Annapurna IV: Dust River
We race down the valley, the wind blowing grit in our teeth
26th April, 2004
The following is a transcription of my diary, written as I walked round the Annapurna Circuit Trek in Nepal.
Day 14, continued. Thorung La (5450m) to Muktinath (3800m)
We've made it. Now we walk down the dry stoneland of the trans-Himilaya. The beginning of the Tibetan desert.
The world drops sharply away from us. In the distance brown mountains covered in rock. We move fast down the trail. A trail of sharp rocks and dust
that can twist and roll under my feet, sending me crashing down if I'm not careful.
Hard to be careful now. Walking deliberately, locking knees to control downward speed.
This is a long, long descent. Knees, already tired from the climb, complain now against the
endless rhythm of step - lock - step -lock. Sometimes one of us give way and runs in long, crazy strides down an whole pitch.
Madness. A missed step would be a disaster.
Lock - step - lock - my feet, that have withstood two weeks without a blister, now begin to rub against the inside
of my boots. Down, down, down. I sit by a ruined stone hut and feed my granola bars to Pascale. A dog wanders up.
Tourist scraps are his due. The boys feed him jam.
At last the down angle eases, we leave the long descending ridge and enter an area of
boulders and dry ravines. A blasted, jumbled land. T.S Eliot:
"...Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses ..."
Muktinath temple village. Vishnu and soft animal bells. Quiet voices. Brown plateaux and terrace fields. Hindus come here
pilgrims from the great plains. How strange they must find it.
New fold mountains. How tired I am. Seven hours climb up climb down. For the first time in 14 days,
my body is tired and worn. But there is no water.
Day 15. Muktinath (3800m) to Kagbeni (2800m) to Jomsom (2710m)
Another rapid descent. Another long day. We are back to sane altitudes again, and move easily. First we descend
the Jhong Khola, then follow the riverbed to Jomsom. Long, dusty brown ridges with snow capped peaks in the distance. We
pass through the Tibetan village of Jharkot, it's gompa high and proud on the cliff edge. A monk is practising the long horn.
Hard to stay spiritual against sounds like giant yak burps.
Kagbeni. Women wash their clothes in a stream running down the main street. Gossip sitting in doorways. Lots of trekker shops. We walk to the gateway to Mustang. From here the muletrains
walked up river, through the pass into Tibet, into China. For salt. At lunch a guesthouse tried to recapture the ancient Chinese link by cooking 'chop suey'.
Alas, the chef must have learned his chop suey from a passing deaf mute with no tongue who had never eaten Chinese but once saw an advertisement for a wok. The dish they served was cabbage soup decorated with crispy pink noodles out of a variety pack.
Hellish march over river stones with wind and grit in our faces all the way to Jomsom. Head down, mouth shut and push. Many passing muletrains held together by bells and instinct. Ponies carrying Indian pilgrims: big and flabby compared to the small, tough Nepalis.
Today we saw our first Fat Clean Tourists. These are three-day trekkers, who have flown straight to Jomsom to "trek" all the way to Muktinath and back. Complete with a dozen porters to carry their vanity cases for all the 20 kilometres. We stare at them, our gaunt, dirty bearded faces puzzled by them all shiny and new. Their chubby calves seem strangely appealing to a man surviving on cabbage soup and noodle crispies.
Jomsom is low and grim, but - wonder of wonders - the guesthouse has a real shower room. Luxuriate, but noone shaves. It's a mark of pride not to look Fat or Clean. I now see how dirty my clothes have become. Clothes washing has meant a couple of rinses in a freezing bucket. Kieran flies out from here. I have to wake him three times.
Day 16. Jomsom (2710m) to Kalopani (2530m)
Long push again. Six hours over rocks. Riverbed and mule paths. My body is becoming fatigued after 16 days without a rest. Skin on feet wearing thin. Rucksack straps rubbing. But we want to push on to the end, to finish the circuit. The terrain is not inspiring. Hazy, cloudy, always a wind in our faces, blasting straight along the river bed from the south.
