There are some places in the world whose names alone have inspired generations of dreamers: the Sahara desert. The North Pole. The Himalaya.
Vast desolate places, jealously guarding their secrets. All rock, or sand, or snow, orchestrated by the volatile forces of nature, eternal and undaunted by the presence of man. Or, through the eyes of a cynic – diminished, neutered and packaged, sold to anyone with a disposable income and a craving for the magnificent.
With eight of the world’s ten highest summits lying within its borders Nepal, which remained closed to foreigners until 1950, has become synonymous with trekking in the Himalaya. The Annapurna Sanctuary, now the backdrop to one of the most popular treks in Nepal, was not penetrated by outsiders until 1956. The plateau tops out at about 4000 metres and is surrounded by the formidable peaks of the Annapurna range, most of which tower over 7000 metres. While countless tourist agencies make it their mission to get tourists to Annapurna Base Camp and back in as little as seven days with the help of porters, guides and ample supplies of Diamox, the trail still has its challenges.
It is almost obligatory for any self-proclaimed adventurer to bemoan the commercialization of the Nepalese mountains, forgetting that most of us have neither the mountaineering experience nor the funding to join a real expedition. Of course the proliferation of lodges, guided tours and – horror of horrors – WiFi access has taken some of the magic away, but it is precisely its popularity, well-maintained trails and the promise of a warm meal and a bed come nightfall that make it possible to safely do the trek alone, with no guide or porter to dictate your pace. And while these creature comforts make the mountains much more accessible to mere mortals such as myself you might be relieved to hear that the Nepal Tourism Board has not yet found a way to make the Himalaya any flatter, the high altitude any less exhausting or gravity any less of a bitch when walking uphill.
The Himalaya has always held a particular sway over me. Six years ago I had walked the Annapurna Circuit with some friends, but this time I wanted to have the trail to myself, inasmuch as that was possible on such a popular trek. I decided to trek to the Annapurna Basecamp alone, with a small backpack and no fixed itinerary, setting out early enough to escape the crowds and counting on the fact that, should I slip and twist an ankle, it wouldn’t be long before a group of Lycra-clad Chinese tourists came by to pick me up, dust me off and drag me to the nearest lodge.
Below is a day-by-day account of the trek and its untimely demise, in the hopes that it proves marginally useful for future trekkers an interesting for the escapists, procrastinators and daydreamers out there.
DAY 1: Pohkhara (Phedi) – Australian Camp
4 hours of walking, 1220 m total elevation gain
- “…to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.” – Cheryl Strayed
The first day of my trek began with me hunting around for duct tape (because you just know it will prove to be a crucial tool of survival the moment you forget to pack it) and treating myself to a big leisurely breakfast on the sun. Carb-loading is a thing, right? By the time the bus dropped me off at the trailhead in Phedi it was noon (Rookie mistake #1) and as the sun bore down mercilessly on my bare head I remembered packing my cap all the way at the bottom of the bag (Rookie mistake #2).
I refilled my water bottle in a small shop on the side of the road. The man behind the counter eyed my backpack.
“You are going to Dhampus?”
“Yeah… well, I’m doing the ABC trek.”
“No no, just me,” I smiled, and felt an unusual mix of pride and trepidation at his incredulous stare.
Across the street a ramshackle procession of flagstone steps climbed the hill at an alarmingly steep angle and disappeared into the forest. I hoisted the pack on my shoulders, waved at the old man and pranced up those steps in what I hoped was an outdoorsy and competent manner.
Five minutes later, safely out of sight, I was leaning against a tree out of breath and sweating as though it were an Olympic sport. It was time to face the facts: I love walking and running. I just don’t particularly enjoy doing it uphill. And it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that reaching Annapurna Base Camp at 4130 metres will require a whole lot of walking uphill.
After 40 minutes of cursing my way up that torturous staircase I emerge out of the woods and follow the trail through an idyllic little village of scattered houses with uneven whitewashed walls and dark wooden rafters. Hay is drying on the sun in large heaps and small agile goats watch the world go by with the equanimity of old men.
And here I encounter my first problem – how can I write about all the marvellous feats of nature and geology that one comes across on a trek, and which form such a crucial part of the experience, when I haven’t the faintest idea what names they go by?
The terraced fields, the wildflowers, the myriad trees lending their shade in the afternoon heat… I can only marvel at their nameless beauty. The little blue flowers bursting through the cracks in the stone – are they forget-me-nots? Continuing past the village I notice that the stones under my feet have a silver sheen to them, like the ones from Pohorje back home that I used to hoard as a kid, convinced of their immense value. I slip a small one in my pocket and continue on my way.
