Highest Elevation: 4,000 m (13,123 ft)
Lowest Elevation: 840m (2,775 ft)
It became a tedious day of sitting in the dining room of our trekking lodge, huddled around a tiny coal heater since the only proper fireplace was in the forbidden kitchen. As gusts of wind pelted the windows with alternating bouts of rain, sleet, and snow, all of the trekkers speculated on the impact of this storm on the cross-ability of the infamous Thorong La and debated whether to continue up the trail or give up now. But for that day, no one was venturing further than dashing across the street for snacks to accompany pot after pot of masala tea. The upside was that our forced sedentariness, paired with a leisurely wifi connection, gave me the perfect opportunity to take care of all Christmas shopping in one fell swoop! By the end of the evening, Matt and I had even picked up a deck of cards for several rounds of rummy 500. We could not remember the last time just the two of us had played a game together.
By the next morning the storm had passed and it looked like the continuing-on camp beat out the ditchers with just a few folks catching jeeps down the valley. We stocked up on our food staples in the bazaar town of Chame with the cheapest prices we had ever encountered while trekking, then hit our first patches of substantial snow shortly thereafter. Since Annapurna is nicknamed the "Apple Pie Trek," we felt it was appropriate to eat it for lunch at what was previously a community apple orchard for local consumption. Now an entrepreneurial Kathmandu family has bought it, expanding the orchard in order to "export" apples by truck on the relatively new road. The owner we struck up conversation with claims that plans are in the works to pave the road within a few years. He proudly showed us the architectural sketch of a massive fancy lodge they will build once the orchard expansion is complete. Politely as possible, I inquired whether he thinks many trekkers will want to stay at a lodge on the side of paved road with trucks on it. He said, "Of course, we have to find the balance between tourism and industry." How exactly they will find that balance, I am not sure. Perhaps Annapurna could successfully morph from a world-class trek to a lodge-to-lodge road cycling tour... just watch out for those apple trucks!
Above apple-pie heaven, we wandered in to beautiful winter wonderland that reminded us, with quite appropriate timing, of our traditional trip up to Montana for the holidays. It was both comforting and homesickness-inducing as this was the first Christmas we would not be spending there many years. To top it off, the conditions were perfect for cross-country skis, so we also missed them sorely. Instead we trudged along a narrow path broken through the knee-high snow with the benefit that it was a gentle road-grade without the feeling of walking on a wide dusty road. Upon reaching our goal of Pisang right at dusk, we were recruited in to an extremely pink hotel. We initially resisted based on an instinctual color aversion, but the owners were friendly, the fireplace warm enough to dry our boots, and the food was good. While there may be a lesson here to never judge a trekking lodge by its exterior colors, someone should really tell Nepalis how off-putting pink is!
After a few hours of hiking under brilliant blue skies the next day, the weather turned quickly and we were scrambling to put on all the sweaty layers we had peeled off. The wind picked up enough that drifts of snow were filling in the trail through the now thigh-deep snow. Luckily, we were close to the little settlement of Humde where we ducked in to a locals' restaurant for a pot of instant coffee by their kitchen fire. We were hoping that this was just a squall that would pass over the course of lunch, but despite our best procrastinating, it persisted until we were forced with the decision of whether to push on to Manang or call it a day after just three hours of walking. We continued to the edge of town and felt the force of the wind beyond the protection of buildings, which pretty easily convinced us to turn around and find a cozy lodge. Once settled in to the Maya lodge, we spent another mellow afternoon and evening staying warm by the fire, playing cards, eating, and drinking. Things could be worse.
Despite a new layer of snow from the previous day, the going was pretty easy to Manang thanks to a tractor that had laid wide tracks through the snow. We were not the only ones taking advantage of this. The night before, a shaggy grey dog peered into our room when we had the door cracked open. The next morning he was curled up outside of our room and, certainly without any prompting from us, decided to kept us company all day, then disappeared once we got in to town. We later saw him again playing with some other dogs in the snow, so thought maybe he actually lives in Manang.
When we registered at the ACAP checkpoint, we were surprised to hear the officers reporting that Thorong La was most likely passable. With the quantity of snow, we had already resigned ourselves to simply enjoying the stunning views from Manang before backtracking down the valley. Now with a glimmer of hope (before realizing the extent of how absolutely clueless and worthless ACAP is), we decided we might as well approach the pass, taking it day-by-day and seeking out more information whenever and wherever we could. In this sense, we were no different than anyone else still sticking around. There is nothing like perceived adversity to bond tourists together, or perhaps an element of uncertainty simply gives strangers something to talk about with each other. Even since the snow hit, there had been a casual and implied camaraderie among all trekkers that we had only witnessed one other time in the days leading up to crossing the Larkya Pass on the Manaslu Circuit.