We are following the broad Kali Gandacki. Wide river valley with steep sides. The Nilgiris tower icy above. There are few dirty trekkers alongside us now. Only some Clean Tourists coming the other way. Many people worry about the Maoists, who are said to be in strength at the end of this valley, to be "taxing" passing trekkers.
Villages are large clean and prosperous. They grow a many fruits in carefully irrigated fields. Large guesthouses, many facilities.
Nepali White Lie No 1: everywhere offers itself as
a "German" Bakery. With Delicious Fresh Baked Cakes. Why German? They don't offer Vollkornbrot or anything specifically German. Nor are they Bakeries, nor do they bake anything, least of all freshly. At most, they offer a plastic bag of cinnamon rolls baked about a week ago in another village and brought up on a mule.
Nepali White Lie No 2: 24-hour Running Hot and Cold Shower. Well, the "cold" part is true. But it's physically impossible to have a 24-hour hot shower here, as the water is solar-heated. Yet there you are. One advertises like this, so all the others must follow suit.
It's heartbreaking to pass all the hopeful shop and guesthouse owners. There are so few tourists now because of the Maoists that most of these people will have no customers all week. But we can only stop so many times in the day. So we smile and walk by. Their smiles are brave.
We are exhausted as we stumble into Kalopani. Above, the haze parts long enough to spot snow-capped mountains again. Or maybe some other mountain. The guesthouse has both a German Bakery and 24 hour hot shower. So I plan on munching on Knodel as I frolic in a midnight hot tub. Yeah, right.
Day 17. Kalopani (2530m) to Tatopani (1190m)
Another 6 hour hike. We are wearing ourselves out in this headlong charge to the finishing line. This part, the Jomsom Trek, should take 7-8 days.
We'll do it in four.
The scenery changes again, and today is one of the most beautiful of all.
We lose a lot of altitude, and the air warms fast. We follow the side of the Kali Gandaki gorge, the deepest in the world,
through valley forest and past enormous waterfalls.
The high clouds veiling the mountains sometimes parts for a quick glimpse of Annapurna I, over 8000m tall, mightiest of all.
We lunch on a rock outcrop by a 500m high waterfall. The restauranteur had a hotel here until past year. Then a landslide took it away.
We press on. We drop altitude fast today. Clean Fat Tourists come puffing the other way. A long climb for you today, chubby.
Their porters chuckle. Money for nothing.
Children wash clothes in the waterfall pools. Nature's Zanussi.
We leave the pines and enter an area of lush fields. Wheat. Lemon and orange groves. The dry desert of just the day before yesterday
is a memory. The barren yak valleys of only four days ago, no more than a legend. Families work in stooped rows in the wheatfields, cutting with
handsickles. The stone houses are large, two stories. There is money here. No more runny nosed children. Village girls take time to sit and laugh
on a suspension bridge.
We move fast now, burning up our legs restlessly. We know what's around the corner.
We race like comets past the fields and villages. The locals look up, see a sudden splash of boots and
coloured rusksacks and we're gone. The locals
return to their work. They have wheat to cut.
We know what's around the corner: Tatopani. The Annapurna Circuit health spa. Tatopani is famous for good food, good guesthouses and
natural hot springs. We grab cool, cool beers, and luxuriate in the hot pools. Let the dirt and pain of almost 300 kilometres
slowly dissolve away. Later on, good food. No more tuna veg spring rolls, but real chicken in orange sauce.
An Israeli wants to put four beds in a single room. To save about USD 0.30.
We are all dead tired now. Skin on feet so worn. We can either climb 2000m through Ghorapani for two more days, or follow the river for six hours to Beni.
I would climb the hill out of sheer bloddy-mindedness, but the others will not. And Ghorapani is crawling with Maoists, like lice on a wound.
