Highest elevation: 13,484 ft (4110 m)
Lowest elevation: 7,185 ft (2190 m)
We said goodbye to the Manaslu trek that we had come to love by tying one of our khatas to a bridge just before the river's confluence with the Marsyangdi River, marking our transition onto the Annapurna Circuit. The checkpoint for our conservation area permits and TIMS (Trekker Information Management System) cards made it official. Walking through the junction town of Dharapani, I gave it the Most Hideous Hotels award before I knew this would be par for the course as we continued up the road past other villages, finally deciding to stop at Danaque. We chose the Motherland Hotel based on the friendly didi, definitely not the color-scheme of aquamarine walls with Pepto-pink and lavender accents. We decided there must have been a regional sale on every shade of obnoxious paint color imaginable, especially pink. The gaudiness of the colors was enhanced by the interesting choices of combinations applied to the cheaply constructed concrete buildings. Inside the room was much less nauseating, with the typical plain wood paneling rather than the anticipated sloppy paint job of, say, neon green with bright yellow trim.
The next day was a short one, with few options to walk off of the road unless we were short-cutting switchbacks. Fortunately, only a few jeeps passed by filled with Nepalis, presumably heading down to warmer climes for the winter. We had to stop in Koto, where a trail heads up a side valley to the remote villages of Nar and Phu. It would be too far to make it to the first village of Meta that same day, so we did the usual rest day routine of laundry, followed by internet, followed by eating, followed by the bonus of sorting out our camping gear to leave behind for our third out-and-back (or more appropriately up-and-down) side trip of the trek. Yay!
Except for some dramatic sections of trail that had been carved out of riverside cliffs, the path climbed steadily through forest until reaching Meta. We were disturbed to see the extensive tree-harvesting, likely for yet more tourist lodges. When Matt asked Dawa what he thought about the wood cutting, he shared about how the forest is managed around his home village in the Kanchenjunga region with quotas and taxes set by the government but self-regulated by the community. While he didn't know the details of the system we were observing, one can only hope that the Annapurna Conservation Area has something similarly effective in place.
In Meta, we shared a hotel with likely the only other tourists in the valley, a friendly couple from Alaska who hiked in t-shirts while we donned fleeces and wool hats. The next day we leap-frogged up the trail with them all the way to Phu. The landscape transformed into arid, rocky expanses dotted with stubby juniper trees. We passed a couple of villages just beginning to be inhabited as residents of Nar and Phu were descending to their slightly more livable elevations during the harshness of winter. The style of the stone-walled buildings blending in with their surroundings, especially combined with the juniper and red rock walls, had us thinking of the Ancestral Puebloan sites in the US Southwest.
The valley narrowed again and we worked our way through rocky riverbanks sandwiched between vertical walls and the remains of avalanches that came down during the infamous October storm. Our guide learned from locals that one of the debris-covered ice paths still contained three French trekkers, although the bodies of Japanese and Indian trekkers had been recovered. It was strange and disconcerting to think that we could be walking over dead bodies encased in the snow beneath us.
A loose steep climb brought us up from the river to look down upon the vertical gorge and the ruins of what looked like a medieval fortress the size of the small butte it was perched atop. Crumbling chortens with fading ochre walls and aged mani walls led the rest of the way to Phu. It felt like we were about to discover a lost civilization that was still living half a millennium back in time. It also felt like we might encounter it in a state of mild hypothermia as a frigid wind whipped through the open valley, signaling that winter had arrived before we had. Even the Alaskans had to put on more clothes during the last stretch to Phu!
Of course, we were not the first to discover anything and the town was indeed in touch with modern times, even if the cluster of buildings did not hint at modernity from a distant first impression. Only one of four hotels was still open, and even then they seemed reluctant to host us as they too were closing for their winter migration down the valley in a couple of days. The sun had long set behind the mountains, so we saved our wandering for the next morning and headed to the kitchen where the family huddled around a tiny fire and the guests were relegated to a table in the far corner next to the door. This would not have been so bad except that with their coming and going they never shut the door. Matt got up about seventeen times to shut the door after them, making it more and more obvious each time, but they didn't catch on, or more likely didn't care. I was not fully warm until the middle of the night when we finally accumulated sufficient collective body heat in our double sleeping bag.
The next morning we took it easy, waiting for the sun to hit the village before venturing outside. A short walk up to a monastery on a neighboring hill provided a new perspective of Phu, but unfortunately the caretaker with the key had gone to collect firewood, so we did not get to peek inside. We were amused by a newly observed trend of covering the mani stones and other religious objects with garish colors of blue, yellow, and copper-colored paint. I quipped, "This is what happens when good Buddhists get a hold of bad paint!"
It did not take long to explore the rest of the mostly empty village, so Matt and Dawa climbed up another steep hill on the other side of Phu while I sat on the wind-sheltered roof of the kitchen, collecting the benefits of sun alongside our little Goal Zero solar panel. The mother brought her young children there as well, so I was soon surrounded by clothes changes, face washes, and baby oil rub downs in the only place warm enough to bare skin.