The route up to Yak Kharka yielded increasingly better views, worthy of a trip even without the possibility of crossing the pass. The trail was more challenging since had finally left the road behind at its terminus in Manang. On some of the steeper snowy slopes, it was easy to slip off the "trail" of singular packed footprints and plunge thigh-high into unpacked snow. Even under these conditions, it was a short day and we soon joined our loose group of trekking associates in one of two lodges open in the village. Although we felt bad for the fellow who didn't have anyone staying with him, we were keen to keep a beat on the others' plans. Besides, our shaggy grey dog was waiting for us there after following some Danish dudes up the trail earlier that day!
The arrival of three more competent trekkers returning from higher up corroborated the decision of a French mountaineering couple we had chatted with on their return that morning. The problem was not at the pass, but an area prone to landslide even in dry conditions before the next acclimatization points of Thorung Phedi and High Camp. An icy section of trail had but the width of footstep carved out of the steep slopes plummeting to the river below and some looming avalanche risk from above. This latest news introduced yet another maze of decisions to navigate through. Do we take the word of at least five seemingly experienced and moderate-to-high risk travelers who turned back? Do we hike up and see it for ourselves before we decide? If so, do we take our backpacks or leaving them at the lodge? Do we wait for the large well-equipped organized British trekking group to arrive and tag along if and when they cross? If we wait a few days, will it melt out? And is it worth waiting if we still don't know whether or not the pass is passable?
It was all too overwhelming to make a logic-based decision, so we ended up going with our gut telling us it was time to turn around. Our gut was listening to our wet feet who were tired of hiking in the snow, our antsy pants who didn't like to prospect of killing more time at trekking lodges waiting for weather to cooperate, and our hearts' desire to have an excuse to come back some day and do the many side trips in the Manang area (like Tilicho Lake) that were not feasible with the recent snow. And most importantly, we had to look out for the safety of shaggy grey dog!!!
Now you would think that this dog, who hung around for three days without getting any food from us, would be bonded to us for life once we caved and brought him a hearty portion of dal bhat and some canned hot dogs. So we figured we had better give him a name and there was only one that fit the bill: Dawa. It was no surprise when he followed us down the trail from Yak Kharka, but after we crossed paths with the big British group heading up, he was nowhere in sight. Without even saying goodbye, he latched on to what was no doubt an upgrade for handouts and leftovers. It seems that Dawa is a true trekking dog, keeping tourists company up and down the trail at his whim.
We made up for all of the recent short days with a long push all the way down to Pisang. Not one of the fifteen or so trekkers who had congregated at Yak Kharka had decided to continue up, so we spotted many of them throughout the day as we dispersed on our own courses for our return trips down the valley. We ended up staying in the same very pink hotel again with just one of them, a young German guy named Tobias. We had first met him in Manang when he had just returned from being snowed-in for a week at Tilicho Lake. He was also one of the three at Yak Kharka who had turned around after assessing the sketchy spot. Little did we know just how many times we would coincidentally meet up with Tobi in our future.
While the next day felt like a relief to hike below the snowline, we became disheartened about our decision as we shared our experience repeatedly to each passing trekker curious about why we were heading down and eager to get information about the conditions that lay ahead. If the warm and sunny weather held, it was likely they would be able to cross the pass by the time they got there. We second-guessed ourselves that we had been too impatient to leave, yet at the same time we felt that 63 days of continuous trekking was catching up with us. Our legs and feet were taking a beating from hiking downhill on the hard-packed road, more brutal than any rocky trail. In our hotel for the night, appropriately with Tobi as the only other guest, we formulated a plan to still trek all the way to Pokhara on what has been dubbed "The Homestay Trek" through scenic villages populating the temperate middle hills. This seemed to reconcile our mixed-emotions of the day.
The next day we passed into new territory for us after descending along the road past Dharapani, where we had joined the AC from the Manaslu trek. We escaped the road temporarily by crossing a suspension bridge over the river to hike on a parallel trail on the other side until we reached Tal, recommended to us by Tobi. Tal almost had a beach town feel with some sandy beaches close to its riverside location. We found a great lodge called the Potala where several miraculous things happened: the awesome didi upgraded us to a brand-new "luxury" cabin with a private bathroom, it was warm enough to shower and do laundry, and Tal has a local specialty that was filling, absolutely delicious, and most importantly, not dal bhat! I don't remember the name unfortunately, but I could have eaten the potato-pumpkin-bean curry with corn bread forever.