I reach Dhampus an hour and a half later and finally feel like I am getting into the swing of things. The valley already seems far below, a dried-up riverbed flanked by terraced hills. Refilling my bottle in a roadside tea house I meet two enthusiastic young lads who are also on the way to Base Camp and decide to tag along, relieved not to be the only idiot who thought it a good idea to start a trek in the noonday heat.
Ten minutes later I am already wishing I had dawdled a bit longer at the resting stop. One of my new companions, a strapping wholesome-looking type, has clearly not come to the mountains in search of silent contemplation. After fifteen minutes of walking within earshot of him I know all about the puking competitions he likes to have with his mates after a piss-up, that hilarious time his best friend drank his pee at a stag party, and a long and disturbing list of ways in which his mates have meddled with other people’s drinks and hot dogs. I can’t tell if the other guy is actually enjoying the endless deluge of drivel coming his way, or if he’s simply too Canadian to tell his friend to shut up and go jump off a cliff.
At the next resting place I let them go ahead as I take my sweet time meticulously tying my shoelaces so that we would not end up in the same guesthouse and, by extension, the same dining room – I am not letting him anywhere near my food.
Dark clouds are rolling in from the north and I am propelled up that last uphill climb to Australian Camp by sudden gusts of cold wind and the growl of approaching thunder. Despite the name Australian Camp also offers a choice of five guesthouses and I opt for a simple cheapie with stunning views of the Annapurna range. Above us all hell breaks loose as soon as I put down my bag and, feeling very wholesome and tentatively outdoorsy, I acknowledge the deafening pounding of the rain on the tin roof as the perfect excuse for a cosy nap.
The real work starts tomorrow.
DAY 2: Australian Camp – Jhinu Dhanda
6 hours of walking, 260m total elevation loss?
You gotta be kidding me.
– “Nothing any good isn’t hard.” – Fitzgerald
The alarm wakes me up at 6am, just in time to join a group of Japanese tourists in a photo-snapping appreciation of sunrise over Annapurna South and Machhapuchhre. I am very font of the peak, also known as Fish Tail, as it is the only one I can correctly identify in the mountain range that I will be walking towards in the coming days. The Hindus consider it sacred to Lord Shiva and in 1957 Wilfrid Noyce, leader of the only documented attempt at Machhapuchhre, turned back 150 metres before reaching the top in honour of his promise not to set foot on the summit. It remains unclimbed to this day.
I scrutinize the mountains as I eat my first dal bhat of the day. From a distance these immense peaks look pretty and tame, their treacherous character and volatile nature all but impossible to imagine. It is a stunning sight and, jotting down notes in my journal I once again find my vocabulary lacking – they are, well, mountains. A great big rock, a bit sticking out here, a hollow over there, and a generous sprinkling of snow on top.
I have chosen Maurice Herzog’s account of the 1950 conquest of Annapurna I as my literary companion for this trek. With no previous knowledge of the area and only one rough map, which proved to be completely false, the French mountaineers explored the region, found a viable route to the top of Annapurna I and climbed it within one season, Making Herzog and Lachenal the first climbers to summit a peak over 8000 m. But apart from the epic nature of their trailblazing quest I am mesmerised by Herzog’s loving descriptions of the mountains they scaled, despite having to keep checking the glossary to make sense of all the arêtes and couloirs, lips and folds, crags and crests. For these passionate young climbers the Himalayas were the Holy Grail they were willing to give their lives for, and each mountain face as unique and fascinating as the face of a beloved. I am in awe of the primal love and respect they have for the mountains, the expertise and self-assurance with which they approach them, and the Gallic sense of chain-smoking joy and grit they bring to their historical undertaking.
By eight I am ready to hit the trails. It’s a crisp sunny morning, and the stone-paved path to Tolka is almost unbearably quaint, with the world around me still dripping and clean after the night’s downpour and prayer flags whispering mantras to the wind.
When resting my legs in Pothana I start chatting to a young Nepali woman who was guiding an American family to Ghorepani. She asks where I am from. Usually my reply is met with blank stares or, in the case of bureaucrats and officials, with bored suspicion. But in the mountainous regions of Nepal they are no strangers to Slovenia and its mountaineering inhabitants.
“Oh yes, so many Slovenians coming here!”
She looks at me thoughtfully, taking in my height, which people often confuse with strength rather than clumsiness, and my backpack.
“Yes, you are also mountain people, I think.”
