Annapurna I: Broken Valley
Let us wander, from the low hills to the high places
21st April, 2004
The following is a transcription of my diary, written as I walked round the Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal.
Day 1. Besisahar (alt. 760m) to Bhulbhule (840m)
Four hours on a bus from Pokhara. Seats designed for midgets. There is a relationship not yet devined by philosophers, the
relationship between the authenticity of the travel, and the soreness of one's arse.
The driver has been designated by the devil
to roll us off a cliff and straight down to hell. Dirt road along a precipice not wide enough for
one bus, good enough reason for him to overtake two at a time.
We arrive in Besisahar, dirty trailhead town. There are thirty trekkers starting today. Some have rucksacks
much bigger than mine. I smile at their foolishness. Some have rucksacks smaller than mine. I smile at their foolishness.
We start walking.
From this point on, for the next 300 kilometres, there is only walking. Many people live on the trail, in ancient villages.
If they want anything from the towns of the central valley, they have to walk down the trail for a week and carry it up on their heads.
If we get sick or just quit, we, too, must turn round and walk all the way back. There are helicopters only for broken legs, not foresaken pride.
Four people in the team I assembled in Kathmandu. Suzanne, a Dutch nurse. Pascale, a trainee surveyor from London. Jules, a new
doctor. Jules has hired a quiet Nepali called Babu, to be her porter. He carries her pack, and gives shy advice when asked.
Pascale has been puking all day. She is determined to begin, nevertheless.
A flat dusty road. Four hours. We cross a suspension bridge, our first. Only rusty chicken wire to keep you on board as it sways
over broken rocks below. Our guesthouse in Bhulbhule has warm, solar-powered showers, apple pie and beer. How civilized. And I imagined I'd be
bivouacked in a glacial crevasse by now.
Day 2. Bhulbhule (840m) to Ghermu (1200m)
Thin porridge and boiled eggs at 7am. Australian policeman Gavin has joined our group.
We follow the river. Through tidy stone villages, through terraced fields of rice and maize and grain. Past busy, hard working people.
It is all low, rounded hills and we begin to climb. Steep up 200 metres. Steep down 200 metres. It is hot. We pour with sweat, except Babu, who remains
A long haze hangs over everything. Visibility is not good. Monsoon coming.
I add iodine to all my water and buy bottles of coca-cola. This too, has been portered
up the trail on someone's head. So has the
steel cable and concrete of the suspension bridges that we cross time after time.
As most of the other trekkers on our bus are moving at the same pace as us, we keep leapfrogging each other. Faces have become familiar. Our
little team is now part of a greater, collective undertaking. We smile and wave
as we pass them at breakfast and they pass us at lunch. We chat now, on the path in the morning.
We speed up now, in the afternoon, and nab all the best rooms before they show up.
Babu steers us to the nicest guesthouse. In Ghermu we have our own rooms and views over the valley to the waterfall. Solar shower
not so warm now. We eat Dal Baht for dinner. The hill people live on this - an endless supply of rice and watery lentil soup. I feel
my jaw fall asleep with boredom as I attempt to keep chewing it and resolve to starve rather than endure it again.
Suzanne and Gavin suffering from blisters. Compede and care. My feet and legs good.
Day 3. Ghermu (1200m) to Tal (1700m)
Thin porridge and boiled eggs at 7am. I see a pattern forming here. Drop to river and a hard climb to Jagat. I budgeted
for Dal Baht and wooden beds. Must now increase that for endless bottles of Fanta at teahouses
cleverly placed at top of hot climb. Dal Bhat not enough for me. Too low lentil percentage.
The rolling hills have given way to a steep sided jungle gorge. Houses built on piles out from the mountain side. Fields
a yard in breath cut into terraces. Anything for a few feet of cultivation. The people are now Tamangs of Tibetan descent. Tiny
shops made of planks, little offering to trekkers three days from the world they knew. Coca-cola, playing cards, biscuits.
Long climbs, all day. Mist, broken valleys, cliffs towering hundreds of feet over our heads. We climb through a field
of giant boulders and then - another world. The valley opens out, flat and wide. THe river slows to a lake. In the centre is Tal, a large
stone village full of Tibetan horsemen and polite guesthouses.
Everyone wants us to stay. Business has been bad. A Tibetan wins us over with ensuite bathrooms
and a rooftop restaurant. In other words, concrete cubicles and a table by a water cistern.
We have this place to ourselves. There's a shrine in the corner - seven bowls for the buddha and a picture of the Dalai Lama. A little
family - a mother and child live and cook by the kitchen stove. We try to order similar meals, as only one can be cooked at a time. In my
continuing search for protein, I hit upon tuna fish spring rolls. They resemble a cornish pasty full of seaweed but taste good.
Everyone finds their own pace. The team of Older Australians sets off an hour before everyone so to arrive at the same time. Team
Complainy Israeli stops often, and is slow to get going with the amount of time they need to bicker with Nepali innkeepers over every little rupee on their bill.
English Couple No.1 seems always on the edge of collapse as the boy storms ahead and the girl looks for a gutter to die in. The Three Americans always walk fast, but get up so late they miss
the best guesthouses.
Babu can always beat me up a hill. Suzanne moves slower than we do, but seems tireless. Gavin walks alone. Pascale sepnds her time trying to prove me wrong
about everything from salt on porridge to ancient Assyria.
The mountain air is cool now. It is too cloudy for our solar shower. Cold water in a cold concrete room. After the walking is done, and the excitement
of food has passed, there is nothing to do here. Nothing at all. When dark comes we steal off to our beds. It is 8.30pm.
Day 4. Tal (1700m) to Danaque (2500m)
Thin porridge and boiled eggs at 7am. Wonder if I should just phone my orders ahead. If there was a phone.
All the menus in all the guesthouses are exactly the same. However, the chef's intrepretation of the words of that menu
changes like the wind. The wind that starts every day around lunchtime, and blows down the valley.
Short day, four hours walk. I'm finding the walk easy, and my Low Alping pack and soft trekking
boots entirely comfortable. Including the two litres of water I start every day with,
my pack weighs about twelve kilos, balanced on my hips. And, as I use up my shampoo, it will get lighter.
Change of scenery again. This path is like all the best nature hikes in the world, all joined together.
Every day is different - new terrain, new flora, different people, different culture. Today it is pine forests in deep secluded
valleys, crashing waterfalls, peaceful groves mixed in with giant landslides and boulder fields.
The villages are small stone alleys. Sometimes a landslide sweeps down, crushing half the houses. The Nepalis shrug,
go back to work and build some more. They turn the prayer wheels, set out coloured flags of Buddhist texts, walk round mani walls carved
into ancient mantras, and then hope for the best. They are always cheerful.
Babu tells us how he started as a porter. He was paid 33Rp per day (USD 0.50) to carry 45 kilos on his
headstrap for a mountain expedition. He wore flipflops, and if he had become ill, he would have been paid off and left behind.
That was sixteen years ago. Now he has been around the Annapurna Circuit more than forty times. But now
he works as an porter for individual tourists, he has proper equipment, carries only one rucksack and earns good money. He sends
it home to his wife and children in the east. He sees them for one month in the year.
We share our guesthouse with the Three Americans, who turn out to be One American, a Canadian and a Brit.
We join forces to laugh at the Complainy Israelis, who gather that night to moan about the price of a single potato
or some such rubbish. The Israelis have two porters, who get drunk at night and hold a dance party in the kitchen. They
are not happy.
The haze is lifting. For the first time, we glimpse the high Himilaya.