiday makers and trekkers.  Brightly painted and joyously decorated buses made their way in and out to drop off and pick up passengers who rode both inside and on top of the bus.  Each bus had a driver and a “conductor” who ushered people around, supervised the tossing of bags onto the top of the bus, and helped the driver manoeuvre into impossible places.  On the surface, it looked like a total free for all, but it was actually highly choreographed.  

We bought tickets from the one and only ticket kiosk, and waited for our bus to arrive.  When it did, I grabbed Austin by the hand and elbowed our way on to the bus, bags and all.  I was determined to get a seat and not have to stand or do whatever else might be required to secure our place.  It turns out, I was the one creating the chaos, and the conductor politely showed us to our assigned seats (printed clearly on our tickets), and took our bags to put on top of the bus.  

Shame-faced, we sat quietly in our seats, and didn’t get up again, for fear of further barging our way through what was an orderly process to begin with.  During the course of the bus filling with people, I gathered that the seats fill up with ticket holders, and at the discretion of the conductor, any other empty spaces around the driver, or across the back seat were filled by latecomers with locals only tickets.  

There were several skirmishes over seats — some French people tried to claim the seats Austin and I were in, which was calmly sorted out with the conductor.  Then someone else tried to fit six kids into a space designed for two people, which might have been part of what was agitating the French.  So they were kicked off the bus, only to be replaced by a drunk man and his young son.

I don’t know what transpired, but he and the conductor had a heated argument that only ended when the boy, mortified, led his belligerent father off the bus by the arm.  As we passed them on our way out, I saw the boys face, streaked with tears, still trying to get his father under control.  It was a scene to which he was clearly accustomed, and one I’ve sadly witnessed in many cultures, many strata of society, in many places in the world.  Some problems transcend all other factors, and addiction seems to be one that falls hardest onto the people surrounding the problem than of the addict itself.  I cried silently for that little boy, and still see his face often, wondering what will become of his life.

The bus ride itself was harrowing.  We certainly would have been safer, and likely more comfortable had we walked down to Pokhara ourselves.  And we probably would have felt more rested at the end!  The narrow dirt road wound around hairpin switchbacks so steep that we had to navigate them at an absolute crawl.  There was barely room for one bus to travel down the road, much less share with with the others coming up on the busy holiday weekend. 

At one point, we had to back up to a point where the road was wide enough to let two buses pass at once.  But this was no normal backing up…we had to back up AROUND a hairpin turn, UP the steep hill, on the EDGE of a cliff.  I was crying for entirely selfish reasons now — I did not want to die in a purple bus!

We survived that vehicular altercation only to come to another one just a short way down the road.  We met another bus on a narrow straight, who had pulled itself all the way over until it’s sides were nearly touching the earth on the high side, giving us as much room as physically possible to pass.  We creeped past that bus, one groaning inch at a time.  The conductor was out on the cliff side, giving directions to the driver, who himself was leaning as far out the window as he could in order to see if his tires were going to stay on land or start tumbling down into thin air.

By luck, we were seated on the side trying not to hit the other bus, and not the side trying not to fall off the mountain.  I focused on the mere centimetres that separated us, and tried desperately not to think about the fact that if the driver was shitting himself over our situation, then we were in a seriously tight spot.

It felt like it took a lifetime to pass that bus, and the passengers collectively held their breath, willing us to be narrower and the road wider.  It was dead silent on that bus, the only sounds were the short bursts of engine as the driver moved us forward and then braked again and again.  When we finally did break free, the whole bus released it’s breath in one big sigh of relief.  I’m fairly certain there were some silent tears around – myself included.

By no means was the rest of the journey a breeze – we bounced over potholes so deep you could lose a horse in them, and around curves so tight that the bus felt like it was going to tip over.  I had gripped the handle on the seat in front of me so tight that my arm was starting to ache, but I couldn’t let go — I would have fallen over, we were lurching around so much.  

But the scenes we passed were beautiful.  The rice harvest had started.  Two weeks earlier, as we made our way into the Annapurna Conservation Area, the hills were lined with rich green terraces, covered in stalks of rice that were bending under the weight of their heavy grains.  Now, those terraces were being systematically harvested, one by one, by teams of 5-6 men and women working only with hand tools.  

They walked in a straight line, cutting bunches of stalks, and laying them in neat flat rows to dry.  Once dry, the bunches were beat over a large tarp spread neatly on the ground to dislodge the grains from the heads of the stalks.  The grain was then spread out to dry further, and the stalks piled into high neatly packed haystacks to be used as food for the livestock.  

This process was repeated up and down the country, and appeared to almost religious, the reverence with which they undertook their labours.  Rice is an important staple in the diets of Nepalis, and of course across Asia.  Nepal exports 50% of the rice they produce, and “commercial farming” here is categorically organic, and done by hand.  It was humbling to watch the physical labour these men and women were doing in order to feed the people of their country, as well as those of their neighbours.  I could see it in the set of their faces, the community of the teams working their way through the fields, and in the care with which they neatly undertook their work.  The rice harvest was front page news of all of the local newspapers, with large colourful photos of women in bright skirts labouring alongside the men.

I feel fortunate to have been in Nepal during this time.  As a butcher’s daughter (a butcher who is also an avid fisherman), I’ve always had a keen understanding of where my food comes from.  But to see the labours of the people, harvesting the crop by hand – I have gained a new respect for the work that goes into the food that keeps us alive.  Their backbreaking work no doubt kept my belly full of Dal Bhat, and kept my body going up and down those mountains.  

Once again, Nepal has humbled me in ways I never imagine.  That’s why it’s such a magical place.  The scenery is spectacular, the culture rich, and the people amazingly welcoming.  But its the lessons you learn from Nepal, revealed in tiny fragments, that leave an impression so deep, you are forever connected to this place in your heart.

S

About the author: Shalena

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  1. Annette - November 30, 2017 at 4:41 am

    I so enjoyed reading each days trek through Nepal, you made it just so interesting Shalena. Must say reading some of the bits and seeing some of the photo’s I was really glad I was reading it well after you had all completed the trek as you certainly travelled some “hair raising” paths and the “bus” ride the last day certainly must have been scary. Can’t believe that Austin at only 6 1/2 was able to complete this fantastic and at times very daunting trek – what an experience for one so young, he will remember it all his life and when older I am sure will really look back at it all and get even more enjoyment out of revisiting it in his mind. What fantastic photo’s you have managed to get along this great journey. Hope all are enjoying a more relaxed time on the islands, at the beaches etc of Asia. Guess after such interesting times and travels Perth is going to seem a very tame place but all so looking forwarding to be able to share Xmas with you all – Grandma certainly looking forward to having the 3 youngest Grand children waking up here at here home.
    Love to all especially Austin but of course also Shalena and Mark

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