I don’t correct her. Slovenians are, by and large, fond of the mountains, and we have many world-class mountaineers and skiers to show for it. I don’t tell her that I’m a bookworm with bad knees and an unprecedented talent for tripping on even ground who’s never in her life carried a backpack this size this far. Throughout my childhood in Slovenia I was a weekend hiker, and reluctantly so – all the temper tantrums I’d thrown as a teenager, outraged at having to spend a Sunday afternoon hiking with my parents! When a freakish growth spurt landed me in physiotherapy by the age of 14 I was relieved to have a valid excuse to skip PE and any and all strenuous outdoor activities.
I only found my love for the mountains once I turned eighteen, left to explore the world on my own, and developed a masochistic passion for scaling peaks, hiking through leech-infested jungles and wandering around the Himalayan foothills. But then I always had company and often a guide. Left to my own devices, I still have the city girl’s fear of the wild.
Now, on the way to Annapurna Basecamp, I chose to believe the guide. I had a backpack, a compass, a map and a couple of gruesome hikes to my name. As far as the world around me was concerned I was a Mountain Person. So be it.
In Tolka I am informed that the trail to Landruk is “Nepali flat” – a cheerful euphemism that only means that the ups and downs are not steep enough to make you fall off the slope. For a while the Middle World landscape is replaced by a muddy road where I am often overtaken by jeep-loads of tour groups that have decided to skip this uninspiring section of the trail.
I have lunch in Landruk, where the trail reaches the Modi Khola river. The lady of the house takes my order and then sends her husband to the kitchen to earn his keep while she sits with me, chatting and enjoying the sun.
After Landruk the trail skirts a couple of small settlements and within half an hour the surroundings change in character completely as I walk on mossy boulders through a great entangling forest in full chlorophyll-choked glory, alive with the humming of insects and the gushing of the river to my left. I find it difficult to believe that this trail could possibly lead into the cold rocky heart of the Annapurna Sanctuary. Despite the popularity of the trek I don’t meet another soul on this section of the trail, save for a procession of heavily-laden mules that seem to be making their way home on their own accord. Moist, mossy cliffs rise up on the side of the valley and small waterfalls trickle down, spraying the jungle with a fine mist.
Upon reaching New Bridge I have to double check that this is in fact it – the bridge that has given the settlement its name is a rickety contraption of steel cables and wooden planks that has stopped being new long ago, and the settlement that is marked on my map in such substantial bold lettering proves to be little more than three lodges clinging to the side of the hill.
Most trekkers starting their day at Australian Camp spend the night here, but my map promises hot springs in Jhinu Danda, another hour’s walk further. I had been making fairly quick progress and am still feeling quite perky and at one with nature, so I decide to push on – how hard could it be?
That awful hour began with a stiff 30-minute climb that wiped me out faster than you can say “told you so”. At the top I can see Jhinu Danda level with me right across the valley. It would have made for a lovely 10-minute stroll were it not for the fact that the trail first plunges down to the river only to climb back up again on the other side, making up for all that gargantuan effort that has just been undone in the descent.
During my trials and tribulations heavy afternoon clouds have rolled into the valley and the first drops hit me as I cross the bridge below Jhinu Danda at 2 pm. By the time I was half-way up the trail the gentle pattering of rain turned into a tropical downpour, but it was a warm day and, covering my bag with a waterproof cover, I welcomed the refreshment. Half an hour later I crawled into Jhinu Danda soaking wet and dead on my feet. With my backpack seemingly doubled in weight and Jhinu’s fondness for staircases I was less than amused to find all the lodges full. After joining forces with two equally drenched and exhausted Finnish girls we dragged ourselves ten minutes further up the hill amongst much groaning and cursing, and got the last room, a small square box with three hard beds and Justin Bieber-themed décor – it was heaven.
I will not write about the knee-busting hike down to the famed hot springs, or the frankly murderous slog back up, in hopes that I will soon forget it and only be left with memories of floating in a pool of hot water like a geriatric otter, relaxing my sore muscles and doing my best to ignore the gaggle of giggling Korean tweens taking elaborately choreographed selfies on the other end of the pool.
There is something very pleasurable about such intense physical exhaustion – a return to a primal state that our sedentary lives have all but robbed us of. As I crawled into bed under the loving gaze of Bieber Baby I thought about the simplicity of such a life. Sleep, eat, walk, repeat. I thought about my place in nature and the peace of mind that seems to go hand-in-hand with sore muscles and such single-minded pursuit of physical challenge. I suspected that there was a very philosophical and deep point to be made about Life, the Universe, and Everything. And I quickly decided to leave that job to someone else.
And I fell asleep instead.
I’m splitting these chronicles into two parts, because I know that even my mom isn’t willing to read 5000 words about me stumbling through the Himalayas in one sitting. (And if you made it to the end of this one, well done, much appreciated!:) )
Part two coming shortly!