Day 18. Tatopani (1190m) to Beni
Beni was scene of a battle between government soldiers and Maoist insurgents about five weeks ago. Up to 500 are said to have died.
Who knows. Most of the soldiers we've seen are discouraged-looking farm boys, content to sit behind small piles of rocks inside
government compounds. The Maoists appear to roam freely everywhere else, "taxing" tourists and local businesses at will. It doesn't bode well.
But since Beni has had such recent attention, there should still be lots of police there now. And there's no climb that way. Besides, we
are on holiday, and therefore we deserve to be immune from all possible badness. Communist rebels, gun-toting cops, poor service
in restaurants, it's all the same thing. Anything goes wrong, and we will complain to the management.
I forgot about the mules. Mules are the main good transport here other than people. Though a man can carry much more - we passed a family coming up the
trail bringing the whole damn house on their heads - doors, girders and the kitchen sink. On the way to Beni are many, many muletrains. They don't stop for anything.
God help you if you dispute a section of cliff with a mule - you'd better be a good swimmer.
Today was six hours of grim struggle, following the river and the dust. Six hours of pushing. We were desperate to finish - to get to Beni while there was still light to drive to Pokhara - noone drives at night
on a Nepalese highway if he wants to live. So , six hours walk to Beni, in about six hours available time. No stopping. No breaks. Push. Push. Legs gone know. Willpower alone.
Heat, and dust, and the endless river. Half way along we are arrested by noise on the trail ahead. An explosion! Another!
A whole rippling series of blasts from just 200 metres up the path! The Maoists?? Do the Maoists have artillery now??
No. The army are blasting a new trail along a cliff. But this has held up several muletrains as well as the few trekkers. When
the all clear is given we all try to set off down the unstable new path at the same time. A pandemonium of shouting as mules
moving in opposite directions fight for the right of way. I nip down a spur below them, then look up just in time to see five fighting
mules descend upon me.
I jump out of the way. Just in time. Blown up by Maoists, captured by the army would at least make adventurous tales
later on. Buried under a ton of donkey flesh would simply be... embarrassing.
Push down the trail. Push down the path. Eighteen days of this now. Will alone compells me. The dust trail grows larger
as we near the roads again. There is even an occasional van now. Dust and pollution. The villages are larger, more squalid. Civilisation.
My mind grips only one thought. The end. Get to the end.
Everyone has become strung out on the path. Will alone drives me, and now at the end, I walk alone.
My mind wanders under the strain of the final effort. Have I always
walked alone? Everything that once walked with me has departed now, leaving me alone with the final goal.
Only the dust river, and the end. So much pain in my legs. Dull, rasping heat.
Everything passes through my memory in review. The early days of climbing in the warm terraces. The crisp days of marching under the ice mountains.
Stone villages. Prayer flags. Patient men carrying loads more than I weigh. Tibetan horseman, shivering saddle bells. Suzanne
and her search for the spiritual. Jules and her enthusiasm. Pascale's strength. Babu, accepting. Gavin, striving.
Flashes in my mind. Stone villages of stone. Children laughing in freezing water. Men making tea in a land without air.
Life, surviving in the dust. Animals, living in fields of stone. Men, living on fields of thorn.
All spirits of the mountain, lifting me up. The lesson of the mountain is to endure. I must finish this, alone.
Houses. Police checkpoint. No battle craters. Dead closed town. Is this Beni? Where is the bus stop? Tired, can't focus. Six hours and seventeen days
closing in on me, closing me down. Walk through empty, shuttered streets. Ghost town. Full of people, just sitting around.
Nepali, enduring. Toughing out the bad times. Cheerful. With nothing to do but hope.
So tired. A six hour forced march. So tired.
I stagger to the end, cross one final, swaying bridge. The others are there. So tired can hardly speak. Legs are twists of pain.
Coca cola. We laugh.
Made it to the end.