The remainder of the day became a little drawn out since it was not the most comfortable place in terms of amenities, food, and attitude of the hosts, but we had to keep with our established tradition of taking our rest days in the highest, coldest, and most expensive places possible on each section of the trek. We were more than ready to hustle out of there the following day along with every type of domestic animal in the valley: horses, goats, sheep, and yaks. Only chickens were not being herded down valley alongside us as we descended.
In contrast to our experience in Phu, we were welcomed in to the immaculate Satek Gompa by the equivalent of the director or headmaster, since it primarily serves as a school for young monks-to-be during more favorable seasons. The pupils were already in Kathmandu for the winter, but many of their teachers remained at the monastery. The main entertainment of the evening was observing what would definitely be defined as cat torture in the household of my upbringing. With everyone sitting on the floor around the fireplace, the teachers, headmaster monk and even our guide, passed around a little black kitty for some whisker-twisting, puppeteering, and my personal favorite, whacking with the spinner of a handheld prayer wheel. The amazing part was that the cat put up no defenses or made any attempts to escape, and except for some annoyed verbalizations with ears pointed back, it seemed to love the abuse (or the warmth of the fire and prospect of food scraps made toleration worthwhile).
On our way up switchbacks that covered the entire side of a mountain the next morning, we welcomed the breaks to answer inquiries from locals headed down. Without fail, each started conversation exactly the same way, "Kang La?" Each time that we said no, they looked a little confused. Kang La is a 5,315-meter high pass with a trail that connects Nar to the Annapurna Circuit further north than where we had left it in Koto. Dawa had insisted that we could not cross the pass due to icing over from the big October storm, so we were surprised to hear locals telling us that we should go. When we questioned him about the discrepancy, he clarified that he personally would not attempt it without ropes, crampons, and an ice axe, and added, "If you showed someone from Nar an ice axe, they would not even know what it is, but they would still cross the pass!"
Our approach to Nar did not feel as exotic or dramatic as Phu, but overall was a much more welcoming place, both climatically and socially. The sun hung in the sky much longer before dropping behind the mountain which allowed for a lovely lunch on our hotel's porch and an afternoon of ambling around town. We found it odd that this was the only place we had seen on our entire trek that had streetlights, powered by a micro-hydro plant. Once the essential sunlight was gone, we were invited to sit on floor cushions by the kitchen fire which became a traditional Nepali cooking show. It was amazing to see what deliciousness could be created atop two holes in a wood stove top, with a calm sequence of stirring and adding ingredients, then switching out pots from the heat source. We had to stifle immature giggles while our friendly hostess was making a batch of Tibetan tea. The plunging of the long cylinder to churn the butter, tea, and salt together sounded just like the unclogging of a toilet!
Our rest day in Phu was the first time I felt like it might be time to stop trekking, but this perspective would come and go during the following days. While we were heading in to the new territory of Nar and Phu, the uniqueness of the landscape was different enough from what we had seen that it kept us excited and motivated. I had developed the habit of referring to Nar-Phu as "Nar Nar Phu Phu Bhai Bhai," bhai meaning "little brother" in Nepali. This was a facetious adaptation of the already facetious and dated ski-bum speak "Gnar Gnar Pow Pow Bro Bro," but apparently was an effective chant to bring the snow. On our return from Nar, fluffy clumps of snowflakes floated down from above, reminding me of our standard response to route inquiries that had essentially developed in to our trekking mantra, "We'll keep going until we get to Pokhara, or until the weather stops us, which ever happens first." As if the snow was not enough of an indication that winter had arrived, our room in Nar was so cold that Matt found his contacts frozen in solid solution at 5:00am that morning.
Crossing a slippery icy bridge was our farewell moment to Nar-Phu and our welcome back to Koto on the Annapurna Circuit. Once in the lodge, we hastily dried off and headed to the minimal warmth of the dining room. Dawa, the guide who had not showered or changed his clothes for nearly a month, disappeared carrying a bucket of hot water and reappeared wearing a pair of pristine jeans and fresh shirt. This partially solved the mystery of what was in his large pack that he never seemed open! Perhaps he wanted to leave a good last impression with us, but more likely he was trying to be considerate of everyone else on the jeep and bus transport he would be taking back towards Kathmandu the next morning. We had a modest celebration of our awesome month of trekking together that evening where Matt discovered that chang really wasn't so bad after all. Since beer was not worth the price and he couldn't handle the harshness of raksi, we had sampled the fermented rice-drink called chang early on in the trek. With opaque chunks and weird flavor, we had been avoiding it ever since. Perhaps there was simply something wrong with that first one, because the clear and chunkless beverage was pleasantly similar to a mildly sour craft beer.
The next morning, a forceful wind was still blowing in alternating gusts of rain, sleet, and snow. Koto seemed to be right on the snowline since we could occasionally get glimpsed of the snow-covered hillsides surrounding us. We had descended from Nar not even a day too soon. We said goodbye to Dawa as he climbed into the back of a jeep going down the valley and wondered if we should have been leaving with him too...