A couple of hours after leaving Tal, we rounded a bend near the river to find a tiny baby goat standing on a boulder all alone and bleating its lungs out. Now, if you have been reading this blog semi-regularly, you may have picked up on the fact that I have become slightly obsessed with goats, especially baby ones. So I was not about to walk by this baby goat and just leave it there. It needed to be saved! I called to it and it immediately jumped off the boulder and fought its way through a million sticker plants only to arrive right at my feet covered in burrs. I picked it up and it calmed down and stopped bleating. I looked at my husband, who was already rolling his eyes and taking off his pack, knowing exactly what was in store.
The nearest village was fortunately not very far back, but unfortunately up a long switchbacking hill. But this baby goat needed to be saved! Midway up, I was relieved to find a herd of goats roaming around so I put baby down right in the middle of all of them. They sniffed it, and just kept going. Baby just climbed to the nearest rock and started bleating again. Clearly these were not the right goats, so up we went. I found a woman sitting in front of her hut who didn't seem too phased to see me carrying a baby goat, so I handed it to her. She set it down and it curled up next to her, a clear sign that the baby goat had been saved! Hooray!
I scurried back down the hill to my patiently waiting husband and arrived just in time to see a Nepali man coming from the opposite direction, scanning the area above and below the trail as though he was searching for something, say, perhaps, a baby goat? I tried to ask in basic words and gestures if he was looking for a goat, but he just looked confused, pointed down the trail and said the name of the next town. My husband just shook his head and accused me of being a kid-napper, adding that he can only imagine what the woman up the hill will be having for dinner tonight! My only recourse for revenge was every time we saw a baby goat after that, which was frequently, I would whine, "Awwww, all I want for Christmas is a baby goat!"
In these last few days of trekking, we were preoccupied with finding alternative trails to minimize our walk along the road. We even climbed and descended more than 3,000 feet to pass through some less-visited villages on the gentle hilltops above the steep-sided river gorge below. Coming down, the din of a 50MW hydropower plant under construction near Bhubhule increased with each step until we were at eye-level with the mess of it all. The hydropower project is 90% backed by the Chinese corporation Sino Hydro, surprisingly China's first foray into a country with huge amounts of untapped hydro potential. In a country where "load-shedding" creates power cuts for over half of each 24-hour day, the signed power purchase agreement means that Nepal won't be keeping much (if any) of the electricity generated. With Nepal's government being one of the most corrupt on the planet, the sale of power to China won't be benefiting the everyday people of Nepal either. The worker strikes that have been slowing the project since its inception aren't even that farsighted. The workers demands are simple: a pay increase to a whopping $6 per day, a health center and ambulance on site.
Signs along the road near Bhubhule appeal to all of the tourists who jeep up to Chame to begin their trek above the chaos. They claim, "If you choose vehicles you might miss homestay, community stay, hospitality, cultural varieties, and treking experiences." This may be true, but can you really blame anyone for passing by? After doing it on foot, we can't. I have heard that the vast majority of local people who live along the Annapurna Circuit were in support of road construction. The appeal of making everyone's lives easier overshadowed a few people's concerns about impacting tourism. Now efforts are being made to create alternative trails and incentives for people to stop prior to the need to acclimatize forces them out of the vehicle. Perhaps some thorough, dedicated souls will take them up on these offers, but the ease of jumping in a jeep and getting to the good stuff faster is just too alluring for most.
Shortly after setting out from Bhubhule the following morning, we reached the turn off for our "Homestay Trek" that would take us as close as possible to Pokhara on foot. It sounded really cool, it seemed off the beaten path, it was certainly totally our style, yet we could not muster the energy to begin the climb out of the valley. The road had sucked the life out of us. We sensed that we could make it happen, but it would be forced. We questioned whether we would enjoy it enough to make it worth it. Or was it time to be done? It was. Instead, we ambled down the road to the traditional jumping off point for the Annapurna Circuit trek, Besi Sahar. A depressing way to end an incredible trek for sure.
Two bus rides later, the fastest we had moved in over two months, we were in the touristlandia of Lakeside, Pokhara. It was Christmas. We celebrated with pizza and beer.
A few important lessons we learned on our 68-day trek:
- Showering is overrated, but doing laundry is even more so.
- Breakfast is important, and second breakfast is even more crucial.
- Life in the mountains is relatively comfortable if you are a foreign trekker passing through, but "real life" in the shadow of snowy peaks is a challenging endeavor. Nonetheless, the conglomeration of cultures that make up the Nepali people are some of the warmest, friendliest, and most welcoming on the planet. The trek ended up being as much about the people we met as it was about the scenery.